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March 11, 2010

Gay lacrosse player looks to spark honest discussions


BY DENISE RICHARDSON
STAFF WRITER

ONEONTA _ Andrew McIntosh aims to destroy doors on gay closets, and he started with his own.

Last year, as a newly appointed lacrosse team captain at SUNY Oneonta, McIntosh said he wrestled with suicidal thoughts until he decided to talk about being a gay man.

First, he told a close friend from high school and his sister. Since then, he told his coach, Dan Mahar, and fellow captains.

On Feb. 15, McIntosh told his teammates, the same day Outsports.com, an online gay sports community, published his article, ``College lacrosse player comes out to his team.’’

McIntosh, 22, of Putnam Valley, said he intended to answer individual questions when asked about his sexuality instead of telling the entire team, but then he realized teammates would be reading his essay.

``Being honest is very important to me,’’ McIntosh said, ``and I wanted them to hear it from me and not from anyone else.’’ Mahar said he is proud to say there has been no hint of negativity from players.

``The guys see Andrew as Andrew,’’ said Mahar, a 1997 SUNY Oneonta graduate in his third season as head coach of the lacrosse team. The State University College at Oneonta campus always has been welcoming in terms of services and resources, he said, but society has become more aware and understanding of homosexuals in the past 10 or 15 years.

Several lacrosse players agreed McIntosh’s revelation wasn’t a big deal.

``It didn’t really faze anybody,’’ Tom Kelly, 21, a SUNY Oneonta junior, said after the Red Dragons’ practice on the allweather field near Hunt Union on Tuesday. ``It’s not really looked at, `he’s homosexual,’ _ he’s our teammate. ... We’re still all very comfortable together.’’

Gay athletes speaking about their sexuality is ``a hot topic.’’ Mc- Intosh said he has noted some shocked reactions but no negative responses. His teammates and coach have been supportive, he said, and thoughts of suicide are gone.

On Wednesday afternoon, some SUNY Oneonta students taking a break on the quad between classes agreed Mc- Intosh’s decision to come out showed courage.

Justin Eisenschmidt, 20, a junior from Glens Falls, said McIntosh took a bold step in revealing his sexuality to teammates, who are strangers compared to friendships molded during high school athletics.

McIntosh’s decision to be honest with his team is ``the mark of a good leader,’’ Eisenschmidt said, and his frankness may help pave the way for others with similar issues.

Five years ago, a college campus wouldn’t have been as accepting of an athletic captain coming out of the closet, students said.

``It represents our society’s progress,’’ said Jordan Aily, 23, a senior from Queens. ``It’s awesome.’’

James Koury, editor of locally published Diversity Rules Magazine and Oneonta city clerk, applauded McIntosh’s steps.

``I commend Andrew Mc- Intosh for coming out and proudly proclaiming his sexuality to his fellow lacrosse teammates,’’ Koury said. ``More importantly, however, I commend him for being true to himself and having the courage to evolve to the point where he could feel free enough to openly express his true being.’’ Societal pressures to conform and the stigma attached to being gay in some areas of the country lead to some LGBT individuals to hide, Koury said, and some take their own lives, unnecessarily so.

``I am so happy that Andrew did not take his own life and chose to live it the way he was meant to be and the way God meant him to live it _ as an open and proud LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgend) individual,’’ Koury said.

WORDS CAN HURT

McIntosh, who is 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighs 215 pounds, wrote in his Outsports. com article that he remembered when Mahar stopped a practice because a teammate said a drill was ``so gay.’’ Mahar said the comment was unacceptable, and McIntosh said it was the first time he had ever seen a coach address people being gay.

Mahar’s position is clear, several players said Tuesday: If Mahar hears any obscene or derogatory remarks, the automatic and immediate penalty is 10 pushups. Nobody wants to do pushups, one student said, but the lesson really is a lesson in civility to be remembered for life.

The lacrosse season started Feb. 27, and the team has won its first two games, including a double- overtime 9-8 win over Clarkson on Saturday.

On Tuesday, late afternoon sunshine warmed the field near Hunt Union, where practices are scheduled from 4 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Breathless players left the field as others rotated into play, and players worked on balancing pride with preparation for this Saturday’s game against Union College.

``One, two, three, O-State,’’ they shouted after a huddle. Drills included running across the field in less than 6 seconds.

``Let’s go, boys,’’ someone yells. ``Go, go, go.’’ Mahar shouts during practice that effort makes the difference. The team is ranked 26th in the nation in Division III lacrosse, he said, and can improve its position with effort.

``We can be the best team that’s ever played here,’’ Mahar said. ``We’ve got to stay together as a team.’’

