Behind a logjam of world-class goaltender talent, Wisconsin senior Ilana Friedman never got to see any game action as a member of the women’s hockey team. But despite never recording a save, Friedman has left her mark on UW athletics.
After transferring to Wisconsin in her sophomore season after a year and a half at Vermont, Friedman came out as gay to her teammates a relatively short time after joining the team. Now almost three years later, Friedman is helping set the precedent that any athlete at UW can follow the same path she has in coming out as an LGBTQ athlete.
“[My sexuality] wasn’t something that I hid. It wasn’t something that I was sketchy about,” Friedman said. “It wasn’t ever a hot topic of conversation because it’s not something that really matters.
“I’d rather be not important than have this resounding issue.”
With 15 months of diligent work from Friedman alongside the Athletic Department, the “You Can Play” initiative debuted this week to send the message of acceptance to athletes of all sexualities and backgrounds.
In a video about the project, which has spread to hundreds of other college athletic programs, professional sports teams and high schools, among other sports organizations, athletes underlined the idea that regardless of sexuality, “If you can play, you can play.”
Friedman initially came out back in high school to her teammates on the Madison Capitals AAA traveling team. But as she explained, being an out member of the LGBTQ community is an everyday process, not something that happens just one time and is completed. That process was slightly compounded by the fact that she’s been at two different universities. At Vermont, she came down with mononucleosis during her freshman season and came down with it again the next year. With that and a lack of playing time, she decided to switch schools to Wisconsin.
But after having mono twice in such a short time span, Friedman wasn’t even sure that she’d be able to play hockey again, which could have altered the recent events of which she’s played an integral part. Eventually, Friedman recovered and became part of the Wisconsin women’s hockey team, which allowed her the platform to spread her message of acceptance.
Although the process of coming out continued for her at a new university and as part of a new team, not once in the time span or since has she received any negativity regarding her sexuality, something that is far from typical in the sports world and throughout the United States.
“So often it happens that that isn’t the case,” Friedman said of her positive experience from everyone around her. “Obviously LBGT bullying is a huge issue which is one thing that I think can always be worked upon. I’ve been really fortunate in that I seriously have not experienced one negative thing.”
Friedman helped get the ball rolling, but she hasn’t been alone in her quest to raise awareness throughout the Athletic Department with the “You Can Play” project.
Not only did she receive the support of those closer to her within the Athletic Department, but since she originally brought the idea to Brittany Woodruff, UW’s director of student-athlete development, last February, the movement grew to encompassing the entire Athletic Department. The vast support from all corners of the department has made the movement the wide success it has been in only the first few days since it was publicly announced Monday.
“I guess [I] am in somewhat of a position of the face of this but it’s really helpful when we have so many people that are very, very supportive of it and that are willing to be supportive of it and are starting to recognize how important this issue is,” Friedman said.
One of the people that have been especially supportive of the project and Friedman since it first started is Chase Tarrier of the UW men’s rowing team, who didn’t even know Friedman before the initiative began. Although Tarrier is straight, as the son of two mothers, he was raised in a household not considered to be the norm by many Americans. That experience along with his status as an athlete motivated him to spread awareness too, which led him to the LGBT Campus Center. At the center he asked what he could do, which is when he was put in touch with Friedman.
But Tarrier has experienced very little in the line of negative reactions — like Friedman — whether it was back at home or since the senior rower has been in college and has discussed his parents’ status with those around him.
But although neither he nor Friedman has experienced negative reactions themselves, with Friedman saying sexuality is not nearly as much of a stigma in female athletics, Tarrier realizes there is still progress to be made with acceptance in athletics.
“Unfortunately I will say that I think male athletics is one of the fields in our culture that really needs the most work as being accepting of gay rights. I’m sure that the entire team would be completely comfortable and supportive if one of our teammates were to come out as gay. But I think there’s such a culture of macho team man activity and anti-gay sentiments that are inherent sometimes in male athletics,” Tarrier said.
As Friedman discussed, the prevalence of the anti-gay sentiments in athletics results from the idea that being gay is incompatible with being masculine, which is a presumed requirement for participating in athletics. This social construct has been challenged recently with the coming out of NBA player Jason Collins and linebacker Michael Sam of Missouri.
However, as Tarrier pointed out, the difficulties faced by LGBTQ athletes can affect those around them when they need support systems.
“One of the main reasons that most straight men don’t want to call themselves an ally is because they’re afraid of being mistaken for a gay person,” he said.
Tarrier added, though, with the UW Athletic Department’s inclusion in the “You Can Play” movement, that uneasiness can be wiped away.
“It really just gives people a strong affirmation that yes, supporting gay rights and being an ally is not only a good thing to do and nothing you should be ashamed of but important to do,” he said.
There is still a long way to go in the fight for equality both in the world of sports and in the world as a whole, but Friedman’s idea and the support from the Athletic Department is a big step for Wisconsin sports and the athletes who make those sports.
She may have never stoned a defender cold, but her hard work off the ice in stopping discrimination will leave more of a legacy than any save ever could have.
“It’s very important to go somewhere and see that it doesn’t matter if you like girls. It doesn’t matter if you like guys. It doesn’t who you like. All that matters is athletic ability.”