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Episode #21

Find Your Truth

with Emma Gee

28 Sep, 2020 · Track and Field

Emma Gee, Division 1 runner discusses her journey as the first-ever openly LGBTQ+ athlete at BYU, and she reminds us while we may be faced with resistance and judgment in finding our truth, nothing beats the feeling of being true to ourselves. 

Transcript

(background music starts)

Stef

Welcome to the Voice in Sport Podcast. I'm your host, Stef Strack, the founder of Voice in Sport as an athlete professional and mom, I have spent the last 20 years advocating for women and innovating across the sports industry. Now I want to bring more visibility to female athletes and elevate their voice. At Voice in Sport, we share untold stories from female athletes to inspire us all to keep playing, and change more than just the game.

Today, our guest is Emma Gee. Emma was a Division 1 runner at BYU from 2015 to 2019. And this fall, she is heading to Temple University to complete her eligibility and earn her master's degree, all in pursuit of an all American title in the 3000 meter steeplechase.

Today, Emma shares with us her journey in sport as the first ever openly LGBTQ+ athlete at BYU. Emma addresses her discontent with BYU policies as they failed to protect and support the LGBTQ+ community. Emma's work with her school's Diversity and Inclusion Committee was an important part of her journey in finding her voice. Today, we discussed an important challenge that we all face in life, which is a conditioned way of thinking about sexuality and relationships. Emma shares with us the process of finding her identity, challenging conditioned thought patterns, and how she found her truth and her voice through sport. Emma, welcome to the Voice In Sport podcast. We are incredibly excited to have you here with us today.

Emma

Thanks for having me.

(background music stops)

Stef

It's an honor to have somebody on this show that really has found their voice. And so today, we're going to talk about how you found your voice, how you found the courage to speak up, and then what that has led to thereafter.

So let's start with your journey at the very beginning in sport and finding your identity. Tell us about that part of your life.

Emma

So my first experience with sports was soccer. I played competitive soccer growing up, and I loved it. I loved running the most. I loved being an outside midfielder, so I’d just run up and down the side of the field. And I was pretty good at that. I struggled with when I got to the top of the box, passing it in. So it was impressive until I got to the end and I couldn't kick it in or whatever. So it became clear that maybe running was the part of that, that I was best. I grew up in Colorado, and a lot of the tournaments were played on Sundays and because I was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- Day Saints, church is on Sunday. And so I had to sit out of a lot of the tournaments. I missed out on being on some big teams because I had to respect that religious identity. Which is also why I ended up going into running because there's basically no races on Sunday. So that's how religion plays into that.  

(laughs)

And that was my start in sports. And then it was my senior year in high school when I started to realize my sexuality, I had never really dated boys. I just like hanging out with people on the cross country team and track team. And then my senior year, there was an exchange student from Spain that joined, and she was just magical in every way. And we became friends really quickly. And then after a few months, I was just totally in love with her and didn't understand how I was feeling. And she ended up dating a guy on the cross country team and my heart broke. And that was kinda my first experience with, Oh, you really like this girl and she's a girl, so maybe you like girls.

(laughs)

So that was my senior year, and I was getting recruited by a few schools like ASU and BYU and a couple of others. And so I didn't really have a grasp on my sexuality, so a lot of people are like, why did you go to BYU, if you like women? I didn't really know yet. I was still processing my sexuality and that wasn't something that I felt comfortable and safe doing openly- not with my family, not within the church. So it wasn't like I could be like, oh, I don't really feel like going to BYU because I might be gay that just wasn't a conversation that felt safe. Going to BYU made the most financial sense in terms of a scholarship, and they had a great running program. I was going to be coached by Patrick Shane who had won national titles back in the nineties. So that's why I ended up at BYU. 

(laughs)

Stef

It's great to hear when you found your identity, and then at what point in your life you were really trying to figure that out. And I think that is important to talk about because everybody finds that at a different point in their life. Do you want to talk about what it was like for you and when were you like, yes, this is who I am- I am confident of who I am and I am accepting of who I am?

