But there was the West Virginia University freshman diver, prepping for competition while politely answering a journalist’s questions.
He would soon become WVU’s first openly gay athlete.
The reporter, Erik Hall, discovered Obendorf was gay after perusing his social media accounts.
But not everyone knew Obendorf was gay. His extended family sure didn’t. Neither did several classmates or a majority in the Mountaineer community.
Just days before Thanksgiving, the world was about to know.
On Nov. 22, 2014, the Columbia Missourian ran Hall’s story with the headline, “Diver who missed a year after car accident completes comeback at Mizzou Aquatic Center.”
In the story, Obendorf’s sexual orientation served as a footnote to his recovery from a severe concussion. Yet, it was still there, in black-and-white print, that Obendorf tries to emulate the technique of “Olympic medalists Tom Daley and Matthew Mitcham, who are both gay men as is Obendorf.”
The story went viral. Members of the WVU community, especially in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) circles, retweeted, favorited, forwarded and shared the news of Obendorf’s coming out. The story wound up on OutSports.com.
“It made me nervous, and I had second thoughts about it afterward,” Obendorf admitted.
There was no turning back now.
Growing up in Hudson, Ohio, about 30 miles southeast of Cleveland, Obendorf recalls having a crush on one of his male summer camp counselors.
There was never any confusion over his sexual orientation, and at 14, Obendorf wanted to come out but wasn’t quite ready.
To prepare for that moment, Obendorf spent hours watching “coming out” videos on YouTube, where gays and lesbians post clips sharing their coming out stories, good and bad.
Obendorf knew his parents already suspected and came out to them at 16. They were “cool” with it, he said, and they continue to support him.
But he wondered if West Virginia, often typecast as a socially regressive state, would be “cool” with it when he arrived here for college in fall 2014.
“I was expecting the worst,” Obendorf said. “West Virginia was conservative, so that made me worry a bit.”
The worst did not happen.
His teammates and coaching staff welcomed him. And when he told them he was gay, they treated him no differently. The coach even checked in with Obendorf to ensure he was comfortable and not being harassed on campus after the news article broke.
The story did ignite a flurry of emails, tweets and Facebook messages to Obendorf. But not one was negative.
The absence of receiving a homophobic slur or hateful message surprised the 19-year-old. He supposes it’s bound to happen, though, and he’s prepared for it.
“For me, I didn’t have to hide anymore. Hiding it can consume you and affect you in a bad way. You have all these thoughts trapped inside, and there’s no way to express them.” — ALEX OBENDORF
For now, he’s intent on making a splash as an emerging world-class diver and as a business student minoring in Chinese. With time, he also hopes to raise awareness for LGBT issues.
“The article gave me an opportunity to make a difference,” Obendorf said. “A few people who read it were closeted, and the article gave them courage to want to come out.
“For me, I didn’t have to hide anymore. Hiding it can consume you and affect you in a bad way. You have all these thoughts trapped inside, and there’s no way to express them.”
When the story on Obendorf came out, one WVU sociology instructor sent him an email of support.
Daniel Brewster, MA ’04, Communication Studies, knew too well what Obendorf faced.
Brewster, a well-respected instructor and activist, has been named one of WVU’s most influential people and pens occasional columns for The Huffington Post. Despite his rapport and popularity with students, sometime around 2011 Brewster fell into the pit of depression. His feelings related to hiding his sexuality were a contributing factor, which were compounded by frequent harassment from passersby and even his own students because they suspected he might be gay.
During class, some students would cover their mouths and say “faggot.” At the end of the semester, they’d scribble on his evaluation forms, “Class would be better if the professor wasn’t a fag.”
In 2011 on a chilly April evening, he pondered if life was worth living.
On his way home from a run, he made a detour to the Westover Bridge, which crosses the Monongahela River.
For 20 minutes, he stood on the bridge. He thought of the various ways he could try to land. He wanted to make sure his attempt wasn’t a failed one.
Somewhere in this darkness, a song sprung up on Brewster’s iPod that distracted him. With the music player set to shuffle, Brewster heard “For Good,” from the musical “Wicked.”
Sociology instructor and alumnus Daniel Brewster thought about committing suicide on the Westover bridge after facing frequent harassment when people suspected he was gay. He changed his mind and went on to stand up for fairness and equality in a student newspaper column.
These lyrics resonated with him:
I’ve heard it said
That people come into our lives
for a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led
To those who help us most to grow
If we let them
And we help them in return
Well, I don’t know if I believe that’s true
But I know I’m who I am today
Because I knew you ...
Brewster walked back to his apartment. He showered and prepared for the next day’s classes.
Committing to Change
A different breaking point for Brewster came in fall 2011 at a WVU football game. He stood in the stands with his friends when a student approached him, called him homophobic slurs and threatened him with violence. The man referenced Matthew Shepard — a gay University of Wyoming student who was tortured and tied to a fence to die in 1998 — during his verbal assault.
