By Dan Woog
Anna Aagenes took a girl to her junior prom. Still, she did not feel comfortable being fully out as a bisexual then, especially to her high school track teammates. It was not until she got to the University of Pennsylvania – where she found a girlfriend, became a two-time NCAA regional qualifier and school record holder in three relay events, and was named captain of the cross country and track and field teams – that she was fully out.
At Penn, Aagenes moved quickly, on and off the track. She majored in gender, society and culture, was elected co-chair of Penn Athletes and Allies Tackling Homophobia, and chosen as co-chair of the school’s large Queer Student Alliance.
Her work on the Ivy League campus showed Aagenes the power of collaboration between the LGBT community and allies. But she also realized that while many people understood the importance of LGBT issues, the athletic sector lagged behind. Many athletes were not out to their teammates or coaches. Gradually, her work focused on the intersection between sports and society.
She is particularly proud of helping to create Pride Games. Now nearly a decade old, the annual event brings together Penn varsity and club sports teams, fraternities and sororities, a wide range of campus organizations, and other groups in the Philadelphia organization, for competition, fun and consciousness raising. In 2010, Aagenes joined the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s Sports Project advisory group.
Aagenes’ activism continued with GO! Athletes. She co-founded the group – the first national network dedicated to supporting and empowering LGBT student-athletes – and served as its executive director for several years. She worked tirelessly to give young men and women the tools to feel as open on their campuses as she had at Penn.
Meanwhile, she was building her own professional career: first at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Adolescent Initiative, serving young people living with HIV/AIDS, then as deputy chief of staff for state representative Brian Sims, the first openly gay legislator elected in Pennsylvania.
Earlier this year, though, a new opportunity presented itself. The You Can Play project hired her as vice president of program development and community relations. Now Aagenes is back working full time for LGBT student-athletes. You Can Play helped jumpstart the gay sports movement – and Aagenes is helping take it to new levels.
Co-founded in 2012 by Patrick Burke (son of noted hockey administrator and coach Brian Burke, and brother of openly gay Miami University student manager Brendan Burke who had been killed in a car crash two years earlier) and two others, You Can Play gained notice by promoting videos in which college athletic teams celebrated inclusion. “If you can play, you can play” on our squads, athletes said. The idea spread to high schools, pro teams and entire leagues. The videos – upbeat, creative and shared on the You Can Play website and through social media – quickly became life-changing elements in the LGBT sports world.
You Can Play has since branched out. Using a variety of educational tools, its mission is to ensure the safety and inclusion of all in sports – including LGBT athletes, coaches and fans – while challenging the culture of locker rooms and spectator areas.
Aagenes’ gig is full time. It was tough leaving Brian Sims’ political office, but she’s made a seamless transition working with folks like executive director Wade Davis – an openly gay former professional football player – and vice president for operations and development Jillian Svensson.
In addition to helping shape educational programming, building outreach strategies, strengthening partnerships and developing curriculum, Anna is raising awareness of homophobia in women’s sports.
She’s also done training sessions with Major League Soccer and the Big Sky Conference.
In Philadelphia, she helped organize a You Can Play event with the local Arena Football team, as well as a “Courage Game” built around a 12-year-old lacrosse player who had been cyberbullied. Over 300 people were in attendance – “and they were all there supporting inclusion,” Aagenes notes.
After six months with You Can Play, Aagenes says she is motivated by her colleagues; inspired by the partnering teams, leagues and organizations she’s worked with, and energized by the chance to make a difference in LGBT sports.
“For every naysayer, there are 100 people who are super-supportive,” she says. “We’re adding trans athletes, and we’re committed to addressing gender and racial identities.”
Anna Aagenes could always run. Now she’s helping run a major LGBT organization – ensuring that anyone who can play, can play.