Omar Sharif, Jr. – Photo: Bjoern Kommerell
“A couple of years ago, there was a basketball coach who knew one of her players was a lesbian, but she just had no idea how to raise it,” says Brent Minor. “For her, the scholarship was an icebreaker, it was a way to address this difficult topic, which turned out not to be difficult at all.”
That scholarship is Team DC’s College Scholarship, a grant of up to $2,000 awarded to LGBT high school students who show academic and athletic prowess and a desire to attend college. It’s a core component of Team DC, an umbrella organization that represents the city’s various LGBT sports clubs and their more than 8,000 athletes. It’s also an invaluable resource for educators and students alike.
“I think one of the great hallmarks of the scholarship program is that there’s an educational element to just going out and talking about a gay scholarship for LGBT students,” says Minor, the longtime director of Team DC. In particular, the scholarship has offered adults a lifeline to approaching students about their sexuality. “There’s been an enlightenment among teachers, athletic directors and coaches, where they kind of say, ‘Okay, this is not the big deal I thought it was.'”
The scholarship has never been so popular — indeed, Team DC has had to reject applicants, whereas a few years ago they struggled to find worthy students. It also provides students an opportunity to meet and mingle with the stars of the D.C. area sports community. Successful applicants will receive their grants at the annual Night of Champions Dinner and Awards Ceremony, an event that honors those who have made significant contributions to the D.C. area sports community.
This year, the awards ceremony, to be held this Saturday, Nov. 7 at the Washington Hilton, will feature two guest speakers: Omar Sharif, Jr., an actor, former spokesman with GLAAD, and grandson of Egyptian actor Omar Sharif, and Andrew Goldstein, a former lacrosse player credited with being the first openly gay athlete on a professional sports team, after he was drafted as the backup goalie for the Long Island Lizards.
“I think Omar’s story, as someone coming from a Muslim country, and what he experienced, provides a different perspective on the coming out story,” says Minor. “Andrew’s story is also very compelling. We watched the ESPN story — which we’ll be showing at the dinner — where he was coming out. It’s very powerful. And really, that’s the message of our program: making sports a safe environment for everyone and anyone who wants to play.”
In advance of the event, Metro Weekly spoke exclusively with both Sharif and Goldstein about their personal experiences coming out, living openly, and how they can inspire the next generation of young LGBT people.
METRO WEEKLY: What was your childhood like?
OMAR SHARIF, JR.: I was born in Montreal, but my parents divorced when I was very young, so I grew up sort of all over. My father moved back to Egypt and so I’ve really travelled back and forth throughout my life. I went to school in the Middle East, in Europe, in North America, always travelling from one place to another.
I had an interesting upbringing: my mother was Jewish, my father was Muslim. They lived on different sides of the world, they were very different socioeconomic classes, and so that was about adjusting and fitting into the environment that I was in. When I lived in Canada, I was in Jewish Day School, and when I was in the Middle East, I was in a completely different environment.
MW: When did you first know you were gay?
SHARIF: Certainly not until I moved back to North America for college. It was never something that crossed my mind, or that I even considered.
MW: But did you ever tell your parents?
SHARIF: No. Everyone found out at once when I came out in an op-ed piece to The Advocate.
MW: What was the reaction?
SHARIF: I’m very blessed, and mostly because I have a family that loves me unconditionally. I think they were shocked that it happened in such a public way. I don’t think that’s what they wanted, especially during a time of political and social upheaval in the Middle East at the time.
MW: What has your experience been in the Middle East, given a predominantly hostile attitude towards LGBT rights?
SHARIF: Some places in North Africa, like Tunisia, Morocco, are a little more accepting. This is all based on polling of social attitudes and behaviors. Lebanon, as well. And then there are some that are much less so. Egypt is even above Saudi Arabia in terms of non-acceptance, which I was shocked to read. And there are other states similar to that. It really is the systematic oppression on the part of the government, but also on the part of society, this general non-acceptance. Those two things need to be worked on simultaneously: getting governments to change their policies, and getting society to change its attitudes.
That’s what I’ve been trying to do in Egypt, just because I have that celebrity platform that I can push a little bit. When I do an interview or a TV show back home, many more people can say “I know someone who’s LGBT. It’s not just something I hear of from religious interpretation, or from government officials. This is someone that I know, or that I think I know, because I see them in the media.” So we need more people to come out. Unfortunately, in the Middle East, it’s difficult — if not outright dangerous.
MW: Have you received threats against your life or your family since coming out?
SHARIF: Not against my family, but I do receive threats of violence or intimidation. And I have received death threats over social media and comments on blogs or websites, as well.
MW: How does the U.S. compare in terms of LGBT rights, given your international upbringing?
SHARIF: The United States has come a really long way in what seems like a very quick time, but it’s been a decades-long struggle to get there. Some other countries, of course, have gotten there much faster. Countries like Canada, some countries in Europe, have had marriage equality for some time. But at the end of the day, those are just policies. In the United States, you can still be fired for being gay. Trans acceptance isn’t really there yet. Eight in ten kids are still being bullied every day. The rates of HIV are on the rise for the first time in a generation. People are still being shunned from their places of worship, or kicked out of their families, and the rates of suicide among LGBT people have stayed stagnant because of this non-acceptance. So marriage equality was a big victory, but there’s still a long way to go in the U.S.
