The OutField: Denny Smith, Coaching for Equal Rights in Minnesota

Dan Woog
Photo by: QSyndicate
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Dan Woog
Photo by: QSyndicate

By: Dan Woog*/Special for TRT–

As a basketball coach for 30 years, Denny Smith seldom thought about LGBT issues. Being gay wasn’t right or wrong; it simply was not part of the Xs-and-Os world Smith (who calls his early coaching style “authoritarian”) knew so well.

Raised as Catholic, he could have been angry, upset, confused, and even hateful when Kyle – one of his three sons – came out in his early 20s.

Instead, Smith cried. It was not because of the news; it was because Smith feared Kyle would face a lifetime of hatred and cruelty.

Smith had already seen “blistering” letters to the editor when a priest in their town of St. Cloud, Minn. came out. Many came from other ministers. But Smith had also seen that the love between a family relative and his partner – a young man who died of AIDS – was no different than the love Smith felt for his wife, Pat.

Smith grew furious a few years later when Kyle’s partner Joe – a student from the Philippines, whom the Smiths considered part of their family – was forced to leave the country because his student visa expired. The couple still lives apart. (Kyle, who has a good job with Microsoft, gets to see him several times a year.)

So Smith – who played football, basketball and baseball in high school – became an activist. A year ago, when Minnesota put an amendment on the 2012 ballot defining marriage as only between a man and a woman, Smith founded a nonprofit institute, Winning Marriage Equality. The aim was “to talk about this hot-button issue in a calm and respectful manner.”

Befitting a lifelong Minnesotan, Smith’s activism has been passionate, but low-key.

For example, on the way home from an important basketball game, one player wrote on a teammate’s jacket that the other boy was gay. The players, and the rest of the coaching staff, laughed.

Quietly, Smith told his fellow coaches, “This is not OK.” He asked the head coach if he could speak to the team. Smith told the boys that by joking about being gay, they might intentionally hurt people they truly cared for.

Smith’s tone was forceful, but non-threatening. As he looked around, players nodded their heads. It was a small moment, but it resonated with the coach.

“Sports is like anything else,” he says. “When you work together, play together, you get to know each other as people. You realize differences are not important. Black and white athletes were once separate. Now they do everything together. We never think of those differences; they’re irrelevant. It’s the same with gay and straight.”

A fellow St. Cloud coach is Dave Schorn. A respected teacher with the most wrestling wins in the history of his school, Schorn came out several years ago as a gay man. His contract was not renewed. The reason given was that the school wanted the program to go in “a new direction.” (He continues to teach at the school.)

Schorn – who also coached football, and may be the only out (former) coach in the state – felt strongly that his sexuality was his own personal business. But after hearing about teen suicides (including some in Minnesota), learning about Harvey Milk and seeing the lack of gay role models, Schorn realized he had to be visible.

He has since helped start a PFLAG chapter. He speaks at rallies. He challenges prevailing views, and opens hearts and minds. He calls his work “very rewarding.”

Since he came out, Schorn says, 43 former athletes have come out to him. Nearly a dozen join him on the speaking circuit.

St. Cloud, he says, is “very conservative – Michele Bachman territory.” But – thanks in part to Schorn’s voice, and those of the former athletes – it has become “a great area of support” for LGBT issues.

Most of the 43 former athletes’ stories are positive, Schorn says. They were not out in high school. But though some felt lonely, they did not feel threatened on sports teams, or treated poorly by coaches. (Denny Smith tells a similar positive story about a boy whose father came out as gay. The head basketball coach worked closely with the player, helping him feel comfortable and safe.)

The reason the former athletes have come out, Schorn says, is their strong desire to be role models to gay teenagers who may once have been in their shoes.

On a personal level, Schorn says, the reaction to his coming out has been “very positive.” When his coaching contract was not renewed, he feared that his many wrestling alumni would abandon him.

“It’s been the other way around,” he says. “They call, they send letters, they talk about the pride they feel in me.”

That may be Dave Schorn’s most important victory of all.

Dan Woog is a journalist, educator, soccer coach, gay activist, and author of the “Jocks” series of books on gay male athletes. Visit his website at www.danwoog.com. He can be reached care of this publication or at OutField@qsyndicate.com.