By Tara Cavanaugh
Charley Sullivan says it’s OK to be “outrageously queer,” even in sports.
A longtime coach, Sullivan has been out his entire coaching career, even though in his field many stay closeted. Those who dare to come out make headlines – such as former Phoenix Suns CEO and President Rick Welts, who hid being gay for 40-plus years as he worked his way up in the industry.
But Sullivan, a successful varsity rowing coach at the University of Michigan, has decided not to hide anything. He hopes one day that gay athletes are as unapologetically out as he is, and he’s working hard to make that happen.
First, he’s setting an excellent example.
‘The big queer guy’
Sullivan blew up the gay blogosphere recently with a column on the popular blog Out Sports. In his essay, he proclaimed that not only is he out, but at times he’s even “outrageously queer” when he manages a team.
What does he mean by that? He means that he’s completely unafraid to be exactly who he is – even if that self is more than a little gay.
“I’ve found that the best way to let guys be comfortable and know that I’m comfortable is to tell jokes,” Sullivan says. “I will tell gay jokes. I will take their jokes among themselves and I will turn the double entendre queer.”
Gregg Hartsuff, who has coached with Sullivan since 1992, puts it another way.
“The other day, Charley was demonstrating something on the rowing machine. His movement made him look very homosexual – the way he moved his body, he swayed his hips some way, and he titled his hand and his head and I could see the group of about 20 guys just sort of laughing inside at him being what you’d call the big queer guy.
“I just said: ‘Charley that was very gay.’ And Charley says: ‘Asshole, I am a big queer homo.'”
The exchange caused the young men to crack up, Hartsuff says, “because I said exactly what they were thinking. And it was one of those moments where you know not only is this OK, but we kind of like it. It wouldn’t be Charley if it weren’t that way.”
“I really have come to take the position of – and I wish a lot of gay people would too – if there’s a problem here about this, it’s your problem,” Sullivan says.
Pat Pannuto, a U-M graduate student who was coached by Sullivan and Hartsuff for four years, says eventually all new team members figure out that Sullivan is gay – and they don’t care. They care more about winning, which Sullivan and Hartsuff help them do: the team has an impressive record, including winning four national championships in a row between 2008 and 2011.
“(Sullivan is) a defining part of my Michigan career,” Pannuto says. “He’s a defining part of who I am. I’m still at Michigan so I see him a lot, and you can see that he stays in touch with all the alumni. He’s a friend-for-life kind of character.”
No one would agree with that sentiment more than Hartsuff, who learned Sullivan was gay the very first time they met in 1992 when the head coach paired them up and scheduled an introduction at a coffee shop.
Sullivan and Hartsuff arrived, but the head coach was late. In pre-Internet and cell phone days, the two had nothing to do but wait and chat. The discussion turned to weddings.
“He was planning to get married that spring and I had just gotten married the prior fall,” Hartsuff says. “I asked him what his fiancee’s name was and he said it was Rob.”
“And I thought, OK, short for Roberta?” Hartsuff recalls, laughing.
“He could see the look on my face. I came from a small town, so I hadn’t really had any experience at all with homosexuals. If I had encountered them in my previous days they would have been in the closet.”
Hartsuff, whose political views lean conservative and Republican, says Sullivan was his first introduction to gay life. Hartsuff also says Sullivan is now one of his best friends, and their athletes understand how much the two respect each other.
Sullivan agrees. “I think we’ve helped each other grow in significant ways,” he says. “He’s my best ally in all this.”
Forming a gay athletic community
Thanks to his years as a coach and the contacts he’s made, Sullivan knows he’s not the only gay male coach out there. He wants to create a space to organize and unify coaches like him.
Sullivan is part of a group called the Equality Coaching Alliance. The group is so new that it doesn’t even have a website yet, just a Facebook fan page. The idea behind the alliance is to provide a space for coaches to deal with coming out issues, whether it’s their own or their athletes’.
The alliance could also provide a unified voice of gay coaches.
“As these sort of gay athletic issues keep coming up now, with professional athletes being fined for homophobic remarks, professional teams making ‘It Gets Better’ videos – which I think is spectacular – I think there’s also a desire to make sure the people who comment on this from the gay community also know about athletics,” Sullivan says.
Sullivan also hopes the alliance can encourage athletes not just to come out, but to be out. While many hope for a professional male athlete to come out, Sullivan says there’s a bigger picture to consider.
“For me the question is: when do you have the first guy, who gets drafted into the NFL, already out? Having been recruited to a top college program, already out? Having played at high school, already out? That’s the goal.”
As a teenager, Sullivan opted to be a closeted athlete. He hopes the world of athletics stops making those who love sports choose between being an athlete or being out. It’s not such an impossibility – he lives it every day.
Daring to be an athlete while also being openly gay: it’s not such an outrageous idea after all.