I think the U.S. plays a very important role in terms of shedding a light on issues and the spread and advancement of equality globally. I hate to quote a Puritan, but I sort of believe in Sir John Winthrop’s vision of America as a “beacon on a hill, the eyes of all people upon it.” And I do think the rest of the world will look at and adapt to the attitudes they see in America and through American media, which is the largest cultural export in the world. And I think that will play a big role in promoting LGBT and human rights globally.
MW: How has media portrayal of LGBT people been received abroad?
SHARIF: It’s very popular. I always laugh that in Egypt, growing up, I didn’t know gay people — no friends or family members or anything of the sort — but I did have Will & Grace. Today, there are shows like Glee and The Fosters and Modern Family, and all of these positive portrayals of LGBT characters and storylines that aren’t stereotyped, that aren’t sensationalized. In places like Egypt, it’s really a poorer society. A lot of people don’t have roofs on their homes, but they do have satellite dishes. And these words and these images, they do change hearts and minds, and they’re getting through and entertaining in a fun way that audiences are responding to.
MW: Are younger generations in the Middle East becoming more tolerant of LGBT rights, or do you think it’s the same as previous generations?
SHARIF: To be honest, I’m not sure. There’s not much polling done on that. There certainly wasn’t in previous generations, to compare with. I think overall it seems like millennials are increasingly autonomous, and believe in individualism. And I think that’s a positive trend, that will lead not so much to people being accepting or understanding, but not caring about the issue as it relates to someone else.
MW: Was your grandfather aware of your coming out, and if so, was he accepting?
SHARIF: We never spoke about it. But our relationship never changed. Like I said, my family loved me unconditionally. I’m very fortunate. People are sometimes shocked to hear that, because he was from an older generation, and from the Middle East. But I always say he couldn’t have survived in Hollywood — he couldn’t have worked in Hollywood for 30-some-odd years — without being okay with gay people.
MW: You’re starring in The Secret Scripture with your grandfather. What was it like working with him?
SHARIF: It was really special and I want to thank Jim Sheridan for that incredible opportunity. It was just four months before my grandfather’s passing and I got to spend a considerable amount of time with him. He was with me on my first film that I ever made, and I was with him on the last film he ever made. It sort of brings things full-circle. But it’s a memory I’ll always cherish. It’s something I’ll always be able to look back on, because it was also the last time I saw him in person.
MW: Did your grandfather ever give you advice for acting, or did he let you do your own thing?
SHARIF: He would go over my lines with me sometimes, suggest how he would do it. He always told me that everything is in the eyes. Crying’s in the eyes, laughing is in the eyes, anger is in the eyes. He was the king of that: his eyes always told a story. That’s something I’ve tried to focus on.
MW: You’re speaking at the Night of Champions awards dinner. What do you hope to share with the younger LGBT athletes in attendance?
SHARIF: I think sports are a really important socialization tool, because it’s a community that supports you. You’re on a team, you’re with people who are experiencing similar things and empathize with you. What I usually talk about when I speak is when I had to leave Egypt — almost overnight, and move to America — the amazing community that’s taken me in here, the LGBT community has really taken me in as one of their own. And have really helped me, in a warm and welcoming way. I’m so grateful for that.
The way the community took me in, a sports team or league could do the same for these young athletes. We saw that with Michael Sam at Missouri. His team knew, it wasn’t an issue. They supported him throughout his university career. It was an example of them rallying together, and standing up together.
MW: What would be your message to a young person who is considering coming out?
SHARIF: I would tell them to try and live authentically, and openly, and in a way that would make them happy. Not to pay attention to the conversation happening around them, but to the conversation happening in their heart and their head. Because that’s the only one they can control.
METRO WEEKLY: Tell me about your early life.
ANDREW GOLDSTEIN: I grew up outside of Boston, in a town called Milton, in a sports family. I was the baby of three children. We were all athletes, all played sports in college. My dad was a hockey recruit from Canada who went to Brown University, where he met my mom. They moved to Boston, and it was all about hockey and sports growing up. You know, a regular suburban town.
MW: What was it about lacrosse that attracted you?
GOLDSTEIN: My brother played lacrosse — he was a goalie, actually — for the high school team. My sister played for the girls team. When I was around fifth or sixth grade, I picked up a stick for the first time. I saw my older siblings excelling at this in college, and I wanted to find a sport I could excel at, and lacrosse happened to be the one.
My first lacrosse game, I played midfield, and I scored five or six goals and then they told me the next week that they had made a rule that you couldn’t score more than three goals. I thought, “Well, what’s going to happen? I’m going to score three and then I won’t be able to play.” So I decided it was a good idea to switch to goalie, because then I could play for the back of the defense, and start the offense, and not be restricted, in a sense. And once I started playing goalie, I think it was pretty clear that I was one of the better players on whatever team I was on.
