Finding a Sailing Community – US Sailing
Patrick Burks is a sailor, race official, referee and coach – and a member of the LGBTQ+ community.
Burks first came out as gay in high school “because it was the best I could describe myself at the time,” Burks said. “Since then, I have discovered how complex sexuality and gender are, and I have a new language to talk about it.” Burks now also describes himself as non-binary using the pronouns He/Him or They/Them. “I try to focus on being myself. And if people dispute that, then that’s their problem.
When he entered the world of sailing, Burks did not often encounter overt discrimination; but once had an acquaintance who told him that it would be better if he never went out into the world of sailing.
“It was a sign that the sailing world was not a super open or welcoming place,” he said. “But that’s why the pride and awareness that I do is so important. I need to be visible so that other LGBTQ+ people in the sailing community have an example; someone to look up to.
Burks grew up around the water, sailing and motorboating the lakes and rivers around St. Louis, Missouri with their family. Burks was introduced to running at a small club in the St. Louis area while attending Webster University’s Conservatory of Theater Arts.
“I showed up one day to watch and take pictures, and I was walking around the boat park and someone said, ‘Hey, can you sail? “”, Did he declare. “From there, I dove head first.”
Burks took the newfound interest in New York, where he moved when he got his first job in the theater industry. He began sailing with the Manhattan Yacht Club after work, where he also became interested in managing yacht racing, eventually turning that interest into a career.
They now coach for the US Sailing Siebel Sailors program, teaching the next generation of more diverse sailors to sail, while doing their own sailing and officiating work.
It was in 2020, during the COVID pandemic, that Burks first started thinking seriously about LGBTQ+ activism in sailing by watching an American Sailing Starboard portal focused on diversity, equity and inclusion in sport. . It was after this, when he came across an article by Scuttlebutt Sailing about Rainbow Races, that Burks contacted founder Charles Szymanski.
“I reached out and said, ‘How can I help?’ said Burks. “I believe sailing is at a point where we need to change the stereotype of the exclusive sport, because we can’t afford to turn anyone away. The LGBTQ+ community in particular is a part that hasn’t always been embraced in many of these circles, but it’s a demographic that often offers some of the resources needed to get into a sport like sailing.
Rainbow Races started in 2019 as the Pride Regatta in the Chicago area. In an effort to bring his love of sailing to the LGBTQ+ community, founder Chris Szymanski started the nonprofit to run LGBTQ+-specific sailing events and educational classes.
As well as hosting a number of Pride sailing events, Rainbow Races has challenged itself to create the first-ever LGBTQ+ sailing school. With a donated 30-foot keelboat, the organization plans to hold Learn-to-Sail courses and Basic US Sailing Keelboat courses with certifications for community members and allies.
“Looking to the future, as long as we have success with this, we hope to expand to have multiple boats in different ports in Chicago and expand the lineup to include racing and coastal cruising,” Burks said.
Besides access to safe spaces like the one provided by Rainbow Races, in Burks, one of the biggest challenges facing the LGBTQ+ community in sailing is a lack of awareness and education. Taking the time to learn about things like gender identity and pronouns can make a big difference.
“The system we live in was designed for straight white cisgender men. Not being all of those things means you have a longer way to go to get to their starting line. I strive to use my privilege of being born white and being a male assigned at birth to help those who have not reached the starting line and beyond. I challenge everyone reading this to keep this in mind in your sailing community and in your life to do something to help – even in the smallest of ways,” Burks said. “If someone corrects you on a pronoun, make the effort to learn and try not to make the same mistake again.”
Overall, Burks said, “Just treat us like people – we’re just sailors, we’re just people who want to get out and enjoy their time on the water like everyone else.”