After Bryan Fautley quit the men’s volleyball team in April 2010, head coach Brenda Willis told his teammates why.
Fautley had already revealed to family and friends that he was gay. But he hadn’t come out to the team.
“I thought I knew that my sexuality was going to be an issue,” Fautley said. “It was not an inclusive environment for a gay guy to really feel comfortable, especially to come out.”
Fautley was miserable on the court. He wanted out, and he wasn’t planning to return.
Joren Zeeman was the first to find out that casual homophobic slurs had driven Fautley to quit the team. The two players met up to chat — the first in a series of interactions that would catalyze a change in the team’s culture.
Earlier this month, Fautley concluded a five-year Gaels career with a fourth-place national finish at the ARC.
Fautley knew he was gay at 16 years old, but feelings of confusion and self-doubt were amplified because he was an elite athlete. He knew all about the homophobic culture present in male team sports.
“I’m an athlete and I’m gay? This can’t exist,’” he said. “It was the result of the general public’s belief that gay men don’t play sports.”
After being recruited to the Queen’s men’s volleyball program in 2007, Fautley came to Kingston determined to stay in the closet for his entire university career.
“I knew that sports were going to be a big part of my life here,” he said. “I knew that homosexuality and sport don’t mix.”
He spent his first two seasons on the outskirts of the volleyball team’s culture, rarely taking part in team functions and not becoming particularly close with his teammates. During that time, he hadn’t even considered revealing his sexuality to the volleyball team.
“As a first-year player, there’s already so much intimidation to begin with,” he said. “I would have been so self-conscious about it that I would have been miserable.”
But by his third season, the casual homophobic language that his teammates used made volleyball nearly unbearable.
“I still remember team huddles where [players] would say ‘Let’s beat these faggots up’ or ‘We can beat these guys because they’re a bunch of faggots,’” Fautley said. “It’s hard to get amped up for a game when, right before you walk on the court, you hear something like that.”
Fautley was close to a breaking point after a 12-day winter tour through Europe, where he ate, slept, trained and travelled with the team. Before the trip, he was distant from his teammates — now he resented them.
“When someone says a homophobic slur and you’re in the closet, you have no grounds to say anything, so you take it,” he said. “Not only do you take it, but you remember it in your head, and it compounds.
“It’s hard to create some sort of friendship or relationship with people that use language that inadvertently completely discriminates against you,” he said. “But they just didn’t know.”
Fautley had started to come out in December 2008, gradually telling certain friends and family members. When he returned from the Europe tour in January 2010, he decided to tell his parents he was gay. The more people he told, the happier he felt — but he still wasn’t prepared to tell his teammates. “I was finally so content and relieved with every other aspect of my life that volleyball just became that nuisance, that burden, that chore that I had to go and do,” he said. “Basically all my anger was directed towards volleyball.”
Fautley was going through the motions in practice and playing poorly in games. He was fed up.
Head coach Brenda Willis suspected something was wrong.
Willis had been impressed with Fautley’s progress halfway into the 2009-10 season — he had become the team’s starting left side hitter, improving every week while posting career-high numbers. But she knew her player wasn’t happy.
“A number of times he told me ‘I can’t deal with these guys,’” Willis said. “I asked him to help me understand.”
When the two finally sat down for a meeting, Fautley had no intention of revealing he was gay. But 90 minutes later, the secret was out.
“Eventually, I finally just kind of broke it down and told her,” Fautley said. “There was no judgment, just simply ‘How do we fix it?’”
Willis encouraged Fautley to come out to his teammates — she knew her team’s thoughtless language was bothering Fautley and she was certain that openness would smooth over the problems.
“She was always adamant that I should come out because it would not be an issue,” Fautley said. “But in my head, that wasn’t the case.
“I stayed in the closet for the rest of my third year on the team, with just Brenda knowing,” he said. “She tried to basically police the culture as much as she could as a coach … but locker room talk is beyond the coach’s control, so it wasn’t a big change at all.”
Now that Willis knew Fautley’s problems, she started making sense of his behavior.
“He had his ways of coping. He separated himself, he didn’t engage in conversation, he would put on his headset on the bus and be in his own space,” Willis said. “He was a little bit socially isolated, but it appeared to be his choice … at least that’s how it was perceived by the other guys.”
