Monday, December 29, 2008

2008 Top 10 Steps Forward for LGBT Athletes and Coaches

I decided to focus my 2008 Top 10 list on events and actions that I think are exemplary steps forward in making sports a safe and respectful place for LGBT people. It’s a pretty eclectic list and is completely my take on things. Let me know what you think. Some items were high profile media events and others were not necessarily well reported, but I think they make a difference. Here we go, in no particular order:

Eleven openly lesbian and gay athletes compete in the Beijing Olympics (and win seven medals among them). Visibility is one of our most important tools in debunking myths about lesbian and gay athletes. Coming out is really important, especially for athletes who are actively competing. Among these eleven pioneers were three American women: Lauren Lappin and Vickie Galindo, silver medalists in Softball and Natasha Kai, gold medalist in soccer (Blog posts August 11 and 21).

Matthew Mitcham’s Olympic diving gold medal. Among the eleven openly gay athletes, Australian Matthew Mitcham’s clutch come-from-behind upset of the heavily favored Chinese divers was an amazing performance. His joyous celebration with his partner after winning the gold was also something we rarely get to share.

The Washington Interscholastic Athletic Association’s passage of a statewide gender policy governing the participation of transgender athletes in high school sports. This action was not a high profile event, but the WIAA is the first state-wide sports governing organization for either high school or collegiate sport to take a thoughtful and reasoned look at how to accommodate student-athletes whose gender identity does not match their assigned gender at birth. So far, no national collegiate or high school sports governing organizations has taken this proactive approach. That makes Washington state’s forward thinking all the more impressive (Blog post June 6).

GLSEN’s Think B4 You Speak Campaign. Though this campaign does not specifically target athletics, it does focus on schools and the ubiquitous use of the phrase “That’s so gay” as a putdown among young people in schools. With the help of some high profile celebrities like Wanda Sykes and Hilary Duff in downloadable video PSAs targeting high school students, GLSEN has developed educational materials that any school or organization can use (Blog post October 16).

The Initiation of Our Group, the first National Network of LGBT Student-Athletes. This group of collegiate student-athletes has great ideas and great energy. Their willingness to not only be out, but also to take action to make athletics a more welcoming place for all LGBT student-athletes is inspiring (Blog post May 27).

Britain’s Rugby Football League anti-homophobia campaign. This national education campaign in Great Britain initiated by the RFL in collaboration Stonewall, a national gay rights group is truly ground-breaking. It also provides a model for us here in the United States. NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA are you listening? (Blog post December 1)

The Fearless Campus Tour. Jeff Sheng’s traveling photo exhibit of LGBT high school and collegiate student-athletes is a tremendous educational tool that has become increasingly popular. This creative project raises the issue of homophobia in sport and enables openly LGBT athletes to speak to other athletes of all sexual orientations and gender identities through their photographs and personal statements accompanying the photos (September 14).

A Near 100% Win Percentage in Lawsuits Challenging Title IX Retaliation Cases (often with homophobic overtones). Fresno State lost or settled three multi-million dollar lawsuits. Florida Gulf Coast University settled their lawsuit for 3.4 million. Two lesbian coaches at Mesa Community College had their discrimination charges against the school substantiated as the lawsuit moves forward. With the economic stress schools are feeling these days, the stupidity and arrogance demonstrated by some athletic administrators is difficult to fathom in the face of near certain losses in these cases. Is equality for lesbians and all women in athletics really that painful? (Blog posts September 18 and October 16)

Nike Sports for Pulling Their Offensive “That Ain’t Right” Shoe Ads. True, it took some complaining in the blogosphere and from gay rights groups, but Nike did pull the ads. Now, if we can only convince Snickers and Doritos and their ad agencies that it is not ok to play on an assumption of men’s homophobia to sell product to them (Blog post July 28).

ESPN, A Budding Ally in Addressing LGBT Issues in Sport. Over the past year, ESPN has done a thoughtful piece on negative recruiting in women’s sports for Outside The Lines, started an LGBT employee group, hosted the Fearless Campus Tour and is now researching a segment for Outside The Lines on transgender athletes. No, ESPN is not perfect. I know that, but compared to some of the other sports media, they are definitely making moves in the right direction (Blog posts March 25 and November 3).

