In the early 1980s, when the AIDS epidemic was escalating in the United States and domestic-partnership laws were still a novelty, Missy Meharg was playing field hockey at Delaware and dating men and women. She was lesbian, but same-sex relationships, she said, were "so not accepted," so she did what was expected.
In 2005, just a year after Massachusetts became the first state to legally recognize gay marriages and months after Pope John Paul called them "evil," Robbie Rogers was playing soccer at Maryland and closeted. His teammates went out and partied with female students. They dated them. Rogers "really struggled," he said; he was most expressive on the field, where his orientation mattered not.
On Friday, ahead of Tuesday's National Coming Out Day, the Terps field hockey and men's soccer teams will headline the first Maryland United Night, part of the university's ongoing efforts to celebrate and foster an inclusive athletic community. In April, the athletic department partnered with Athlete Ally and PFLAG to host the first Maryland Intercollegiate Athletics Summit.
Friday's event, naturally, offers the opportunity to appreciate how far the LGBT community in College Park, and beyond, has come. Meharg, the longtime coach of the No. 7 Terps, is married to her partner and has two children. Rogers, a former national-team player and current member of the Los Angeles Galaxy's reserve team, came out three years ago and became the first openly gay player in Major League Soccer history. Even Maryland itself, the first state to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, is now among the most progressive states in the nation.
"I would say every 10 years has supplied a different environment for young, gay, lesbian, bisexual student-athletes," Meharg said in a teleconference Wednesday. "There was a period of a time there where maybe I was the one as the leader or the coach that was thinking that it wasn't out, when they're all out. They all know so much about each other. It's us, actually, that probably don't know what we don't know."
The night's festivities are tailored to its message. A member of the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington will sing the national anthem before Meharg's Terps host Michigan State. A silent auction at the No. 1 Maryland men's soccer team's game against Ohio State will benefit the Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network. The university's Office of Diversity & Inclusion will be promoting acceptance and inclusiveness to attending fans.
It is a theme that has particular resonance among young athletes. According to an international study on homophobia in sports released last year, 83 percent of gay male athletes and 63 percent of lesbian female athletes under age 22 said they were keeping their sexual orientation hidden from all or some of their teammates. More than three-quarters of all respondents surveyed said they believe youth sports were not safe or supportive for LGBT people.
"People always ask me, 'What do we need to change the environment? What do we need to do to have more athletes come out?'" Rogers said in the teleconference. "The most difficult answer to that, or the truth about it is, you can only do so much. But really, it's going to come down to the athletes."
As the country's attitudes about same-sex couples have shifted in recent years — according to the most recent Pew Research Center polling, a majority of Americans (55 percent) support same-sex marriage, up from 37 percent in 2009 — prominent gay and lesbian U.S. athletes increasingly have come out.
In 2013, Rogers and then-NBA player Jason Collins publicly announced their homosexuality. The next year, it was Michael Sam, an All-America defensive lineman at Missouri. WNBA star Elena Delle Donne revealed in August that she is gay and engaged, an announcement notable, in hindsight, for how normally it was covered.
As for what comes next, Meharg and Rogers couldn't say. Meharg called today's student-athletes, both straight and lesbian, more accepting and open than they've ever been in her 29 years at the school.
Rogers has given up hoping for more male athletes to come out. He and his boyfriend are raising a baby boy now. The society that little Caleb will inhabit when he grows up is of greater interest.
"It took me 25 years [to come out], so who am I to judge people for that?" Rogers said. "Everyone has their place and time."