One scrimmage into the Minneapolis boys’ lacrosse season this spring, his first as an openly gay man, coach Aron Lipkin faced the complexities of going public.
Lipkin watched with surprise as one of his veterans repeatedly stick-slashed an opponent, eventually earning a penalty. Later in the game, an assistant told Lipkin, “Coach, he was standing up for you.”
When Lipkin asked his player what happened, he told his coach the other player had used a gay slur to describe the Minneapolis players.
A curious rather than furious mind-set overcame Lipkin, 35, who came out on Oct. 11 on Facebook and shared his story a month later with the website outsports.com.
“Instantly, I’m hit with a ton of different stuff, a lot of firsts,” said Lipkin, who immediately wondered if the slur was even personal. The confusion owed to how often Lipkin, a coach for 13 years and a player since he was a teenager, said he hears the slur used in sports circles.
“And then I have to take in that my player is standing up for me, and I don’t know if I like the way he’s standing up for me. And I’m really good friends with the other team’s head coach. Do I tell him now? Do I tell him later? And even with that, I’m thinking he should address that, but unfortunately, sports is sports.”
Navigating daily life has been both liberating and complex for Lipkin, whose decision to come out in his sports world sought to honor the experience of a 13-year-old lacrosse player and his concerned mother, a supportive colleague who died unexpectedly last fall — and himself.
Lipkin said he is “pretty sure” coming out as a gay head coach marks “a first” for Minnesota varsity boys’ lacrosse.
“I never thought I would be in a place where I would write that, and be excited about it,” he said in an e-mail to the Star Tribune.
Lipkin, who spent two years at Minneapolis Southwest and graduated from Minnehaha Academy, later experienced the unenviable place homosexuality occupied in sports culture as a closeted lacrosse player at Drexel University and Whittier College.
“With sports, outside of just sexuality, there’s so much messaging about what it means to be a man, what it means to be an athlete,” said Lipkin, a defender and long-stick midfielder. “I’m an athlete. I’m good at trying hard. I tried very, very hard to not be gay.”
Last summer Lipkin participated in an annual competitive men’s lacrosse tournament in Colorado. One evening he joined teammates from two East Coast colleges for drinks at the hotel. None knew Lipkin was gay.
“One of the guys said something really derogatory and one of the other guys kind of hits him and says, ‘Knock that off. There could be a gay person in the room,’ ” Lipkin said. “And I remember thinking, ‘I really appreciate that.’ Later on, I messaged him later and told him how much that meant to me.”
Complexities arose after Lipkin relayed the story to a friend, a woman of color.
“I said, ‘Isn’t that great?’ And she goes, ‘No. It should be something they just don’t say at all,’ ” Lipkin said. “I had to really think about that because I’m gay and I know I used language like that. When I was young, I did whatever I could I do to project the opposite.”
Lipkin is the executive director and co-founder of Homegrown Lacrosse, a local organization that provides opportunities for players to raise their skill level while also emphasizing values such as teamwork, commitment and selflessness. Programs include overnight summer camps for boys from seventh grade to high school juniors.
A parent e-mail in June 2017 regarding an overnight camp started Lipkin on the path to coming out.
The mother was concerned about her son, then 13, who was out as gay in most areas of his life but not in lacrosse. Lipkin assured the mother that her son would feel included. Furthermore, Lipkin complimented the youngster for being more open than Lipkin could be at that age.
Thrilled by the mother’s positive reply, Lipkin felt compelled to share it with a new employee at Homegrown Lacrosse. The colleague, Christopher White, praised Lipkin — who had privately told friends and loved ones he was gay — for showing courage and leadership by relating to the youngster’s concerns.
White unexpectedly died in October.
The whole experience helped fuel Lipkin’s decision to come out publicly.
“I had a lot of fear about it,” Lipkin said. “It felt so self-aggrandizing. So I procrastinated. But with Chris, I thought, ‘This is a story worth telling.’
“I wanted to come out for this kid and this mom. I wanted to come out so people can see who Chris was. But really, the silver bullet on it was, I also know that Chris lived his life as fully and honestly as he could, and what he would want for me is to do the same thing.”
Reaction in the lacrosse world has been positive.
“When I came out, several players reached out to me privately to say, ‘Thank you. This is who I am,’ ” Lipkin said. “And a number of coaches, even some guys I didn’t expect to hear this from, said thank you. One said, ‘I know I have kids who are sleeping better tonight because of what you’ve shared.’ ”
Lucas White, a Minneapolis lacrosse senior co-captain, said Lipkin’s decision “will encourage more people to stop with the slurs and it’ll encourage more people to open up. You don’t really hear about a lot of pro athletes or athletes in general coming out. So it’s a big deal.”
‘Complex but good’
With the outside praise comes Lipkin’s internal concerns. His Homegrown Lacrosse program offers overnight summer camps for boys in seventh- and eighth-grade as well as high school boys.
“There is very real fear I have around what’s going to happen to my business and also the perceptions that I can’t control about me,” Lipkin said.
His biggest regret is not coming out sooner and making himself a resource for people such as former player Carlos Siguenza. Now a first-year assistant boys’ lacrosse coach at St. Louis Park, Siguenza came out publicly as gay in 2014 before playing college lacrosse at Cornell.
“I get how he might feel that was, but people can’t be pressured,” Siguenza said. “He was and is a mentor and an advocate.”
Life less than one year out of the closet “is complex but it’s been good,” Lipkin said. “Part of the hesitation with coming out publicly is not wanting to be defined as this one thing. Especially something you’ve held back for so long. There’s so much gravity around that. But the more I lean into it, the more I realize I’m clearly not defined by just that. I’m starting to grasp what pride means.”