Sports fans know the University of Connecticut for its men’s and women’s basketball teams. It’s a fine academic institution too. But one day soon it may be famous for its CLASS.
That’s CLASS as in the Connecticut LGBT Athlete Safe Space.
An online support system and resource network including links, educational information, question-and-answer forums and more, the site is designed to provide information on LGBT issues for students (athletes and non-athletes alike), coaches, administrators and faculty members–regardless of sexual orientation. It is believed to be the only Web site of its kind affiliated with a college athletic program.
Ingrid Hohmann–an academic counselor working with UConn’s Counseling Program for Intercollegiate Athletes–came up with the concept. A track and field athlete at the University of Delaware, she did not come out until after graduation in 1990. “I never felt comfortable going to the LGBT Center on campus,” she says, recalling her college years. “In fact, I was terrified.”
She would have welcomed “any athletic-related resource that I could have just looked at to answer questions,” she says. “Like a lot of athletes, I wasn’t political. But it would have been nice to have access to help me figure out who I was.”
In addition to LGBT athletes, “some allies and potential allies may be interested in ways to support their peers,” says Alana Linick, CPIA academic counselor and tutorial coordinator, describing CLASS’s desired audience.
Hohmann, Linick and CPIA director Bruce Cohen thought the anonymous nature of a web page would be attractive to everyone, regardless of their sexual identity. Administrators–including the athletic director–were fully supportive. “They even wanted support groups,” Hohmann said. “But we think this is more effective.”
Nine CPIA counselors, a learning specialist, four graduate students and an administrative assistant helped develop the Web site. Student-athletes provided feedback before it went live.
The easily navigable site includes resources like “Action Guides” for administrators, coaches and athletes; links to the Gay Games, Gay and Lesbian Athletes Association, It Takes a Team, NCAA Diversity, OutSports.com, Human Rights Campaign, the University of Connecticut Rainbow Center, and LGBT scholarship applications; information on state and national laws and an anonymous message board.
“We wanted something that had lots of resources, but also felt safe to use,” Linick says. “If someone feels they need to access this from their dorm room or an apartment, that’s fine. It’s all about providing information.”
“Athletes can talk to me–I’m out,” says Hohmann. “But if they want a way to figure things out first, resources like this are great.”
As with any site, some usage has been unexpected. A number of students find it to be a valuable resource for classes like psychology and human development. “We didn’t see that coming,” Linick says. “But we’re glad it’s there.”
Though students are encouraged to ask questions online–and get direct, personal answers that are not viewable by anyone else–“they’re not really doing that,” Hohmann notes. “We know the site is getting hits, but that part of it hasn’t taken off yet.”
The “Chalk Talk Feedback” page includes just five questions, but they’re good ones. Some of CLASS’s responses are adapted from “It Takes a Team” resources.
Someone wrote: “I think one of my teammates is gay. What should I do if they come out to me?” The answer was: Be yourself. The teammate may need someone to talk with. But if he or she does not come out to you, don’t take it personally.
Another user wondered how to deal with anti-gay comments without others thinking he or she is gay. CLASS responded that although being an ally is challenging, standing up to inappropriate language sets a powerful example for everyone.
There is also a question about locker room behavior by gays and lesbians. The answer is that the stereotype of gay people as sexual predators is wrong. All athletes, the CLASS Web site says, focus on the same things: upcoming games, injuries, laughing and talking with teammates. Any inappropriate behavior should be addressed without regard to sexual orientation.
A major challenge for CLASS is to publicize the Web site around campus. Mass e-mails have been sent to athletes, flyers are hung throughout the department and there is a link from the CPIA home page. (However, it simply says “CLASS Web site”; there is no indication that “CLAA” offers LGBT resources.)
“We need to advertise this a bit more than we have,” Hohmann admits. “We think it’s the only site like it. People are taking advantage of it, but we have to continue to educate student-athletes and allies that it’s here and available to everyone.”
Visit the CLASS Web site at www.cpia.uconn.edu/class or call 860-486-5515.
Dan Woog is a journalist, educator, soccer coach, gay activist, and author of the “Jocks” series of books on gay male athletes. Visit his Web site at www.danwoog.com. He can be reached care of this publication or at [email protected]