A story in the New York Times on August 28 revealed that Simon Thibodeau, the second-year coach of UCSB’s women’s tennis team, is gay. Of all the online comments that followed the article, the few that could be construed as critical were mainly along the lines of: “Why is this newsworthy?”
“There was nothing homophobic,” noted Thibodeau, who said he could hardly sleep at night in anticipation of the disclosure. “It was more like, that’s not a big deal. Which is true. It should not be a story. And I hope it won’t be a story for people who come out in a few years or months.”
The hook that made Thibodeau’s coming-out a national story is his profession. Times reporter John Branch could name only three other Division 1 college coaches — out of many thousands — who have publicly acknowledged their homosexuality. There is perhaps no area of society that is more conflicted about sexual orientation than the sports arena, even on supposedly progressive college campuses.
“The pressures are huge not to come out,” said former UCSB coach Mark French. “I respect anybody who wants to keep his or her personal life personal. But coaches are people who receive publicity and represent a university. It’s good for sport, and it’s good for society, to see coaches, male or female, being honest about who they are — to see that they are well-adjusted and admirable people.”
As a straight male, French had no worries about his place in college sports. But as coach of the Gaucho women’s basketball team for 21 years, he dealt with instances of homophobia. Some of his players were lesbians and did not completely hide it.
“Two of our fans didn’t think it was right for a player to show affection for her girlfriend in the parking lot after a game,” French said. “I asked them if they’d feel the same way if Kayte Christensen was kissing her boyfriend. They said no. I told them that [double standard] was not okay.”
The fans later came to admire the player they were concerned about, French said. “I don’t think there’s anything that broke down the biases and misconceptions more than our booster club getting to know and adore our players,” he said. “Wow, she’s great, and she’s a lesbian; that’s great, too.”
French’s commitment to being forthright extended to his home recruiting visits. “We’d get asked questions: ‘Coach French, do you have lesbians on your team, and do you recruit lesbians?’ I’d say, ‘Yes, we do’ — as every other Division 1 program does, but they don’t all say so. Certain parents and players decided they didn’t want that answer.”
Thibodeau, who turned 40 in May, decided he was ready to handle the truth. “I believe I have a responsibility to my team, and feel a similar sense of responsibility to the gay community as well, that we should all embrace all the important aspects of who we are — that doing so is healthy and honest,” the tennis coach said in a statement. “I think that personal integrity is challenged when we limit our ability to speak freely and openly, whatever the subject. This is a teachable moment, and I’d like to step up to the plate. As more of us (coaches and athletes at the collegiate level) come out, I believe it will become self-perpetuating. But someone has got to be the first, so I guess I am among them, and that’s fine with me.”
He shared his story with Branch, an award-winning journalist who was at the Fresno Bee when Thibodeau coached the Fresno State women’s tennis team. (He led the Bulldogs to seven conference championships in nine years.) Before the article appeared in the New York Times, he informed his mother, his sister, his friends, UCSB athletic director Mark Massari, players on the Gaucho tennis team, and, finally, his 9-year-old daughter from a relationship when he was trying to prove himself straight.
“I flew her out from Montreal,” said Thibodeau, a native of the Canadian city. “I Skype her every week, but I wanted to be with her. We were playing cards, and I stopped playing and said there was something I had to tell her. It was not so easy, but it went really well.”
The game they played was building houses of cards, which seemed to represent the edginess of Thibodeau’s feelings. He felt out on a limb in the macho world of sport. “I don’t know any gay coach in tennis,” he said. “I don’t know anyone in the top 100 male ATP players who’s come out in the last 30 years. I was making up a lot of thoughts in my mind. I was scared of people’s reaction.”
His fears were unfounded. He received strong expressions of support from Massari and the UCSB coaching staff, as well as from Chancellor Henry Yang. “It’s been A-1 in terms of class and support,” Thibodeau said. “I’m lucky to be in this university and this town.”
There are many places where he would not be so lucky — for instance, Russia, where anti-gay policies are clouding the upcoming Winter Olympics. “They are going backward,” he said. “It saddens my heart to see this discrimination. Russians need to move or stay closeted for now for their security.”
There’s still work to be done where he lives. “I know that the suicide rate is very high among gay youth,” Thibodeau said. “If I can help one person feel better about who they are by serving as a constructive role model, then coming out would be more than worth it for me.” He also hopes to see the reduction of homophobia in the straight community by the presence of gay people with whom they share common interests.
Thibodeau plays in an adult interclub tennis league on Wednesday nights, and he said fellow players on his team, the Racketeers, made donations to his UCSB program. “That was not the goal,” he said, “but it’s nice.”
The Gaucho tennis players took his revelation in stride. “I’ve received good emails from the newly recruited players who just arrived on campus and from their parents,” the coach said.
Thibodeau started moving the program in a positive direction last spring — UCSB’s women went 15-8 in dual matches and finished third in the Big West Conference — and he is optimistic it will continue to improve with a solid base of California players. His assistant coach is Erica Cano, a graduate of Dos Pueblos High, who was captain of last year’s team. He looks forward to recruiting even more effectively in the future, he said, “because I won’t have to keep any secrets.”
GAUCHO GLORY: UCSB teams made spectacular news in road trips last weekend. The women’s volleyball team knocked off No. 5–ranked Hawai‘i for the first time since 1994. The men’s soccer team raised its Big West record to 4-0 with a pair of 2-1 overtime victories over nationally ranked Cal State Northridge and UC Irvine, rallying from a 1-0 deficit in the latter match while playing 10 against 11 because of a red card.
TOUGH BIRDS: The Cardinals were triumphant last Saturday in St. Louis, with a 1-0 shutdown of the Dodgers, and at La Playa Stadium, where a crowd estimated at 7,000 watched the Bishop Diego High Cardinals dominate the Carpinteria Warriors, 24-6, in the battle of unbeaten football teams.