The first time senior Jess Farmer and Aly Quintana ’15 met was a typical weekend evening for college students. In March 2013 — Quintana’s sophomore year, Farmer’s freshman year — some members of the Elon University women’s basketball team and softball team got together before heading out to parties for the evening.
After spending time watching each other on the court and field, the two were finally able to connect, exchanging phone numbers before the night ended. The friendship then quickly developed into something more — but not without its fair share of thought.
The decision to start dating came at a complicated time for both women. They were both questioning their identities after years at home, and entering into a same-sex relationship in college wasn’t a decision they could make lightly. And as student-athletes, they would also have to consider locker room culture and the impact their identities would have on the court and field.
Professional athletes have faced similar difficulties when deciding whether to come out publicly, especially in recent years. Prominent athletes like Jason Collins, Derrick Gordon, Brittney Griner and Michael Sam have all come out in major team sports in the United States in the past three years, all facing their share of criticism and support in the public eye.
But none of those considerations stopped Farmer and Quintana. The two have been brazen in their relationship, bolstered by strong support systems to carry on.
More than three years later, they’ve become an example and a testament that LGBTQIA couples can exist publicly, proudly and openly at Elon — specifically, on athletic teams at the school.
Their story is one that’s common but rarely acknowledged at universities and on teams across the nation. It includes summer visits, hundreds of athletic events and a spontaneous engagement in Miami. They leave behind an LGBTQIA community within Elon’s athletic department that’s grown during their careers in it and will continue to grow from here.
“It’s not the typical, traditional relationship,” Farmer said. “But to us, it is — that’s our comfort.”
Quintana jogs into the waiting circle of her softball teammates after hitting a home run in 2015. File photo by Ashley King.
While there are issues of self-identification at the collegiate level, Matthew Antonio Bosch, director of Elon’s Gender and LGBTQIA Center (GLC), believes the culture of sports affecting athletes long before college.
Bosch sees the issues surrounding LGBTQIA identity and sports as having a major psychological impact on closeted athletes. He said athletes that remain in the closet continue to ask themselves questions like, “What if I come out and my teammates don’t accept me? What if my teammates don’t pass me the ball because they think I’m a gay guy?”
While Bosch says that’s “a scary place to be,” he also says the flip side of those same questions can apply to straight athletes. And while some people on a team “couldn’t care less” about their teammates’ identities, he feels it’s important for each person to feel comfortable as themselves.
“What we always share with folks is, regardless of your ability to come out or not, we just want people to feel focused on the game and feel like you can contribute 110 percent,” Bosch said. “Anything that we can do to avoid some of the heteronormative stuff, we want to make sure that folks feel that they are focused on the game at hand.”
Bosch approximated that, in any given year, there are between 20 and 30 athletes at Elon who identify as LGBTQIA. And while athletes rarely show up to GLC events because of their hectic schedules, they connect with him in less direct ways. For example, many students come to him for help with academic projects and then reach out afterward about their personal identity.
Farmer and Quintana know how difficult it is to find the right way to “venture out.”
“I don’t know how to explain when you start venturing out, but I knew it was always a part of me,” Quintana said. “And I finally just decided, ‘I’m gonna try this,’ and it ended up happening that way.”
The two decided to date at the end of the 2012-2013 school year. But there was one problem: The softball team was allowed to go home for the summer, while the women’s basketball team had to stay on campus. So Quintana — a second-generation Cuban-American — flew back to Miami, while Farmer stayed at Elon.
During their summer apart, Farmer said she took “random, sporadic” flights down to Miami to visit Quintana. Farmer’s visits put the couple in a tough spot since neither had come out to their families. That adjustment remains, to this day, the most stressful thing Farmer has had to do.
“I think we both could probably say that the adjustment with our family was never in the sense of, ‘We are very fortunate of how our family reacted to it,’” Farmer said. “Because getting away from home, you find yourself, but you’re used to something with your family back home. I know for me, it was kind of easing into it.
“I wanted to be comfortable bringing her home in the sense of, ‘This is my life, and I want you guys to love her as if I was with a man. I want you to be happy for us.’ Now, things are very good. It’s very good. But the ease into it was probably the hardest part for me, personally.”
Farmer defends an opponent in 2014, before her career ended because of injuries. File photo by Emily Stone.
The main culture-setter in each locker room is the head coach. Bosch said Elon coaches have been very proactive with contacting him about LGBTQIA topics.
“I’ve had some specific coaches who have reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, we have some stuff going on on our team, and I just want to make sure that it’s a good environment for people. So what can I do as a coach to make that environment better?’” Bosch said. “Love hearing that. Couldn’t hear that enough. I wish every single coach reached out to me and said that, because it means they’re thinking about it and they want to do something very specific and proactive to make sure that everyone feels valued on the team.”