STEREOTYPES IN SOCIETY

Few gay professional athletes have revealed their sexuality until after their careers.

McIntosh said it’s sad that more professional athletes who are gay aren’t able or don’t feel comfortable coming out. However, he said, no matter the level, staying in or coming out of the closet is a personal decision to be respected. The mission is to find happiness, he said.

McIntosh said he was nervous during the practice before he broke his story to the gathered team. Team co-captains stood nearby as McIntosh said he spontaneously ``spoke from his heart.’’ From teammates, he heard ``you have guts’’ and ``nothing changes,’’ McIntosh said, which gave him feelings of relief and empowerment.

``I just respect the fact that he felt comfortable coming out to the whole team,’’ Ryan Gifford, 19, a sophomore, said Tuesday.

If any players felt negatively, they were keeping it to themselves, Gifford said, and McIntosh as captain has the players’ respect.

``He gets everyone pumped up for the games,’’ Gifford said. ``I don’t think anything has changed,’’ Matthew Coyne, also a captain, said there weren’t any derogatory comments after McIntosh told the team.

``We’re behind him _ as a team and as his friends,’’ Coyne said Tuesday. Last autumn, Coyne said, as the four captains were walking to the parking lot after a fall practice, McIntosh said he had ``something important’’ to tell them.

``Everyone was very supportive _ it was a `we’re here for you’ attitude,’’ Coyne said. ``If anything, it made us a little closer _ that we can share.’’

AN ATHLETE FOR MANY YEARS

McIntosh, who was on his high school football team, has played lacrosse for 12 years. He plays defense for the Red Dragons. He started college at C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University, then transferred to SUNY Plattsburgh, where he maintained his closeted personae. But he was depressed, lonely and ran his life in a strict routine, he said, and dating women didn’t work.

``I felt demasculinized because I was gay,’’ Mc- Intosh said. ``How could I be the physical lacrosse player I wanted to be?’’ He looked to transfer and started at SUNY Oneonta in August 2008. ``It was great’’ to be on a different campus, he said, to meet people and concentrate on academics and playing lacrosse, and he avoided the distraction of any intimate relationships.

At the end of last season, Mahar appointed him as one of four captains of the team. He wrote in his essay that he was excited to be named a captain, but he also was depressed.

``I had experienced no lonelier point in my life. I felt no one could understand my feelings.

Who the hell is gay and plays sports, especially lacrosse?’’ he wrote.

Stories he read in Outsports. com helped him acknowledge his feelings, McIntosh said, and he recognized he wasn’t alone when he saw the film ``Milk,’’ the story of Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay elected official.

McIntosh said his older brother, who is married to a woman, his gay sister and her partner and his parents have supported him as he has revealed his identity. He said he turns awkward situations with teammates into humorous exchanges.

``If anything, it’s provided for some good jokes,’’ he said. ``I’m just enjoying my senior year. What better way than to come out of the closet?’’

SUNY Oneonta is among the most supportive campuses within the state and nation regarding the gay and lesbian community, said Jenna Mega, president of Open Minded Unity on campus, but lacrosse stereotypically is ``very masculine and physically grueling’’ and it is difficult for men in such sports to come out.

``It is a huge leap toward universal acceptance if strong individuals like Andrew “come out,” she said in an e-mail. ``I’m very proud and honored that Andrew has had the tremendous courage to come out. ... It is very important for people to have hope whether they are “in the closet” or already “out.”

MCINTOSH CONSIDERS FUTURE

McIntosh, who is majoring in secondary education, plans to student teach this autumn and graduate in December. He is considering graduate school and employment in sports counseling. Athletics teaches many lessons that can be applied to personal, family, school and professional situations, he said, a perspective he has heard from Tracey Ranieri, SUNY Oneonta athletic director.

McIntosh showed leadership as soon as he arrived, Ranieri said, and he served on a student athlete advisory group. The fact McIntosh felt comfortable coming out reflects efforts by the campus to create a diverse and inclusive community. In particular, she credited Mahar for an ability to develop a team of good citizens and an environment that has recognized McIntosh’s leadership qualities.

``He’s a really great role model for student athletes,’’ Ranieri said. ``He’s a great, great, young man. We’re really proud to have him.’’

The passion, values, self-discipline, commitment, teamwork and ability to fall, then get up, are valuable lessons that can be applied in other life situations, she said.

``Sports is a metaphor for life. I chant it to the student athletes all the time,’’ Ranieri said. ``Our students live and die with their teams _ it’s a culture of loyalty, trust, commitment and service.’’