Jason Collins, Caitlyn Jenner, Billie Jean King, Tom Daley, Abby Wambach, Robbie Rogers, Adam Rippon, Darren Young. As LGBT acceptance has permeated societies from Europe to the Americas, it’s become less of an anomaly to see an openly gay athlete attain and maintain professional and commercial success. In some cases—such as with Tom Daley at the 2012 Olympics in London and Adam Rippon at this year’s Olympics—such individuals are more than just accepted by the mainstream; they’re embraced as the face of a nation. Julian Winters watched the dawning of this new era in sports with excitement, but he was left wanting more.
“I love hearing about the bigger celebrities coming out,” Winters says, “but following a blog like Out Sportsallows me to see it on a level that I want to see.” Because while progress on the international stage ought to be celebrated, athletes of a certain caliber are in many ways inoculated from the impacts of lingering homophobia and transphobia. For Winters, it was the courage of high schoolers and college athletes that he found most inspiring.
Running With Lions, Winters’ debut young adult novel, focuses on a high school soccer team and follows Sebastian and an array of characters as they participate in a summer intensive training camp. Except that this isn’t your average high school sporting team—this is a team where acceptance is the norm and where a sizable chunk of the athletes are openly gay or bisexual. It’s an environment fostered by the coaches, which was an important dimension for Winters.
“These are the people who see the students every day,” Winters explains, “who decide who plays on the field because of ability, nothing else.” For serious athletes, these are more than just people with authority when it comes to sport. “They're coaches, but they're also important figures who help contribute to the growth of people as individuals. I wanted that to be a central part, where the coaches make it clear to everyone, LGBTQ or straight, that this is your safe haven.”
While such a narrative was largely aspirational when Winters began writing the book, in recent years he has seen some of those longed-for changes begin to take root. But it was important for Winters to show that, even when there’s progress in some areas, it can still lag woefully behind in others.
Emir, a newcomer to the team, comes from a Pakistani Muslim family that accepts his sexuality, as do his new teammates. But he still struggles for acceptance. “I think that's something I deal with—I think a lot of people have to deal with it, where maybe my sexuality is not an issue, but maybe my race is, maybe my religion is, maybe my political beliefs are.”
The important and refreshing thing about Emir is that when it comes to people who have issues with his race or religion, he’s largely unbothered. As someone who’s lived his life used to feeling othered, he’s learned to drown out the background noise and focus on his own happiness and his own goals. It’s something that Sebastian, the novel’s protagonist, comes to understand as he and Emir become closer.
“I want that [idea] to reach a universal crowd,” Winters says, “not just athletes or queer people. I want people to find courage in these characters, find hope in this story. It’s about finding the truth within yourself, learning to love it, and then sharing that with others.”
James Feder is a Tel Aviv-based writer.