Panel discussions like the one that Bree Horrocks took part in at Purdue University in spring of 2015 tend not to make national news; they may not even make the school paper. For Horrocks, it was a different story. By participating in the Purdue LGBTQ Center’s panel on inclusion in sports, Horrocks accidentally thrust herself into the spotlight by becoming not only the first openly gay athlete in a revenue sport at Purdue University history, but also the first openly gay female athlete among the Power Five conference schools.
“One reporter turned to me and said, ‘So how does it feel to be the first out gay women’s athlete in college?’” Horrocks remembered. “And I thought, what are you talking about? I knew other people who were out. Why was this title falling on me?”
The label landed heavily. Newspapers and media outlets across the country jumped on the story, and the Indianapolis Star ran a Q&A article shortly after the panel discussion that opened with the following cringeworthy lede:
Bree Horrocks is gay. She wants you to know that about her.
This is not quite right. Horrocks is gay, but she wants you to know that about her just as much and no more than she wants you to know that she’s a basketball player, an open-minded and outspoken person, and a hockey fan. She spoke out about her sexuality as a way to cast some light on the myriad of issues that LGBTQ athletes face. She wanted to use her platform as means to enact change and serve as an advocate. It was never about her. And so she made the decision that changed the course of her basketball career, without ever quite intending to make it.
One of Mary Nimphius’ favorite basketball memories of her daughter is when she watched Bree play for the local AAU powerhouse Georgia Ice. “It was her first game with the team and she stole the ball, ran the floor and did an underhanded lay-up that looked completely effortless and natural,” Nimphius said. “Like she was just playing and loving what she was doing.”
Horrocks was a star on a team loaded with future Division I talent, but she was also struggling with something she kept carefully hidden from everyone she knew, including her parents. Despite being on one of the best AAU teams in the state, despite receiving her first college recruitment letter while still in the eighth grade, Horrocks lacked confidence in her game and herself. And she knew it was directly related to her confusion about her sexuality.
“Growing up in the south, [the conversation] is not something we’re exposed to,” says Horrocks, who was born and raised in Buford, Georgia. “During my freshman year of high school, my main focus at Buford was just not to be found out. And it was exhausting. It affected my basketball. My teammates didn’t know and I wasn’t being honest with myself. It wasn’t until my junior year that I could actually say, ‘I’m gay.’”
Horrocks eventually said those exact words, out loud, to her parents. Her mother, she says, thought it was a phase and asked her to stay in the closet.
“I was afraid,” Nimphius recalled in an email. “Because as a parent gifted with this wonderful child I was afraid for her safety and enjoyment in life. She would feel every consequence for being gay. I said, ‘Are you sure? Because once you go down this path, there’s no going back. You are labeled and while television may portray that it is acceptable, it is barely tolerated by the rest of society.’”
In time, Nimphius realized this was the wrong way to address what Bree was going through. “It came across like I was saying it’s a choice and my response was void of recognizing she had obviously digested this for many years on her own. I was implying she wasn’t competent enough to recognize this in herself. Nobody chooses to be gay or take this challenging role amidst so much hatred.”
Horrocks was out only to herself, her parents and a small circle of friends when she left for Purdue. On the court, the coaches made her feel like she had talent and the potential to be a great player; at 6’5”, she is every bit a physical specimen. Off the court, things weren’t the same. Horrocks says her coaches knew she was gay, but that it was never discussed—that is, until the panel appearance that assured it could no longer be ignored.
As a college freshman, Horrocks had interacted with the Purdue LGBTQ Center, and in January of that year she asked how she could get more involved. When the director of the center approached her and asked if she’d be up for sitting on the panel, Horrocks jumped at the chance. “When we talked about it, I never saw it as me coming out or making this grand statement,” Horrocks says now. “Because I felt out already. Everyone that needed to know, knew. I looked at the panel discussion as something important in athletics that needed to be addressed as far as issues with language and stereotypes. I felt like I could really help if I could be a part of the conversation.”
Horrocks didn’t realize that part of being on the panel involved a luncheon with some local and national reporters. When they started asking questions, Horrocks had a hunch something bigger was happening.
“After I came out, a lot the articles involving me were about me being gay,” Horrocks says. “They weren’t just about how I performed in a game, how many points I scored or how many rebounds I pulled down. They mention those things, but then also the fact that I’m gay. I can’t just be Bree the basketball player. It’s always, ‘Bree the basketball player who’s gay.’ Or at least that’s what it felt like. And some people don’t want that label on them all of the time.”
Horrocks, though, decided that she was willing to wear the label proudly. “I felt trapped when I wasn’t out. So, if these athletes are trapped at the elite level, I can’t even imagine that. That’s another reason why I do what I do. My lack of confidence in my basketball abilities was a direct result of a lack of confidence in who I was at the time. Having confidence in my identity, in myself as a person, was monumental. Me not being able to be who I was, was exhausting. I didn’t want to do it anymore.”
Horrocks quickly sensed that this was a problem. While she says that she wasn’t told explicitly not to talk openly about her sexuality, she felt extremely uncomfortable whenever she tried to broach the subject with her coaches. “When an article came out about me being involved in the LGBTQ community or every time I wanted to participate in something, it felt like it wasn’t okay with the coaches,” Horrocks says now. “I blatantly asked my head coach if me coming out affected our relationship in any negative way. And I asked her if any boosters, donors and anyone in the administration had any problem with it. And if it was part of the reason why I was being treated differently. She said no.”
