"When all Americans are treated as equal, no matter who they are or whom they love, we are all more free."
That was the tweet sent out by then President Barack Obama, a champion for the LGBT community, on May 8, 2014. It came a year before the Supreme Court decision that declared same sex marriages legal across all 50 states.
It was a year later that Temple University
Athletics, through its Compliance and Student-Athlete Affairs office, was starting to hear a call from its student-athletes for more programming regarding LGBT issues. It was a call that would be answered.
"We are always listening to our student-athletes and learning what issues matter to them," said Temple University
Director of Athletics Dr. Patrick Kraft
. "It is important to provide positive life skills programming to our diverse student-athlete community, and when the subject of LGBT awareness and support was brought to our attention, we listened and we acted."
In the spring of 2016, a panel run by Temple's Compliance and Student-Athlete Affairs entitled LGBTQIA Topics Discussion- "Lunch & Learn" brought seven student-athletes together. Those student-athletes would form a new organization, SASS, which stands for Student-Athlete Safe Space. This organization, comprised of gay and straight student-athletes, was looking to make Temple Athletics a better place for LGBTQIA students.
One of the founders of SASS is the organization's current president, junior Chloe Johnson. A starting goalkeeper on the field hockey team, Johnson came out during her freshman year and is one of a handful of openly gay student-athletes at Temple.
"We talk about these issues a lot in our organization," Johnson said. "We try to make sure that everyone knows that this is a safe space and I think for the most part the culture at Temple is good. It is better than a lot of other schools around the country so I think there is a sense Temple Athletics is a very open and safe space."
Johnson, who has been a champion of LGBT rights at Temple, knows firsthand how hurtful it can be for LGBT student-athletes when the space is not safe.
"I went to high school in a conservative area. There were no "out" students at my school that has an enrollment of 2,500," she recalls. "On my high school team I heard gay slurs such as "dyke" being thrown around on a daily basis. That being said, when I began the recruiting process in high school I was apprehensive about my future college teammates accepting who I was.
"I distinctly remember visiting multiple colleges and overhearing prospective teammates freely throwing around gay slurs in the locker rooms. None of the schools I visited made it clear to me that their athletic programs were welcoming environments for LGBTQIA Student Athletes."
Johnson committed to Temple in her junior year (2013-14), not really knowing who her future teammates, or for that matter who her coach would eventually be. At the time, Amanda Janney was the head coach, but when she would arrive on campus in the fall of 2015 there was a new head coach in Marybeth Freeman
"When I was on my official visit at Temple I had one of my future teammates blatantly ask me, "Are you a dyke?" I instinctively panicked and felt my heart drop to the floor," she remembers vividly. "When you are a D1 athlete your teammates are your family; you spend every single day with them. So the thought that they potentially wouldn't accept me was terrifying. Luckily that was not the case once I got to campus."
Johnson found a very safe environment with her new teammates, and her new coach, who is also openly gay. That made it easy for her to finally let the world know who she really is.
"I came out to my teammates my second week at Temple and was welcomed with open arms," she said. "My teammates didn't care that I was gay, I was just another member of the team."
Freeman, who has played on teams with openly gay couples, as well as coached gay student-athletes, can relate to her goalkeeper's anxieties.
"Like Chloe, I also came out to my family in college," said Freeman. "We all know the college years and the early twenties are very influential and developmental times for individuals. The choices we make and relationships that are created can help shape the people we eventually evolve into. I was incredibly thankful that my family supported me during a very transitional time in my life. I'm now married to my beautiful wife Becca of four years, have a year and half year old daughter, Charlotte, and another baby girl on the way. I consider myself one of the luckiest people I know."
From a coaching perspective, Freeman has this perspective to offer.
"I have been incredibly fortunate to have individuals on my teams who work their butts off on a daily basis to represent their university, team and themselves in a positive way," said Freeman. "When you ask someone to give so much on a daily basis for something bigger than themselves, I personally find it difficult to put a condition on something that is so personal to them. 'So you think you love someone? Sorry, you can't.' That doesn't make sense to me. What does make sense to me is teaching respect. Teaching others how to handle differences.
"Teaching respect to those that may be different from you. Teaching those that may be dating how to handle themselves in front of their fellow teammates. It doesn't mean anyone is wrong, people just have different interests. And to be honest, if team members are more interested in who is dating who, the coach has bigger problems, and that's the ability for their team to focus on the game. So no, I don't put rules on who people can love. I teach respect. "
Temple's search to find more LGBTQIA programming struck gold, literally, in the spring of 2016. It happened when research done by Senior Associate Athletic Director for Compliance and Student-Athlete Affairs Kristy Bannon Sromovsky
and her staff uncovered the newly-formed organization LGBT SportSafe.
After seeing an article on the D-1 Ticker, Bannon Sromovsky huddled with Kraft and the department's Faculty Athletics Representative, Dr. Jeremy Jordan, and realized this was something that Temple Athletics had to invest in. So in August 2016, Temple became one of the first universities to be named as an LGBT SportSafe Founders Club member. The department also earned the LGBT SportSafe Inclusion Program GOLD Medallion.
