The fervor college athletics curries within its rabid fan bases has a way of distilling the young people donning their school’s colors to little more than the uniform they wear. The student part of student-athlete easily gets lost.
But there is so much more to any given athletes identity and the communities that identity can influence than simply what they accomplish in sports.
Case in point, out University of Pittsburgh diver Lisa Coe.
Coe has enjoyed her time as part of Pitt’s swim and dive team, but she knows that there are much more important elements of her identity that carry influence as well. She stated as much in 2018 during the NCAA Office of Inclusion’s “More Than An Athlete” social media campaign.
“There’s so much that goes into identity, right? And you have the things that you can’t choose. My sexuality, my ethnic identity; those are things that I can’t choose. Things that I can choose are being a diver, being a microbiology major,” Coe told Outsports. “I know that I’m not the only person who’s a gay Asian athlete, but I’ve not known anybody else who is like that. I never saw anyone like me growing up. Now that I’m at the point in my life where I can talk openly about these things, I want to be that person for someone else.”
But that decree represented so much more to Coe personally. While she has been out to her friends and teammates since high school, expressing her queer identity in a public space like social media meant revealing her true self to her conservative family. “My parents are both Presbyterian. So, I grew up going to church every Sunday. They’re both pretty conservative with their political views and everything. So I was in the closet for a lot of my life … I wasn’t even like publicly super out until last year,” said Coe.
The cautious fear that comes with closeting oneself has a way of affecting relationships in which LGBTQ people are accepted, and Coe wasn’t exempt from that feeling. One such experience from her freshman year points to how those feelings can manifest.
“Before freshman year started, [the Pitt swim and dive team] had a group chat going and I sent a message saying, ‘I just want you to know I’m not straight. If that makes you uncomfortable, I get it. If you don’t want to room with me, that’s fine.’ Looking back at that, that’s so messed up that I felt that way.”
That familiar experience of segmenting one’s identity in an effort to hide elements of it from those that might disapprove left an impact on Coe. And, in some ways, influenced her decision to put herself out there for her university and the world to see, even if it took some time for the opportunity to present itself.
“I don’t know if that was like the first year that the NCAA had that week or not, but that was really the first time I’ve been contacted about something regarding diversity. And that was my junior year,” said Coe.
But once she put herself out there, Coe opened up her representation floodgates. She participated in 2019’s #NCAAInclusion social media campaign as a and joined Pitt Life Skills’ diversity and inclusion committee alongside other Pitt student-athletes. “We all bring our own perspective to the table and talk about making Pitt a welcoming place for all identities and all genders,” Coe beamed.
Lisa Coe. Swim & Dive.
My time at Pitt has given me the opportunity to grow and develop all parts of my identity, notably, my identity as a Queer Asian woman. It was my involvement in the classroom, not in the pool, that lead to this specific area of self-growth. pic.twitter.com/7HsDgOGvBr
— Pitt Life Skills (@Pitt_LIFESKILLS) October 25, 2019
That newfound desire to put herself out there didn’t mean that Coe wasn’t given pause about widespread cultural acceptance of her identity and message. “We had to send in a picture to be posted along with our [#NCAAInclusion] caption. I sent that picture in and the person I sent it to said, ‘are you sure you want me to post that picture and not one of you doing your sport?’,” Coe recalled. “I don’t think they second guessed anyone else’s picture.”
Where Coe has found the most success is in pushing people’s perception of and attitudes toward the LGBTQ community on a more interpersonal level. “Now that I’ve been more vocal about things, people are receptive to me critiquing them,” Coe said.
“Going through that personal transformative experience for myself, really thinking about my own identity and being introduced to having deep conversations about identity from my freshman year set me up. I want people to know that it’s okay to talk about these sorts of things,” Coe said. “Whether it’s sexuality, gender identity, race or mental health. Your identity shouldn’t be something preventing you from doing a sport. It shouldn’t be preventing you from doing some major or something like that. So I kind of like being that person. I’m a queer Asian student athlete. I’m doing a hard science major and a studio arts minor. I like being able to be that person who people can look at and see like, ‘She’s not hiding anything.’
The pace of change on Pitt’s campus might not be as speedy as Coe would like, but she recognizes the little things that are moving the needle in the right direction and laying a foundation for the future. “We had at one Pitt athletics event. They had Chick-fil-a as the caterer. I brought that to their attention. If there are closeted athletes here, if we have recruits that came to this event and they’re queer, that’s not sending a good message. I think that’s my way of leaving my impact on Pitt. Not being afraid to point out the smallest of things,” said Coe.
“I think because we are student-athletes, other students can immediately pick us out of the crowd. Some of our faces are plastered all over the university buildings and the school’s social media accounts. We get gear from the school. I think it’s really easy to fall into the thought of ‘I have to fit this image.’ I think athletics as a whole needs to stray away from that mindset.”
As Coe winds down her time at Pitt, she isn’t shying away from continuing her advocacy work within the academic world either. “Having a diverse and welcoming community in scientific research is also a big thing right now. There’s lots of discussion about being a diverse lab, what benefits that brings and being able to talk about mental health issues regarding graduate school. Continuing my kind of open conversation, bringing that into science and professional work, is not a bad thing,’ Coe stated.
Follow Lisa Coe on Instagram by clicking here.
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