The following is reposted from The NY Times.
A Coach Joins a Short List by Announcing He’s Gay
By John Branch
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — Once Simon Thibodeau convinced himself that it was all right to be gay, and then to be open about it in front of others, he gathered his women’s tennis team in May at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The dozen players in the room wondered why their head coach was so nervous.
“I’m gay,” he finally said.
There was awkward silence, mostly stemming from surprise. One player applauded. The rest smiled, shrugged and wondered about the summer schedule.
“No one thought it was a big deal,” said Erica Cano, captain of last year’s team and now an assistant coach. “All this big buildup, then: ‘Oh. O.K.’ ”
To Thibodeau’s college players, perhaps, it was not a big deal. But to him, it was a life-altering moment after years of inner turmoil. And to those in college coaching and tennis, Thibodeau’s public pronouncement of homosexuality promises to make him an unassuming pioneer.
“It feels so free,” Thibodeau said. “I’m not hiding anymore. If you ask, I’ll tell.”
Among thousands of N.C.A.A. Division I head coaches in various sports, the list of publicly out coaches — male or female — is short. It includes the Portland State women’s basketball coach, Sherri Murrell; the Kennesaw State men’s (and former women’s) tennis coach, T. J. Greggs; and Kirk Walker, the longtime softball coach at Oregon State, now an assistant at U.C.L.A.
Colleges are often at the nexus of social change, including gay rights, but lag when it comes to the openness of gays in coaching. The reasons are nebulous and vast, including fears about the effects on recruiting, worries over job security and a reluctance to create a public-relations nuisance for the college’s administration.
“Coaches have had a good response when coming out,” said Pat Griffin, author of “Strong Women, Deep Closets: Lesbians and Homophobia in Sport” and professor emerita at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “It makes me wonder if the fear is bigger than the reality.”
That is the belief of Walker, considered the first openly gay male Division I coach when he came out to his Oregon State softball team in 2005 and to the Web site Outsports.com in 2007. He estimated that he knew 100 head coaches and assistant coaches in college softball who were gay. In all sports, he said, there are probably hundreds of gay coaches, a guess educated by how often he hears from some of them.
“All the time,” Walker said. “Every day.”
Walker understands their reluctance for acknowledging their sexuality publicly — “There are a lot of external reasons why it’s easier not to rock the boat and to compartmentalize your personal life,” he said — but it also frustrates him. Hiding such a big part of your life — your true self, he said — diminishes a coach’s impact as a role model.
“It’s a self-perpetuated homophobia that is being perpetuated, year in and year out, because coaches choose not to disrupt their lives,” Walker said.
Tennis, too, has invisible but sturdy barriers to gays, at least among men. On the top professional tour, there are no openly gay male players, just rumors — a surprising closet given the steadily rising acceptance of gays in other sports and across popular culture.
“I really don’t know why it is,” said Martina Navratilova, who came out as a player more than 30 years ago. “It won’t affect you financially, and nobody can keep you from playing, because it’s not a team sport.”
It all makes Thibodeau, 40, a successful college coach with deep ties in international tennis, a candidate to become a public spokesman for barrier breaking in sports and a private counselor to those struggling to make sense of their feelings.
Thibodeau is entering his second year at Santa Barbara after leading Fresno State to seven first-place finishes in nine years in the Western Athletic Conference, where he was a six-time coach of the year. His Fresno State teams had nine all-Americans and reached the N.C.A.A. tournament Round of 16 five times.
He has bigger expectations in Santa Barbara. Last year, with an inherited roster that finished below .500 the season before, he led the Gauchos to a 15-8 record and third place in the Big West Conference. The team’s No. 61 national ranking was its highest in 20 years, the university said.
There are still concerns about the impact his public revelation will have on the team’s momentum. Thibodeau’s success hinges on recruiting and fund-raising. He has spent much of his first year focused on grooming talent and meeting current and potential donors to the program — just as he has his whole career.
“With all those things, I never really ever knew where to put my private life,” he said.
Now, he will carry it with him, publicly.
“I don’t want to wear more masks,” he said. “It is a mask, I guess. I’m talking to someone, and they don’t really know who I am.”
Thibodeau told the university’s administration in the spring. Athletic Director Mark Massari was worried when he heard his new tennis coach wanted to see him.
“Oh, no,” Massari said he thought to himself. “Who’s recruiting him now?”
Thibodeau, from Montreal, speaks in a soft French Canadian accent. He nervously told Massari that he was gay, and no longer wanted to hide it. He seemed relieved.
“I think more highly of you now than when you walked in,” Massari said he told Thibodeau. “And I thought very highly of you then.”
Massari applauded Thibodeau’s willingness to be a part of a “very important dialogue.” He said he was not concerned about potential negative reaction, even from those who help finance the university’s 20 teams — a list that does not include football, the biggest revenue provider in most college athletic departments.
Thibodeau’s revelation surprised even those closest to him. Fit, tan and friendly, he found it easy to attract women. Over the years, he said, he had about a dozen girlfriends. With one, he had a daughter.
But Thibodeau said he never felt comfortable with women, and spent most of his adult years repressing his private feelings. He felt ashamed — for his attraction to men and his misdirection toward women.
“You become an expert at lying,” Thibodeau said.
A relationship with a man in Montreal blossomed to the point that he would visit Thibodeau regularly at Fresno State, watching matches from the stands.
“After matches he’d bike to my place, and I’d say, ‘I’ll meet you there after my team meeting,’ ” Thibodeau said. “I would be scared if I met someone in a restaurant when I was with him.”
Things changed when he befriended a gay man in San Francisco in 2010.
“He talked about it like the weather,” Thibodeau said. “It made me realize that you can be out and masculine and confident. I may have 37 more years, and I want to live them on my terms.”
Emboldened, Thibodeau began telling close friends and family. He did not broach the subject when he was hired by Santa Barbara last year. Then he turned 40 in May.
“At 40, I think, O.K., that’s enough,” he said. “And because I’m in the public, maybe it can make a difference.”
He gathered his players. He bought time and confidence by prattling about team details, like the coming schedule and summer camps.
“It’s just scary,” Thibodeau said. “Maybe there’s some fear that’s not rational — that you’re going to be rejected or laughed at. I guess I’m not scared so much, but it just hasn’t been done. I don’t know anyone.”
He told the players what he really wanted to say. Silent surprise turned to vocal support.
“I’m really happy for him,” Stacy Yam, a junior, said. “I don’t want somebody to have to hide such a big part of himself.”
Gone was the mask that Thibodeau wore for decades — one, presumably, not unlike those that cover untold faces throughout college coaching and men’s tennis.
“He seems happier,” said Cano, the former player and current assistant coach. “He seems more relaxed. He just smiles more.”