When Nora Beck, BC ’83, was a student at Barnard, she was a force to be reckoned with on the basketball court. The three-year captain won the respect of her teammates and the attention of women’s basketball fans across the nation, becoming the second All-American the program had ever seen. The 1983 MVP’s number, 32, was retired upon her graduation that year, and now hangs in the Columbia Athletics Hall of Fame.
Beck is also a lesbian. Although she was open about her sexual identity in some settings during her time at Barnard, she said, there was an expectation that students would keep quiet about their sexual orientation if it deviated from heterosexuality. “You could be out but couldn’t at the same time,” she said. “People stayed pretty much virtually in the closet.”
The environment remained hostile for scores of LGBTQ athletes for years to come. In the 2000s, one Division I women’s basketball coach had an infamously simple policy for players: “No drinking, no drugs, no lesbians.” Still, Beck—now a music professor and faculty athletic representative from Lewis & Clark College—was a strong voice against the quotidian homophobia, cofounding an advocacy group called Sexual Minorities In Athletics and participating in the “first-ever discussion of homosexuality in sport” at an NCAA convention in 2002. The group was controversial: at some presentations SMIA gave about the “dangers of homophobia” for gay and lesbian athletes, the front row of listeners would turn around in their seats, showing only their backs to Beck as she spoke. When Beck asked for questions from the audience, she sometimes received note cards covered with scribbled vitriol instead: “Go to Hell!”
Public opinion on LGBTQ rights—as well as policy on athletes with these identities—has shifted significantly in the past 20 years. However, panelists including Beck agreed during an April 12 webinar that inclusive athletics is still a ways away. During the discussion, Beck was joined by Hudson Taylor, the founder of the LGBTQ inclusion sports advocacy group Athlete Ally, and by senior Ruba Nadar, a member of the women’s rowing team who co-founded Columbia’s Athlete Ally campus chapter last March. The panel moderator, Nich Lee Parker, took the lightweight men’s team to its first-ever IRA championship in 2016 and earned another national title in 2018. His appointment in 2013 made him the first-ever openly gay coach of a NCAA Division I men’s team—a historic milestone.
The panel occurred just days after the publication of a new evaluation of all NCAA Division I athletic programs, which were ranked not on their scholarship capacity or GPA average, but on their LGBTQ inclusion policies. The Athletic Equality Index measures from Athlete Ally, available here, include criteria such as public nondiscrimination and transgender inclusion policies, as well as pro-LGBTQ training for athletes and coaches.
Columbia’s relationship with Athlete Ally began before this year, according to Leadership and Well-Being Coordinator Kate Miller, who works as the staff advisor for Athlete Ally at Columbia. In 2019, Athlete Ally assessed a few Division I conferences on their inclusion policies and measures, and the athletic department began looking at those and discussing potential adjustments to its own policies. However, the publication of this year’s wider AEI rankings have spurred more change.
Many of the schools who scored perfect 100s promoted their rankings on Twitter and their department websites, advertising to recruits not only athletic wins and academic perks but also their top-line credentials in inclusion. The numerical scoring of the AEI taps into the competitive instinct of many athletic departments, Miller, a four-peat Ivy League champion during her time as a Princeton basketball player, said.
“As soon as that accountability is there, you see people jumping,” she said.
When rankings were first released, Columbia languished at the bottom of the Ivy League with a 25-point score. This is because, Miller said, although Columbia had many of the policies the AEI prioritizes, they were confined to student-athlete handbooks or internal athletic department documents. Following a Spectator inquiry after the publication of the rankings, Athletics published the policies on its website.
Now, prospective student-athletes can see a detailed transgender inclusion policy and anti-sexual harassment policy on Columbia’s website, in addition to a link to its Athlete Ally and Black Student-Athlete Alliance student group pages.
“Now we’re at a 75 out of 100,” Miller said. “That puts us fourth in the Ivy, so we’re climbing.”
The competitive spirit is precisely the response Taylor wanted to encourage with the rankings, and Columbia’s publicization changes are an example of “exactly the types of changes that we are striving for,” he said. Taylor said the public accessibility of policy information could make a difference for potential athletes who want to know how accepting a school might be. He also sees it as a way to ensure that universities, regardless of their location or reputation, are held accountable with specific policy requirements.
“It’s not enough to say, ‘Hey, we’re in New York City with a super diverse community, we’re a progressive community, we care about these issues,’” Taylor said. “Yes, that’s great. That’s true. But I think the most important thing is that we have to continue to commit to specific, measurable action in service of our most marginalized members of our community.”