That season, Fautley helped the Gaels to an OUA gold medal and a national championship appearance, earning a spot on the national tournament all-star team for his play. But he still quit the team at the end of the season.
Willis suggested that if he was going to leave the team, he should at least tell his teammates why.
“I said ‘Maybe if you come out, maybe if you give the guys a chance to know the real Bryan Fautley, you might find it’s not so bad,’” Willis said.
Fautley deliberated for a few days. But, eventually, he and Willis agreed that the coach would tell certain players on his behalf.
Willis first told Joren Zeeman, who had been Fautley’s teammate on a junior team prior to coming to Queen’s.
“The first thing he said to me was ‘I’m just so happy that you’re at a point in your life where you feel comfortable enough to express this and I’m so sorry if I said or did anything that would make you feel that I don’t support or respect that,’” Fautley said. “We had a great conversation about it, and that type of incident happened with almost every single guy on the team, once they were told.”
Fautley still wasn’t planning on returning to the Gaels, but a combination of events helped sway him. First, he attended the Canadian national tryouts with teammates Zeeman, Michael Amoroso and Jackson Dakin.
“It was like, oh, we’re all of a sudden friends,” he said. “This cloth has been lifted, the curtain’s been drawn, now I actually have this ability to form a friendship with these people because there isn’t that elephant in the room that they didn’t know about.”
Other than the national team tryout, Fautley didn’t play volleyball all summer. He missed it. Before returning to Queen’s for his fourth year, Fautley decided to rejoin to team.
In September 2010, Fautley returned to a completely different culture. The team had not only accepted his sexuality, but took a genuine interest in him being gay.
“A 180-degree change doesn’t even describe it … not only were homophobic slurs not being used, but guys were engaging in conversation with me about it,” he said. “It was a matter of ‘oh, Fautley’s gay and we’re interested in knowing how his life is different than ours.’” According to Fautley, nothing was awkward, and no subject was off-limits.
“Just like any two guys would have a conversation about their relationships, they would have it with me,” he said. “It was a complete inclusion rather than just an acknowledgement.”
Willis said that even though the team cleaned up their language, the real change came from Fautley himself.
“Once Bryan came out and people started being accepting and welcoming, he kind of took the headset off, he engaged in conversation,” Willis said. “He joked with them and became himself.
“His reality [during his first three years] was that he felt unwelcome, he felt attacked … his perception was ‘I don’t belong here,’” she said. “But his perception became ‘I do belong here, I’m a valuable member of this team.’”
The Gaels had another gay athlete in Fautley’s fourth season — rookie outside hitter Anthony Galonski. Fautley said he was thrilled to see how different Galonski’s first-year experience was from his own.
“It really was cool to see somebody not have to go through what I went through and experience sport regardless of bias and regardless of sexuality because he was talented at playing volleyball.”
There isn’t an openly gay athlete competing in a major professional team sport in North America. At Queen’s, Fautley says he doesn’t know another openly gay team athlete currently competing. He calls the sports world one “of the last frontiers in terms of the acceptance of sexual diversity.
“It’s the culture of team sport, period,” he said. “There’s no way of insulting a man’s masculinity more than that, and in sport, where it’s obviously so important to be masculine, they’re going to come hand-in-hand, these derogatory terms.”
Fautley said his teammates weren’t ever homophobic — they were simply products of an environment they had been part of for their entire athletic careers.
“Before they knew me, I would be very hard-pressed to know if they even knew another gay guy, let alone a gay athlete,” he said. “So when you don’t have something tangible to connect two different things, when you don’t have a gay friend, you are so easily able to use derogatory language because it doesn’t affect you.
“There is absolutely no blame from me to the rest of the guys for using homophobic language and making me feel uncomfortable,” Fautley said. “I can only applaud them and respect them for not only acknowledging my homosexuality as a teammate, but to support it.”
Even though Fautley was sidelined with a back injury for much of his final two seasons, he said they were still the most memorable ones with the team.
“It’s a better culture,” he said. “I would hope that I catalyzed a change in culture that will stay forever.”