By Zak Keefer
How does the best wrestler in the room wind up getting bullied?
How does a 197-pound titan become the butt of locker room jokes? How is a three-time All-American excluded, his cause so unwelcomed by teammates that they hide his headgear?
The gay jokes. The homophobic slurs, those comments uttered so habitually on the practice mats that no one stops to notice what they actually mean or whom they hurt. They stung Hudson Taylor.
Wear an equal rights sticker on your helmet during a match and we’ll have a hard time cheering for you, some of his Maryland teammates warned. Their words clawed at Taylor, tore at him the way their words tore at so many athletes never bold enough to speak out before. He wondered if by taking this stance he was actually hindering his cause, if his teammates were becoming more homophobic simply because he asked them not to be.
“Sometimes, 18- to 22-year-old young men don’t realize how much an impact their words have,” said Maryland wrestling coach Kerry McCoy. “Hudson brought that issue to the forefront for our team.”
The two-time conference champ had become the face of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) push in a domain not adept at dealing with different. He voiced opinions about the need for a more mindful, conscientious locker room. He campaigned that sports should become a haven for all athletes, gay or straight. The initial response was dispiriting.
Then, inspiration came. It came in emails and letters, hundreds of them. They’d read his thoughts on fighting homophobia and bigotry in sports, and they’d found an ally.
Former Maryland wrestler Hudson Taylor has long campaigned against homophobia.
Dear Hudson, I’m a gay college athlete, and I haven’t had the courage to tell anyone…
Hudson, I’m a coach, and I am living in a world of fear…
“It blew me away,” he recalled two years later. “All they wanted was someone who could listen.”
His grand undertaking became clear.
“There was such a void for allies in this space,” he explained. “It changed my life. It became a necessity. I felt I had to do more.”
The former Atlantic Coast Conference Scholar-Athlete of the Year soon finished his decorated Terrapin career with a third straight top-four finish at the NCAA national championships. He remains, by most accounts, the finest wrestler in program history.
His college days complete, the 25-year-old set out to tackle homophobia in the sporting world by founding Athlete Ally. Without question, it was his toughest opponent yet.
No, Hudson Taylor is not gay. He is, by his wife Lia’s admission, about as far from the typical stereotype of a gay rights advocate as one could be. She realized that the first time they met.
“He was an oddball,” remembered Lia, currently a law student at George Washington. “He was this tobacco-chewing, grizzly wrestler, and a really good one. But there was a sweetness and a sensitivity to him that I liked. He was also a theater major who loved musicals.”
They met at a mutual friend’s house over winter break in their home state of New Jersey. Taylor looked like the other wrestlers there that night; he just didn’t talk like them. There were more layers to this one, she thought. He played the guitar. He sang. He was fascinated with magic tricks. Lia was intrigued.
Until then, wrestling, a sport he’d picked up at the age of 6, had defined Herbert Hudson Taylor IV. A descendent of one of America’s great 19th century foreign ambassadors, he grew up in an Evangelical Christian home. He was a wildly successful high school grappler and one of the top recruits in the nation. Like all athletes, he experienced the demeaning humor and insults that so often permeate the world of sports.
But the bigotries never stung him like they did his first days in College Park. In one of his early collegiate classes, a theater course, Taylor, a hulking jock who surely stood out, sat down next to a boy who introduced himself as Matt. Five minutes before class was to begin, Matt stood up in front of the class and announced he was gay.
Experiences early in his academic and athletic college career laid the groundwork for Taylor's crusade.
“It was the first time I’d ever seen someone come out,” Taylor recalled. “I was shocked.”
Moments later, members of the class were hugging Matt. They told him they were proud of him.
“Everyone was very welcoming and respecting through this very personal and public step,” Taylor said. “I had never seen anything like this. It affected me in a very major way.”
That same afternoon, Taylor encountered the standard jargon that pollutes locker rooms across the country. Maryland was no different. Words like “fag,” “pussy” and “homo,” he remembered, words that have become commonplace in competition and in some cases a tool for motivation.