Emma

Yes. That's a great question and you're completely right— It's totally a process. There was never really one moment where I was like, okay, this is it. I'm gay. It was years of kind of challenging how I was conditioned to think and understand my sexuality. I was raised my whole life to get married to a man. That's all I ever saw that was kind of the context for my future. So when I got to BYU, and I kind of had some  of my experiences, like the girl from high school that I had liked, I tried going on a few dates with boys. I wanted to be like, oh okay, maybe that was just a weird thing. Went on a few dates. I still really wasn't feeling it

(laughs)

I didn't care. And then I started working on [The] Diversity and Inclusion [Committee] because I was trying to address this feeling within myself, whereas I feel so disconnected from everything I see around me. Dating is a huge part of the culture at BYU. A lot of people get married. And so I was like, okay, I want to just address this part of the environment for those that  aren't fitting in with that. And I think it was mostly for myself, honestly, at first. Doing the diversity inclusion work, that's where I got educated about the LGBTQ+ community, and as soon as I started doing the research and being exposed to it, I think that's when it more clicked inside my head where I found myself identifying with  a lot of that information and I'm like, "Okay, that's me." And then when I was educated for long enough, I was like, Oh, I can start explaining this to other people, once I could explain it to myself. That was the process of understanding everything.

Stef

Thank you for sharing that. It also shows and puts light on the fact that where you grow up and the environment you're in and the people you're around, even your parents influence, it is going to shape how you view yourself. And that is an important thing for any girl out there that might be struggling with her identity: just take a step back and think about where you're at. Who are you around? Are you getting a feeling from them that is making you feel bad about yourself? And I think that's so important to recognize because the world is big. There are endless identities for all of us. There is no right or wrong, and that is an important thing to recognize. A society might put pressure on us to think that one way is right and another way is wrong. Educating yourself is so important. 

So we did a post on our Instagram, I'd encourage everybody to check it out, on all of the different identities out there today. And the list is long. And even for myself, I had a lot of learning to do when we created that. So I'd encourage you to check that out. That's why there is LGBTQIA+ because there are a lot of different ways for all of us to identify. 

So tell us about your journey to deciding when to speak up, and share your truth. Let's talk about who you told first and how you approached your family.

Emma

So the first person I came out to was one of my athletic administrators at BYU. Her name is Liz Darger. She was the administrator that I worked with on the diversity and inclusion projects at BYU.  We had this whole movement called “BYoU” where we were just kind of encouraging people to celebrate who they were and acknowledge the different lived experiences that come with some of those identities. And at the time, no one had ever come out yet at the school. So, we were focusing a lot more on racial identities and how that has different experiences. 

And so we came to the end of the year, and I was starting to push for more events that were addressing the LGBTQIA+ side of things, and obviously there was some pushback because of BYU's policies and  the school's just very particular on how that subject is  talked about. And I was getting really angry and I was really frustrated. And so it was kind of an intense conversation that we were having and she asked me, “Hey, like, why do you care so much? What's going on?”  And I was like, “It's because I'm LGBTQ+. This is my life, and this really impacts me the way the school is handling this.” And it was kind of a scary moment, but she was so accepting. She said, “I love you so much, Emma. I think that's awesome. If there's anything I can do to help.” She pulled up a picture of one of her good friends who was lesbian. It was her and her wife and her son. And it was a really important moment where she gave me context for my future. That's not something that I saw a lot at BYU, so she was there for me at a really vulnerable moment. And I'm so grateful to her for that.

Stef

That's amazing. And then how did it go with your family?

Emma

So, as I'm sure is the case for a lot of people, my relationship with my family was up and down being a young adult and navigating the transition from being a kid to an adult. There's just a lot going on with that, and so coming out about my sexuality was kind of the cherry on top of a work in progress. It was an uncomfortable conversation.  

(laughs)

And I will say that maybe I didn't handle it as gracefully as I could have. 

Stef

I think you're also being hard on yourself. We are all work in progress’. 

Emma

I don't know. I think about it sometimes, like you could have said something different. I was very dramatic. And then my mom started crying and my dad was really serious and had questions about the lifestyle that I would lead. So it was uncomfortable. But I know that all the reactions were coming from a place of love and concern for my well being, but it was very uncomfortable.

Stef

If there's a girl out there that might be trying to figure out how she should have this conversation with her family, looking back on it, what would you have done differently?  What would you pass on to the other female athletes out there?

