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Originally published August 2, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 2, 2007 at 2:02 AM

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More young athletes open about being gay and lesbian

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...

Los Angeles Times

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.

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 active 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 Web sites 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 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.

In Seattle, Goodman began dropping hints around his 8-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.

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"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.

"Oh, you didn't know?"

Allan Acevedo tends to speak hurriedly, words stacking up against each other as he rushes through a telling anecdote.

Two years ago, he and the rest of the track team from Bonita High School in La Verne, Calif., 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, Calif., 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 percent 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 NFL 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, a former University of Washington player, others waited until retirement to come out. In baseball, there were former major-leaguers Glenn Burke and Billy Bean; in football, Roy Simmons of the New York Giants and Washington Redskins and, five years ago, Esera Tuaolo, who played for several NFL teams.

John Amaechi revealed his sexual orientation in a recent autobiography, "Man in the Middle," published after he left the Utah Jazz of the NBA. He sensed the change in attitude on a promotional visit at a Southern college.

"A bunch of shirtless frat guys playing volleyball recognized me and started yelling," he said. "They were saying that they love what I'm doing."

Joey Fisher encountered a similar response at the University of Georgia, where his teammates recall thinking, "Wow, gay people play hockey?" when the goalie came out. No one mentioned anything to him at first.

Then, Fisher said, "about three days into training camp, one of my teammates tried to set me up with a friend of his. A guy."

Open on the field

As a freshman at Harvard, Sarah Vaillancourt simply decided to stop hiding her sexual orientation.

Whenever the subject of dating or relationships arose, she spoke frankly.

"If they weren't going to accept me on the team," she said, "I wasn't going to stay."

It helped that Vaillancourt quickly established herself among the top scorers on her college hockey squad and a rising star for Team Canada back home in Quebec. But she knew that as a lesbian, she would encounter challenges different from those facing gay male athletes.

On the plus side, she grew up with role models such as Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova in tennis, Sheryl Swoopes in basketball and Rosie Jones in golf. Fans have come to expect a certain percentage of gays in women's sports.

This expectation also counts as a negative. In some circles, athletic women are automatically presumed gay, which can spark resentment among straight athletes.

Vaillancourt, so candid at Harvard, acknowledges she is more cautious around the Canadian national team.

"They don't want me to talk about it so much because if one person comes out, everyone's [going to be labeled] a lesbian," she said. "My whole team is not lesbian."

Singled out

The gym door was locked when Brian Schwind and his football teammates trudged off the practice field that day almost three years ago. As they waited for coaches with a key, Schwind realized he was surrounded.

The sophomore was new to Foothill High School near Redding, Calif. By football standards he was smallish, only 5 feet 7. The larger players crowding around him demanded to know: Was he gay?

"Either I could tell the truth and have the crap beat out of me or I could lie and save myself," Schwind said. "My mom always told me to stand up for what I believe, so I told them."

A linebacker stepped in to prevent further trouble, but for the rest of the fall Schwind felt ostracized. After football, he went out for wrestling.

"Nobody wanted to wrestle with me," he recalled.

His experience offers a reminder that poll numbers and television ratings for "Will & Grace" do not always translate to the schoolyard. A 2005 survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network found that 64 percent of homosexual students had experienced some form of harassment in school.

By his junior year, Schwind gave up football and wrestling, sticking to swimming, where he felt more accepted.

"There can be a close-minded shell around sports," he said.

More than just gay

When Goodman thought about coming out, he wasn't terribly concerned about acceptance — not as an accomplished rower and honors student headed to MIT this fall. He knew that Seattle had a large gay population and that crew was "one of the most elitist liberal yuppie sports you could think of."

Goodman was more fearful his sexual orientation might overshadow everything else.

"I want to be known as a rower," he said. "Not as the gay kid."

On a recent afternoon, the rowers shouldered their sleek boat to Green Lake. They were in a good mood after winning a silver medal at the U.S. Rowing youth national championship, joking and laughing, talking about parties.

It was the type of chatter that used to make Goodman nervous. Not anymore.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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