Sunday, April 6, 2008

Seeking Common Ground: Lesbians and Christians in Women’s Sports

In my last post I promised a report on the WBCA convention session I helped to organize in Tampa with women from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Athletes in Action. We had about 40 coaches attend the session. I would have loved to have had more folks there, but those who were there were engaged and appreciative of the opportunity to focus on this “taboo” topic.

The other five panelists besides me were:

Helen Carroll, Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights Homophobia in Sport Project and former athletic director and basketball coach

Debbie Haliday, athletic director and coach at Hillcrest Christian School and formerly with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and former D1 basketball and softball player.

Donna Noonan, vice president of coaching ministries at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and former D1 golf coach.

Lea Robinson, a graduate student at Suffolk University and former D1 basketball player and coach.

Tracey Wolff, Athletes in Action staff member and former D1 basketball coach.

The conversation was just as amazing as I had hoped it would be. There was mutual respect and a willingness to take risks. People shared personal experiences and struggles in the places in their lives where religion and sexuality have come together to create moral dilemmas or painful choices. There was risk-taking and challenging of assumptions and stereotypes about lesbians and about Christians.

I felt the joy the Christian women expressed in their faith. I hope they felt the comfort and rightness the lesbians on the panel feel in our identities. We talked about spouses and children in our lives. We talked about our shared commitments to women in sport and respectful treatment for all women in athletics. We talked about some of our concerns about having this conversation: fear of being hurt, misunderstood, offending others, compromising our values.

Tracey and Lea, as African-American women, shared how race intersects with sexuality and religion in their lives. We shared learning edges or places where we continue to struggle with how religion and sexuality fit into how we live our lives. I found myself nodding in agreement not only with what the other lesbians on the panel said, but also with the Christian women. We all listened to each other. We talked about “crossing bridges.” We talked about “respecting our own and each others’ truths.” We laughed.

We challenged ourselves and the folks who attended the session to identify ways the conversation could be a model for teams to build bridges across differences, not only religion and sexuality, but also race, class, culture.

At the end of the hour, I tried to sum up my feelings about the session by saying that I could imagine myself playing on a team with these five women. I could imagine coaching them or being coached by any one of them. It felt like a huge wall of silence and distrust had come down.

I am not naïve enough to believe that the conversation we had in that room among the six of us and the 40 coaches who shared it with us will change the world, but it did create possibilities. It did open doors. It is a start. It showed me and, I hope, all of us there on Saturday morning that we can create a common ground of respect across differences if we intentionally set out to make it happen, if we listen to each other. The six of us agreed to continue the conversation. We don’t want the session to be a “one and done” event. I look forward to thinking together about what our next step might be.


Carol Anne (aka Scamp) said...

After the Tampa Tribune reported a few stories about the projected spike in business from gay women, the NCAA released this statement:

"To say any NCAA championship appeals to a certain percentage of a particular segment of the population, especially without scientific backing, is without merit. The truth is each tournament appeals to a core group of fans but that core is as diverse as the American population itself."

It's too bad the NCAA doesn't have the courage you and the other panelists showed. Yes, there are lesbians and you weren't afraid to stand up as such, nor were they to join you on the panel.

s. said...

I'd like to encourage you to include other faiths in this outreach / bridge project. F'rinstance... Reform Judaism has NO problems with homosexuality -- I am free to be devout, to practice, to go to rabbinical school, to get married. It might be useful to have that viewpoint included as well, to make it clear that religious and lesbian are not antonymns.

Pat Griffin said...

Scamp and s.- Thanks for your comments. I do plan to blog about the article in the Tampa paper and will today or tomorrow. s. you make a great sugggestion about an "interfaith" conversation. Maybe it can be one of our next steps. I believe the conversation among the FCA, AIA and lesbians was the place to start though because the relationships between Christian coaches and athletes in FCA and AIA and lesbian coaches and athletes has been a source of tension and lack of communication for a long time. The panel was a first step at addressing that.

Kent Ridley said...

Very interesting idea and I especially enjoy the fact that it took place during such a high profile weekend.

Finding a common ground like sports makes other risky subjects easier to breach. As a Christian coach myself that enjoys both coaching and watching women's sports it can be an issue that is quietly raised in the background in hushed tones. I applaud your efforts and those around you brave enough to come forward to discuss this!

m lacey said...

I appreciate the comments here. As a fan of women's basketball, I am troubled by the efforts of some FCA-linked coaches to promote their own brand of Christianity within their programs. Where I live in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, for example, the coach of the Illinois State Redbirds is quoted on FCA's local website as saying her main job as coach is not to win games, but to "impact lives for Christ." Accordingly, she has hired three assistant coaches who apparently share her particular religious views. She also sponsors weekly team meetings devoted to religious devotionals led by FCA's local director. This is a man who has publicly spoken out against state laws banning discrimination against gays and lesbians.

It seems to me that coaches who use their positions to promote Christianity within their programs are fostering an implicitly coercive environment for young student-athletes. In real life, how many of these young people are going to feel comfortable saying they would prefer not to attend weekly meetings devoted to Christ's lessons for athletes? Indeed, how welcome can non-believers, Jews, or lesbians truly be in such an environment? Or are they even recruited?

It is my understanding that FCA rules prohibit gays and lesbians from holding staff positions. So, I ask: How do we find "common ground" with such discrimination? Or with the more general misuse of the authority of a coaching staff to promote certain Christian views?

Pat Griffin said...

m lacey,
Thank you for your comments. These are some of the issues I hope we can address as we seek "common ground." I think one of the things I am learning from the women from FCA and AIA that I have met through the WBCA panel is that it is important for me not to assume that all members of FCA or AIA share the same exclusionary perspective about playing on teams with lesbians or being coached by lesbians. I will have to ask them about the prohibition on lesbians or gay men holding staff positions.

I share your discomfort with coaches misusing their authority to promote Christianity (or any other religious perspective). In a public institution or a private secular one, coaches have a responsibility to maintain a religion-neutral environment. This is all part of our on-going conversation - understanding how we create and maintain the common ground on a team we seek.

m lacey said...

Thank you for your comment. That's a good point about not assuming everyone in FCA is bigoted. Best of luck with the good work you are doing.

Meredith Burney said...


Thank you for addressing this topic with grace, understanding and compassion. It has always been my belief that as coaches or athletes, we need to look at the heart of the individual, regardless of religion, race, or sexual orientation. Fear and misunderstanding can lead to such animosity toward an individual or group.

I have trained with, lived with and been coached by lesbians. I was the only heterosexual in my degree program at Smith College. I am a Christian woman with a great husband and three terrific kids as well as an FCA leader on the liberal campus where I teach and coach. I applaud you for bringing folks together to discuss this topic and its effects on team cohesion and the use/misuse of authority. Would love to have you hold a similar forum out West! Thanks again for your vision and action!

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