Thursday, April 5, 2007

Reaching Across the Divide: Religion and Sexuality in Sport

I’m writing to you from Cleveland today. I’m a little foggy this morning because I was up late at the semi-final games last night and then, of course, there were the post-game discussions that went far too late for me. I love women’s college basketball and, even though my Maryland Terps didn’t make it this far this year, there is still plenty to get excited about and look forward to for the final game between Tennessee and Rutgers.

There is a work aspect to my stay in Cleveland too. What a job! Being It Takes A Team! Director means I get to come to Cleveland for the Women’s Final Four. How cool is that? It is the work aspect that I really wanted to blog about this morning. The Women’s Sports Foundation had a booth in the exhibit area for the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association convention that meets each year in conjunction with the Final Four. It Takes a Team! has our materials and information at the WSF booth. So, I spend some time in the exhibit hall. At some point, I always cruise by all the other booths looking for free stuff for my partner. She’s a high school physical education teacher and uses this free swag as prizes and motivational tools in her classes.

In years past I’ve always stopped by the booths for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) and Athletes In Action (AIA) to pick up some of their brochures. In doing so, I usually feel like some kind of undercover agent looking for the enemy’s anti-gay propaganda. I’ve visited their web sites and read the stories they post there about young female athletes which usually go something like this: “I got really close to a teammate and then found myself in a sexual relationship with her. It was wonderful and intriguing, but something was missing and then it became abusive and addictive so I turned to God, made new Christian friends, left that sinful lesbian “lifestyle” and lived happily ever after with my husband in a truly fulfilling relationship that was meant to be.”

I know that FCA and AIA take the perspective that homosexuality is a sin and that homosexual relationships are inherently dissatisfying and not part of God’s plan. I, on the other hand, am an out lesbian who loves my life, feels quite fulfilled in it and am an outspoken advocate for equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in and out of sport. It has always been difficult for me to see how the divide between someone like me and organizations like FCA and AIA could be bridged. At past conventions, I’ve never stopped to talk to the people at the FCA and AIA booths. I just grab and go.

This year I tried something different. I stopped and talked to one of the women at the AIA booth. I told her about It Takes A Team! and our mission to make sports safe and respectful for LGBT people. I asked if she would be interested in talking with me. I told her I knew we had different perspectives on homosexuality and I was curious to see if we could find any common ground. She was interested in having this conversation and also invited a woman from FCA to join us. We went out to the concessions area, found three chairs in a quiet place and started talking.

In summary, it was an amazing conversation. It was respectful. It was honest. We do disagree on a lot, but the hopeful part for me was that we also found many areas of common ground. We named the fundamental differences in our perspectives, but did not let them become barriers in our talk. We did not try to persuade each other to our differing points of view. We just acknowledged our differences and moved on. I was pleased to find that we have many potential areas of agreement too: All three of us believe in the importance of creating a climate in athletics where everyone is treated with respect regardless of religion or sexuality. We agreed that sexual or religious harassment, imposing sexual or religious beliefs on others or pressuring others to adopt sexual or religious beliefs are wrong. We learned that all three of us, them as Christians and me as a lesbian, feel targeted or silenced in athletics. We agreed that unwanted “recruitment” by Christians and lesbians or gay men is not acceptable.

We agreed that many situations that get framed as “lesbian issues” or “Christian issues” are really coaching ethics issues and that it is more productive if we look at them through this broader lens. For example, coaches abusing their power by becoming sexually involved with their athletes or coaches who impose their religious beliefs on their teams should be viewed as coaching ethics situations, not lesbian issues or Christian issues.

We discussed the challenges of lesbians and gay or Christian coaches who do abuse their power and how we do not want their behavior generalized to all Christians or all lesbians and gay men.

At the end of our conversation, we all felt excited by the bridge we were building and the possibilities for collaboration in a new and even revolutionary way. One of them suggested that we should jointly plan a session for next year’s coaches’ convention where we would replicate our goal of finding common ground and searching for ways to reach across that gap that encourages us to focus on our differences rather than our agreements.

I left the conversations hopeful that we might be able to find ways for coaches and athletes to participate together with respect and dignity, agreeing to disagree where we cannot find common ground, but seeking out the common humanity we share and the common passion for sports that brought us together in the first place. What do you think about this?


Carol Anne (aka Scamp) said...

Pat, I think your outreach to AIA and FCA is wonderful! I wish there were more people willing to talk with each other despite their differences.

Carol Anne (Scamp) said...

Have you contacted Ted at Women's Hoops Blog about getting It Takes a Team! linked to on WHB?

Jen said...

I am intrigued by the notion of shared silence surrounding religion and sexuality in sport. I have studied and observed firsthand the ways in which lesbians are symbolically ereased/silenced in the coaching and playing ranks. I had not previously considered the silencing of organizations such as the FCA and AIA. Can these organizations really claim to be silenced when they "reach" 1.3 million student athletes in an academic year?
The above question is not intended to further the divide between religion and sexuality, I was simply struck by the statement that both groups "feel targeted or silenced in athletics." I wish I was a fly on the wall for this important conversation for I have much to learn and many assumptions to challenge about organizations such as the FCA and AIA. Thanks for your post.

Anonymous said...

I'm also wondering who is "silencing" AIA. When they came to town for an exhibition game against the local university, halftime was spent with AIA players "testifying" about their non-Christian pasts.
So where is the "silencing" coming from? I still believe in the separation of church and state, so no sympathy if they're going on about "society" pressures in a Christian-majority country.

Jillian Ross said...

Pat, I also commend you for having the conversation! As you know, it is so key to be having the conversations in sport that will unite us together versus dividing us. I see sport as the vechicle to justice happening in our society as a whole.

Another great example of "If you want peace, struggle for justice" (Pope John VI).

Anonymous said...

Pat, to put up a fight about kissing/groping in public at a ball park that has a blanket policy for NO public displays of affection/groping just makes things worse on all of you, as for Guerrero I'm sure she was really going at it in front of all those kids, it's bad enough when you have to tell two young kids to stop while in public let alone Guerrero and her partner, the double standard would be what in this case? The public display of affection appies to all people including Guerrero, are there not standard of manners anyomore, you can't take your kids to a ballgame without a hassle from anyone, and yet you still call it a double standard.