When senior basketball player Monique Smith was looking for a college to continue her career, she looked for a strong program and good academics.
But what was equally important to her was whether KSU had a welcoming environment for Smith’s sexuality.
“I just wanted a school that was accepting of who I was,” Smith said.
Smith calls herself “a pansexual college athlete,” which is defined as “not limited in sexual choice with regard to biological sex, gender, or gender identity.”
She is one of the about 4% of student-athletes who may identify as LGBTQ+, according to a 2018 survey by researchers at the University of Arkansas.
Smith said she’s happy she chose Kent State.
“I haven’t felt judged or been treated differently,” she said. “It’s been a very positive experience for me, and the atmosphere here is so inviting. My time here has made me more comfortable with who I am, and it made me who I am today.”
Volleyball coach Don Gromala said that KSU’s inclusiveness is one of the best parts of the university.
“It’s a very open and welcoming community,” he said. “There has been a lot of learning over the years as we work towards being more aware towards the LGBTQ+ community. The university has done a great job of listening and then making the necessary changes.”
KSU was among 11 schools to receive a perfect score on Athlete Ally’s Athletic Equality Index (AEI). The AEI rates the LGBTQ+ inclusion policies and practices in athletic departments of Division I schools. It includes factors like how well a campus follows NCAA guidelines for transgender inclusion, resources available to coaches and athletes, and a published nondiscrimination policy.
Athlete Ally is an LGBTQ+ advocacy group based in New York City that focuses on ensuring that athletics are more inclusive towards these athletes.
Jenna Weiner is a research assistant at Athlete Ally. She said KSU scoring a perfect score in this area may help drive LGBTQ+ athletes to campus.
“People tend to perform best when they are fully themselves,” she said. “And so it can be really helpful to have a supportive climate, to make sure that the athletes feel fully supported, and when they feel comfortable they can really succeed.”
Gromala said making athletics more inclusive is important because of the close relationships on a team.
“Being open to communicating and being supportive is huge,” he said. “We want to show that family feeling to everybody. Everyone has their own personal story, and we need to try and be understanding of what that is."
“The more comfortable the environment, the easier it is to build those relationships. And in turn, that makes our athletes' lives more fulfilling and successful.”
Weiner said that one of the factors that stuck out about KSU was how early in the process of scoring universities for this year’s index that they received the perfect score.
“KSU wasn’t a school that took awhile to get on board,” she said. “They were really good from the get-go. That means in the past few years they must have been ahead of the curve. When you have people behind the scenes who are working to make that happen, it makes everything go really well.”
Katie Schilling, associate director for student-athlete development at KSU, was one the main people in charge of fine tuning the university’s policies to make sure it fully meets the needs of its athletes.
“We have a very fluid and open community,” she said. “But we still had a lot of work to do. We implemented a lot of new policies and statements to show that we stand with the university in making our department more inclusive.”
A few of these changes include a formal inclusion statement, a statement that is read before each game stating discrimination of any kind will not be tolerated and diversity emails.
She also said the athletic department hopes to have a “pride game,” similar to women’s sports basketball’s “pink games to support breast cancer research” to show support for the community.
“We’re hoping to partner with the fashion school to make pride jerseys and t-shirts for fans,” Schilling said. “We want it to be a big event not only for students, but for the community as well.”
Schilling said another big step was adding policies to be more inclusive to transgender athletes.
The Kent State policy prohibits discrimination based on gender identity and expression. Among the provisions are that transgender athletes “have equal opportunity to participate in sports,” privacy of athletes, including transgender students’ medical privacy, should be protected.
“The NCAA has a transgender policy, but we never had one,” Schilling said. “We’ve made it more inclusive so that if we ever have a transgender athlete come to campus, we’ll know how to handle that.”
Weiner said many schools don’t have policies in place for transgender athletes.
“It’s surprising because the NCAA has had guidelines in place since 2011,” she said. “But most schools don’t even mention transgenders. It’s becoming part of a growing discussion around trans inclusion in sports where we have to talk about and address it.”
Of the over 300 schools that Athlete Ally reviewed, only around 10% had policies regarding transgender athletes.
“If a transgender athlete is interested in your school and there isn’t a policy, then they have to just rely on hoping and guessing,” Weiner said. “Schools need to take the initiative and specifically state and talk about trans inclusion.”