Bosch said at least six coaches have reached out to him but wouldn’t specify whom. He did say that the coaches have been a mix of both men’s and women’s sports, as well as team and individual sports.
Faith Shearer, associate director of athletics and senior woman administrator, recognizes that most coaches aren’t trained on how to build a community. But she commended the coaches at Elon for doing what they can and trying to have open conversations with their teams.
“I know that some of our coaches have had discussions with their teams and are very open to conversation, and I think that’s great,” Shearer said. “I’m an African-American woman, and when somebody’s willing to talk about an issue that relates to my experiences, you feel more like you’re a part of things. Some of our coaches have been pretty good about having conversations when it’s difficult.”
While the NCAA has a resource guide available to its member schools, the 92-page document can be overwhelming to use. Shearer feels like Elon’s on-campus resources have been invaluable to the athletic department.
“Bosch has come over and talked to our students. He came over and did a session with our coaches, and I think all of them walked out thinking it was really useful,” Shearer said. “They’re coaches. They need to obviously be competent in terms of cultural diversity and all aspects of diversity — like gender identity, sexual orientation. Still, it’s not their area of expertise and I don’t think you can expect it to be.”
Shearer has led the initiative to form the Athletic Diversity Council, which includes coaches, student-athletes, athletic administrators and four campus leaders: Bosch, Associate Provost for Inclusive Community Brooke Barnett, University Chaplain Jan Fuller and Associate Vice President for Campus Engagement Randy Williams.
She said the committee has many goals, but the increase in awareness and understanding of the daily issues student-athletes face with regard to diversity is one of the most important. And current methods — like exit interviews — aren’t working as well as they could.
“I think [one] piece is the realization that we don’t necessarily have a super-good handle on what the experience of our student-athletes is,” Shearer said. “That’s why the things that the committee is looking at first is, ‘How do we make sure we have a good handle of what’s going on? What are the experiences that our student-athletes are having around various aspects of diversity? Do they feel like they’re in an inclusive environment? Do they feel like they’re being supported by the staff, their coaches, their teammates?’”
For women’s head basketball coach Charlotte Smith, a devout Christian, being involved in the Athletic Diversity Council has been about gathering more information.
“My goal in it all is people gaining a better understanding of differences and a level of respect for differences,” Smith said. “My biggest thing is embracing everybody. I think that’s a culture that we have on our team. We’re all different shades of color, all different types of religion, all different types of relationship preferences, but at the end of the day we’re all people that should be respected for their differences and love each other.”
The first meeting of the Athletic Diversity Council took place a month ago and the committee has met twice so far. Bosch called it a “good starting point” to build from.
Farmer and Quintana hold up a picture of themselves from the night they first met. Photo by Hali Tauxe, photo editor.
After dating for a year and a half, Farmer knew Quintana was the one she wanted to marry.
“I already had a ring and everything picked out. It was coming,” Farmer said. “But she beat me to the punch.”
With the basketball schedule giving Farmer little time for winter break, the couple spent two nights together in a hotel in Miami before heading home to their respective families.
“I got this hotel on the beach, and I took her for a walk, and there was this pier I had seen two weeks prior, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’d be awesome to propose to her here. It’s so pretty,’” Quintana said. “The whole sunset worked out perfectly, at the same time.”
On December 22, 2014, Quintana shocked Farmer by pulling out the ring — silently.
“Yeah, I couldn’t say anything,” Quintana said as Farmer laughed. “I don’t know what happened to me. I just became speechless. She said, ‘Is this what I think it means?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah.’”
Farmer “obviously” said yes, and the couple celebrated with friends once they all returned to Elon after winter break. Those same friends, Farmer found out, had betrayed her trust, letting Quintana know that Farmer was planning on proposing in May 2015.
Quintana couldn’t have that.
“I’m very in the moment, spur-of-the-moment, I love it,” Quintana said. “At the time, I was doing my internship with the fire station, and on my way there, I felt like stopping at the jewelry store, and I found the perfect ring for her. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I might get this.’ So I got it, and I couldn’t wait to give it to her. I knew she was the one, so that’s what got me to get the hotel and do all that when she came down to Miami.”
Quintana paused to look at Farmer, smiling widely at the story, and immediately got on the defensive.
“I mean, I put thought into it,” Quintana added. “It wasn’t totally spur-of-the-moment. But I knew she was planning on proposing to me in May through the grapevine, and so I was like, ‘Why not?’”
Quintana fields a hit in 2015, her final year with Elon's softball team. File photo by Ashley King.