At the time other LGBT SportSafe Founders Club members included the University of Nebraska, Northwestern University, the University of Oregon and the America East Conference. It has since grown to 38 schools, representing seven athletic conferences in the NCAA and NAIA.
"LGBT SportSafe is basically a guide map for college athletic departments to provide framework for how to create an inclusive environment for all student-athletes," said Bannon Sromovsky. "It is programming that you provide for your coaches, administrators and student-athletes. It is your policies you set forth and it is also how you promote it. How do you show the world and how do you show your student-athletes that you are inclusive. So for us to be the first school in our conference to be a part of LGBT SportSafe was a no-brainer."
Temple continued to build its inclusive programming during its first year with the organization. This included Safe Zone training for athletics staff along with specialized training with coaches and administrators while also working closely with SASS and promoting Owl Eyes for Allies.
This fall, Temple Athletics took the next step in its LGBT SportSafe program and brought one of the organization's co-founders, Nevin Caple, to campus to speak to its student-athletes as well as providing training for the department's coaches and staff.
Caple, one of the leading advocates for diversity and LGBTQ inclusion issues in college athletics, played basketball at Fairleigh Dickinson University from 1998-2002.
"I went to college at a time when it wasn't safe for athletic administrators or coaches to be openly gay or even supportive of the LGBTQ community," said Caple, who is openly gay. "We never had a speaker come to campus to address LGBTQ inclusion, so I wanted to model the inclusive leadership I wished to see. Today, most of us, including administrators and coaches, know or love someone who openly identifies as LGBTQ, so the LGBTQ experience is personalized for more than just gay and lesbian people.
"Recruits are growing up with two moms, two dads, transgender classmates, gay and lesbian family and friends. Now, the expectation is that by the time these young people get to college, coaches and administrators will be as, if not more, inclusive than the communities they are growing up in. Student-athletes are creating inclusive affinity groups, participating in inclusion videos, hosting pride games and really helping administrators understand what they need and why."
The dynamic speaker captivated the more than 400 student-athletes in attendance at Temple's McGonigle Hall on Monday, Sept. 11. She talked openly about her personal experience coming out, or as she termed it "inviting in" as well as going over gender identity and the meaning of each letter of the evolving acronym.
Caple then asked the student-athletes to raise their hands if they had been on the same team as a lesbian, gay or bisexual player, and the response was an overwhelming yes. That is when she explained the concept of being an "ally" for the LGBTQIA community, and how fellow student-athletes can be supportive of their teammates and set a standard of respect and inclusion for their program.
"Nevin did a great job of covering a broad topic in such a short period of time and really bringing it home for people," said Johnson. "I think sometimes people don't necessarily realize that they themselves have LGBTQIA teammates. I think the raising of hands was really important because it brings it home. You may not know anyone that is gay, but your teammate may have a gay brother. So even if it is not an issue that directly affects you, it directly affects your teammate. So you should be very aware of it and caring about the issue."
The following day Caple met with Temple's administrators and coaches. The tone of her presentation was more instructive, providing a strategy and ways to create an inclusive and supportive environment within teams as well as the department as a whole.
"Coaches need to set the tone," she explained. "How do you do this? By engaging team captains. By discussing expectations for their student-athletes in regards to respect and inclusion. By not ignoring derogatory language and holding student-athletes accountable."
What impact has the LGBTQIA programming had at Temple?
Just ask Jessica Gray
, Temple Athletics' Compliance and Student-Athlete Affairs Coordinator since 2014, who works closely with the department's Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) as well as SASS.
"I do see a change in our student-athletes' attitudes," said Gray, a former men's basketball manager who has been at the University since 2007. "I hear pockets of better language and have heard student-athletes correcting themselves when inappropriate comments are made. As a culture I think we are getting better and it is important to continue to have this conversation. People need to understand the language and across the board people need to be respectful."
"What is happening here at Temple is more than just athletics, it is more than just a great football record or a big Under Armour contract, it is a sense of family that I have seen develop over my time here," added junior men's cross country runner David Fitzgerald. "I have been here three years and the culture has radically changed through what compliance and athletics have implemented in terms of inclusion programs. It is great for everyone here."
Kraft, who has been honored by the Sports Business Journal and the Philadelphia Business Journal for his leadership, has championed many of the changes within Temple Athletics over the last three years.
"At the end of the day, Athletics is just a small part of Temple University
, whose overall mission is education," said Kraft. "Constant learning and engagement as the world changes daily is a must. LGBT SportSafe is one of the many life skills programs that we have instituted for our student-athletes. The feedback has been tremendous and we will continue to implement programming that provides holistic benefits to our young men and women, as we work to ensure their success on the field, in the classroom and in life."
"LGBT SportSafe is one of the many life skills programs we have recently instituted here with our student-athletes. The feedback has been tremendous and we will look to continue to implement programming that provides holistic benefits to our young men and women."