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Young gay athletes find a place out on the field

An emerging generation of players is more open about sexual orientation. Often, it's just not a big deal, they say.

July 28, 2007|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

Seattle — THE guys in his boat took to calling him "Badger" because of the grimace he wore during races. Part of a junior rowing club that ranked among the fastest in the nation, Lucas Goodman was relentless on the water.

It was a different story on land.

The teenager with the powerful build and close-set eyes had to be careful. He hung back ever so slightly when teammates shot the breeze, talking about girls.

"You get tired of constantly watching what you say, constantly watching how you act," he said. "You're almost paranoid."

Goodman felt so uneasy that he finally told the Green Lake Crew his secret: He is gay.

The 18-year-old belongs to an emerging generation of openly gay and lesbian athletes on high school and college campuses across the country. These young men and women are quietly venturing where no pro football or baseball star has gone, challenging the conformist, if not downright homophobic, tradition of the playing fields.

Their numbers are difficult to gauge because many confide only in peers. Experts chart the trend anecdotally through athletes who join gay rights clubs at school, e-mail gay rights advocates for advice or announce their sexual orientation on websites such as Facebook and MySpace.

"This is an issue that's in transition even as we speak," said Jay Coakley, a noted scholar and author on sports culture. "We're looking at how the world is changing."

Not all the stories have happy endings -- a high school football player in Northern California tells of being ostracized. But others, such as a Delaware runner and a Georgia hockey player, say they were welcomed by their teams.

Sociologists see the openness as a generational shift. Polls suggest a growing percentage of young people have more relaxed views about sexual orientation than their parents did.

In Seattle, Goodman began dropping hints around his eight-man boat more than a year ago. He talked with his best friend, and with another rower who seemed both understanding and physically large enough to make a good ally.

When word spread, no one teased or whispered about him. The crew saves money by sharing hotel beds on the road, and the teammate who bunks with Goodman didn't mind.

"So what if I sleep in the same bed with a straight guy or with Lucas?" Casey Ellis asked. "Either way, there's going to be another guy there with me."

Within a few weeks, Goodman figures, the surprise of his announcement wore off and "it ended up not being that big a deal."

Which is what makes his story, and others like it, a very big deal.

ALLAN Acevedo tends to speak hurriedly, words stacking up against each other. Finished with his morning run of three miles, sitting in a coffeehouse, the thin young man with dark sideburns rushes through a telling anecdote.

Two years ago, he and the rest of the track team from Bonita High School in La Verne were talking idly before a meet.

"When I get married," he recalled saying, "the guy has to be -- "

A teammate interrupted. "Did you say guy?"

"Oh," Acevedo replied. "You didn't know?"

Young athletes come out for various reasons. Goodman tired of pretending to like girls. Acevedo had something different in mind.

He volunteers for gay rights groups and said he once tried to enlist in the military to confront the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. When he insisted on telling, he said, the recruiter declined to complete his paperwork.

Acevedo joined the track team partly for love of the sport and partly to break stereotypes: "I wanted to say that I'm more than just gay."

Some teammates at Bonita High quietly switched aisles in the locker room, he said. Others seemed to run harder in practice, apparently determined not to lose to a gay guy.

Acevedo was undeterred, and was open about his sexual orientation when he transferred to a Chula Vista school. At 18, he finds support in a development that encourages other young gay athletes: a shift in public opinion.

A 2007 Gallup poll found that 57% of Americans viewed homosexuality as an "acceptable alternative lifestyle," an increase of 11 percentage points from four years ago. The percentage was higher among 18- to 29-year-olds.

Almost three-quarters of heterosexual adults said they would not change their feelings toward a favorite male athlete if he came out, according to a recent survey by Harris Interactive and Witeck-Combs Communications.

"It's not like the old days," said David Kopay, a former National Football League player who stirred controversy by announcing he was homosexual in 1975.

Back then, gay athletes felt compelled to keep quiet, fearing hostile locker rooms and coaches who might cut them from the team.

Like Kopay, others waited until retirement to come out. In baseball, there were former Dodgers Glenn Burke and Billy Bean; in football, Roy Simmons of the Washington Redskins and, five years ago, Esera Tuaolo of the Green Bay Packers.

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