Friday, November 30, 2007

Irish Lesbian Athletes

I’m writing my weekly blog entry early this week because I am off to Dublin, Ireland tomorrow for a few days to serve on a doctoral committee. The doctoral student, Linda Greene, interviewed Irish lesbian athletes about their experiences in sports. Her research is the first to explore this topic in Ireland and makes an important contribution to the research literature on lesbians in sport.

Sad to say, homophobia and heterosexism are alive and well in Irish women’s sport. I’m looking forward to the conversation with Linda and the rest of her committee. I want to ask Linda to talk about how she compares the experiences of lesbian athletes in the US with how it is for Irish lesbian athletes. Linda has spent a lot of time here in the states as a college and professional soccer player so she is in a unique position to talk about this.

I was reminded, as I read Linda’s dissertation, how difficult it is sometimes to tell the difference between internalized homophobia (the fears we have taken in from the culture around us that now inhibit us, keep us closeted, even as the culture becomes more welcoming) and the real threat of discrimination, harassment and estrangement that we are smart to protect ourselves from. I’ve known so many lesbian athletes and coaches silenced by their own fears. I’ve known just as many who were smart and strategic to hide their lesbian identity from people who mean them harm. Linda’s dissertation reminded me that it is important to challenge both internalized homophobia and the discrimination and harassment.

Talk to you next week when I’m back from across the pond.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Football Fans, Fags and Free Speech

OK, I so I got carried away with the F alliteration in the title of this post. However, these are the major elements under discussion at the University of Virginia this fall. It is a tradition that, following a touchdown by the home team, the band plays a tune written in 1895 and fans sing along.

The lyrics include a declaration that all is “bright and gay.” The song was written in a time when “gay” was universally understood to mean “happy.” Now, of course, the word “gay” also means “homosexual.” So, when the fans get to this part of the song, some fans echo a loud “not gay!” to affirm their (probably drunken at this point) heterosexuality.

A group of students at UVA have initiated a campaign to encourage UVA fans to forego this tradition out of concern that the “not gay” ritual marginalizes the gay community at UVA and creates a hostile climate. A similar campaign several years ago apparently did have some success as fewer fans participated in the “not gay” shout, but over time, the ritual has crept back into the stadium.

A spirited debate has ensued in the school newspaper and on campus over the “anti-not gay” campaign. Some students call the campaign evidence of political correctness and liberal groupthink, infringements of free speech, and affirmations of the sin of homosexuality. Others maintain that acceptance of thoughtless anti-gay sentiments do have a negative effect on school climate and that the words we use are important. They applaud the effort to stop the “not gay” shouting.

I am tempted to speculate whether or not shouting “not black” or “not a Jew” would be tolerated by nearby fans or school officials as a way to point out that none of these expressions is acceptable. The problem with this comparison is that anti-black, anti-Jew and other prejudices are still acceptable on campuses too.

Fans at football and men’s basketball games at some schools routinely taunt opposing players with racial, homophobic and sexist shouts from the stands. Opposing players taunt each other with homophobic and racist slurs and refs rarely catch them. When I speak to collegiate athletes, the men, in particular, readily acknowledge that calling someone, a teammate or an opponent, a “fag” is an accepted and widespread occurrence.

Everyone who spends time with young people knows that saying, “That’s so gay,” to describe feelings about something is an accepted catch-all substitute for calling a person, a movie, a class, a pizza, or anything else “stupid,” “ugly,” or “uncool.” It’s so pervasive that most coaches, teachers and students who do object just let it go rather than being accused of being “too sensitive,” “gay themselves,” or PC or because they feel helpless to stop this pervasive part of school culture.

So, I applaud the efforts by the students at UVA to apply a little peer pressure to stop the “not gay” chant. It would be easy to just let it go when so many other people do. Each one of us has a sphere of influence – our family, our classroom, our co-workers, our team. I encourage everyone reading this to think about the places and people with whom you have influence.

If you’re a coach or a teacher or a team captain, the next time someone says, “That’s so gay,” or shouts, “not gay,” or calls someone a “fag or “lezzy,” don’t just turn away, roll your eyes or ignore it. Speak up. Let others know that you don’t like slurs or jokes of any kind, whether sexual, racial, religious, whatever. Use your influence. It can make a difference and, even if it doesn’t change the world, it can change your classroom or your team. That’s an important change.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Brokeback Basketball

Last week following a poorly played game by the Lakers, Coach Phil Jackson described the game to the press thusly, “We call this a ‘Brokeback Mountain’ game because there’s so much penetration and kickouts.” The NBA reprimanded Jackson calling his comment “in poor taste.” In response, Jackson started to apologize but then took a 180 and turned it into the standard non-apology apology by trying to make a joke of the whole thing, “It's poor humor. I deserve to be reprimanded by the NBA. If I've offended any horses, Texans, cowboys or gays, I apologize."

