Monday, January 12, 2009

Research Confirms Two Ways We Can Make Sports Safer for LGBT Athletes

I recently read two reports of encouraging research findings that have implications for LGB athletes in high schools and colleges. The first report is about research completed by Dr. Caitlin Ryan, a researcher at San Francisco State University. She is affiliated with the Family Acceptance Project, a community initiative.

This study found that parental rejection of LGB children has serious health consequences for young people. The study identifies specific negative parental behaviors and documents the health consequences of young LGB people whose parents exhibit these behaviors. Several previous studies over the past 20 years have documented the increased risk of suicide among some LGB young people, but linking suicide and other health risks to parents’ behaviors provides direction (and motivation) for changing behavior and for increasing the physical and mental well-being of young LGB people.

The second research report comes from the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network’s 2007 School Climate Survey. Among the information reported in the survey is the finding that schools with gay-straight alliance clubs for students may be safer than schools that do not have such clubs. Students in schools with GSAs reported hearing fewer anti-gay comments and LGBT students reported experiencing less harassment or assault because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. They also reported feeling a greater sense of belonging to their school.

Both research reports have implications for making the experiences of high school and college LGBT athletes more positive and productive. Student-athletes whose parents support them (or at least do not reject them) have an important foundation to build on as they negotiate homophobia in the sports world. It makes sense to me that the results of the parent study can also be extended to coaches’ reactions to having an LGB team member. Being on an athletic team is similar to being in a family. Coaches are often highly regarded mentors who have tremendous influence on their teams on and off the field of play. We already know that how they react to LGB team members sets the tone for how the rest of the team responds. This research also indicates that a coach’s negative reactions can potentially have serious health consequences for LGB athletes. Would awareness of this effect make coaches stop and think before they say or do something that rejects LGB team members or creates a negative climate for LGB team members?

The connections between a safer school environment and the presence of a GSA in the school can be applied to the athletic context as well. In addition to a safer overall school climate, wouldn’t it make sense that in athletic departments in which there is a Gay-Straight Student-Athlete Alliance or LGBT Student-Athlete Club of some kind the climate would also be more respectful and safe? Increasing numbers of LGBT student-athlete groups or Gay-Straight Student-Athlete Alliances are beginning to pop up around the United States. The findings of the GLSEN School Climate Survey supports the contention that these clubs can have a salient effect on the experiences of LGBT student-athletes and the climate for them in the athletic department.

If you are interested in starting a group for athletes, check out the web page for Our Group, a national network of collegiate LGBT athletes and their friends. The guide for starting such a group which is available on the It Takes A Team resource page.

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