Brewster didn’t say a word. A friend of his grabbed the assailant and told him to buzz off. The professor went home, woke up at 5 a.m. the following day and started typing. The words that flowed from Brewster’s fingertips were published that week in the college newspaper, The Daily Athenaeum.
In the column, Brewster identified himself publicly for the first time as a gay male.
He received calls of support from then-President Jim Clements and then-Provost Michele Wheatly in addition to more than 1,500 messages from colleagues, alumni, students and strangers.
As for the student who accosted him, he never showed up to class again.
“What he did to me ended up being positive,” Brewster said. “I ran into him one time in a store. I made eye contact with him and let him know I knew who he was.”
On a larger scale, Brewster’s column ignited a more serious discussion of LGBT issues on campus. Student groups on campus comprised of LGBT individuals already existed in some form since the early 1970s. Since then, there’s been growing support at the University for LGBT individuals and their concerns, which has evolved into a culture change at the institution.
Alumna and academic adviser Rayna Momen (left) and Emily Smith-Zimmerman wed at the Monongalia County Courthouse after same-sex marriage became legal in West Virginia this past fall.
“We didn’t want a big wedding, even if we had $50,000 to spend. The dress is not important. The party is not important. What’s important is having benefits, being able to see each other in the hospital and starting a family. It’s the real things.”— EMILY SMITH-ZIMMERMAN
In 1988, the student group Gay and Lesbian Mountaineers sent a mass mailing to WVU faculty to increase awareness of the group’s existence. Responses to the mailing, however, sparked a 1990 “Report on Homophobia at WVU” from the President Neil S. Bucklew administration. It was one of the first official University actions to decry homophobia.
Brewster’s coming out two decades later further illustrated that even faculty and campus authority figures were not excluded from harassment and threats because of their identity.
For Brewster, the homophobic attitudes toward him have lessened since his newspaper column.
Since then, the University has hosted public forums exploring these topics, ramped up its strategic goal of fostering an inclusive culture and established commissions, including the WVU LGBT Alumni Group. The College of Law has an advocacy organization called OUTlaw while the School of Medicine is home to the Student Healthcare Alliance for Pride Equity, known as SHAPE.
Daniel Brewster (left) joined other protesters at a campus rally to oppose a state bill that would have nullified local anti-discrimination ordinances that included sexual orientation.
Furthering WVU’s commitment to an inclusive campus, the University formed the Commission for LGBTQ Equity [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer]. The Commission is devoted to making WVU a safe, accessible environment for all Mountaineers, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
The group has already tackled various initiatives, including a proposed LGBT Center. The center, which has been in the works for a few years, is expected to develop and deliver outreach initiatives, provide academic support and be a social hub for the community.
Provost Joyce McConnell said officials are currently seeking a director for the center. William Schafer, vice president of student life, is helping with those efforts. Schafer joined WVU in March after serving as vice president for student affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he was instrumental in creating an LGBT center there.
“We want this center to be a place where students, faculty and staff can feel welcome and get the support they need,” McConnell said.
When McConnell came to WVU as a College of Law faculty member in 1995, she said there were students who were afraid of coming out. They felt they would face discrimination, not by the University but by potential employers. That’s when McConnell helped establish the OUTlaw student group.
“Over the years, we have evolved into a more welcoming environment,” McConnell said. “The LGBT community feels safer. They are now able to organize and celebrate who they are.”
Supporters believe a center would help students with issues such as understanding their sexual identity and offer counseling and legal advice regarding harassment and working with family members and straight colleagues who have difficulty coping with others’ orientation.
For her dissertation, Melissa Chesanko, EdD ’14, Curriculum and Instruction, researched how LGBT students perceived the campus climate at WVU. Chesanko set out to not only study their individual interactions but their inclusion in curriculum, the existence of LGBT-specific support, domestic partner benefits, non-discrimination policies, equal opportunity, housing and other factors.
In her study, students had a tough time identifying examples of local spaces or locations that stood out to them as specifically LGBT friendly.
“When they were asked, ‘What is your perception of the campus climate related to sexual orientation and gender identity at WVU?’ they often didn’t know how to reply, as it can vary based on many complex factors,” said Chesanko, who identifies herself as pansexual.
Chesanko cites related research stating that getting campus leaders to act on meeting the needs of LGBT students, particularly in politically conservative environments, is not easy.
That being said, administrators have taken strides to make campus friendlier. One example is the Safe Zone program, designed to support LGBT people. Members of the WVU community can complete Safe Zone training – workshops that familiarize faculty and staff with LGBT issues — and then display a symbol in their workspace that demonstrates their acceptance of LGBT individuals. WVU recently hired staff member Benjamin Seebaugh to work full-time on LGBT issues.
Academic departments are offering more LGBT-related courses now more than ever, too. Currently, students can take LGBT courses in biology, communication studies, English, history, political science, sociology and anthropology, and women’s studies.
Chesanko teaches one of them, an elective within the WVU Center for Women’s and Gender Studies. In her course, students present personal narratives and discussion of class topics in a public panel. One goal of the course is to produce a team of student educators who provide workshops and other activities in residence halls, classrooms and student organizations.
