Duke University: From 3 Students and Pizza to 80 Athlete Allies Marching in Pride

Athlete Ally Intern Lauren Miranda, who is Captain of the Women’s Rowing Team at Duke University, opens up about what it’s like to be an LGBT athlete, and how Athlete Ally helped her realize that her athletic community at Duke was actually supportive and inclusive. 

Duke University never tormented me. Neither did my peers, my teammates, my coaches, my trainers, my administrators; I never had any reason to believe that coming out was unsafe or unacceptable. So, why did I believe just that?

The truth is that it isn’t always blatant hate and discrimination sweeping through athletic programs, it’s something much more quiet — but dangerous nonetheless. It’s uncertainty. Uncertainty allows closeted athletes to imagine the worst-case scenario, to permit whatever demons and doubts that occupy their minds to take over and declare that they can predict reality. We don’t know if the climate is safe or not, how our teammates will respond, what our coaches will say- this uncertainty breeds a terrifyingly low standard. Athletes who are coming out are striving for tolerance, hoping that our teammates still like us, that our coach still starts us, like we’re looking for amnesty for a crime. This is an incredibly harmful narrative, but the good news is that it’s an easy one to combat. Just having a conversation about inclusion in athletics can do wonders in dissipating the notion of uncertainty that may have gone largely unnoticed.

This is exactly what we did at Duke. Our climate was never toxic, but we never spent a lot of time addressing LGBT inclusion in sports, or how our programs sought to champion that. Creating a campus chapter of Athlete Ally was the perfect icebreaker to start this conversation, and I’ve been amazed at the outpouring of support since. We’ve gone from 3-4 athletes sitting around a box of pizza, like any student group begins, to 80 athletes marching in a pride parade, international campaigns, pride nights, and vibrant discussion groups of over 60 members.          

Perhaps the most exciting shift I’ve seen at Duke is the shift in confidence. Since we started the program and having these conversations, our athletes have grown into cognizant, active bystanders with the confidence to speak up when they feel inclusion and respect is being challenged across the board. Our athletes are learning how to use their platforms to inspire and pioneer social change, and how to lead their teams by example. I attribute a lot of this just to the presence of our Athlete Ally chapter on campus, it’s easier to be an ally when you know there are others advocating for the same cause. It’s hard to stand up for respect and inclusion in an uncertain culture- we’re always taught to avoid conflict, especially in athletic — but through creating our chapter of Athlete Ally and having these discussions, we’ve communicated a very important message: that this is part of our culture here at Duke, and to act otherwise will have consequences.

It’s incredible that Duke has collectively shown so much support, but it’s incredibly frustrating as well. It’s frustrating that respect, acceptance, and celebration for LGBT athletes was always there, but masked by a damaging culture of uncertainty, allowing them to assume the worst. I challenge all student athletes out there- to uncover your support, start the conversation about inclusion, and shape your athletic program into one that openly and candidly celebrates all.