As one of the many events provided by the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Ally Student Resource Center in recognition of Pride Week, former college football player, Eric Lueshen visited campus to tell his story of overcoming homophobia in college athletics.
Lueshen opened his discussion by explaining that everyone has multiple “identities.” Lueshen, for instance, said he was a college football player who happened to be gay, “but there are so many more things about [him].”
“Think about all of the identities you carry, and how society likes to use one, two or three of those to ultimately define you,” Lueshen said. “We live in a time where there’s a lot of homophobia, transphobia, or discrimination against a race or a religion and this is all because one or two of the identities that we carry.”
Growing up in a small town in Nebraska, Lueshen said his hometown was isolated and lacked diversity. In high school, it was news when the first black student joined Lueshen’s high school.
Lueshen also became the center of controversy during his junior year of high school when he came out as gay.
“The big identity that really set me apart,” Lueshen said, “was that I was attracted to guys. In small-town Nebraska in the nineties and early two-thousands, it was culture shock to them.”
This “culture shock” felt throughout his hometown led to ridicule and torment from his peers and elders. Because of his size, Lueshen said he rarely experienced physical bullying, but “words really do hurt.”
A rocky home life did not alleviate the situation. Home was no refuge from the bullying between Lueshen’s parents’ unsteady marriage and his tumultuous relationship with his father.
“I think a lot of that stemmed from him knowing that was different and sensing I was gay before I even came out,” Lueshen said.
Despite his father’s previous unacceptance and homophobic tendencies, Lueshen’s mother accepted his sexuality once he came out, saying she “always knew” and he was “still [her] blonde-haired, blue-eyed baby boy.”
Through this hardship, Lueshen said he found solace with sports.
“It was the one place of refuge that I had where I could go and really kind of show the bullies who was boss,” Lueshen said.
Lueshen was passionate about sports since he was a child, choosing to sleep with athletic balls at night rather than stuffed animals.
“As soon as I learned how to walk, the second thing I learned how to do was dribble a basketball,” Lueshen said.
As he aged, Lueshen honed his athletic abilities, earning awards, gaining recognition and eventually being recruited for college sports teams across the country. Lueshen said he thinks his athletic achievements helped him gain acceptance in his conservative home town.
“I think they started to realize that, ‘Oh, yeah, he’s an amazing athlete and an amazing person, but he’s gay,’” Lueshen said.
Upon graduation, Lueshen accepted a scholarship to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, decided to major in chemical engineering and became a kicker for the university’s famed Cornhuskers football team. Lueshen’s nerves were high in the hyper-masculine environment of college football.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be easy being an openly gay Husker but I wasn’t going to live a lie or in fear. I was just going to be myself,” Lueshen said. “However, as an openly gay man and an athlete, I didn’t know how I fit into athletics. […] Back then, the media didn’t really cover LGBT issues and LGBT athletes were definitely not a topic of discussion.”
Lueshen said he began hearing his teammates’ homophobic slurs on the first day of orientation. His label quickly became, “the gay kicker.”
One fellow Cornhusker, whom Lueshen calls John in order to protect his identity, was particularly hostile toward Lueshen. John could have “easily crushed” Lueshen due to his large stature, and he blindly hated Lueshen simply because of his sexuality.
Lueshen said he feared for his life.
Instead of cowering away from this torment, Lueshen pushed himself to work harder in his academic and athletic pursuits in order to prove himself, despite his sexuality.
“By being openly gay at that time, and even I think now in sports, you have to prove yourself so much more than your heterosexual counterparts,” Lueshen said. “I was by all means not even close to the fastest or most agile guy on the team when I went there in college, but you know what? I never once lost a sprint or agility workout. I wouldn’t allow it. I couldn’t show any weakness.”
His efforts proved effective. Lueshen earned the respect and acceptance of his teammates and coaches – even John.
“They saw that I was highly valuable to the team despite my sexuality,” Lueshen said. “My sexuality is nothing to define me.”
Though Lueshen’s football career ended prematurely due to several injuries and a back surgery, he said he feels his social impact upon University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s athletic department was more valuable than his time on the field.
“I had done something way bigger than me, way more than I could have ever achieved on the field,” Lueshen said. “I opened the hearts and minds of countless people.”
LGBTQA Resource Center Intern Matthew Nadler also said by being openly gay in the hyper-masculine environment of college football, Lueshen made a massive impact on the world of college athletics.
“It is interesting to see the masculinity and this idea of silence, and it takes someone like himself to kind of break that,” Nadler (graduate-higher education student affairs) said.
Lueshen’s visit was one of the many events provided by the LGBTQA Resource Center in recognition of Pride Week. Assistant Director of the LGBTQA Resource Center Sonya Wilmoth said Pride Week is vital to the Penn State community in order to increase awareness of the issues that the LGBTQ community faces on a daily basis.
“I think it’s important just for the visibility on campus for other students,” Wilmoth said. “I think a lot of students might not know about our queer community here on campus and it’s an opportunity for us to showcase that there are [LGBTQ] students here.”
Despite efforts such as Pride Week, Nadler said more progress is to be made toward widespread LGBTQ acceptance in and outside of the Penn State community.
“There’s always more work to be done,” Nadler said. “Let’s pat ourselves on the back but let’s wake up tomorrow knowing that we still have more stuff that we can work on.”