I’ve always liked Phil Jackson. He seems to be a class act among professional men’s sport coaches. So, I was a little surprised by his gratuitous joke and cynical apology. I don’t think it was funny or appropriate. I think it was a cheap and thoughtless attempt at humor that demeans Jackson. The joke only works if you think it’s funny to equate poor play by a men’s basketball team with being raped. This might seem a little heavy-handed, but, really. Nothing about the comment feels “consensual.” It doesn’t feel like a harmless sex joke to me, however inappropriate even that is. Plus, it plays on the stereotype that, in men’s sports, being dominated by the other team (having your defense penetrated) makes you gay, weak, soft (add your own “gay” adjective here). Isn’t this just a little more sophisticated way to equate poor play with being a “fag?” We all know too many coaches motivate male athletes by telling them they are “playing like a fag (or a girl)” as a way to get them to “man up.”

I also hate it that references to Brokeback Mountain have become sort of an all-purpose gay joke punch line. A couple of years ago, opposing fans were chanting “Brokeback Reddick” at Duke basketball star JJ Reddick and holding up movie posters with Reddick’s face on them. Brokeback Mountain is a sensitive and poignant movie about love between men and the destructive effects of homophobia, internalized and societal. How did it morph into this all-purpose adolescent gay joke used by adults who should know better?

OK, back to the Jackson comment – I know some people will see my response as PC, others will say I have no sense of humor (the guys at even think Jackson’s comment was funny). I think Jackson’s comment was mostly stupid, and compared with the hate-filled comments of a Tim Hardaway or a Jeremy Shockey, fairly innocuous. However, let’s not forget that professional men’s sports are still so homophobic that there are no out active players. Let’s not forget that young men in school and on the streets are still beaten up even on the suspicion that they are gay. Some schools would rather ban all extra-curricular clubs than allow students to organize a gay-straight alliance. Same-sex couples still can’t get married in 49 of 50 states, only 19 states out of 50 have laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and there is no federal employment non-discrimination law at all.

I may have to own up to being a little PC, but I do have a great sense of humor. Sorry, Phil, this just ain’t funny.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Fearless Campus Tour – Photo Exhibit of LGBT Athletes

Jeff Sheng is a lecturer at UC Santa Barbara who teaches photography. He has a photo project under way focused on LGBT high school and college athletes. He is currently speaking at schools around the US and showing his photo exhibit. He calls this traveling exhibit The Fearless Campus Tour. He eventually hopes to make the photo exhibit into a book. You can check out his web page for more information about his LGBT athlete photo exhibit and the campus tour –

I really like Jeff’s project because it is such a great way to call attention to the presence of LGBT athletes in high school and college sports. Looking at his photos helps viewers to understand that LGBT young people are playing all sports from football to field hockey, from wrestling to tennis, from volleyball to water polo. The young athletes featured in his exhibit represent the future of high school and collegiate sport – a place where all young people can openly and confidently identify themselves as LGBT to their coaches and teammates without fear of harassment or discrimination. They also represent a bridge to that future. The young people featured in this photo exhibit show other more fearful and closeted LGBT athletes that change is happening in schools across the USA.

Over my years of teaching about heterosexism and homophobia in schools and in athletics, it’s always been apparent to me that seeing LGBT people and listening to them talk about their experiences is a powerful catalyst for changes in how heterosexual people feel about sharing a classroom, workplace, team or neighborhood with LGBT people. My time on an LGBT speakers’ bureau from 1982-1995 was one of the more powerful education experiences I’ve had. People’s stereotypes are challenged, their fears are addressed and their misinformation corrected with face to face interactions. Not only that, it felt great to be a part of that change.

Jeff’s photo exhibit can be a similarly effective way to call attention to homophobia in sport and serve as a vehicle for young LGBT athletes to make their presence known in a way that helps to change the world of athletics for the better. Check it out.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Wake Up, Coach! Parents of Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans Athletes Are Speaking Out.

Over the last several months I’ve noticed an increase in the number of emails and phone calls I get from parents whose LGBT sons or daughters play on high school or college athletic teams. These parents want advice and resources to ensure that their children are treated fairly by coaches. It’s exciting because these young people are out to their parents and their parents are actively supporting their LGBT children. It has not always been so (And is still not so for too many young LGBT athletes).

I think this up tick in parental inquiries indicates trends that are really hopeful – Young athletes are coming out more often and their parents expect that school athletic programs will be able to protect their children’s right to participate in a respectful and safe athletic climate. If they encounter coaches, teammates or other parents who are uncomfortable with an LGBT athlete on the team or who flat out discriminate against or harass an LGBT team member, parents and their children are ready to challenge this treatment.

Based on my experiences in workshops with collegiate athletes and their coaches, I’ve noticed for awhile that the athletes are more comfortable than their coaches are with having lesbian or gay teammates. Generational changes on attitudes toward LGBT people in general are also reflected in national polls. Young heterosexual people are more comfortable in schools, on teams and in the workplace with LGBT people than their elders are. Parents who have LGBT children are the exception. They have a deep personal investment in change. As with any parent, they want their children to be treated fairly and are willing to speak out to make it happen.

This is a wake up call for high school and college coaches to do the work they need to do to make their teams respectful for everyone. Not only is it the right thing to do, it can avoid some nasty encounters (and possibly lawsuits) with angry parents and their LGBT children who believe that athletics should be safe and respectful for all. As the super-caffeinated soft drink TV commercial says, “Wake Up, People!”