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The New York Times: Openly Gay Oregon State Coach is Low-Profile Role Model
Author: By Billy Witz
Posted: May 21, 2010

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/22/sports/22softball.html

TUALATIN, Ore. - Tucked away at the end of a cul-de-sac in a leafy suburban neighborhood, Kirk Walker lives the life of a role model quietly.

No rainbow flags hang from the front of his house; political causes have never stirred him. And truth be told, Walker, the longtime Oregon State softball coach, has always been so absorbed by his work that he has not given much thought to being possibly the only publicly gay man coaching a Division I sport.

And then the phone will ring. Or an e-mail message will pop up in his inbox.

It will be from someone wanting to talk, and Walker is eager to listen.

"Although it's only my story, it has definitely changed a lot of people's perspectives—just internally, of how they view themselves," Walker said. "It tells them there's a little bit of hope. 'It may not be the right time for me, but this can happen.' "

To be gay in 2010 is something met with a shrug of the shoulders in many places. Though court and legislative battles are still being waged over same-sex marriage and other civil liberties, acceptance has become the norm.

Sport, though, is one of the last quarters where many gay people are not comfortable enough to step out—particularly men. The former N.F.L. players David Kopay, Roy Simmons and Esera Tuaolo came out after their careers were over, as did the former baseball player Billy Bean and the former basketball player John Amaechi.

Even though Walker is in a low-profile sport played by women, his being out is significant, according to Jim Buzinski, a founder of Outsports.com.

"It's probably not as sexy as if he were coaching a men's team—that's a different dynamic because people always freak out about the locker room," Buzinski said. "But Kirk's value is in putting a name to the concept that 'Oh, we know there's gay coaches and gay players.' Here's one you can identify with. By being himself, he is trail-blazing."

After Outsports.com profiled Walker in 2007, other news media outlets picked up his story. When Sherri Murrell was hired as the women's basketball coach at Portland State, The Portland Tribune carried a story of her hiring on the same page as a feature on Walker.

"I go, 'Wow, I'm in the right place,' " said Murrell, who is thought to be the only publicly gay Division I women's basketball coach. "What Kirk has done is very inspiring."

Murrell later reached out to Walker when she was approached about being interviewed for the documentary "Training Rules," which examined the policy by the former Penn State basketball coach Rene Portland forbidding lesbian relations. Murrell said Walker was helpful in letting her know what to expect from the publicity about the movie, which was released last year.

"When you actually publicly put your life out there—and we can't avoid it as coaches—there are a lot of unknowns," Murrell said. "What if this happens? What if that happens? It's easy to fear them."

Those pangs dissipated for Walker over the years as he told friends, family and co-workers that he was gay. The pangs have been gone altogether since 2005, when he told his team that he and his partner, Randy Baltimore, had begun the process of adopting their daughter, Ava. Because they had to register with a public agency, Walker did not want his players to learn from anyone else.

As Walker stood before his team then, fumbling for words, he was surprised that none of his players had any questions about his being gay. All they wanted to know about was the baby.

That has not changed much. Players still fawn over Ava, who turns 4 in July, and their parents will occasionally ask about Baltimore, who works for an insurance company in Portland. Walker said that his being gay had never been brought up during recruiting and that he did not think it had ever caused him to lose a recruit.

"I can't say it has, I can't say it hasn't," Walker said of the effect it has had on recruiting. "But it's never blatantly been an issue."

Walker, 45, has found himself straddling generations in the gay community. Those who are older often kept their orientation to themselves. Those who are younger have grown up in a more welcoming environment, with laws to protect them.

"It's a new age," said Kelly Dyer, a senior Oregon State softball pitcher from Eugene, Ore. "Being gay is becoming more acceptable in our generation. It's not like him being gay off the field has any effect on us on the field. It's no big deal."

Walker said: "My role with my players hasn't changed. It doesn't mean I become their surrogate social worker. I have no problem being a resource, but it doesn't mean every team meeting we're talking about liberation and what are we doing to promote better equality. We're trying to win a ballgame."

Walker completed his 16th season at Oregon State last weekend. It was not one of his better ones, with the Beavers (24-30, 4-17) finishing last in the powerful Pacific-10 Conference. The seven conference teams in front of them have reached the N.C.A.A. tournament. But Walker has had great success in turning around a program that had won 12 Pac-10 games in the eight seasons before he arrived. He has won more games than any other Oregon State coach, he is a two-time Pac-10  coach of the year, and he took the Beavers to the Women's College World Series in 2006.

Walker found his passion for coaching at an early age. Though his two older brothers were standout high school athletes growing up in Woodland Hills, Calif., a suburb northwest of Los Angeles, he began helping the coaches for his younger sister's club softball team. At age 13, he was hooked.

Because of his age and because he was coaching girls, Walker said, he was highly conscious of trying to act professionally. As he grew older, working as a manager and an assistant at U.C.L.A. while he earned a degree in kinesiology, he continued to reinforce a wall between himself and players.

It was not until he passed through "avoidance mode" and began to come to terms with his sexuality in his middle-to-late 20s that he began to realize it was not the wall or his dedication to coaching that kept him from being interested in women.

Dyer, the Oregon State pitcher, shyly notes that it would not be any great revelation to learn that Walker is gay, and Walker said, "It's more evident than it was seven or eight years ago."

"It's not as much being flamboyant—like an outfit or a hairstyle," Walker said. "I would say I'm not worried about being perceived as masculine or overly heterosexual."

He added: "Let's face it—ABC and TMZ aren't following me around. That's what everyone in athletics fears; it's not the unknown of 'Am I going to be called names?' The issue is: is this going to define me when I want to be defined by what I do? In entertainment, you can absolutely be defined by your stances—free Tibet—or by the way you dress. You cannot be defined by that in the athletic world. That is the big fear."

Walker said he suspected that the first athlete to come out while in the spotlight would be near the end of his career, or at the beginning, probably in college. It will be someone, he suggests, who is willing to carry a banner even if he would rather not.

The rewards, whether in the form of an e-mail message here, a conversation there, or more, are what will be overwhelming.

"I would absolutely be envious," Walker said. "It would change history. Having seen how it has impacted people, I wish my position allowed my story to be a bigger story than it is. The result would be pretty cool."