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Pac-12 Conference

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UCLA's Kirk Walker empowering LGBTQ+ student-athletes through Sports Equality Foundation

Jun 29, 2023
Photo of Kirk Walker courtesy UCLA Athletics

Kirk Walker came out as the first openly gay Division I coach in 2005 when he was at the helm of the Oregon State softball program. Since then, he has been driven to make college sports a more inclusive space for the LGBTQ+ community.

In 2016, Walker, now the associate head softball coach at UCLA, helped form the the Sports Equality Foundation, a non-profit that empowers LGBT student-athletes, coaches, and professionals by connecting them through a web-based network site.

Once a person signs up through the SEF's website, they can then join subgroups for a particular conference, school, profession, region, etc. to connect with like-minded individuals and find mentorships, job opportunities or friendships.

The Sports Equality Foundation prides itself on four pillars, which spell out LOVE and make up the organization's official tagline: For your LOVE of Sports.

Those four pillars are:

1. LGBTQ+ Sports Networks: improving the lives of LGBTQ+ people in sports

2. Opportunity: building employment opportunities for LGBTQ+ people in the sports world

3. Visibility: elevating the profiles of LGBTQ+ people in sports as an inspiration to others.

4. Education: educating the sports world how to make the environment more inclusive.

To sign up with the Sports Equality Foundation, visit the QR link below:

SEF Sign Up QR Code

To help celebrate Pride Month, caught up with Walker to learn more about the Sports Equality Foundation and how Pac-12 student-athletes can become a part of it. How does one join the Sports Equality Foundation?

Kirk Walker: "The network is kind of like Facebook meets Discord for our specific group of LGBT sports individuals. So anybody that is in that category is able to click on, join, create a profile, add their links to their social media and their links to their professional biographies or their student-athletes development page. And at that point in time, there is an opportunity to share events, to try to share any information that's happening in their space and sports world, and then obviously to develop friendships and your professional relationships with like-minded individuals." Why should a Pac-12 student-athlete join the Sports Equality Foundation?

KW: "First and foremost, I think that the Pac-12 group is an immediate opportunity for networking professionally because there will be alumni as well as current student-athletes across our conference. So those individuals are obviously people that are in the workforce, are out and about, and working on their careers. So student-athletes, as they are joining there, are going to have the opportunity to not only meet student-athletes from their own university, but all the other universities across the conference. I think that the access to former student-athletes who are working professionally is powerful, right? And we know that in sports, and in a lot of industries, it's about who you know to get the foot in the door to get the opportunity or just even be aware when positions are opening." How much of a game-changer is it for LGBT student-athletes to have a resource like this?

KW: "I think it's absolutely incredible. Because what happened after I came out in 2005, the initials of this group were a Facebook group. And that Facebook group unfortunately didn't allow us to have the breakout affinity specific to universities or regions or sports. So that group became so large, and that group has over 1,500 individuals. And the amount of networking and sense of community that happened even within that large group was overwhelming. And what we know now is that our ability to get into these smaller affinity groups that's actually going to amplify that even more. So individuals that join the Pac-12 affinity group will also be a part of the larger group that includes everybody. So each of those athletes that join are able to join other affinity groups by sport, by region, by sport profession. So there's access to a much larger community outside of just the Pac-12." Looking down the road five or 10 years from now, what is your goal for the Sports Equality Foundation?

KW: "It's going to be about creating a safer place in our conference where even as student-athletes are being recruited, this space is gonna be something that's going to be unifying, and make it even more welcoming for student athletes to come out, to know that they've got a community and ultimately the kind of opportunities that come out of it — mentorships, job opportunities and lifelong friendships." What else should people know about the Sports Equality Foundation?

KW: "I think one of the things that's really important was when we started our Pac-12 group, obviously with (Pac-12 senior vice president of marketing) Heather (Vaughan), is that I'd always stress to her that the Pac-12 has been a leader with our student-athletes, and we have some of the top student-athletes in the country that were LGBT that competed in our conference. Jason Collins, Esera Tuaolo, Ryan O'Callaghan, Layshia Clarendon, just to name a few, but there are many. And the fact that student-athletes who are now competing in our conference will have the ability to be connected to those individuals as resources, as mentors, is absolutely incredibly powerful."