Scholarship recipient Alan Cook, foreground, along with his friend and teammate Nick Spina.

Alan Cook, 2018

Boston’s FLAG Flag Football League is very proud to award its Marc E. Lewis Youth Scholarship to Alan Cook from Methuen High School. Alan will receive $5,000 to begin his first year in the fall as an honors student studying engineering at UMass Lowell.

Throughout high school, Alan has established himself as a leader and role model. Elected captain by his peers on his current spring track team, Alan has also captained his cross-country team, ran winter track, and played both junior varsity and varsity soccer. He has been involved in his school’s Red Cross committee, Relay for Life committee, and has acted, built sets, and volunteered with the Acting Out Theater Company. He has also participated in four Pride Parades, where he has been seen both juggling and riding a unicycle!

Though Alan is the sixth person to be awarded this annual scholarship, he is the first who identifies as a straight ally. Alan sites two formative experiences from early in his life as being the catalysts for his advocacy on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community. Having a transgender older brother who began to transition when Alan was in grammar school “really opened my eyes to the inequality that was happening in our community,” Cook explains. “I have been by my brother’s side throughout his transition, and I will stand by him until I die.” He also recalls how the AIDS-related death of his uncle’s boyfriend opened his eyes to intolerance. “When his boyfriend died of AIDS, the boyfriend’s family blamed my uncle and did not let him go to the funeral.” These early experiences, recognizing that his big brother was simply “born into the wrong body,” and how destructive homophobia and shame can be, have led Alan to say, “My whole life has been about trying to advocate for the LGBTQ community.”

Alan recalls vividly the first time he needed to address homophobic language and the ubiquitous phrase, “You’re so gay,” that poisons too many of our high schools. One day, when hearing the phrase thrown around during a track meet, Alan “felt it was my place to step up and use it as a teaching moment.” Alan told his team about his transgender older brother, Brian, recipient of the initial FLAG Flag Football League scholarship. He explained how Brian had played on their high school’s football team and how his teammates stood up for him on and off the field. He also “told the guys that I was sick of hearing people call each other gay.” As he explains, “Everyone just nodded and went about their business, so I thought nothing more of it.”

What Alan did not realize was just how meaningful that moment was for one of his teammates. Fellow runner Nick Spina listened carefully to Alan’s words. “Alan started talking about his transgender brother and how he looked up to him because he wasn’t afraid to be himself.” Though they had been friends since freshman year, Nick had never told Alan, nor anyone else, that he was gay. “I was actually surprised at how loving Alan was and accepting about the topic, especially since it was around a bunch of teammates who use the word ‘gay’ to make fun of people. I always assumed that everyone would judge me because I wasn’t like them, but Alan gave me hope that maybe one day I could fit into society like his brother does.”

When, this past fall, Nick was “tired of hiding my secret” and “needed to tell at least one person so I could get it off my chest,” Alan was the obvious choice. Even though he was “confident that he would understand,” Nick did not anticipate just how supportive Alan would be and how valuable it was to have such a strong ally and friend. “The first thing he did was hug me and tell me how proud he was that I told him. For the next few weeks, I talked to Alan almost every day about how I was feeling and how I wanted to tell more people. He was my support system as I started to tell more of my friends and family. He kept on encouraging me to not be afraid to be myself.” In recommending Alan for the scholarship, Nick wrote, “He supported me when I felt I was all alone, and he taught me to love myself for who I am. He is an amazing person and an even better friend. I’m so glad that I feel confident in myself now, and Alan is the main reason for that.”

Alan’s leadership and Nick’s openness are a perfect example of how raising awareness and being true to oneself and those you love can change a culture. Alan shrugs off the compliment and says simply of his teammates and their change of language, “Once they found out about my brother and Nick, they have stopped.” While Alan is “glad I was able to help Nick through his coming out process,” he hopes that “someday soon no one will have to think twice about telling people their sexual identity. It should not even be an issue in the first place, especially in sports.”