On a Tuesday morning in October, Rayna Momen and Emily Smith-Zimmerman walked together into the Monongalia County Courthouse. There they spent 10 minutes filling out paperwork. Then they left and went to work.
The two women had gotten married — which wasn’t possible in West Virginia the previous Tuesday because until that week same-sex marriage wasn’t considered legal in the state.
On Oct. 9, 2014, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey announced that his office would stop defending the state ban on same-sex marriage, citing a U.S. Supreme Court decision. West Virginia started issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples that same day.
“He asked, ‘What can we do for you?’ It was a wonderful experience, and he made us feel important. Under the leadership of [President] Gee and Provost Joyce McConnell, we’re in good hands.”— DANIEL BREWSTER
President Gee issued a statement in support of the state’s decision, saying, “I would like to congratulate Gov. [Earl Ray] Tomblin on his bold and declarative statement today agreeing with the courts that banning same-sex marriages is unconstitutional. It is a thoughtful reminder to our campus community — regardless of your beliefs — that we must always respect people’s differences and promote a campus climate that promotes opportunity, equality, civility and respect for all.”
For most people this was a news story, but for Momen and Smith-Zimmerman the decision was life changing.
“It was surreal,” said Momen, MA ’08, Sociology, and an academic success adviser in the University College. “We were actually right behind a gay male couple who were also getting their marriage license. It was overwhelming, in a good way.”
Smith-Zimmerman, a chef and former WVU student, smiled at her partner and chimed in, “I’ve been wanting to marry her for quite some time.”
“I thought we’d end up being the 50th state, to be honest,” Momen said.
There are 13 states that still ban same-sex marriage.
The couple met at a party 14 years ago in Morgantown. They share passions for art, poetry, music, cooking, traveling and social causes. You might spot them around town at an open mic or protesting an injustice.
“We’re like an old couple,” Smith-Zimmerman said. “Our weekends consist of binge watching shows and having soup.”
“We’re a typical American family,” Momen added.
A typical American family that plans to include children in the near future.
The ceremony was no extravagant spectacle. The couple held hands on the porch of a friend, who officiated.
“We didn’t want a big wedding, even if we had $50,000 to spend,” Smith-Zimmerman said. “The dress is not important. The party is not important. What’s important is having benefits, being able to see each other in the hospital and starting a family. It’s the real things.”
Same-sex partner benefits had not been provided by the state’s health insurer, the West Virginia Public Employees Insurance Agency, until after the Attorney General’s October announcement.
Momen grew up in Morgantown and began her studies at WVU in 1996. She, like Brewster, experienced a fair share of homophobia over the years. She said she’s come close to being “a hate crime statistic.” People have screamed “dyke” at her, followed her in a car and even chased her with a gun. She even said she’s experienced discrimination from a professor.
Despite challenges over the years, Smith-Zimmerman applauded the majority of the student body for their increasing acceptance and awareness. She recalls going to an astronomy class in which the instructor apologized for having only two gender choices on a survey.
Melissa Chesanko, (right) who received her doctorate at WVU, researched how LGBT students perceived the campus climate at the University.
“I was shocked that she was speaking inclusively voluntarily,” Smith-Zimmerman said. “I was also surprised that there was not one snicker in this freshman-level class. I don’t think we give the college community enough credit.”
Momen and Smith-Zimmerman will continue the fight. In February, Smith-Zimmerman organized a rally against proposed House Bill 2881, which would have nullified local antidiscrimination ordinances in West Virginia that included sexual orientation. Dozens of faculty, staff and students showed up to protest the measure in the free speech zone across from the Mountainlair. The bill did not pass.
Also in attendance was David Fryson, vice president of the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at WVU. He viewed the bill’s defeat as a success and testament to the willpower of society’s rejection to intolerance.
“We’re continuing on an expansion of the freedom experiment in America,” Fryson said. “Our next move is to show that WVU is a model for what needs to be done around the state. Part of our land-grant mission is to reach out into the communities. I’m hoping our people and programs can serve as an example. You can still be discriminated against in West Virginia for housing and employment based on sexual orientation. It comes down to a fundamental fairness.”
Rainbows in the Mountains
Last fall, more than 80 people, including Brewster, Chesanko, Momen and Smith-Zimmerman, gathered at Blaney House at the request of President Gee for an LGBT picnic.
“He asked, ‘What can we do for you?’” Brewster said. “It was a wonderful experience, and he made us feel important. Under the leadership of [President] Gee and Provost Joyce McConnell, we’re in good hands.”
“I’ve been here 16 years and have seen the full evolution of the issues,” he continues. “As a freshman, I remember hearing slurs and innuendos four or five times a day. Now I’m at a point where I don’t hear them at all.
“In one class, a student yelled about homosexuals, ‘It’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.’ And then this big, strong football player stands up and says, ‘I have two moms.’
“We’ve made progress, but there’s a long way to go,” adds Brewster. “At WVU, we have evolved as society has evolved. If you hear someone calling someone else a faggot in the Mountainlair, it’s not going to be ignored anymore.”