A crucial aspect of making a college inclusive for LGBTQ+ athletes is their support system, especially their teammates.
Gromala said a big part of support is celebrating those who do come forward.
“We throw our encouragement behind those who bring up uncomfortable situations or feelings,” he said. “We try to make them feel comfortable as possible, not only to make it easier for them, but it might help someone who is feeling uneasy about speaking out.”
Smith said her teammates were very caring about her experiences.
“They were supportive my entire time here, and not just from a distance,” she said. “Every year, we’ve had conversations about sexuality, and a lot of my teammates learned more to become better allies.”
Gromala said that his coaching staff has worked to be more mindful of how they talk.
“It’s about the little things you say,” Gromala said. “For example, instead of telling the players, ‘Hey, if you want to bring your boyfriend on this road trip, you can,’ we tell them, ‘Hey, if you want to bring your partner on this road trip, you can.’”
Weiner said language is a big part of making athletes more comfortable.
“Some people make comments offhand that are homophobic or transphobic,” she said. “Saying things like ‘Oh, that’s so gay’ can be potentially harmful. There’s an obstacle in dealing with people who don’t understand what terminology to use or how to react.”
Smith said the way her teammates work to understand her is not something that every athlete gets to see.
“My teammates talk to me to make sure they don’t say something that will hurt someone,” she said. “But I’ve had friends at other schools tell me that they don’t get to experience that on their teams. So that is super nice of the community here.”
Gromala said that communication is a big part of creating the right atmosphere.
“If we think we said something in the wrong way, we always address the team,” he said. “And we’ll ask ‘Is there a better way for us to say this?’ And we always keep that line of communication open.”
Smith said other colleges are not as open to the LGBTQ+ community.
“I’ve heard people who go to more conservative colleges say they don’t have great experiences,” she said. “They don’t get that same sense of community, that same sense of openness that I get. They can't actually be themselves. And so I really appreciate Kent for having an environment where I can feel comfortable being who I am.”
Weiner said that how a team and college reacts to an athlete's sexuality is crucial, and a hateful reaction could result in the loss of a talented athlete.
“Sometimes we see LGBTQ+ people in sports come out and receive a negative reaction,” she said. “And they don't want to participate in sports anymore. And as a coach you would hate to have one of these student athletes come out and say ‘I don't want to be a part of this team because I don't feel welcome.’”
Schilling said that KSU has seen progress in just the last two years.
“The LGBTQ+ center has done an amazing job reaching out,” she said. “And they’ve gotten everyone on board so that we all collaborate together. They keep building their programming year after year. And you can tell around campus how much more inclusive we are just as a campus.”
Gromala said that he has seen sports become better at making the community more comfortable for all athletes.
“Over the years, it’s become more of an open conversation,” he said. “People who are not LGBTQ+ have started to ask more questions. They’ve started listening to those answers, and they want to work together to make it better.”
Gromala said that as more athletes come out as LGBTQ+, other athletes may be comfortable following.
“It promotes those with different backgrounds or different choices to be more open to sharing their experiences,” he said. “And that lets others know how that person labels themselves and who they really are.”
LGBTQ+ athletes are more commonly found in women’s sports than in men’s sports.
“Women are a little more accepting of things just because it's in our nature,” Smith said. “We’re nurturers all around. It’s in our blood to want someone to feel comfortable. Sports are also very masculine, so when people view female athletes they often already expect us to be gay.”
Smith said that male athletes get viewed very differently than female athletes.
“Male athletes want to be viewed as masculine and dominant,” she said. “And people often see gay men as the opposite. It is definitely harder for men to come out while playing sports.”
Weiner said male athletes do not get the same acceptance that female athletes would.
“There's not really going to be the encouragement to be different,” she said. “To be seen as gay or feminine is seen as weaker. These men are not going to feel as welcome in this environment.”
As colleges progress to make their athletics more welcoming and include policies to make their sports more inclusive, Weiner said, there is still much to be done.
“Change isn’t something that will happen overnight,” she said. “Partly because institutions are slow to move, cultures and systems are slow to change. And we’ll see some pushback in different ways. But my hope is that these schools will realize that being LGBTQ+ inclusive is very beneficial to them.”
Jimmy Oswald is a sports editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.