Horrocks was already having issues with her coaches at Purdue prior to coming out, most of which she attributes to wanting to prove to her coaches—and herself—that she belonged on the basketball court. Being in the closet had influenced the way Horrocks saw herself, even as a basketball player, and coming out didn’t magically fix her confidence issues. But the panel discussion was a tipping point not just in her public life, but also her career at Purdue. She got the distinct impression that the coaching staff didn’t want her to do it, and that they wished she had asked their permission first. Horrocks convinced herself that everything that happened at Purdue—the way she was being treated, her playing time, that perceived lack of support—was her own fault. And because of that, she thought she should spend the rest of her college career trying to fix it. When a knee injury ended her season just two games into her junior year, Horrocks began to realize that it didn’t have to be that way.
She took a medical redshirt, and “the thought of just pushing through and getting my degree and forgetting about everything else lasted a couple of weeks,” Horrocks said. “I just could not not talk about things that were happening in the LGBT community. I could not not be true to myself.” After the season, Horrocks knew that she wanted to keep playing basketball, and also that she wanted to do it somewhere else.
When reached for a comment about Horrocks, Purdue gave Deadspin the following statement:
The Purdue women’s basketball program prides itself on its diverse culture and is fully aligned with Purdue University’s commitment to an inclusive campus for all. We are extremely confident that Coach Versyp and her staff foster an atmosphere of support for all student-athletes both on and off the court.
After her official release letter became public last spring, Horrocks’ phone buzzed nonstop with text message alerts and phone calls. One of the endless numbers flashing across the iPhone screen stood out, and Horrocks took the call. The number belonged to Kelly Komara, a former coach at Purdue who was now on staff at Vanderbilt. The two talked a little bit about basketball, and about Vandy. Horrocks had fielded offers from other schools—Florida State, Oklahoma, Boston College, Pittsburgh, Dayton—but none of those schools had a coach she already knew and trusted.
“Knowing that all of these places wanted me, knowing they knew I was gay and were totally okay with it, was such a confidence booster,” she said. “They wanted me because of my skill on the court, and were supportive of my activism off the court. It was all overwhelming.”
Graduating early from Purdue gave Horrocks a chance to pursue a school with a graduate program that would let her pursue her passion for basketball and activism. Vanderbilt offered all three. “I don’t know of a better coaching staff in women’s college basketball,” Horrocks said. Head coach Stephanie White has clout as a former college and WNBA player. White had coached the Indiana Fever for two seasons before leaving to run the women’s program at Vandy, alongside assistants Carolyn Peck, Joy Cheek and Komara. “So, I knew I couldn’t go wrong there. I also knew I’d be comfortable being who I am. If you have a national figure as a head coach, who is also out, there’s no way I wouldn’t be. I knew I wasn’t going to be treated differently because of who I love.”
If anyone understands even a little of what Horrocks has been through as a gay student athlete, it’s Stephanie White. Although she didn’t come out until later in her career, White knew well the emotional stress and baggage that comes with not being able to be who you are in public. When the two first spoke on the phone, Horrocks told White that she appreciated that she was out and active in the LGBT community, because that’s exactly what Horrocks wanted for herself—the freedom to speak out on the issues that mattered to her.
“She reminds me a lot of Layshia Clarendon,” White told me over the phone before the start of the women’s college basketball season. “When I was coaching the Indiana Fever, Layshia was a rookie and she was so confident in herself, she utilized her voice and her platform, and she was unapologetic about it from day one. Being around someone like that made me look in the mirror, and say ‘here’s someone is so young and so confident, let’s lift them up and learn from them.’ I am able to learn from Bree in the same way.”
Basketball-wise, it was an easy fit. Horrocks’ size, skill and maturity are what the young Commodores need this season, and adding a vocal leader on and off the court is invaluable. While Horrocks’ experience at Purdue wasn’t what either side had hoped, the pedigree of that program also helped convince White that Horrocks was worth pursuing. “I have such great respect for Purdue’s coaching staff and knew they ran a good program,” she added. “It made the decision to recruit Bree easy.”
A lot has happened since her freshman year at Purdue, much of it emotionally and mentally taxing. But for all the detours in her journey, Horrocks couldn’t be happier or more in awe of where she ended up. While Horrocks happily immersed herself in Vanderbilt’s and Nashville’s LGBTQ communities, her coaches didn’t just support but actively encouraged her endeavors as an advocate. She was determined not to take these gifts for granted, because she knew how different it could be. She’s in the right place, and it shows.
“I use smiles in photos as one barometer,” Nimphius said. “But it’s important to recognize the root of the unhappiness and not misplace blame. Purdue did not cultivate the unhappiness—certain individuals and their cultures cultivated the unhappiness. Bree graduated with distinction from a prestigious academic institution, and she had a wonderful support group with the Purdue LGBTQ community. But the move to Vanderbilt was like every star and moon lined up. It’s a better fit. And more importantly, Bree is now in the right environment, with the right acceptance. And it’s up to her.”
Horrocks is more to the point, as those who know her have come to expect. “At Purdue, I was not happy. I was miserable,” she says. “I’m happy now. Vanderbilt is the right place for me, and I have the right people on my team. I know they have my back. When I talk to student athletes today who have not come out, they have this idea that the world will fall apart if they do, and that everything will change. And yes, everything does change. But it changed in the best way possible. There’s no going back. I would never want to go back.”