Emma

I wish that I had just written something out beforehand. I think letters are amazing. A lot of "I" statements are important just saying exactly how I feel, “I feel this is my experience”.   Those are very powerful. So I wish I had done that. Really just speak to exactly how you're feeling. Stick to the “I” statements, because you can't argue with "I" statements in my opinion. 

Stef

Great advice, and writing things down is so important. So journaling, whether that's for sport and your performance or your mental state at anything, so I think that's great advice.  

After that, you did go back to BYU, and had a conversation with your teammates. So tell us how you approach that, and how did that go?

Emma

Yes. I went back to school, and we were at our fall cross country camp. We go up to Park City every year to get some altitude training and, so we got to meet all the new freshmen, got to reunite with all the other girls, and after a summer being at home with my family and kind of navigating the awkwardness after coming out, I just felt a sense of peace being around people that had been there for my whole journey of understanding my sexuality. And many of the girls I had had conversations with before, just processing things. They've been really wonderful about that, but I had never openly come out yet. 

So, we were on our tempo run of camp, which was the six mile run that's basically hell. You just progressively got faster, then the last two miles are all out. Three miles into that tempo run, we were just in this rhythm, you know, when you're the team and we're just running and it was magical in Park City. The view is gorgeous, and I felt more at home than I had in a long time. And that's just what I said. I said,”Hey, running with you guys is where I feel most at home, I just want to let you guys know that I'm LGBTQ.” And it was just perfect. They were just like, “We love you Emma,” and then finished the run. And that was it. And just some hugs afterwards, but it was perfect. And then at the end of the run, Coach Taylor, she was just standing there and I'm like, “Oh, by the way, I just came out on the run.” She's like, “Oh, that's awesome. I love you. I'm just glad you finished. Like, what was your pace?”

Stef

You and I talked a little bit about the importance of finding acceptance inside first. Can you speak about that and your point of view on finding acceptance first, before you're able to really share your story?

Emma

Yeah, absolutely. One thing I do, I talk to myself a lot out loud, so when I would go running and I would feel really confused about what I was feeling versus how I was conditioned to think about sexuality and relationships. I would just talk out loud to myself. I'd be like, “so do you actually like boys?” And then I would talk about what I liked about girls. And then I would  talk about the kind of future that I wanted for myself, and what would make me happy.  

My process was just about constantly checking in with myself and when I felt something, I would say it out loud, I would write it down in my journal, and then I would take a few days and process it, and come back and see if I felt the same way. And over time, it was just so consistent that that truth became so much more real than everything I was conditioned to think.  So that was just my way of unlearning some of what I thought I was supposed to feel versus how I was actually feeling.

Stef

Very powerful. Thank you for sharing that. I think that will help a lot of girls, and it's a great thing to do for anyone. I think a lot of times we're in our own heads, processing things and it can be hard. When you say things out loud, it's sometimes easier. I love that you were doing that in your own way.

So how has speaking your truth helped you with your performance?  Did you notice a change after you opened up to your teammates and your family?

Emma

Yes, I did. I did. 

(laughs) 

Before coming out, I was definitely performing in all areas of my life. And when I say performing, I think I was acting more straight, or whatever that means. I was holding back parts of myself and working really hard to look and talk and act a certain way that I felt was more appropriate than how I actually was.

And that takes a lot of time and energy to do that. And that's time and energy away from training, and being able to focus on what really matters in terms of athletics. So, when I came out, I had all this extra time and energy to put towards performing as an athlete instead.  Logistically it just gave me more energy, and then number two, when I stepped on the line, I was finally myself, and there was no second guessing in terms of racing anymore. 

I think running keeps you pretty honest. Everything that you're holding back in your personal life comes out during a race because you're just so tired and exhausted. So, once I'd come out, there was nothing coming to the front of my head as much anymore. It was just running. That's that weightlifting that we're talking about  when you can genuinely just step on the line, and you're just there to run. And that's the only thing on your mind. I think that was the biggest difference for me.

Stef

You talked a little bit about some of the people in your life that you've had as a support system, and you've had great experience of coming out, and having a supportive coach and supportive teammates. And I'm curious to know what other resources you did use along the way to help you get through some of the harder times when you were leading up to finding your voice and speaking your truth.

