Creating Space for LGBTQ+ Student-Athletes and Athlete Allies

Tufts chapter of national group quickly becomes one of the largest in the country

Ryan Kane, A25, was having trouble finding a community for people like him at Tufts—openly gay student-athletes—so he decided to create one.

Kane, who is a member of the men’s rowing team, is now the president of Tufts Athlete Ally, a campus chapter of the national nonprofit of the same name. The group aims to create space for LGBTQ+ and straight-ally student-athletes by hosting monthly events and fostering community for an often-unrecognized demographic on college campuses.

When Kane contacted Sophie Novitsky, A25, about his idea to build a new community for student-athletes, she felt a strong responsibility to join the group.

“As somebody who was out, but wasn't necessarily seen as being part of the LGBTQ community, I really wanted to be a part of this space,” recalled Novitsky, a member of the women’s rowing team who is now a Tufts Athlete Ally executive board member and the group’s social media coordinator. “I also wanted people like me to have a space where they could feel comfortable enough to participate and to feel like they have that opportunity to be a part of this community.”

Novitsky joined the group in the fall of 2022 when it was known as AQUA, or the Alliance for Queer Undergraduate Athletes. Kane established AQUA with the support of other queer student-athletes and the then-LGBT Center, now known as the Trans and Queer Center for Advocacy and Resources at Tufts (TQ). The group began hosting events in September 2022.

Soon thereafter Novitsky helped recruit Michael Damelio, A25, to serve as communications coordinator for Tufts Athlete Ally, and in turn, Damelio recruited his then-roommate and current Athlete Ally events coordinator Brian Uribe, A25, to join its executive board. Both Damelio and Uribe are on the men’s swimming and diving team.

“I really wanted to be part of a queer organization on campus because of leadership roles I held in high school,” Damelio said. “I'm really passionate about advocacy for people in the LGBTQ community and especially athletes because it's such a unique experience being an athlete and being queer.”

Uribe agreed, reflecting on his time on the high school and club swim teams as one of the few openly queer athletes.

 “I had to find a different type of community through friends that never really understood what it's like to identify as queer or an athlete,” he remembered. “It makes a difference when you have a community that specifically knows what you've gone through.”

Damelio finds it powerful not only to have this new community, but also to know that the athletics department has been so supportive of Tufts Athlete Ally on campus.

“In high school there was no queer athletic association of any kind,” Damelio said. “Since we are building this community that’s so embedded within the athletics department, it's almost like changing the system from within as well.”

Finding Community Beyond Tufts

Kane learned about Athlete Ally through a chapter at Harvard, which invited AQUA members to an event for trans athletes last fall.

“They told me all the benefits of being part of the Athlete Ally community and I was inspired to connect with the Tufts athletics department about the experience,” Kane said. “The administration was super interested in supporting us if we became affiliated with Athlete Ally, which we did over the winter and from there we’ve had a lot of successful events.”

The events have included mixers with other schools, including Boston University and Harvard. Athlete Ally has also hosted Tufts-specific events on campus.

“We have members of the LGBTQ community and straight allies come, have fun and some food, and take a break from academics,” Uribe said.

Seeing fellow student-athlete allies in those spaces has been moving for Damelio.

“It’s hard to get the word out for small clubs, especially when we just started this club in the last year,” Damelio said. “And just to see these straight allies who maybe you wouldn't think would necessarily get involved with something like this, was beautiful. That stood out for me and still stands out to me today.”

Support from Within

Although the current chapter is new, it is not the first connection between Tufts and Athlete Ally. Fletcher School graduate Mike Balaban, F75, served as co-chairman of the board of the national nonprofit. And Max Bosse, A16, organized an earlier chapter at Tufts while he was an undergraduate.

Beyond student support, Tufts Athlete Ally has been embraced by coaches and Tufts athletics staff, including the group’s faculty sponsors Courtney Shute, head women’s lacrosse coach, and Jon Bird, assistant manager of athletics operations and promotions.

Although most teams, whether varsity, club, or intramural, have been receptive to joining Athlete Ally after learning about the group from its members, not all have. That’s where Shute’s advocacy has been invaluable, Novitsky said.

“Coach Shute is very passionate and is also not afraid to go to other coaches and encourage them to show support and explain why this is important,” Novitsky said. “There were definitely some people who I had talked to who said, ‘yeah, on our team, that's not going to happen.’ But that changed with her amplifying our message.”

Team representatives from 22 of 28 varsity teams and two club teams also help spread that message. Kane developed the team representative role to ensure there are student-athletes available to answer questions about the group from current and prospective students.

Beyond the team representatives, Tufts Athlete Ally boasts more than 80 student-athlete members, making it one of the biggest chapters in the country. The group’s goal for the 2023-24 school year is to claim the top spot.

“We've already grown so much in such a short time and I know that if we add on some more people to our e-board, and we strategize and we have an effective plan in place, I'm really confident that we can be successful in achieving that goal,” Kane said.

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