Alyssa Augustin ’15 boldly faces off against challengers on the wrestling mat, pinning her competitors with precision and skill. To anyone who watches her wrestle, the first word that comes to mind is “athlete,” not “lesbian.”
In the athletic community, Augustin is a wrestler. Race, religion, gender and sexuality are all labels that fall away once she steps onto the mat. At a school like Andover, Augustin can be accepted as just another athlete without having to face discrimination or bias based on her sexual orientation. However, Augustin’s experience was not always as smooth or accepting.
In an interview with The Phillipian, Augustin spoke about the differences between her middle school experience in Boonton, New Jersey, and her time at Andover, highlighting some of the discomfort she felt when participating in athletics back home.
“I wasn’t out then, not even to myself. My middle school was awful for a number of reasons. Mostly it was kids being racist and homophobic because they somehow thought that they were being funny,” said Augustin.
Now, Augustin competes at the Varsity level on Andover’s mostly-male wrestling team, and she finds the experience to be a vast improvement from middle school.
“Coming to Andover was a really weird contrast. People didn’t say horrible things at the lunch table or even in private. I probably came out to myself here because not only was it a fresh start to be myself, but also because there was a lot less pressure to avoid being the kid everyone was putting down, because that just doesn’t happen here,” Augustin said.
One of only four girls on the team, Augustin was named New England wrestling champion last year after she ousted every other girl in the league. Before this year, Augustin was the only girl on a co-ed team of around 30 athletes.
Despite the predominantly-male nature of the wrestling team, the captains and the coach work hard to ensure that Andover Wrestling is a safe environment that respects the individuality of all of its members.
“My coach, at the beginning of the year, will say: ‘If you come on this team and you wrestle and you’re trying hard, you’re a wrestler,’ and he demands respect for every teammate, regardless of sexual orientation or gender,” said Augustin.
Not all athletes at Andover have had the same experience, however, and the acceptance of LGBTQ students varies between teams.
“I’ll never forget when the hockey team staged a homophobic skit at the A/E pep rally,” said Ben Talarico ’11, a cross-country and track runner who was openly gay during his time at Andover.
Incidents like these still occur and have occurred recently, despite Andover’s progressive nature, according to Sean Burkitt ’14, Co-Captain of Varsity Nordic and Varsity Cycling at Andover. He says these incidents can pass by without remark.
Kayla Thompson ’15, a member of Varsity Softball and a lesbian athlete, added, “Perhaps if Andover was more open about talking about heteronormativity or microaggressions, then they would happen less.”
Many LGBTQ athletes, though, would describe their experience with the athletic department as accepting and non-discriminatory, an improvement for students—like Augustin—who come from more judgmental athletic communities.
“We have a school that is intentionally diverse, and within our community bubble, I think that part of coming into the bubble is you agree to accept people that are not like yourself,” said Peg Harrigan, current Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA) faculty advisor.
Despite this notion, students and faculty alike have expressed opinions similar to Thompson’s and have stressed the importance of discussion of the issue on campus, whether it is discussion between coaches and captains, captains and teammates or coaches and the team.
“On my teams, I remember my coaches always set a clear standard of respect among teammates. Kate Dolan and Martha Fenton were strict in the best way possible—about the fact that to be a member of their team(s), we had to respect one another. I think that standard breeds a culture of loyalty and trust that gets passed down from coaches to upperclassmen to underclassmen,” said Avery Stone ’10, a lesbian athlete who was out at Andover, in an email to The Phillipian.
While Andover has worked to create athletic teams on campus that make LGBTQ athletes feel safe and accepted, there seems to be progress to be made still in the field of discussion and comfort for all athletes.
“We had a conference a few year ago in which we had a discussion about LGBTQ athletes, and we had a lot of team captains and coaches there, and one of the most important messages that the speakers gave was that you have to actually say the word ‘gay.’ You have to say that, ‘It’s okay to be gay on this team,’” said Frank Tipton, former GSA faculty advisor.
Stone added, “Because athletic women are often stereotyped as gay, there can be a sort of ‘guilty by association’ philosophy in that women want to defy the stereotype by proving their heterosexuality.”
Oftentimes, athletes are pressured to act “more straight” or define themselves as more strongly heterosexual. Burkitt referenced hockey and football as sports that are sometimes considered to be more masculine and as places where gay athletes may not feel as comfortable coming out.
“In Andover sports, and in the majority of the people in this school, people are accepting, people are open. It’s not like we have a systemic problem in Andover. The problem resides in, I think, specific teams or specific ideologies. I think we have to work harder as a group in order to solve that,” he continued.
Tipton said, “[Athletics are] kind of like one of the last frontiers, if you will, for comfort and acceptance for LGBT people.”
The goal is to move forward towards acceptance and away from homophobia for the athletic community, and the Athletic Department has addressed these issues as something to improve upon, according to Michael Kuta, Athletic Director.
“That’s at the forefront of our efforts. To create safe, fun environments for our kids to compete and have fun in, regardless of sexual orientation or gender,” said Kuta.
“I’ve been part of programs that had out members and have had conversations group-wide. Not that it was problematic for those teams, at all, but just to have a conversation and just to make sure that we were out and open,” said Karen Kennedy, Athletics Scheduling Officer.
The integration of LGBTQ members into the athletic community is a goal that the Athletic Office is constantly working towards.
“It’s an ongoing process, and it takes things like Athlete Ally and Avery Stone to create conversation, really good conversation, about things like gender awareness and sexuality to keep us moving forward,” said Kuta.