Emma

Yes. Therapy. So, addressing mental health is so important. I've seen a therapist on and off through the past four years. I've done EMDR therapy, which is when a therapist has you process a traumatic experience, and they have you follow their hands back and forth while you're processing the thing. And it engages both sides of your brain, and it takes you outside of the part of the brain that Is really stressed out and traumatized by certain things to help you think more clearly about those experiences so that when you're in those situations, again, it feels less stressful. So, that really helped me, cause I would have panic attacks when I was running. I would get so overwhelmed by everything going on. So, meeting with the therapist and taking away some of that intensity helped me to process things like my sexuality. 

Stef

Yeah, that's a great tool.  

Emma

Yes, and I journaled every day. I did “train of thought” writing. So, whatever I was feeling, I would just go from there. Whatever I was feeling I wrote down, and that was really beneficial in processing it.

Stef

Amazing. Those are three really great resources that all girls can access. So, thank you for sharing that. Let's talk about, specifically the NCAA- the organization, the systematic problems within college athletics and in some of these schools. I love that you're part of the Diversity and Inclusion Program at your school.

So what have you learned being part of that, especially at a school that is very conservative?

Emma

I learned that it's really easy to lip service diversity and inclusion, and it's a lot harder to have policies that back the things that people are lip servicing. My first year I found that the school was very open to doing social media campaigns that made it seem like we were working on inclusion, but they were very hesitant to actually put on events that would really educate and help people feel more included, especially around the LGBTQ+ situation.

(laughs) 

That's probably the biggest thing that I learned. As a PR student, that was a little bit frustrating that I saw people using communication as a way to kind of push things to the side instead of creating policies that would protect people.

Stef

So tell us about BYU's honor code. That is something that I was a little shocked to read in preparation to speak with you. Tell the audience a little bit about what it actually is, and how all of these schools have different honor policies, and if it has changed since you have come out.

Emma

So the BYU honor code is a code of conduct that every student signs each year that they're in school, and you meet with an Ecclesiastical leader to make sure that you're abiding by the honor code. So you meet with someone once a year. For members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- Day Saints, that means you meet with the Bishop. 

I don't know how other schools enforce it, but BYU's honor code is heavily enforced. And they also lean on students and staff reporting other students for infraction. So, that's one piece of it that maybe is unique. And then specifically they had written that, it was okay to acknowledge that you had same gender attraction, but you were not allowed to act out on it in any physical capacity. And there was a very specific phrase that they had on there about that. 

Now in February, 2020, they took out that language. They took out language that specified the same gender attraction, and they changed it to saying that all students need to abide by a virtuous life, which means no sex before marriage. Which people first interpreted to mean that now LGBTQ+ students could date like heterosexual students could, but just no sex before marriage. And that's a policy that I'm completely behind- just have the standard be the same for everyone. So that felt like a huge win when the honor code changed that. Two weeks later at the beginning of March 2020, the church education system came out clarifying the changes that had been made to the honor code, and said that the standard for LGBTQ+ students was still the same, meaning that they could not date and they couldn't hold hands and they couldn't kiss. They had just changed the language. So for me, that kind of embodies the whole vibe of BYU, as that they are so happy to lip-service inclusion, but they don't have policies that backup equality and actual inclusion.

Stef

And it's so important to know what those policies are before you decide on what school you're going to be going to. I think that that's something that I never thought of before choosing what Division 1 school I was going to go to. 

 (laughs)

It's something to think about now because unfortunately, all of these schools can have their own rules when it comes to identity, which sort of blows my mind in today's world, that that's still something that they can do. What do you think the NCAA should do to step up to protect athletes today?

Emma

If a school wants to be included in the NCAA, they should have to abide by the policies of the NCAA, which should include protecting LGBTQIA+ students’ rights. So if the school is unwilling to do that, then we shouldn't be in the NCAA. If it's that important to them, don't be in the NCAA.

Stef

And this is something we're going to fight for at Voice In Sport, because this is the very reason why we exist. Let's make sure there is equality for all genders, all identities. And there are things that people can do to step up to the plate. So thank you for recognizing that.

What advice would you give to somebody that is in the closet today at BYU, that is a female athlete?

Emma

You got this. You're so strong. I'm so sorry. It's so hard. People say offensive things. It's so hard to know what to say, because it's just such an unsafe situation. And I know that those individuals and those girls are so strong and so powerful.

