Meet the LGBT Fencer Leading the Equality Charge for the Nittany Lions at Penn State

Heather Nelson is a master’s student in Aeronautical Engineering using her last semester of eligibility at Penn State to fence, and help spread LGBT equality in sports on campus. She’s also an alumni  Read more about her below, from a conversation she had with Athlete Ally’s Program Coordinator Brian Healey.

Q:First of all tell me about how you got to Penn State, and your background in athletics.

I have 4 siblings: 2 brothers and two sisters (one of each older and younger). I played on every sports team my middle school had. It was a small private school so all the teams were co-ed. I played baseball, basketball, roller hockey, football, and soccer. I started alpine skiing in 1st grade and started learning how to race in 7th grade. I played recreational softball for my town for two years. In the middle of all that I started fencing in 4th grade as an after school club and ended up sticking with that one over all the others. In 9th grade I fenced for the U.S. Cadet National Team (Under 17 years old) for the first time. I competed on that team for 3 years and then the U.S. Junior National Team (Under 20 years old) for 2 more. I got recruited to fence at the United States Air Force Academy and I fenced there for my first three years and redshirted my senior year. I graduated and commissioned into the Air Force in May 2013 with a Bachelors of Science in Astronautical Engineering with a minor in French. I was a distinguished graduate and a member of the Scholars Program. I started my Masters of Science in Aerospace Engineering at Penn State University Park in fall of 2013 and I will graduate at the end of fall 2014. I used my last year of eligibility to fence for Penn State my first two semesters at Penn State.
Q: Why do you think it’s important to bring a group like Athlete Ally to Penn State?
A: Ideally we wouldn’t have to bring a group like Athlete Ally anywhere but unfortunately that’s not reality yet. I think it’s important for a few reasons. One, I think people don’t realize that they even use offensive language at times. I know I’ve experienced it on my team but heavily in the military before and after the repeal of don’t ask don’t tell. Just making people aware of the fact that their words can hurt others can make a difference because in my experience most people don’t have the intention of causing pain they just don’t know any better. Two, Penn State is a huge school, a group like Athlete Ally has the potential to make a really big impact just by nature of the fact that there are so many people currently unexposed to this message. Three, the view of Penn State, especially the athletes, by the local towns is tremendous. If we can make a difference in the athletes, we’ll make a difference with all of the people who look up to them. The athletes are like local celebrities. Fourth, and finally, Penn State has gotten a decent amount of bad press attention following the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The athletic department in general could use the positive press that I believe a group like Athlete Ally could bring the school because the country will see the athletic department making a positive difference.
Q: How do you feel the athletic community at Penn could benefit?

A: I think that the awareness that is brought by the Athlete Ally program will help in team cohesion. It can be hard to be an athlete who isn’t out to their team and be forced to listen to teammates make derogatory comments. It can drive you to feel less like you belong and less like a welcome member of the team. It can make you more nervous to come out to them if you haven’t. If you do anyway, there’s always the thought in the back of your mind that they’re talking about you behind your back and that they might not actually welcome you. It’s less important in a mostly individual sport like fencing but in team sports it can be tremendously detrimental.

Q: Have you ever felt discriminated again?

A: I remember the first day of gym in 10th grade being asked in the locker room if I was gay because I dressed more masculine than my peers. It certainly bothered me but I don’t know that I felt discriminated against. In the Air Force you have to be more careful and it tends to be a more conservative environment. Before Don’t Ask Don’t Tell there was certainly a great deal of derogatory comments on a regular basis but they weren’t directed at me so I didn’t think too much of them. When I went to Penn State I made the executive decision not to advertise about my girlfriend but I also didn’t hide it from anyone who asked and anyone who was friends with me on Facebook knows but I don’t know if any of the men’s team does. Now and then an inappropriate comment will be made between the men’s team, and while it is teasing, I want to say something but never have. I guess the short answer is that I’ve never experienced true personal discrimination, not in the way that so many have.

Q: Do you think professional athletes stepping forward as allies play an important role in advancing inclusion?

A: I think they have not just an important, but a critical role, in Athlete Ally’s continued success. Professional athletes are known and looked up to by so many people from so many different backgrounds all over the country. I think it is absolutely important for the general population to see that these people who they already look up to are in support of this cause. Not only is it important for the general population, I think it is very important for kids to see the athletes they idolize and want to grow up to be believe in this cause. That will make the kids believe in it too.