That’s it. My take on the 10 Steps Forward in 2008. I could also have made up a list of Steps Backward for the year. Several potential actions or events come to mind, but I decided to go with the positive and focus on Steps Forward.

Reviewing my blog entries for 2008, I came across the one I wrote about the two lesbians kissing at Safeco Field in Seattle (Blog post June 6). They were asked to leave by an overzealous employee after a woman complained about their PDA. I have to tell you that this is the blog entry I had the most fun writing this year and I think it is really funny. I am nominating it for the 2008 Pat Griffin’s LGBT Sport Blog Hall of Fame.

Happy New Year! Let us all hope that 2009 brings many steps forward, not only for addressing LGBT issues in sport, but also for peace, prosperity and social justice.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Random and Distracted Thoughts on Puppies and Other Ponderings

Just sitting here this morning trying to figure out what to write. I am a little distracted by our new puppy, Toby, who is a 5 month old border terrorist, excuse me, terrier mix. Toby is a rescue dog from Ohio and he has completely taken over our home and hearts. He is cute, but needs lots of attention and training. My undisturbed working time is now interrupted with attempts to save fleece blankets from shredding and entreaties from those big brown eyes for a rawhide chew or a pee break and romp in the front yard. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

So, anyway, here I sit with the sounds of contented rawhide gnawing in the background (the fleece blanket is toast) trying to think of what I have to say that you might be interested in this week. Here are some random questions:

• Do you think ponytails help women athletes with balance? I know cats use their tails for balance. Maybe ponytails serve a similar function. Could that be the reason so many women athletes have ponytails? Will it catch on with men? There was that whole Samson thing after all.
• Do you think that speaking in a monotone and using sport clich├ęs during media interviews is somehow related to men’s athletic ability?
• Have you ever wondered why sports interviews in the locker room with sweaty naked and half naked men are considered so essential to covering men’s professional team sports?
• Have you thought about how lucky Plaxico Burress is that he only shot himself in the thigh?
• Can you imagine a time when a male athlete raping/harassing/hitting a woman will be considered a more serious offense than a woman athlete loving a woman.
• Do you hate the phrase “It’s just boys being boys” as much as I do?
• Do you understand why some straight male athletes think homophobic sexual humiliation during team hazing is funny, but recoil in horror at the thought of sharing a locker room with an openly gay teammate?
• Do you wonder how long it will take before a lesbian coach will be willing to talk about her partner and family in the team media guide like her heterosexual counterparts do?

I have to stop this now. Toby is finished with the rawhide chew and it is way too quiet in the house. I fear for other blankets and pillows within reach of his sharp little puppy teeth.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Go See Tru Loved. It’s Fun.

I went to see Tru Loved this weekend. It’s an independent film comedy about high school students dealing with typical high school drama with parents and friends in addition to sexual identity issues and homophobia. A central part of the story is the effort by the lead character, Tru (who is straight but has two moms and two dads), to start a gay-straight alliance at the school.

Out for Reel sponsored the showing and proceeds from the evening go to GSAs in Western Massachusetts. It’s a completely engaging film and I left the Northampton High School Auditorium smiling as did most of the full house crowd who attended. I recommend that you check it out if you have a chance. The end is a little idealistic just short of everyone holding hands and singing Kumbyah but what the heck, we need a vision, right?

Ok, here’s the sports angle - Woven into the plot is the story of Lo,an African-American closeted gay quarterback on the high school football team. Lo’s best friend on the team is a major homophobe as is their football coach (a pretty stereotypical portrayal except for the hint of British accent). Lo asks Tru out, but she quickly figures out what his secret is and agrees to help him “pass” by pretending to be his girlfriend…until she decides to start a GSA and falls for one of the straight guys in the group. Lo’s confusion about being gay and his fear about losing his family, football and his high status among his peers as a BMOC collide with his feelings for another openly gay student, his friendship with the courageous Tru and his budding desire to be true to himself. The last scene in which Lo finally comes out to everyone includes a cameo appearance by Dave Kopay, the first gay former NFL player to come out publicly.

