The ‘it gets better’ message is still going strong at Western, with varsity athletes adding their voices and stories to the mix.
These voices especially are a valuable contribution, according to members of Get REAL, a student-run anti-homophobia initiative that started at Western in 2011. Since, Get REAL has gained momentum, spreading and growing on campuses across the country, all the while garnering media attention for some of its initiatives.
A new Get REAL video, Sports Are For Everyone: Western Varsity Athletes Speak to Youth About Homophobia, features Mustangs sharing their experiences either playing on a sports team with someone who identifies as part of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender) community, or being part of the community themselves and feeling sidelined while playing for a sports team.
“In the video, most of the (LGBT) athletes talk about how they didn’t feel welcome and how it was harder for them to be who they are (on high school sports teams),” said Hillory Renkema, an English and Creative Writing student who is the co-director and coordinator for Get REAL Western.
“There is this underlying feeling, when you first come out to your team. Everyone has a stereotype in their head that athletic teams are these ‘big jocks’ and ‘pretty girls’. It’s hard enough, especially if you don’t feel like you fit into that category in real life, how are you going to fit into it in (sports)?”
Renkema explained the video targets new Western students, and, by way of the group’s outreach, high school students. The goal is to encourage new students to pursue the sports they love in university, ‘come out’ to their teammates and expect a welcoming community, even if they felt marginalized in their high school years.
“When you get to university, you realize that it (sexual orientation) doesn’t matter. Even if you are in high school and your team might not be supportive, there will be a team that supports you,” she said.
The raw emotion and the honesty in the video will resonate with students, added Valerie Pepin, vice-president of communications for Get REAL Western, who is doing a double major in Physiology and Criminology.
“That preconceived notion that (sports) teams aren’t as accepting isn’t as accurate as you might think. It does happen, but not always. Have a little bit more faith,” Pepin, who came out in high school, said. “It was tough for me in high school, but when I got to university, it was totally different.”
Pepin joined the rowing team and Western’s all-girl cheerleading team when she came to university. Her teammates accepted her when she came out, and didn’t treat her any differently.
With chapters popping up on campuses across the country, from Nova Scotia to Saskatchewan, Get REAL is a not-for-profit organization aiming to eliminate homophobia. The group reaches out to young adults, sharing the message that homophobic language, such as using the word ‘gay’ in a derogatory manner, is hurtful and easily unlearned and eradicated.
The group’s first video, To My Grade 7 Self, was picked up by national media and garnered the attention of sites like BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post as well as LGBT publications and programming across North America.
“We have events as much as we can, info sessions, and outside of campus, we go to high schools and middle schools and we talk to students about homophobic language and how it’s really harmful, how at a young age, it can be really detrimental to a person who’s just finding out that they’re gay, and hearing negative (language) about it at the time,” Renkema said.
“We try to create safe spaces in the community.”