Shaking Up the Straight Sports World

Closets have no place in athletics, says lesbian advocate Pat Griffin

| January-February 2000


Maybe it was because she had a secure job, or because she felt it was time for her to step forward and become a role model. But more likely it was because she couldn’t stand being quiet about her life any longer. Whatever the reason, in 1987, triathlete and educator Pat Griffin told an audience at a national sports conference in Las Vegas that she is a lesbian.

For most people, coming out publicly takes guts, but for Griffin, it was especially risky. Besides being a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, she was also coach of the women’s swim team, and she was afraid her announcement would spark negative fallout from team members or their parents.

But in the end, Griffin’s desire to tell the truth once and for all outweighed her concerns. “The closet gets pretty cramped,” she says now. “Eventually I had to come out in order to make room for myself to grow.”

And Griffin couldn’t have picked a better moment: The sponsoring organization had asked her to give a speech on homophobia and women’s sports, a topic dear to her heart. Using her own career as an example made perfect sense.



“When I first started coaching, I was very closeted, except eventually to a few of my swimmers,” Griffin says, recalling that during her early years as a competitive athlete and coach, she constantly worried that her sexual preference would be discovered and she would lose her job. “As I got older and settled in one place, I made myself known to some of the women on the basketball and lacrosse teams, and told them that they could come talk to me about issues they were facing in their lives. It made me bolder.”

Emboldened by her speech, and buoyed by support from friends and colleagues, Griffin eventually wrote Strong Women, Deep Closets: Lesbians and Homophobia in Sport (Human Kinetics, 1998). The book includes interviews with lesbian athletes and coaches, highlighting the complex relationship between perceptions of female athleticism and sexual preference.