The AEI ranks schools on a variety of inclusion measures: inclusive fan codes of conduct; accessible nondiscrimination statements, sexual harassment policies, and trans inclusion policies; pro-LGBTQ trainings and resources for staff and athletes; and partnerships with LGBTQ campus groups. Although the ranking only measures whether a policy exists and not whether it is being implemented, Miller said she hopes schools will push beyond the ranking to implement the policy—to ensure that the policy is more than an optical fix.
“OK, awesome. We have these on our website. What does that mean?” Miller said. “How do we then translate this to actually making it feel more inclusive, [and] to actually following through on some of these policies?”
It is a question that haunts Taylor as well. Taylor, a three-time All-American wrestler, decided to found Athlete Ally after donning a pro-LGBTQ sticker on his wrestling headgear in college, a statement which provoked criticism from teammates but induced a flood of support from other athletes, including some closeted wrestlers. Athlete Ally now works with leagues including MLB and brands like Adidas, but back in 2013, it was still a small nonprofit, and the young founder Taylor joined Columbia’s wrestling staff as a volunteer assistant coach.
Taylor said the wrestlers he coached were largely respectful and polite around him and in public. However, their public behavior did not reflect their private conversations, which were leaked in a high-profile scandal in 2016. Many of the first-years Taylor coached in 2013 went on to participate in lewd and bigoted conversations in a group chat, including messages which used racist and homophobic slurs. In the highly-publicized release of these messages, Taylor recognized the behavior and attitudes from his own time as a wrestler—reflections of the “tools that [male athletes] are given to express themselves,” which often rely on an idea of masculinity that includes homophobic and sexist behavior. It is a cultural norm within male sports that can change, he said, but requires deeper reflection than surface-level policy.
“One of the challenges that we have in this work is [that] you can be and do the right front-facing things … and it’s possible that doing so will result in a great, respectful face-to-face interaction,” Taylor said. “But if that conduct then continues behind closed doors, when eyes aren’t watching, that we’re still missing the mark in some way.”
Indeed, one of the perils of inclusion and inclusivity work, especially when it comes to LGBTQ inclusion and advocacy, is the fine line between encouraging systemic accountability and promoting individual self-reflection, Miller, a therapist by training, said. That is part of the approach she takes as the Athlete Ally advisor, which includes some unofficial advocacy within the athletic department on her part.
It has also shaped her approach to pro-LGBTQ training for coaches and athletes, an AEI item on which Columbia scored a 0/10. Columbia currently offers some training, Miller said, which can help give attendees a common language to discuss LGBTQ issues, but it is optional—meaning it will likely draw mostly athletes who are supportive and well-versed in the community already. However, mandatory training can result in disgruntled and bored attendees—the public agreement but private chafing Taylor warned against.
“My old boss in finance used to say, ‘Big ships turn slowly,’” Miller, who left a finance position in part because of her own experiences with the stigmatization of mental health as a student-athlete, said. “It’s [about] figuring out, well, how do we do this in a way that will create lasting change?”
The influence is also shaped by the relative newness of many formal LGBTQ inclusion efforts at Columbia—Miller joined the staff in 2018, and the Athlete Ally chapter was founded last year. Since then, it’s grown to include 7 to 10 teams, less than a third of Columbia’s total number. The online format has made it hard to draw new members, as has a lingering worry that heterosexual allies who join the group will face speculation about their sexuality, Miller said.
However, it has proved an invaluable support for athletes including Nadar, who co-founded Athlete Ally with a rowing teammate. Nadar noted that her own coming out experience was challenging. She helped organize a pride night at a March 2020 women’s basketball game—Athlete Ally’s inaugural event—but felt nervous on the night of the game, uncomfortable with the new visibility. But her teammates were largely supportive, she said, and large numbers of fellow queer athletes and allies from the women’s rowing team have joined Athlete Ally in force since its founding, providing emotional and moral support.
“If you can show up as your full self, you will perform better than you ever imagined,” Nadar said.
Going forward, Miller said, the group aims to partner with other student-athlete groups, such as the Student-Athlete Advisory Council and the Black Student-Athlete Alliance, as well as with other campus resources for LGBTQ students. And the next question for Columbia Athletics as a whole, she said, is how these policies translate into experience for student-athletes on the ground, from “the messaging that is going out” to potential recruits to interactions between teammates.
And if Athletics steps over the “Dodge divide,” Taylor’s description of the separation between Athletics and the rest of Columbia’s campus, it could take action on LGBTQ issues in ways that could set an example across the city and around the Ivy League.
“Columbia is the only Division I college in Manhattan,” Taylor said. “That matters, right? That’s something. And so I think the relationship between Columbia and one of those 40,000, high school athletes in the New York City boroughs, that’s a huge demographic of future coaches, future parents of athletes. Every time a team plays, there’s little eyes watching. So I think that the platform that Columbia has is enormous. It should be cherished. It should be treated with the utmost responsibility.”