In 2005, Stephanie Hoyer came east from Englewood, Colo., to one of the biggest college athletic programs in the country. She practiced field hockey in the shadows of Michigan Stadium, and in world-class facilities named after legends like Schembechler and Yost and Crisler and Oosterbaan.
Hoyer had a strong freshman season. She scored six goals, added three assists. She netted a game-winner early in the season, then later scored in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
But that season was nothing compared to what she would do the following year. The next fall, she told her teammates the biggest secret of her life — she was bisexual.
In 2005, in a culture steeped in the uncertainty about how to handle lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people — let alone athletes — Hoyer was met with open arms.
Playing on the same campus as future Olympians, Hoyer had a fine situation on the surface. Her life or someone else’s could be very different right now had it not been for the compassion she found inside the hallowed halls of the University Athletic Department.
But to understand how we got here today, and how Hoyer succeeded at Michigan eight years ago, you must first understand a story from a similar, yet entirely different college town through a sprinter named Paul Farber.
Paul Farber came to the University of Pennsylvania in 2001 among a class of about 20 track athletes seeking an Ivy League education, athletic success and an experience among the world’s brightest people.
Instead, when he stepped on the track early during his freshman season, one of the first words he heard was a derogatory gay slur.
Farber is gay. He was who he was. He would not change that.
Inside, this environment ate at Farber. He felt depressed and worn down, physically and mentally. It was his worst academic semester yet. At one point, he tried his coach for advice.
But even his coach showed him apathy. He told him that in his time coaching at Penn, two athletes had come out and fit in well with the team. Another, however, ended up getting in a fight and had to leave the team. “So make sure you make the right decision,” Farber recalled his coach, Charlie Powell, telling him.
The decision, when it came down to it, was between being an athlete and being himself — which, in the end, wasn’t much of a choice at all.
Farber chose himself, quitting the team his freshman year. The following year, in an attempt to create a more welcoming environment for gay athletes than the one he encountered, he helped establish Penn Athletes and Allies Tackling Homophobia. Its goal was to confront what he saw as the taboo of homophobia in athletic culture.
Four years later, Farber’s story and Michigan’s intersected. Working toward a PhD. in American Culture at Michigan, Farber became a GSI for Professor John U. Bacon’s class on the history of college athletics.
Farber skimmed the list of topics in Bacon’s class and noticed that many examined sports as an avenue for realizing social change, but homosexuality in athletics was never discussed in class. So he started the discussion — or, rather, he brought it out in the open.
After he gave a lecture and taught a unit about the issue, others came forward. Gay athletes and allies connected with him about improving gay athlete culture at the University.
“This is an issue that cannot be managed with silence,” Farber said. “It’s been on the back of student-athletes and willing administrators to carry forward the conversation.”
To carry on the conversation at the University, Farber established the Michigan Athletes and Allies Partnership. Similar to PATH, MAAP created a space for athletes and allies. Hoyer was a key member. So was former gymnast Evan Heiter, who graduated in 2011. Along with other athletes and allies, the two helped Farber start the alliance in 2008.
And the culture they helped build at the University was very different than the one Farber encountered in Philadelphia 12 years ago.
In the public eye
In 2007, Heiter started as a gymnast at the University.
Did he feel pressure? Yes. Surrounded by athletes who pushed him to be his best, he constantly felt motivated.
Did he occasionally have trouble finding himself? Yes. But so would any 19-year-old from the Ann Arbor area going out on his own.
The atmosphere in which Heiter competed early on was not just open to gay athletes — it was even more accepting, he found, than his own family. He came out to his teammates before he told his family.
He came out early in his career to a group of teammates, several of whom were gay themselves, either open or closeted. When he did, he found that nothing changed.
“The people who looked back at me after I came out to them, I just knew that nothing had changed,” Heiter said. “It changed nothing for them. They still saw me as exactly the same person. They didn’t like me because I was ‘straight’ or because I now am ‘gay.’ It was those people who were there because they wanted to be.”
On Sunday, former Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, who is projected as an NFL Draft pick, came out publicly. If selected in May (a near certainty for the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year), Sam would become the first openly gay NFL player in a sport known for its masculine locker-room culture.
