Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Reflections on Different Generations of Gay Athletes

On Friday morning I flew to Atlanta because It Takes A Team was co-sponsoring (with the Human Rights Campaign) a media panel of gay athletes to coincide with the Men’s Final Four. The panelists were Dave Kopay, ex-NFL player (and the godfather of all gay ex-professional athletes); Esera Tuoalo, ex-NFL player; Billy Bean, ex-MLB player; John Amaechi, ex-NBA player; Joey Fisher, goalie for the University of Georgia men’s ice hockey team; Terri O’Connell transgender NASCAR racer; and me.

We had hoped to have lesbian professional athletes on the panel, but all of the high profile women we asked were busy on Olivia cruises, skiing in Europe, doing other speaking engagements and playing golf so it was up to me to represent a lesbian point of view. We hope to co-sponsor another panel in conjunction with a women’s sports event where the panelists will be lesbian professional athletes and coaches since this one was so skewed toward the men’s experiences and perspectives. LZ Granderson, out gay ESPN reporter, moderated the panel.

I had met Billy Bean and Dave Kopay before and it was great to see them. It was also great meeting Esera, John, Terri, Joey and LZ for the first time. I was struck by the sense of mission and purpose everyone on the panel had about making the sports world a better place for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender athletes of the future. Some columnists have criticized these guys for cashing in on their celebrity by writing books and hitting the speakers’ circuit. What a cynical view. One of the poignant moments on the panel for me was when Esera told Dave that reading his book in 1976 saved Esera’s life. I believe that Dave, Esera, Billie and John, all of whom have written books about their experiences as gay professional athletes, are saving lives and offering hope and support for young people who are struggling to love themselves when they do not have the love and support of families and friends. They are also providing an opportunity for young heterosexual athletes to read, learn and challenge their own prejudices about gay teammates.

Then there is Joey Fisher. Joey represents a new generation of gay athletes. He is currently playing on the University of Georgia ice hockey team and he is out. His teammates support him, his family supports him and he is enjoying his collegiate athletic career. Isn’t this simple story the way it should be for all young people? You get to be yourself, enjoy the love of friends and family and play the sports you have a passion for. Joey’s experience reinforces my belief that we do not need a high profile professional male team sports star to come out to change the world. The younger generation of athletes is already doing that. It will be an evolutionary, not a revolutionary change. As they become coaches themselves or move from high school to collegiate to the professional ranks, they will take their attitudes and experiences with them.

We older folks have a lot to learn from them. At the same time, young gay and lesbian athletes also owe a big thank you to pioneers Dave Kopay, Esera Tuoalo, Billy Bean, John Amaechi, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Sheryl Swoopes, Rosie Jones and all the other professional athletes who have led the way. It was an inspiring day.

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