Athletics department adds LGBTQ+ education

The DEI committee for athletics brings awareness to the LGBTQ+ community and the language used on campus

Catherine McCurdy and Stef Chiguluri

Concern filled the faces of the Washington and Lee University athletics faculty and staff when a student-athlete representative said homophobia has been “normalized” here compared to other forms of discrimination on a panel last spring. 

For faculty, it was clear the problem had to be addressed. Student-athletes makeup a significant part of the university’s student body, so it would be important to start with them, they said.

The diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) athletics committee took on this charge and implemented required student-athlete LGBTQ+ programming this year for all varsity teams. Many teams boast an inclusive culture, and yet, some student-athletes could still be heard using homophobic slurs outside of practice where coaches are not present. 

The diversity, equity and inclusion athletics committee is made up of three student-athletes, Associate Director of Athletics Bethany Dannelly, three coaches, two department representatives and Dean Tamara Futrell. 

“We cover DEI broadly, in that we take a lot of feedback from constituents and what we should focus on,” Dannelly said. 

Drew Leydig, ’25, a student-athlete representative on the committee, works with Jake Reeves, the assistant director of inclusion and engagement. Meanwhile, Dannelly to design the programming.

Reeves helps students with the intricacies of being part of the LGBTQ+ community on campus, whether they are out or not. He also educates students on how to accept LGBTQ+ individuals. He began working in conjunction with the DEI athletics committee last year. 

One point of emphasis Reeves made was not calling the programming “training.” Many student-athletes expressed in surveys and discussions that they did not want to keep doing trainings. 

“Trainings indicate you’re checking a box and having a directive,” Dannelly said. “This is not the case here. We want there to be productive and educating conversations. We don’t want to duplicate things that are happening on other campuses, We want students to be engaged and not turned off to it.”

Leydig was accepted to the committee as a first-year. He wanted to apply for a position because he had not been able to get involved with the Queer Liberation Alliance. QLA works to meet the needs of the queer and transgender community through social and educational programming. 

QLA meetings conflicted with Leydig’s swim practices, so he felt being part of the DEI athletics committee was a great alternative where he could impact change. 

Leydig created a video and shared his story about his own identity within the LGBTQ+ community, especially coming from a religious military high school. He was there with his team when they went through the programming and watched his video. 

The program is an open dialogue, Leydig said. It brings awareness to topics pertaining to the LGBTQ+ community. The program mainly combats exclusive and offensive language that might happen, which Leydig described as “locker room talk.”

“What affected me greatly was male dominated spaces, and toxic masculinity within sports, so I felt the need to bring that up as a talking point,” Leydig said. “All guys know it happens and may even be complicit, even unintentionally degrading of people – I wanted to bring that change, and I have even seen that change.”

Leydig added that participants in the training have responded with action.

“I’ve seen how people have taken what I’ve said and from the training and are trying to improve the environment as a whole,” he said. 

The programming is extensive and conversation-based. It includes education on the gender and sexuality spectrums (using a “gender unicorn”), as well as inclusive language. Each team asks questions, takes polls and looks at case studies of instances of homophobic or offensive situations and discusses how to approach these situations. 

“The case studies we do at the end are great, because it allows us to grow and talk about how to approach tough conversations. The whole program is about team growth together,” Leydig said. 

Many student-athletes agreed in a survey that the time spent towards this education was worthwhile. 

The DEI athletics committee has received about 600 responses so far to a survey they send out immediately following the programming. Reeves said the responses and feedback have been overwhelmingly positive.  

“I think it’s been an awesome thing, and we are trying to see where to expand,” Reeves said. “This is something we want to set as a foundation.”

Even student-athletes who felt well-informed going into the training got to the see the difference it made on their teams. 

“I personally knew a lot of the information that was being taught, but it seemed like a lot of other people were enjoying the chance to be adequately educated on these topics,” swimmer Mary Ardoin, ’24, said.

The DEI athletics committee continues to meet and work on student-athlete programming, faculty and staff training and strategic planning. They strive to continually foster an inclusive and supportive environment. 

“I feel great to be a part of the change. I am happy to be the change,” Leydig said. “I feel like there are a lot of binaries here at W&L and they need to be broken.”