By Dan Woog
Former Indiana University football player Alex Perry is a confident young man.
This past June he stepped out of his comfort zone. One of four people – all straight – representing his school’s athletic department at Indianapolis’s Circle City Pride festival, at first he felt uncomfortable when gay men in flamboyant costumes asked to have their pictures with him.
His apprehension was short-lived. By midmorning Perry grinned broadly when a drag queen sauntered over for a photo.
That was just one of many snapshots – literal and figurative – from an empowering day. IU Athletics learned a lot – and so did the LGBT festival-goers who visited their booth.
Once, that outcome might have surprised Jon Kitto. But over the past year the secretary of IU’s 1,200-member GLBT Alumni Association has come to appreciate the athletic department’s outreach to the gay community. At the same time, IU Athletics has enjoyed the fruits of the blossoming relationship – and added hundreds of new fans.
Kitto’s passion for Indiana University began as a student in the 1970s. He was a Hoosier football booster too – rare in the LGBT community – so last year when a new athletic facility was dedicated near the stadium, he and his partner attended.
New athletic director Fred Glass spoke. He described his goal of reaching out to “new communities” – ones his department had previously ignored. Afterward, Kitto – who admits the GLBT Alumni Association (GLBTAA) had not reached out to athletics, either – decided to see if Glass meant what he said.
“I was ready for a brush-off,” Kitto recalls. “But he said, ‘Let’s get it on the calendar.'” Last December, the GLBTAA executive board and Glass held a relaxed, friendly hour-long meeting.
Near the end, Kitto asked the department to donate a few items for GLBTAA’s annual silent auction. Sure, Glass said. Well, what about a private tour of the new facility? No problem, Glass replied. Both were enormous successes.
Kitto then asked if IU Athletics would staff a booth at Circle City Pride. Again, he expected to be brushed off. Again, he was surprised by the department’s eagerness to help.
The booth featured a mannequin dressed in an IU basketball jersey. The department handed out coasters, pompons, refrigerator magnets and Hoosier schedules.
“It was one of the most moving days of my life,” Kitto says. Two staff members and two interns – including Perry, the former football player now earning his masters in sports management – staffed the booths.
“All day long they took everything in. They loved being there,” Kitto reports.
The four straight IU Athletics volunteers were impressed with the huge turnout – and noted with surprise, “They’re people we see every day.”
Thousands of festival-goers picked up athletic department giveaways – and thanked the representatives for being there. That made an impression on the quartet.
So did comments like “I went to Michigan, but you’re my second favorite team now,” and “I’m from Purdue. I’m supposed to hate you – but I don’t.”
It was all part of Pat Kraft’s plan. The assistant athletic director in charge of marketing, he realized that Circle City Pride was a perfect opportunity to introduce IU Athletics to a new, lucrative and potentially very enthusiastic audience.
“As markets mature, it’s difficult to mine new customers,” Kitto says. “The GLBT market is huge, and unmined.”
Gays and lesbians are a natural target for Kraft – a concept that initially surprised Kitto. “I’m 52 years old,” he says. “I didn’t expect the greeting we got at Pride. Pat’s around 30. My surprise was surprising to him. He just saw it as a great business opportunity.”
But IU Athletics’ outreach meant more than marketing. During the day, four Indiana athletes came to the booth and said they were gay or lesbian.
“Having the department there was so important,” Kitto says. “They realized, ‘I’m comfortable with my school, with my athletic department, and I want you to know how much that means to me.'”
It meant a lot to the straight men at the booth, too. The day after Pride, Perry thanked Kitto for allowing him to participate.
“His goal is to be a high school athletic director,” Kitto says of the grad student. “Just imagine the effect something like this will have on the kids at his school years from now.”
IU Athletics had such a good time, they plan to return next year – with a float and varsity athletes.
So were there any negative encounters at all?
Kitto laughs. “Yeah. One guy ran by screaming ‘Boiler Up!'” – the popular Purdue cheer.
“But that happens anywhere there are Purdue fans,” he continues. “It had nothing to do with being gay. I thought to myself, Here we are at a gay event, and the traditional IU-Purdue rivalry is so strong.
“What was so remarkable to me about that was its utter unremarkableness.”