My inner educator couldn’t help but take over as I watched the film. I could envision showing clips of this film to high school athletes and coaches. Unfortunately, the only character in the film who remains unrepentantly homophobia is the football coach, but the film leaves the impression that he will be the ex-coach very soon because of his bigotry, after getting an ultimatum from the school principal (who was a little light in his loafers). It was fun.

Wow, would I have loved to have had a movie like this when I was in high school. Go see it. It will make you smile.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Score One for Fair Play in Michigan City (sort of)

I’ve devote two blog posts (Ocotber 29 and November 10) to events in Michigan City, Indiana about two youth baseball coaches who were suspended, unsuspended and then resuspended for encouraging/allowing/participating in (depending on different reports) anti-gay name-calling directed at one of the 12 year old players on their team.

According to this news article, the City Park Board has, as a reaction to these events, enacted an amendment to their code of ethics requiring coaches to “take action” in response to “inappropriate, foul or abusive” language from parents, fans or players. Coaches who fail to act will be suspended and perhaps banned from future participation in city park programs. A step in the right direction.

The amendments, as reported in the news article, do not include any prohibition against coaches using unacceptable language themselves, procedure for reporting it or sanctions against the coaches if they were. This is an unfortunate oversight. It is equally important to hold coaches to the same standards as their players, parents and fans. I guess you can infer that, since the coaches are responsible for stopping the use of abusive or inappropriate language by others, the expectation is that they will hold themselves to the same standard. I just don’t understand how you can amend an ethics code and not mention coaches’ behavior too.

Creating a policy is a great step forward. I applaud the city park board for their action. I hope that Michigan City will also follow this up to provide all participants with more specific examples of what constitutes “inappropriate or abusive” language. In addition, I think it would be a great idea to sponsor a workshop for parents, fans, players and coaches about how to intervene in effective ways when unacceptable language is used. That would help to make it everyone’s responsibility for maintaining a positive “good sport” climate at games and practices rather than putting it all on the coaches, especially if coaches are the ones who are using unacceptable language themselves.

Monday, December 1, 2008

“Some People Are Gay. Get Over It!”

This is the message that will be on signs and posters at Britain’s Rugby Football League games beginning in February. The RFL is working in collaboration with Stonewall, a gay and lesbian rights group in Britain, to organize this first every education and awareness campaign sponsored by a national sports organization. The campaign slogan will also appear in game programs and rugby fanzines. Plus, Stonewall is providing the league with information packets about inclusive policies and practices. But wait, there’s more! (as that loud guy on the TV infomercials keeps yelling) The RFL is also setting up a gay, lesbian, bisexual forum for staff and players. A spokesperson for the RFL said they became interested in doing this campaign after similar collaborative efforts between individual teams and local LGBT groups were successful. The campaign is expected to reach two million people who attend matches each year as well as the 250,000 RFL players across the country.

Wow. In the United States this would be roughly equivalent to the NFL working with It Takes A Team to set up an education and awareness campaign for pro football fans at games, in Sports Illustrated, and to establish a forum for NFL players and staff to discuss gay issues. Can you imagine a Super Bowl PSA with the message “Some athletes are gay and that’s ok.”

Some inroads have been made into the macho world of the NFL. Gay ex-NFL player, Esera Tuaolo, led a session at rookie camp at least once. My colleague at UMass, Robin Harris, has also led sessions for the NFL rookies on a variety of diversity topics including LGBT issues. Former NFL commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, was an active supporter of PFLAG as a father with a gay son.


The San Francisco Forty-Niners are the only NFL team I know of that has taken an active role in working with community LGBT groups and enacting gay-friendly policy and education. Helen Carroll of the NCLR Sports Project works with the San Francisco Forty-Niners on LGBT issues as part of the Forty-Niners’ Community Advisory Committee. They also are the only NFL franchise to offer domestic partner benefits to employees. They are sponsors of the San Francisco Pride Parade and received an award from the Commercial Closet.

You might say, well, of course, it’s San Francisco! But I think their efforts to open doors provide some possibilities for other cities to initiate collaborative relationships with pro sports franchises. That is how the RFL’s campaign began. They saw how local collaborative efforts between teams and LGBT groups were received.

I know this might seem a bit optimistic to people who believe that NFL players will never accept a gay teammate and male football fans will never cheer for a queer, but if we don’t envision the future we want, how will we change sport?