By Connie Wardman
(From Compete Magazine’s January 2011 issue)
If one picture is worth a thousand words, then how many words is a feature-length documentary worth? For a number of U.S. gay athletes – two high school seniors, two college freshmen and a former high school student no longer playing sports as well as the families of these athletes, a couple of adult Olympic Gold Medalists, three coaches, several straight teammates and one entire high school population – the answer is “priceless.” These are the very real-life cast members of the feature documentary, “Out for the Long Run.” Following a year in the life of these courageous high school and college student-athletes who have come out to family, friends, classmates and coaches, it tells their personal stories in a way that honors their varied experiences of being “out” athletes.
Reading a “Los Angeles Times” article three years ago about the courage it takes young athletes to come out is what prompted Tragoidia Moving Pictures founder, Scott Bloom (a high school wrestler in his own right) and his partner, Larry Diamond, to make the “Out for the Long Run” documentary. While work as a professional freelance editor for feature documentaries, situation comedies, film trailers and reality television pays the bills, Bloom’s true passion is filming features such as this one that advocates for the LGBT community. In his words, filming incredible and inspirational stories of people is what feeds his soul. While the documentary isn’t all filled with horror stories, it’s also not all sunshine and sweetness. There is, in particular, a painfully honest yet touching conversation with the father of one of the college athletes about his struggle accepting his son’s sexual preference.
For all members of the LGBT community, coming out is an important rite of passage that finally allows you to be honest with others about who you are. But that honesty also leaves you vulnerable. Coming out can carry with it heavy physical, mental and emotional penalties that often lead to drug and alcohol addictions, even suicide, in an attempt to escape the pain. Yet not being honest about who you are is its own particular prison of silence. It requires you to live a lie, to be eternally uncomfortable in your own skin so that others can continue being comfortable in theirs without requiring them to change their awareness of others.
Because we are a sports-oriented society, for LGBT student-athletes the question of when, how or even if they should come out is raised to an even higher pitch simply because of the additional sports stereotypes they must overcome and the additional attention paid to them just because they’re involved in one of our national obsessions. They must confront the “everyone knows” syndrome – for example, “everyone knows all jocks are straight,” “everyone knows gays can’t play sports,” “everyone knows all women athletes are lesbians,” and the list goes on.
During the years when teen peer pressure is at its most intense, it requires an immense amount of courage for young gay athletes to take on the additional pressure of coming out while still in high school or college. Their coming out experience and the associated stars and/or scars gained in the process clearly influences how they act and react as adults. And if their sports talent is high enough to potentially rocket them into the ranks of professional sports, their tough choices get even tougher. The reason being that homophobia surrounding sports is still so strong that it keeps practically all gay professional athletes in the closet until after they retire.
Many gay youth who recognize how different they are from their peers tend to be overachievers. Knowing that, Bloom decided to focus on out student-athletes who were both high scholastic and athletic achievers. His vision was to follow them through the ups and downs of their entire 2008-2009 academic year but he had some big challenges to overcome. One was simply how to find a good mix of high-achieving gay student-athletes across the country.
The other big challenge was how to gain permission to work with minors on a project meant for mass media exposure in today’s world of heavily guarded personal privacy. Enter Facebook, California’s Berkeley High School and Connecticut College. Thanks to the explosion of social media, many potential student-athletes wound up contacting the production company directly. Connecticut College, a very diverse and forward thinking campus, welcomed the film crew and so did Berkeley High School, thanks to a good experience with a prior documentary film maker. The only caveat was that they didn’t interrupt the school’s normal daily flow.
The most complete story in the documentary is that of Austin Snyder, a top-flight runner from Berkeley High School. Covering his senior year’s daily activities in the classroom, at track practices and competitions, and at home via a personal video diary, it includes his angst due to a stress fracture that temporarily halts his running and how he manages to get back into shape once the doctor gives him the green light. Also included is the refreshing reaction of his parents to his announcement that he was gay. Rather than being disturbed by that, what really disturbed them is the fact that their “little boy” was grown up enough to have sex.
Perhaps the most interesting and feel-good part is Snyder’s acceptance to Brown University that leads to him meeting his first boyfriend. It’s a wonderful reminder that in spite of all the potential problems associated with coming out to one’s family, there are still parents who understand and practice love and acceptance with their children.
In fact, according to Bloom, one of the most important lessons learned during this project was that unless they’re heavily influenced by homophobic attitudes at home, the great majority of students really don’t care if one of their school’s athletes is gay. And while Snyder’s coach admitted to his initial prejudice about gay athletes, he said that because he knew Austin as a person, as one of the students on the track team prior to his coming out, it positively changed how he reacted to him. Since coming out is still considered a career killer for current pro athletes, one of the cogent questions is whether or not this young generation of “out” scholar-athletes will be able to change the face of professional sports with their early openness and acceptance of their own homosexuality.
When asked what he wants “Out for the Long Run” to accomplish, Bloom clearly wants it to gain wide exposure as an educational tool for people of all ages. Because it isn’t a finger-wagging documentary, he believes it helps people to realize that one of the gay student-athletes in the film could be their child, their neighbor or friend. The documentary has already been shown at the New Orleans Big Easy Film Festival and is scheduled to be shown at the Palm Springs International Film Festival this month, the Melbourne Queer Film Festival in March and there are plans for a showing in London in May. There’s also been interest by some educators wanting to use it as part of the diversity education programs within their school systems.
Already championed by a film school professor at a major university, the documentary may well wind up being picked up by some of the major television networks and film distribution companies. But if you don’t want to wait for it to hit national distribution, you can purchase “Out for the Long Run” on the Tragoidia Moving Pictures website, http://tragoidia.com. After all, Bloom is happy to change people’s minds, one viewer at a time.
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