“I was a part of that culture,” he admits. “I was guilty like everyone else.”
One day before practice, after Taylor urged some of his teammates to be more conscientious about their word choices, Akil Patterson, a Terrapin club coach and former UM football player, pulled him aside. Patterson told Taylor he had some friends that ran a website called OutSports.com, a destination for gay athletes and fans. He suggested Taylor speak out.
He did. In a glowing 1,400-word profile, Taylor opened up about his passion for his sport and his passion for equal rights. He talked about slapping a Human Rights Campaign sticker on his headgear and the chilly response he received from teammates. The article introduced Hudson Taylor, “The Activist.”
“Sports should be a space for everyone,” he says now. “It’s really up to the coaches and athletes. I would hear homophobic and sexist language and I’d think to myself, ‘Is that really what sports are about?’ We can define the culture. We can take ownership.”
A year after the OutSports article ran, his former coach Patterson came out.
“I just felt like if Taylor can be an advocate, I can piggyback off that and be true to myself,” says Patterson, who for years had denied to teammates he was gay. “Before you swim with the sharks, you want to make sure it’s safe to swim.”
The announcement came with plenty of trepidation. After his football playing days were over, Patterson morphed into a successful Greco-Roman wrestler. He relied on sponsors to support his traveling and training costs – all jeopardized by his decision. He was worried he would hurt the Terrapins’ recruiting efforts.
“There is the perception out there that the whole gym is gay,” he said. “But I felt it was time for me to stand up.”
He remains one of the top Greco-Roman grapplers in his weight class in the U.S. and coach of the Maryland club team.
The conversion for the jocks that occupied the Maryland wrestling room took a rockier path.
“It seemed like the louder Taylor got, the more his teammates wanted to push back,” Lia said. “And that started to hurt him. Sometimes, they would fly into these crazy religious and political debates. They were hiding his headgear after he put the HRC sticker on it. He asked me one day, ‘Is this doing more harm than good?’”
He had their respect on the mat – that was the easy part. He was the team’s captain and by the end of his senior year the school’s all-time leader in wins. He worked just as tirelessly to change the atmosphere of the locker room. Media outlets kept calling: The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, MSNBC. They wanted to know more about the straight athlete who fought so hard for the gay athlete.
“Is that the word you really meant to say?’ he’d ask teammates. Or, “Do you realize what that actually means?”
He’d begun to take hold of his opponent.
In her final year at Cincinnati, Jenna Heaton wanted to leave a lasting mark. Captain of the women’s track team and president of the Student Athletic Advisory Committee, she wanted to have a cause that could engage Bearcat athletes. A friend suggested she check out AthleteAlly.com.
Heaton found Hudson Taylor. She scoured the pages of the nonprofit organization Taylor formed and became engrossed. The site offers resources for fighting homophobia in sports and a blog where athletes can share their stories.
Heaton signed the Athlete Ally pledge and emailed Taylor. How can I help?
Thrilled, he asked her to become the first ambassador at Cincinnati. Her assignment quickly evolved to getting the entire athletics department on board with the Athlete Ally mission, “Victory Through Unity.” Since she began in the fall, she’s got 10 varsity teams to sign the pledge.
“I kind of jumped in not knowing what kind of response I was going to get,” Heaton said. “But my goal was to talk to each team. My theme this year for the SAAC was family. If we’re a family, we don’t say those sorts of things to each other, not in the locker room or on the field.”
From November through March, Taylor remains engrossed in wrestling. He’s now an assistant coach at Columbia, which has provided another forum for his advocacy. The rest of the time, he’s traveling the country, speaking at colleges nationwide.
“As a senior in college, my sole goal was to win a national title. I never thought I’d be starting a nonprofit and engaging people in this conversation the way I have,” he says. “But for many, this if the first time they’ve had this conversation.”
He was a college wrestler who championed a cause. Now, he is an advocate, introducing a message foreign to its audience. The biggest match of Hudson Taylor’s life ticks on.
For more information, visit www.AthleteAlly.com.