Stef

I should ask- You coming out, has it affected you in a way that these girls should know?

Emma

Yeah, it's empowering. And it's still lonely at times, because you are putting yourself out there to be the person that people come to when they have questions about LGBTQIA+ things, and they don't always approach you in a respectful way. So, you're dealing with a lot of people that are uncultured, and that just is a tricky dynamic because at least for me, I didn't want to burn any bridges for the LGBTQIA+ community. So I tried to never respond with anger, because I didn't want to turn people away from it, but that also kind of came at the cost of my own mental health sometimes, because it was really offensive and it did hurt.

When I'm asked to give advice to people, it's hard because all I can say is you're right, it's hard.  Please keep going. I've heard it gets better. I hope that's true. 

(chuckles)

I'm still on the tail end of it. Please keep going, and the more people that come out, the more normal it's going to be, and that's what we need. Just more and more representation. 

Stef

I would think that if more athletes come forward at BYU, there's power in numbers. It would be helpful that you're not the only one that has spoken up. Do you agree?

Emma

Yes. A hundred percent. Yes. That's the thing is there's so many. If everyone could come out, I think it would absolutely just open everyone's eyes about how real and how important this is. And we're here. We're queer.

So I completely agree. I wish that everyone could come out, just to see how many of us there are and how normal it is and how we're already a part of the culture. 

Stef

Is there anything that you would say to the people listening today that they can do to help?

Emma

Yeah. Just like any type of diversity, just being willing to educate yourself and listen and be open minded. I know that that's something I've had to do over the past month. As again, just challenge the way I was conditioned to think a lot about race, and look outside of my own experience and be respectful.

Listen, educate, and have an open mind and heart.

Stef

I really do hope that all of the female athletes that are listening to this know that not every school is the same. There are a lot of schools that are very accepting of all different types of orientation and identities. So be aware of that when you're making your decision to go to college and make sure you do your research. Talk to the girls on the team, look at the coaches, look at the policies that are in place at those schools.

Emma

I agree. Great advice.

Stef

Do you feel like in general, there are issues for the LGBTQ community to be able to feel accepted within sports, or do you feel like this is really isolated to a few of these schools?

Emma

No, I think everywhere they all have stereotypes. Like everyone that is LGBTQIA has to address the stereotypes and stigmas that people have. I know that BYU isn't alone in holding some of those ideas and it's unfortunate. Homophobia is in many places, and we can all do a better job of challenging that.

(background music starts)

Stef

Where do you see yourself going from here? You're super passionate about diversity and inclusion, you're still running. What does the future look like for you?

Emma

I'm headed to Temple next year. I want to become an All-American in the steeplechase. I will graduate with a Masters in Management. I am writing a book about the process of becoming the first out LGBTQ athlete at BYU. And then after that, it's going to be good.

Stef

I love that you're writing a book. We will definitely be there to support you along the way. If there's anything that we can do at Voice In Sport, please let us know.

Emma

Thank you so much. You guys are wonderful and everything you're doing is awesome. 

Stef

Emma, thank you for sharing your journey of self discovery and finding your truth. Your story is filled with perseverance, strength, and positivity. You emphasize the importance of self acceptance, building a strong support system, and using therapy and journaling as ways to truly process how we identify.

You remind us that while we may be faced with resistance and judgment and finding our truth, nothing beats the feeling of being true to ourselves.

You can follow Emma on Instagram @Emma_Gee1777 and on Twitter @EmmaGee1776. Please subscribe to the Voice in Sport Podcast and give us a rating. You can follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok @VoiceinSport. And if you're interested in joining our community as a member, you will have access to exclusive content, mentorship from our athletes, and advocacy tools.

Check out voiceinsport.com to become a member. And if you're passionate about accelerating sports, science, and research on the female athletic body, check out VoiceInSportFoundation.org to get involved.

Host: Stef Strack

Producer: VIS Creators™  Libby Davidson & Anya Miller

Emma Gee, Division 1 runner discusses her journey as the first-ever openly LGBTQ+ athlete at BYU, and she reminds us while we may be faced with resistance and judgment in finding our truth, nothing beats the feeling of being true to ourselves.