My freshman year of high school, I made the varsity team. And I guess that was, at the time, the first time that a freshman had started on the varsity. So from the beginning, I always had unique opportunities through lacrosse. And later on in life, I started to get certain awards, whether it was all-league or All-New England. One year, I won “best goalie” at one of the indoor tournaments and there were a lot of college coaches who were watching that tournament, so that led to letters from colleges that were interested, and Dartmouth was one of them.
MW: When did you first know that you were gay?
GOLDSTEIN: I would say I probably always knew. When I was very young, my older siblings used to tease me for being gay. It’s really difficult to know whether they had some sort of instinct, or whether that’s just what older kids do. But when I went to sleepaway camp for the first time, when I was about eight years old, I remember being with a group of my bunkmates. Someone had snuck in a Playboy magazine and they were all looking over it. And I really didn’t understand. It didn’t excite me, I didn’t have the same response that they did. I don’t know whether I had all the words at the time, but from that age, I suspected I was gay.
MW: When did you start coming out?
GOLDSTEIN: I really didn’t come out to anyone in my life until I was 19. That was my sophomore year of college. I came out to a female friend who I knew had a gay friend. She used to talk about him, so I thought she might be a good person to talk to.
Shortly after that, I ended up finding someone, a guy on campus, and we sort of fell in love. My roommates, one who was a lacrosse teammate, knew something was going on, because I would come back late or sneak out, or I’d be dressed really nice like I was going on a date, but I wasn’t telling them anything about it. Eventually, I had to tell them. And it was really awkward, really uncomfortable, but they were pretty cool about it.
I didn’t tell anyone else until the season was over. My mom came up to the Dartmouth campus for the day, and I came out to her. And she was really cool about it. She asked me what I was going to do, and I told her I was going to come out to everyone.
MW: What was your dad’s reaction?
GOLDSTEIN: Really positive. It was really scary for me to think about what his reaction would be, because he had seemed to be of a mind that being gay was not a good thing through his actions over the years. I eventually asked my mom to tell him for me, because I was so afraid of how he’d react. So my mom went home after I saw her, and they had whatever conversation they had, and when I woke up in the morning, I had this very long email from my dad and I sat there reading it, literally in tears, almost shaking, because it was so beautiful and supportive, making it so clear that I shouldn’t have to worry one more minute about what he thinks of me.
MW: How did your teammates react?
GOLDSTEIN: Coming out to my teammates was really scary. But I chose to do it at a fairly strategic time, in a fairly strategic way. I was coming off the season where I was All-American, All-Ivy League, All-New England, and my teammates had voted me Team MVP. So I was confident in that sense, that, no matter what, they weren’t going to turn their backs on me. I still was terrified, because just even saying those words out loud — “I’m gay” — was not something I was comfortable with. I had spent so long trying to project the exact opposite. Even when I came out to my roommate, I told him, “I’ve been dating this guy,” and he just held up his hand, and we slapped high-five. He made it very clear that he was cool in the sense he needs to be.
I came out to another guy on the team who I thought suspected I was gay, because he knew I was friends with someone he was friends with who was openly gay. And this guy also happened to be the summer president of the lacrosse fraternity. So he was a leader, and I figured that would be a good place to start. I cornered him in the weight room, during a team lifting session. He was completely stunned, and he thought I had told everyone else, but I told him it was frightening, the idea of getting up in front of everyone, and I was thinking maybe he could do it for me, and he happily did that. He eased a lot of my fears. The next time I saw all my teammates, they all knew. Many of them had sent me an email just letting me know they were cool with it. It wasn’t something we had to talk about. It took a while before I was comfortable enough, and others were comfortable enough, but at least it wasn’t a secret anymore and we could move on.
MW: What do you hope to talk about at the Night of Champions dinner?
GOLDSTEIN: Well, I think it’s an incredible honor to be asked to share my story in front of this great audience and a group that does a lot of good. I’m really excited to meet the scholarship winners, these young men and women who are really inspiring. I always find it so exciting to meet other young athletes who have been through the same experiences I have and learn their stories.
Gay athletes are probably the bravest people in the world because they have persevered with something that they love, even when they were afraid that others wouldn’t accept them, and they’ve come out the other side and realized that everything is going to be okay. Having a chance to speak and tell my story, really gives meaning to all of the difficult years I had in high school and early in college, when I felt like all of my energy was being used up to hide who I was. So to get to stand up and be celebrated, and have others find the value in my life experiences, it really gives a purpose to all of those really difficult times. Personally, that’s quite healing.
I know that I will never again make a decision based on what I think others would want from me. Going through what I did, and what every gay person has to do, in making the choice to come out, to choose yourself over other people — I think that informs your whole life. Never again will you make a decision to please others, you’re going to do what’s right for you.
Team DC’s Night of Champions Dinner and Awards Program is Saturday, Nov. 7, starting at 6 p.m. at the Washington Hilton Hotel, 1919 Connecticut Ave. NW. Tickets are $100 each. For more information, visit teamdc.org/champions.
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