Starting Sunday, Sam will compete at the NFL Combine, where NFL teams will scout him before the upcoming draft. He will be judged for his speed, his hands, his strength, his personality and now, perhaps, his sexuality.
Sam put a lot of money on the line by coming out when he did. Heiter and Hoyer said they look forward to the moment when a player like Sam’s news isn’t the news story it has become — but for now, they’re happy to watch it unfold.
“I think where we are right now, it needs to be a spectacle,” Hoyer said. “The attention is necessary. There’s been so much hurt and pain caused and suffered for years, for gay people and straight people.
“But to have people in those sports that are under the spotlight and more popular and in the public eye, the more people who (come out), the more normal it’s going to be. And I don’t think it’s going to be as big of a deal.”
Heiter and Hoyer agreed that everyone has his or her own journey and that everyone is ready to come out at different times.
But both of them anticipate the time when everyone is ready at some point — no matter how many Michael Sams it takes to get there.
When a former softball player, who asked not to be identified by name because she is not openly gay to everyone, came to Michigan in 2008, she found an atmosphere in which homosexuality was a “you-didn’t-talk-about-it thing.”
But the culture changed substantially over the player’s four-year career. She told herself she would be herself at college, and as her teammates got to know her, that was OK.
“By my senior year, it was just part of who you are,” she said. “You don’t need to say it if you don’t want to. We just went along with our daily lives because it didn’t affect anything for us.”
When it stopped affecting things, the player enjoyed her experience at the University. The true moment of peace for her came before her sophomore season, when she was unsure of how incoming freshmen would respond to her sexuality.
“We’ve got your back,” the senior players told her. “We’re not going to let anyone say anything. We’ll take care of you.”
When the player came to Michigan, MAAP was already established. For her, it was more than just a place to go — it was an organization that carried her through her college experience and helped her accept who she was.
When she had early college problems, the group helped her. When she needed a group to hang out with, the group gave her that too.
The national trend toward homosexuality could reach into Michigan locker rooms. Or, the disappearance of organizations such as MAAP could slow the pace of progress set by past generations.
Hiding the secret, though, doesn’t always pose a problem. These athletic teams often become players’ families. In fact, Hoyer, Heiter and the softball player each told their teams before they told their families. The team proceeded normally from there.
Bacon, who spent significant time around the Michigan Athletic Department while working on his 2013 book “Fourth and Long,” said that reaction coincides with what he saw.
“What was acceptable 10 years ago probably isn’t now,” Bacon said. “I didn’t have too much doubt that guys I was around there for three years would accept a gay teammate.”
Sam came out to his team in August. Because he was openly gay, coaches, support staff and even some reporters knew he was gay. According to Yahoo Sports, the Missouri student newspaper knew Sam was gay before last weekend. A reporter arranged an interview with him about it, and when he cancelled, the newspaper didn’t run the story.
In each of these cases, the people around the athletes haven’t hidden the secret because they are avoiding the issue or because they don’t want to create conflict. They have hidden it because it’s not their secret to share.
A spectrum of reactions
Think back to Paul Farber. Remember that not all coming-out stories are like Hoyer’s or Heiter’s. Remember that this issue is not resolved.
Not all athletes who come out are welcomed with acceptance. After all, when Michael Sam told his father he was gay, his father went out for a drink, and said in an interview with The New York Times, “I don’t want my grandkids raised in that kind of environment.”
For others, the issue remains characterized by silence. Men’s gymnastics coach Kurt Golder declined an interview request regarding the role of homosexuality within the team.
Ten years ago, Paul Farber told his coach the most intimate secret of his life and was met with apathy. Five years ago, a Michigan softball player came into an environment in which homosexuality wasn’t discussed. Ten days ago, a college football player told the world he was gay, risking his future in the process, doubters be darned.
There will be a day when an athlete like Michael Sam tells people he or she is gay and no one bats an eye. This day might not be tomorrow, or the next day. It might take more Evan Heiters and Stephanie Hoyers and Paul Farbers to get there. But once it comes, they and the thousands of other people who have helped make it happen will watch and smile.