A change in the tides

Swimmer Austin Olivares talks about what it means to be a gay athlete at FAU.

Correction: The original version of this story referred to NFL linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo  as a gay athlete. Ayanbadejo is in fact a heterosexual.

[Max Jackson | Photo Editor]
[Max Jackson | Photo Editor]

Austin Olivares has no intention of letting society’s perception of his sexuality hold him back. A college athlete on the FAU swim team, Olivares is determined to prove that being gay doesn’t define who he is as a person, or as an athlete.

“Now I can’t stop because I need to prove a lot of those people wrong,” Olivares said.

In recent years, more athletes have been coming out as LGBT, but the stigma that LGBT athletes are not as capable as heterosexual players still lingers in locker rooms and out on the field. Former NFL linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo told Meet the Press, “People think gayness has something to do with femininity.” But as the fight for LGBT rights and equality continues to gain strength and momentum, so do those who stand for it, including athletes.

Olivares doesn’t want to make a big deal out of his sexuality — he just wants to swim. UP reporter Emily Creighton spoke with Olivares about his experience.

UP: How long have you been swimming?

Austin Olivares: I’ve been swimming for four years. I started my freshman year of high school.

UP: Have you ever been treated differently by your team because you’re gay?

AO: No, they’re always pretty good. It was definitely a change for everyone at first, but no bullying or anything like that. I’m not gonna lie — I’m changing the rules a little bit. It was a special situation, but everyone loved me for who I was and not for some stereotype or based on sexual orientation.

UP: In general, would you say the swimming community is welcoming when it comes to LGBT swimmers?

AO: I would say, yeah, for sure.

UP: What about compared to other sports?

AO: Compared to other sports, definitely. [With] bigger sports like football or basketball, I’m sure it’s a lot harder to come out. For example, Michael Sam. He was a football player and because he came out, not a lot of coaches wanted to draft him. Not because of the fact that he was gay, but because the story behind it [and] all the drama that could happen with having an openly gay athlete. So, I would definitely say swimming is easier to come out.

UP: Why do you think it’s such a big deal to be an openly gay athlete?

AO: Probably because of the stereotype. You know, a lot of people see gay people doing things like “Project Runway” and stuff like that. There’s a stereotype and they don’t realize that there are actually so many people that are excluded from the stereotype. Like, a lot of people tell me they wouldn’t have even guessed I [was gay] because I play sports.

I know somebody — I can’t disclose right now because he actually plays a big sport and he isn’t comfortable coming out with his sexuality — but for him, nobody would’ve ever known. So, there’s definitely a lot of people that are excluded from the stereotype I would say, more than people think.

UP: Could you describe coming out to your teammates? Was it coming out or was it not discussed?

AO: I didn’t want to make a huge deal out of it. It was very indirect. I actually had a team captain pull me over and she had asked me about it because she said someone in the locker room was talking and stuff like that. So I told them. I walked up to the captain and I said, “You tell all the girls in the locker room like there are no rumors. I’m gay and that’s that. That’s the truth.” And then I walked to the guys’ team captain and I said, “Hey. This is what’s going on. Could you please just tell the whole team? I don’t want there to be rumors or any stories.” I didn’t sit everyone down and make a big deal about it. I didn’t think it was a big deal. I came here to swim.

UP: Would you say that being gay has affected your swimming career?

AO: I wouldn’t say it’s affected my swimming career, no. If anything it’s made it better. I know a lot of people will think, as someone who’s gay, I’m not as capable of doing a sport or something as [good as] a straight person. Those comments have definitely been made to me, so when I swim, when I’m tired and when I want to give up, I think about the people that say stuff like that and I’m like, “Okay. Now I can’t stop because I need to prove a lot of those people wrong.”

UP: How would you describe the LGBT community at FAU?

AO: The LGBT community here is awesome! I mean, when I was in high school I was closeted. I wasn’t out or anything, but it was a pretty accepting community and neighborhood. Westboro [Baptist Church] actually came to our school to protest because we were so accepting. I get the same exact feeling at this school with the drag show and just all the people that I see around on campus, some of the friends that I’ve made in the community…the campus definitely promotes a safe environment for people to be who they are.

UP: What would you say to athletes that feel as though their sexuality may prevent them or hold them back from their sport?

AO: I would say don’t be afraid of what people are gonna think or what people are gonna say. You’re determined by your character, how you treat other people, how people see you, the kindness you bring toward them [and] the work you put in the pool. If you can play, you can play whether you’re gay, straight, you have one leg [or] you’re handicapped. If you’re better and you can play, then it’s not a big deal. But, you shouldn’t be defined by your sexual orientation because that doesn’t define a person.