“Definers”: the word Cal lacrosse’s Simone Holland used to describe being both queer and a student-athlete. Holland is the incoming co-president of Cal’s LGBTQ+ student-athlete group, Bears United, alongside Cassidy Puleo of Cal field hockey, and hopes to create a safe and open community to help others navigate being an LGBTQ+ student-athlete at Cal.
Founded by Cal lacrosse’s Riley Drullinger around three years ago, the group hosts informal discussions and talks from alumni and aims to involve itself in the Bay Area community and provide a safe space inside the Cal Athletics community.
“I would love it to become a strong community,” Holland said. “And a place where people that identify as queer, even if they’re not really sure what they identify as, can just come in and really get to communicate with people similar to them.”
Although there are many groups for different identities within Cal Athletics, Bears United is the only one focused solely on the LGBTQ+ community, offering an avenue outside of the athletes’ teams to cultivate a community.
Cal women’s water polo head coach Coralie Simmons, who identifies as queer, acknowledged her role in supporting her student-athletes, and said she is “fortunate” to have resources at her disposal that allow her to be a mentor and a role model.
“It’s important to have space in (sports) and in a university setting, for myself and young adults to have the community and their space,” said Simmons, who coaches athletes involved with Bears United. “I am fortunate enough to be part of a program and department and university where we have resources, outlets and a sense of community that we get to thrive in.”
Main goals for Bears United include expanding the group’s membership as well as becoming more involved in the Cal and wider Berkeley communities. The current small size of the group limits perspectives and represented identities, something Bears United is looking to fix.
“There’s definitely a lot of groups that are still underrepresented in our activism,” said Elana Eisenberg of Cal field hockey, who is also involved with Bears United. “For example, we don’t have any male-identifying student-athletes who are a part of Bears United at the moment, which is something that we would love to see change.”
Bears United also has a staff mentor, Tricia Breault, Cal Athletics’ assistant athletics director of equipment, though she largely leaves the actual leadership to student-athletes while providing them with guidance.
Breault’s position gives her an opportunity to be an alternative resource for LGBTQ+ athletes in the group. In fact, she said this was one of her favorite parts of the job, as it allows her to have front-facing interaction with student-athletes and create a comfortable space for communication.
Along with Bears United, members of the LGBTQ+ community within Cal’s athletic department have been supported by the accepting nature of the broader Berkeley community. Eisenberg emphasized that she was grateful to be at a school that is “known for being so progressive.”
The Bay Area allows LGBTQ+ coaches and staff members within the athletic department to not only be true to themselves but to also create safe spaces for student-athletes. Chelsea Spencer became Cal’s first openly gay softball coach when she stepped into the role in 2020 and says she “couldn’t have asked for a better area that was so understanding of who you are.”
“To be truly authentic, who you are, you have to be able to live your life fully, without any secrets, without any regret,” Spencer said. “I feel like I (have) truly provided an experience for my student-athletes to be who they are.”
Student-athletes have seen more support from Cal Athletics, especially with the launch of the Cameron Institute in 2020. The institute, a center for student-athlete development at Cal, has been instrumental in providing Bears United with resources, both in terms of labor and finances, and mentoring athletes to help them flourish.
“There’s been a lot of ways that the institute has educated student-athletes and brought a lot of awareness,” Simmons said. “But again, I think there’s always room for more, which only allows for all those that don’t feel comfortable, or are scared … to thrive.”