LGBTQ athletes at BYU are telling their stories on a podcast

Emma Gee, who is bisexual, started the podcast when BYU was accepted into the Big 12.

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

While competing as a closeted gay man, former Brigham Young University swimmer Zach Anderson said he found it “exhausting” to try passing as straight and deal with gossip about his sexuality.

Last year, Anderson discovered in a very modern way that he was not alone: while listening to a podcast he happened upon while scrolling through Instagram.

The Queer Athlete Podcast billed itself as a place for BYU athletes to talk about their experiences being queer at the university owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Anderson pressed play and said he was immediately struck by how the guest’s experiences mirrored his own despite their graduation dates being nearly 10 years apart.

“When somehow you come across someone who shares that with you, it’s like you automatically feel like you just know them without actually knowing them,” said Anderson, who graduated from BYU in 2008 and served a two-year LDS Church mission between his years as a swimmer.

The podcast, hosted by former BYU runner Emma Gee, has become a safe place for past and present Cougar athletes, a vehicle for sharing heartache and hope.

“I think the goal for me, and maybe what I believe the most in, is if people just get the opportunity to listen to some of these athletes’ stories, that it will change their heart and mind,” Gee said.

The impetus for Gee starting the podcast was how incredulous she felt when BYU officially accepted an invitation to join the Big 12.

Gee ran track and cross country for the Cougars from 2015-2019. For most of that time, she hid something about her identity — she was bisexual. She came out while she was still in school and felt supported by teammates and coaches when she did.

But there was national concern about the school’s policies regarding LGBTQ students in 2016. At the time, 25 LGBTQ organizations sent a letter to then-Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby asking the league not to let BYU in.

The Big 12 didn’t expand in 2016, but five years later announced it would. A Big 12 chancellor said at the time that BYU had “demonstrated really significant progress” in its LGBTQ policies.

It was the chancellor’s words that raised both of Gee’s eyebrows. As an out athlete and former chair of the diversity and inclusion committee for BYU’s Student Athlete Activities Committee, she knew firsthand how the school’s policies and Honor Code affected other athletes like her. Even after graduating in 2020, she said she heard from friends still at the school that not much had changed.

So Gee decided to take matters into her own hands and press record.

“It just kind of reminded me that one of the biggest barriers to holding BYU accountable in terms of athletics specifically is that there haven’t been out queer student-athletes and their experiences aren’t being publicly shared,” Gee said. “So back in September 2021, I was like, yeah, we’re missing huge parts of this conversation, so I’m gonna go make that myself.”

For the entire first season, Gee spoke exclusively to current and former BYU athletes who identify as queer. Current athletes who appeared on the podcast so far are gymnast Mina Margraf, track and field athlete Ty Wright, and volleyball player Jon Stanley.

The second season features athletes from other parts of the country, but still includes BYU alumni. They all talk about how and when they came out, and what their experiences of being queer athletes at BYU were like.

(Emma Gee) In this screenshot, former BYU runner Emma Gee, center, has a conversation with Mica Schoenrock, left, and BYU gymnast Mina Margraf about being queer female athletes.

Gee admitted that part of why she started the podcast was for “political reasons.” But it’s become a space for people to not only speak out about difficult experiences at BYU, but also help other queer student-athletes who may be considering attending the religious school or just need to know there are others like them out there.

Listening inspired Anderson to reach out to Gee. He wanted to recount his BYU experience in hopes that no one would ever have to experience what he did while at the school.

“In a regard, I take it as a responsibility to be able to share my story because I don’t want anyone to experience the same grief and self-loathing and hatred and this need to feel like there’s something so deeply wrong with you when that’s not the case,” Anderson said.

Danny Carney, who was teammates with Gee on the BYU track and cross-country teams, said appearing on the podcast was “cathartic.” He did not come out as gay while at BYU, but did so in 2020.

“I was really grateful that she gave me an opportunity to share my story in the hopes that it would provoke positive change,” Carney said, “whether that’s in nonmembers of the LGBTQ community feeling a little bit more understanding or being better allies, or in queer athletes at BYU or other schools recognizing that they’re not alone.”

Carney said being a runner actually made it a bit easier to be closeted while at BYU. He built friendships with his teammates and had a sense of community.

And because Carney was so intensely focused on his performance and being a good teammate, there wasn’t much time to deeply contemplate his sexuality. That may have delayed his coming out, though, he said.

But not every queer BYU student-athlete had a positive experience. Anderson said his experiences affected his athletic performance, manifesting in a diagnosis of exercise addiction and overtraining syndrome during his senior year.

“I completely overworked myself in order to have the season that I really wanted before I left BYU thinking that, well, surely enough, if I do this, then I’ll gain more favor from God and from other people, too, despite this thing that I felt like was so internally wrong with me at that time,” Anderson said.

(Emma Gee) Former BYU athlete Emma Gee, who identifies as bisexual, started a podcast last year that features other former and even current Cougars who are LGBTQ.

Anderson added that while at BYU, he was sent to a conversion therapist and experienced suicidal thoughts. He came out about a year ago at the age of 37, which impacted his marriage to his wife with whom he has a child. He’s now an attorney, nutrition coach and cycle instructor.

Even though he said his experience as a queer athlete at BYU was traumatizing, he wanted to make a contribution to a conversation he deems important, especially since, in his opinion, there hasn’t been much progress at his alma mater nearly a decade and a half since his graduation in 2008.

“Here we are, 14 years later, and the same dialogue is still happening,” Anderson said. “There’s still very harmful dialogue still happening.”

Jaxon Smith, a transgender man, competed on BYU’s women’s lacrosse team and graduated in 2021. He also knew Gee while they were in school, and said it was cathartic to speak with her on the podcast because they were able to talk about their experience at BYU “in past tense.”

Smith came out as transgender before his senior year and was already in the process of transitioning. He said he posted a photo with a girl he was dating at the time and was asked to have a meeting with his coach about it. When his coach indicated she needed to speak with administration officials about the situation, he said he made the difficult decision to step down from the team.

Smith thinks the impact of Gee’s podcast can do wonders for representation and helping youth understand identifying as queer and an athlete doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive. He said he also feels the podcast illuminates issues surrounding queerphobia and transphobia.

“I think it does a really good job to bring light to those issues and elevate voices who maybe didn’t get a chance to be elevated when they should have been,” Smith said.

Gee became something of a trendsetter when she was the only out queer athlete during her time at BYU. She may be doing the same with her podcast.

“It may not change the policy, but I think if you change enough people’s hearts and minds, eventually it can help change the culture and make things better,” Gee said.

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