Braeden Lange: Leveling the playing field for LGBT youth athletes

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In honor of National Coming Out Day this weekend, I decided to do a story about the power of being out and how one person’s coming-out story boomeranged to help another coming-out story 10 years later.

 

In 2005, Andrew Goldstein, a Dartmouth lacrosse player, came out to his teammates while in college. He later became the first openly gay athlete to play in an American pro sports league (Major League Lacrosse). ESPN did a piece about it for Sports Center. Fast-forward a decade later to 12-year-old lacrosse player Braeden Lange also making the decision to come out to his teammates. A previously popular and confident child, Lange began receiving hateful responses that threw him into depression and caused him to withdraw from friends and family, until his father, himself a lacrosse player and coach, decided to reach out to Goldstein. The tale of the bond formed by the two LGBT athletes, Lange and Goldstein, was unveiled in a new ESPN segment screened at the International House this past Wednesday. We spoke to Lange and his folks, Scott and Mandy (after practice of course).

Side note: If you want a way to expand your world without needing a big travel budget, make sure to check out the LGBT programming at International House.

PGN: What does lacrosse mean to you and the family?

SL: It’s the sport we’ve always played. My father grew up on Long Island, which is a hotbed of lacrosse. He went on to play at Cortland State and was an All-American. He moved to Philadelphia and started having kids but there wasn’t a ton of lacrosse in this area back then. So he started a league that I played in. I played other sports like soccer, but lacrosse has always been our sport.

PGN: I understand you lost him at a young age.

SL: Both my parents. I lost my mom when I was 21 and my dad when I’d just turned 23.

PGN: So I imagine those sports memories mean a lot.

SL: Absolutely. Sports have always been a big part of our lives. When I play, people still remember me as Dick Lange’s son.

PGN: How many kids do you have and how many play lacrosse?

SL: There’s Blake, who’s 14; Braeden, 12; then two girls, Kendall, 10, and Abby, 7. All four of them have played, but my youngest daughter prefers field hockey, which their mother played. I was raised with the mentality that team sports are an important part of growing up. It’s not about the athleticism or even about winning; it’s about the camaraderie and learning teamwork.

PGN: So you would epitomize the adage, “The family that plays together stays together”?

SL: We try! The weekends are filled with games and practices.

PGN: Tell me something fun about Braeden as a kid.

SL: I’m looking at him as we speak and I’m trying to think of something embarrassing.

ML: Braeden’s always been a character. When he was 5, he wanted acting lessons so he could be on Nickelodeon.

SL: Yeah, one year we took the kids to summer camp and at the end they had a talent show. Braeden was about 5 and at the end they asked if any kids wanted to do anything. Braeden walked onto the stage, grabbed the microphone, did his ABCs and walked off the stage.

PGN: Mic drop!

ML: Yes! And along with his talent for sports, Braeden is an amazing dancer. No professional training but he’s very talented.

PGN: The question is, Braeden, can you whip, can you nae nae?

BL: Oh, I can whip and nae nae.

PGN: OK, I want to see a demonstration.

SL: He’ll do it! He doesn’t lack for confidence.

PGN: So Braeden, tell me about your journey.

BL: So earlier this year on Feb. 9, I was in a group chat and one of my friends was making a lot of homosexual jokes and I really just wasn’t having it. I was getting really upset over it and I thought that the only way I could make them understand that being gay wasn’t wrong was to tell him who I actually was. I was just so sick of everyone saying things like, “Oh that’s so gay” and everything else. I was just sick and tired of it. So I told everyone. It was really scary at first but a few minutes after I came out, I started to feel relieved knowing that I didn’t have to deal with the stress of holding it in anymore.

PGN: Do you remember how old you were when you first figured it out?

BL: I think I started to realize that I was gay the summer before last. As people were getting older, they were making more homosexual jokes and for some reason, I didn’t know why, but it really got to me. Every single day. And I’m pretty sure that’s when I found out.

ML: You had a girlfriend, tell her about that.

BL: Yeah, I had a girlfriend to like, cover it up. I was so terrified of the idea of people knowing that I’m gay, so I had a girlfriend for four or five months and then I broke up with her about a month before I came out.

SL: When Braeden did come out, of course we started thinking, wondering if there were signs we should have seen. So we went back and read some of his old text messages and there was one from the girlfriend. They had apparently kissed and she sent him a text asking, “When can we kiss again?” Now this was in early December and his response was, “How about March … ” [Laughs] Hindsight. When February came along, I think in the back of his mind he was thinking, Man, if I don’t come out now, I’m going to have to kiss this girl in March!

PGN: Motivation! But I understand that you posted something soon after, and that’s when things went awry.

BL: Well, ask.fm is an app you can download that lets people anonymously ask you questions. I don’t know why I got it, it was a really bad idea. People I didn’t even know started sending me hate … It was really painful. I thought it would be a place where people would be asking me stuff like, “What’s your favorite color?” or that kind of thing but people started sending me really nasty things and it made me feel awful. It really bugged me.

PGN: How did people know about your sexuality?

BL: Usually when someone gets a new social-media app, you post it on other things like Instagram: “Hey, follow me on ask.fm.” I posted just because everyone else was doing it and so all my Instagram followers who knew about me coming out were on it.

PGN: That probably was not a fun period for you.

BL: No, it was not. There were a lot of people telling me that being gay was wrong and asking me questions like, “Do you suck dick for money?” I remember one guy said, “It must be really awkward when you eat a banana.”

ML: I thing the most upsetting for him were the people who questioned him, who said they didn’t believe that he was gay, that he was too young to know or just doing it for attention.

BL: Yeah.

ML: He was like, “I finally found the courage to come out and no one believes me.”

PGN: What was the darkest point for you?