Sophomore outfielder Kara Shutt first met Quintana on an unofficial visit during her sophomore year of high school and played one season with Quintana at Elon.
Shutt recognizes that softball has a stigma regarding the LGBTQIA identity of those who play the sport.
“Honestly, I think it is a stereotype,” Shutt said. “I think in every athletic community, there’s going to be someone who’s in the LGBTQIA community. And you don’t really look at that when you’re on the field. Their personal life is that, and it doesn’t change who they are. If they want to express how they feel about their sexuality, that’s up to them. In general, softball can go either way, and it doesn’t really affect how we play as a team.”
That rings even more true to softball head coach Kathy Bocock, who coached both softball and women’s basketball for 15 years at Division III Averett College. Bocock has seen the public response to LGBTQIA-identifying people soften since the start of her coaching career, and sees college as a time for students to discover themselves.
“Then, people weren’t out as easy as they are now,” Bocock said. “I think it’s a wonderful thing that people can do that now because it’s not easy on people to have to hide and be somebody that they’re not. As long as you’re doing the right thing and following rules, and you’re a good person and doing everything the right way, [you’re welcome in] my facility and my program. I’m not here to judge anybody regardless.”
Bocock sees the independence of college — getting away from parents, becoming an adult — as the keys to self-discovery. And the environment that students are in plays a big role, which she believes is a huge positive point in favor of Elon.
“It’s a lot about your surroundings that you’re in, and that’s the thing about Elon — people around here are very open to anybody and everybody, which I think is a wonderful thing,” Bocock said. “You might be in some communities where that’s not the case. But I think Elon really helps people try, once they get here as 18-year-olds, to allow them to grow as who they’re going to become.”
Neither Farmer nor Quintana has been shy about their relationship — the pair have become a familiar sight around campus since they started dating. When basketball season ended, Farmer became a fixture at Hunt Softball Park, showing up to nearly every home game Quintana played in.
The struggles of being a lesbian couple on campus can be taxing, but both felt their teammates provided strong support systems for them.
“I was with a team and had a supportive coaching staff that never made me feel shameful about it,” Quintana said. “My teammates never treated me any differently.”
Farmer added, “I would definitely agree with [her about] my teammates. I never had any sense of — I wouldn’t say the word is discrimination, because we’re a diverse team as it is.”
LGBTQIA conversations have always had a place in the South — and in North Carolina in particular — and those conversations have only gotten louder this year with issues such as House Bill 2 sparking nationwide controversy. But Farmer believes that, in the face of statewide turmoil, Elon’s been a welcoming place.
“As far as Elon goes, [acceptance has] been very prevalent, especially just recently with the HB2 thing and President Lambert’s statement,” Farmer said. “I’ve always felt Elon was accepting in all sorts of ways — diversity, sexual orientation and every aspect of it.”
But even as Elon is an accepting environment, the athletic department and the other student-athletes stand out to both Farmer and Quintana as being a step ahead of everyone else on campus.
“Through athletics — not that I was ever discriminated on Elon’s campus so far as with the general population — I would say it’s more accepted,” Farmer said. “Because I feel like a lot of the female athletes or male athletes have people in their friend group that were already out or came out. It’s [a] more prevalent, open thing with athletics, personally.”
Quintana works as one of only four female firefighters in the Burlington Fire Department. Photo by Hali Tauxe, photo editor.
Quintana has already moved on from Elon, becoming one of only four female firefighters in the Burlington Fire Department. Farmer will also head into the working world after graduation, working for the Highland Brewery in the Raleigh-Durham area while working toward earning a master’s degree.
And by leaving college and moving on with life as an engaged couple, the pair have made their families realize just how serious their relationship is.
“My mom seriously was like, ‘Oh … Oh … Oh, this is real?’” Farmer said. “And I was like, ‘Well, it was real before, but, yeah.’”
It is real, and it will continue to be real. The couple will move to Chapel Hill soon, which Farmer calls “a nice and refreshing change of pace.” They have a wedding venue picked out in Asheville, though they can’t decide if the wedding should take place in Summer 2017 or Fall 2018.
But as they both look back at their time in college, they recognize how they were able find themselves once they arrived at Elon.
“When you’re used to a certain way for so long, you feel like that’s how it should be,” Quintana said. “But then coming away, leaving home, coming to college — you know this is the time where you find who you are. I feel like that’s what happened when I came to Elon.”
“I think that I found myself more,” Farmer said. “Now that I am with a girl in a committed relationship, and not being in college and having fun — this is me. I would definitely identify myself as a lesbian because I see how much happier and true to myself I am now that I am in a serious relationship with a girl.”
Farmer and Quintana plan to move to Chapel Hill after Farmer's graduation. Photo by Hali Tauxe, photo editor.