Spirit Day Hits Home For LGBT Athletes

In 2010, the landscape for LGBT equality looked completely different than it does today. Only six states and the District of Columbia allowed full marriage equality; Brittney Griner wasn't out publicly (neither was Michael Sam, nor Derrick Gordon); and no one knew the name Caitlyn Jenner. Instead, the LGBT community publicly grieved the multiple suicides of LGBT youth due to anti-gay bullying, including three victims alone from my home state of Indiana.

It was from these circumstances that campaigns like the It Gets Better Project and Spirit Day were born. GLAAD, formerly known as the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, launched Spirit Day in October of 2010 as a means to "show support for LGBT youth and take a stand against bullying" through encouraging supporters to wear purple on the third Thursday of October.

For LGBT athletes, Spirit Day provides an opportunity to feel support that may be lacking elsewhere, and for that support to be visible. "There is a stereotype of sports not being a welcoming place for LGBT people," says Anna Aagenes, vice president of program development and community relations at the You Can Play Project, a leading organization in working for greater LGBT inclusion in sports. "Spirit Day is the perfect opportunity for leagues, teams, and teammates to dispel those myths through showing their support."

Still, the stereotype is reflected in very real experiences for some LGBT athletes. Out on the Fields, an international survey of homophobia in sport, published the staggering finding that 84 percent of those surveyed witnessed or experienced homophobia in sports. Couple that with the fact that even though there are more people coming out across athletics, those athletes are often carrying the mantle for their sport, and it is clear that we have a lot of work to do.

"I experienced a lot more bullying around my gender nonconforming identity and some homophobia and heterosexism around my sexuality," says Emily Nkosi (Niemann), a former basketball player at Baylor University and member of the 2005 national championship team. "There was a time when I was in high school playing at an away game. A guy on the opposing JV team started to chant at me, 'Play in the next game because you're a man' -- you know, because the girls play first in high school. It was a hard experience for me in that no one around me acknowledged it. No one checked in with me to see how I was doing. I knew they were doing it with the intent to harm me, and I felt that."

Lauren Neidigh, a 2015 graduate of the University of Arizona and former Wildcats swimmer, shares similar experiences, "[People] made fun of me for the way I walked like a man, how deep my voice was, etc. It was really hard for me to deal with, until I learned how to embrace all of that and found people who respected me for it."

The effects of hostile environments have tremendous consequences for LGBT athletes. "In the spring of my senior year of high school, I knew I was gay but was not out to anyone. At baseball practice, anti-gay comments were casual and commonplace," states Eleanor Worley, a senior at St. Olaf College. "While these comments were not targeted at me, they made me feel unsafe and increased the amount of internalized homophobia I felt. This made my senior season miserable, and influenced my decision to join a team that would be supportive of my identity once I got to college."

Some athletes, however, have been able to find support within their athletic communities. "Coming from a Latina and black household, I deal with the ignorance surrounding our culture and the idea that [LGBT identity] is taboo. But as an LGBTQ athlete within [Agnes Scott College], I do not have difficulty with exclusion or judgment," says Monique Novoa, a lacrosse player at Agnes. "Our community has a love for the empowerment of women and [our] choices in life as an individual in order to achieve [our] happiness."

Though Worley had a negative experience in high school, she has found a home on the St. Olaf rugby team. "My team is one of the most supportive communities I know," she says. "This goes beyond just an acceptance and is affirming, providing support to those who may experience rejection in other areas of their life due to their LGBTQ identity."

Spirit Day is an opportunity to create more communities like the ones Novoa and Worley love. The show of support is invaluable.

Michael Martin, who plays soccer at Wilson College, loves Spirit Day for that reason. "This is an awesome thing. I am proud that this is actually a day that people can show their support for LGBTQ youth."

Though celebrities and corporations get involved, Spirit Day allows for focus on the power of everyday support. Eric Lueshen, a former kicker at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who was out in the early 2000s, recognizes the impact of this visibility. "With the millions who 'go purple' on Oct. 15, bullied LGBT youth feel there is a place for them amongst our diverse society."

And with visible support comes hope for LGBT athletes looking to make a difference. "Each year the amount of leagues and teams and individual athletes joining Spirit Day and voicing their support is growing. With the statistics about LGBT suicide it can be easy to be discouraged, but increased awareness is empowering many people to take a stand," says Aagenes.

As awareness is raised through conversation and ongoing support, lasting effects are possible. "I hope that as coaches, athletes and other leaders in sports realize the negative impact of homophobia and transphobia on players and the teams they play on, people will take action to ensure that all LGBTQ athletes can feel like they have a safe and supportive community on their teams," says Worley.

Spirit Day is just one day during the year. To achieve the kind of climate needed by LGBT athletes, we all need to show up every day.