BL: After I deleted the app, I started pushing all my friends away. Ya know? They could ask me a simple question like, “How did you know?” and I would get so annoyed by it that I’d reject them. I just felt so alone. I knew I had friends, that people would talk to me and be there for me if I was upset, but I still felt really alone. It was just really hard for me.

PGN: I ask about that time to help kids going through something similar. People should understand how someone like you, with an accepting family and friends, could still face dark and scary times. And how you came through it.

ML: I think a lot of it was because of the anonymous nature of social media. Because he didn’t know who the questions came from, he didn’t know which of his friends or teammates he could trust. So he began to lash out at his true friends and they didn’t understand why. He really wasn’t himself anymore. When Braeden’s anger turned into depression and talks of suicide became a daily thing, we knew we needed help. We needed to get him back to his old self.

PGN: What was in your heart and head at the time?

BL: Like my mom said, I didn’t know who to trust and I became insecure about everything. I was scared about meeting new friends; if they found out about me being gay, would they be supportive or not? I felt especially awkward around my straight guy friends. I remember as soon as I came out, one guy said, “Well, no more sleepovers.” That really brought me down.

PGN: So what was your first reaction when you saw the ESPN piece on Andrew?

BL: There were so many emotions I felt at once. Overall, I was just so happy learning that there was another gay athlete, and not just any athlete but a lacrosse player like me, that had come out when he was in college and … yeah, it just made me feel like I was wanted. It made me feel like I wasn’t alone anymore.

PGN: Did you know much about the gay community before that?

BL: Not much, no.

PGN: That’s a little scary, not knowing that there’s a whole community waiting to embrace you. Sometimes we older folks forget what it’s like to come out. We think that, with all the gay visibility and acceptance these days, young people have it easy. But I think you don’t have the sense of community that we did back in the day, when we had tangible fights to rally around.

SL: I think that’s a really valid point. When Braeden came out, to most of the kids it was no big deal. They watch “Modern Family” and “Ellen,” so in that regard it can be easier because of that familiarity, but in the larger picture, it can be isolating because, as you said, there’s nothing for the youth today to rally around. But I’d say that the work that people like you and others did to pave the way made it a lot easier for my son.

PGN: Thank you, there are a lot of shoulders that we all stand on. Braeden, tell me what it was like when you got a response from Andrew.

BL: After my dad showed me the Sports Center piece on Andrew that was done in 2005, my dad sent him an email telling him about me coming out but we never expected him to respond back. When he sent me his helmet and a video saying how proud he was of me, it was one of the happiest moments of my life, if not the happiest moment. I remember that I couldn’t stop smiling and crying tears of joy. I kept saying to myself, “I am not alone.” It made me feel so great knowing there was someone else in the world who I could look up to.

PGN: Tell me about the Courage Game, how much fun was that?

BL: It was really fun. Andrew and my dad and mom and Nick Welton, another gay lacrosse player, put it all together. It was their way of making me feel not so all alone but we never expected it to become the big thing it did.

SL: Yes, it was at Ace Adams Field at Penn Park in Philadelphia. We had gay lacrosse players and allies from all over the country come to support our son. We had to really think about it first, because Braeden had been very public about who he was, but we knew this would take it to a whole other level of coming out — something you couldn’t put back in the bag, but he was pretty adamant once he got through that rough stretch that he wanted to help inspire other people. We did it with the help of some really great corporate sponsors: TD Bank, Wave One Sports, You Can Play, I could go on …

ML: Wegmans donated enough food for 300 people! It was amazing.

SL: Normally, things like this are done in the wake of a tragedy, but the idea here was to celebrate a victory.

PGN: In addition to sports celebrities, you had friends and teammates come out to play; how important was that?

BL: The whole experience of the Courage Game was surreal. It was so cool having huge lacrosse stars like Greg Gurenlian and Jerry Ragonese from the New York Lizards there. It felt so good knowing that 40-50 kids came to play just for me. I’m so happy knowing that I get the chance to inspire other kids who might be going through the same things that I went through.            

PGN: What do you think your straight peers learned?

BL: That being gay isn’t much different than being straight. And that it shouldn’t matter with your friends.

PGN: So you’re going to be what, 25 on your next birthday?

BL: [Laughs] No, I’m 12!

SL: Trust me, when he’s not being interviewed, he’s a typical 12-year-old. But you can’t have gone through the kind of journey he’s gone through and not matured some.

PGN: OK, here are some random questions: Halloween is coming up; if you were undead, would you be a vampire, zombie or ghost?

BL: Ghost. I could go through walls and haunt stuff. That would be so cool.

PGN: Ever seen a ghost?

BL: One time, my bedroom door shut by itself and there was no one there.

PGN: The last song you downloaded?

BL: Something by 21 Pilots. Probably “Car Radio.” I really like them.

PGN: Something cool about one of your grandparents?

BL: My grandma passed away about seven years ago but when I was a kid I was obsessed with Thomas the Tank; every time I would go to her house in New Jersey, she’d have a new train or accessory. And I remember Grandma had that fart button that she used to always press; it was really funny. And my Oupa can do a lot of weird whistles. And he’s from South Africa. Pretty cool.

PGN: Best thing on TV is …

BL: I haven’t see it yet but I want to watch “Scream Queens” and “The Office.” Someone showed me an episode and it looked really funny.

PGN: Have you heard of the Gay Games?

BL: No, I have not.

PGN: There’s a whole Olympic-style athletic competition that happens every four years all around the world, just like the regular Olympics. Maybe you can be the youngest new participant!

BL: That sounds great!

SL: It does. Can fathers of gay kids participate?

PGN: I interviewed two PFLAG mothers that ran track so I don’t see why not. We’ll see you in Paris! GG 2018!

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