Q&A with Anna Aagenes, Executive Director of GO! Athletes

Anna Aagenes is a full-time Research Assistant for HIV clinical trials at CHOP, and the Executive Director of GO! Athletes, a national network of LGBTQ current and former student-athletes on a mission to empower other athletes to be out.  

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The busy 24-year old took time out of her schedule to chat with us about her experience as an ‘out’ student-athlete at UPenn, what GO! Athletes is all about, and why more men and women in professional sports should come out of the closet.

Q: How important were athletics to you growing up?

A: I’ve been passionate about sports all my life. My mom really encouraged me to play different sports starting at a young age, for which I am forever grateful. When I was a junior in high school, I decided to join the cross country team. Since that time, I consider myself a “runner for life” who continues to train and compete.

My track career during high school and college was one of the most important experiences I had as a student. In college, I had the opportunity to compete with some of the top athletes in the country and became a National Qualifier in the 800 m and the 1500 m. Some of my favorite memories from college include running back-to back events at the Penn Relays, and setting school records with my teammates, who had also become best friends.

Photo courtesy of Anna Aagenes

Q: When did you decide to ‘come out?’

A: As many of us experience, my coming out was done in stages. I came out most publicly when I was 16, and brought my girlfriend to our junior prom. Even though I told most of my friends and family about my high school girlfriend, I remained closeted to my high school track team. As a high school senior, however, I knew I wanted to be completely out when I got to college. When I was being recruited to college track programs, I made sure to research the school’s LGBTQ community, and observe on my visits if the team members seemed open toward all types of people. Penn seemed to be the best fit as a place where I could be myself, and be part of a competitive track and field program.

Q: How did your peers react to you coming out? Was there a general attitude of acceptance, or did you face any negativity/backlash, bullying, etc.?

A: I had a very positive experience with my college teammates, and was thankful each day for the allies that I found at Penn. My experience coming out in high school gave me the confidence I needed to be “completely out” in college. I started by telling a couple very close friends on the team who I knew would be supportive, and then I announced it via Facebook with my relationship status. Social media seemed to be the best and quickest way to tell people who I was, rather than telling each person one-on-one (especially on a team of 50 girls!)

To be honest, I was fortunate to never have any direct backlash from people. I actually saw more backlash toward the allies that helped us with campus evens with PATH (Penn Athletes and allies Tackling Homophobia and Heterosexism).

I’ll never forget one story one of my track allies told me. She was handing out flyers for our annual spring event “Pride Games” and asking students to sign a banner saying they were a PATH “supporter.” When she saw an athlete friend of hers pass by, she asked him to sign, and he got a disgusted look on his face and refused. After that, the two of them never really talked much, despite being friends for four years in college.

Q: Why do you think so many athletes choose to remain in the closet, and do you think that’s changing as being gay becomes more ‘acceptable’ in society?

A: Choosing to remain in the closet is painful for anyone, even if they aren’t an athlete, but I think when your sports team is your ‘family,’ the stakes are much higher. Since you practice and travel with your teammates, you may spend more time with this family than you do your biological family. Much like your real family, if your team rejects you, it can have a devastating impact on your high school or college experience. So many athletes choose to have separate lives, or remain closeted since they’re afraid to lose what they love – their sport and their team.

From an academic point of view, there are many reasons why sports culture may feel ‘unsafe’ for LGBTQ athletes. Many of my fellow sports activists and I have talked about how sexism plays a key role in homophobia. For instance, if a coach or fan calls a player a sissy or a fag, most likely they are referencing them as being feminine (like a girl), rather than being gay. Like the military, I think sports reinforce uniformity for the sake of the team. In the past, the belief was that if you talk about sexuality, you’d be disrupting team culture; now, I think it’s the opposite – if we don’t publicly address the possibility of bullying those who are LGBTQ, then we won’t have a safe space for our athletes to be themselves.

“Out” soccer star Joanna Lohman will be appearing at GO! Athletes relaunch event on Thursday, October 11. Photo courtesy of phillysoccernews.com

Q: Tell us about GO! Athletes.

A: GO! Athletes is a national network of LGBTQ current and former student-athletes empowering others to be out, and helping educate others on the concerns of LGBTQ student-athletes.  The organization was originally called Our Group, and we’ve just relaunched as GO! Athletes a few months ago, and are in the process of obtaining our non-profit status.

In the next six months, we’re focusing on increasing our visibility and reach while continuing to support LGBTQ athletes across the country who are looking to start their own organizations and host awareness at their schools. Our re-launch event on October 11 aims to create a dialogue on the growing LGBTQ sports movement by celebrating former Philadelphia Independence pro-soccer star Joanna Lohman as an out role model to young athletes.

Q: Obviously, you’re a busy lady between working a full-time job and leading GO! Athletes. What do you like to do in your down time?

A: I love trying out new coffee shops and brunch spots when I have a free weekend.

Q: Best spot, in your opinion, for a date in the city?

A: Tria (any location). It’s ideal for get-to-know-you conversation.

Q: Why do you choose to be an activist for the LGBT community?

A: Much of my current activism has been informed by being a bisexual woman who was also a Division I track athlete, and wanting to make things better for fellow LGBTQ athletes. My values drive me to advocate for the LGBTQ community because we deserve equal rights and equal treatment, yet my activism is not limited to LGBTQ activism in sports. For instance, at CHOP, I am part of a committee that’s concerned with LGBTQ homeless and runaway youth in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, there are many LGBTQ youth (athletes and non-athletes) out there that need our support and love. I’m constantly inspired by the out role models and mentors I have in my life, and they’ve convinced me that we all have the capacity to make the world a better place.

To learn more about GO! Athletes, visit http://goathletes.org/.

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