Northwestern soccer player Robbie White comes out as gay, credits school's inclusive environment

After Northwestern’s final soccer practice last spring, Robbie White began to walk out of the locker room when his best friend stopped him.

White had confided in Braden Thuraisingham and had wrestled for a few months about when to make an announcement to the entire team. When Thuraisingham encouraged him on his way out the door last spring, White knew.

It was time.

“I’m gay,” White blurted out to his teammates. “Carry on with your day.”

He purposefully kept the announcement brief so he could quickly slip out of the room again before absorbing potential rejection. Instead, the room erupted in applause. One teammate after another lined up to hug White.

A weight he had been carrying for years — worry, sadness, isolation — dissipated almost immediately.

“It just felt nice,” he said.

White, a junior goalkeeper from Glen Ellyn who first told his story last month to Outsports.com, is the first known men’s soccer player from a Power Five program to come out during his college career.

As society at large has made strides in this area, LGBT advocates point out that the world of sports — especially male sports — is also becoming more inclusive.

“Robbie helps show what we at Outsports have seen for years now,” said Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of the website that focuses on LGBT issues in sports. “Gay college athletes who come out to their teammates are welcomed and loved by their teams virtually without exception.

“People continue to harbor this notion of athletes as homophobic, but that simply doesn't remotely reflect reality today. LGBT college athletes across the country, in small-town Idaho to cities like Chicago, are embraced by their teammates and coaches. Robbie's story again shows that's even true of ‘macho’ Division I sports.”

As a freshman at Northwestern, White avoided social settings with teammates. The conversation often turned to dating and women — a conversation White didn’t want to be present for.

It reminded him of when he was a sophomore at Glenbard West, when he began to think about his sexual orientation, and how he did not want his presence in the locker room to “make anyone uncomfortable or have anyone look at me a certain way.”

“I just shut it down,” he said.

While sidelined last season by a foot injury, White said he began feeling “down.” He had more time to think about his identity.

White said his difficulty with coming out was due to his feelings about what families were supposed to look like. He had always wanted “that ‘normal’ wife-and-kids life with a house in the suburbs and working in the city. I wanted the life my parents have.”

Teammates noticed he rarely smiled. Thuraisingham frequently asked if he needed to talk and offered support. It wasn’t until an athletic trainer pointed out White’s increasingly withdrawn attitude that White attended a school counseling session.

He started opening up. Eventually he said for the first time, “I’m gay,” to a counselor in February. That spurred him to begin telling more people, first hesitantly telling Thuraisingham before spring break.

White said he “went on a tear” of coming out.

He next told his parents, who were supportive, when he went home on break. Then he opened up to the other players in his recruiting class. Next he told the entire team.

“It was unanimous, 100 percent full support,” Thuraisingham said.

White became active in student groups designed to foster an inclusive environment. He serves on the executive board of Engage, a group that provides space to discuss topics related to identity.

Northwestern’s athletic department has gone beyond releasing mission statements about its aim for inclusion. It provides education to administrators, coaches, staff members and athletes.

Athlete Alliance is a group that provides “affinity space for our LGBT Wildcats and allies” with a focus on inclusion through social gatherings. Last year, the group sponsored a coaches-versus-athletes kickball game.

Northwestern was one of three colleges in 2016 to be a launch partner for the LGBT SportsSafe Inclusion Program.

“In these times, you can’t sit back and think that these types of environments just kind of foster themselves,” athletic director Jim Phillips said. “You have to be outward in your intentions. You have to make sure student-athletes, coaches and staff all feel like it’s an inclusive place. … The courage Robbie has shown is remarkable. I admire him so greatly for that.”

Weaving LGBT inclusion into athletics creates a sense of community to help athletes such as White feel comfortable coming out and help straight teammates learn acceptance, said Maria Sanchez, assistant athletic director for student development in diversity and inclusion.

“You have to be willing as a community to roll up your sleeves,” Sanchez said, “and not only talk and figure out and name those identities you’re working to be inclusive of, but get a greater understanding of the barriers that exist for those individuals. As a community we can work to remove those barriers and help our students learn how to navigate them.”

White said he has received an outpouring of support on campus and beyond since coming out, including messages telling him he’s an inspiration.

Yet he hopes one day stories like his won’t be newsworthy.

“I just want to see the day when you don’t have to come out and announce it,” he said. “There’s that (perception) where you can be gay or an athlete but not both. I’m trying to change that.”

White was motivated to come out in hopes of helping pave the path for others. Since last spring, White said his life also has changed significantly.

“I feel much better,” he said. “Now I’m known as the person who always has a smile on his face. It’s been freeing.”

sryan@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @sryantribune

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