Monday, April 27, 2009

When Athletes Speak, Fans Will Listen…and Talk Back

WNBA player, Chantelle Anderson, has joined the blogosphere and her blogs often take on some really interesting topics beyond the mundane daily record of personal experiences characteristic of many athlete blogs or Tweets. Rather than shying away from hot topics, Chantelle takes them on with gusto. In her 12 blog entries so far, she has addressed women athletes posing in sexy photo shoots, lesbian athletes, the image of WNBA players as “ugly and manly,” and the sexist double standard between male and female professional athletes who get pregnancy or get someone else pregnant.

I don’t always agree with Chantelle’s perspective on these issues, but she puts it out there and is getting a lot of response from readers, many of whom are male sports fans. She has visibility as a professional athlete and a platform, Yard Barker, which is visited by lots of sports fans, most of whom are men. She is really good at “facilitating” a generally civil exchange of opinions among the folks who comment on her blog. She engages them in a “discussion” by responding to most comments and her responses are respectful which invites a level of exchange and possibility for hearing different opinions and perspectives that is not typical of many men’s sports-oriented sports blog, especially when they start talking about women’s sports.

Chantelle, whether she intends to or not, is expanding the conversations about sexism and homophobia in sport to include some folks who probably are not visiting my blog or some of the other excellent blogs that also address these topics, like After Atalanta or the Title IX Blog or this new one, One Sport Voice. And that is a good thing. Welcome to the blogosphere, Chantelle. I’m looking forward to seeing what you take on next.

Note: Megan Hueter of Because I Played Sports.. has a podcast interview with Chantelle posted on her blog if you want to know more about Chantelle and what she thinks about some of the topics above.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Do We Have A Hazing Gene?

One of the prominent items in the news yesterday was about sleep deprivation, exposure to extreme cold, humiliation, isolation, forced nudity, verbal abuse, coerced simulated sex acts, and sexual assault with objects like sticks, pine cones or golf balls.

I bet you think I’m talking about the CIA torture memos written under the Bush Administration that President Obama released to the public. Nope, you would be wrong about that. I’m referring to common hazing practices in high schools and colleges across the United States.

A comprehensive study completed by researchers at the University of Maine reports that almost half of the students in the study who are members of school clubs or teams reported experiencing hazing. Athletic team members experienced the highest percentage of hazing (47%). What’s worse, this study is a follow up of a similar study conducted by the researchers in 2000, and shows that there is little difference in the numbers of students experiencing hazing in 2000 and 2009.

In addition to the hazing activities listed above, forced consumption of excessive amounts of alcohol and getting a body piercing or tattoo rounded out the list of festivities common in school hazing.

On a particularly disturbing note, the researchers call attention to an increase in sexually-related hazing activities from 2000-2009. Many of these activities involve girls performing simulated sex acts on boys and other girls, boys performing simulated sex acts on girls and other boys as well as hazers performing actual sexual assaults on hazees with stuff like broomsticks and pine cones.

I know “teabagging” was a big activity this week as championed by anti-Obama protesters . I wonder how many of them know that teabagging’s original meaning is actually another hazing activity which involves having some guy on your team dangle his genitals in your face?

Unlike bullying where the bullies want to ostracize their victims or intentionally cause them harm, hazing is defended as a way to build team cohesion or as an initiation ritual to join the group that is hazing you. The pay offs are that you endure these humiliations and dangerous activities to become a part of the group and get to inflict them on someone else who wants to join the group the next year.
There are so many reasons to be depressed about all this. None the least of which is that there are still coaches, teachers and administrators who look the other way or, worse, encourage hazing as harmless fun, boys being boys, and increasingly, girls being girls.

When I was a camp counselor we sent new counselors on snipe hunts at night in the woods after the campers were asleep. The rest of us hid behind trees and rocks simulating snipe calls, not sex. I guess it was hazing then too, but it seems so innocent compared to what is happening now. Do high school and college aged students see hazing activities of today as we looked at snipe hunts back then? Is it that hazing activities must, to be exciting, continue to escalate – be more humiliating, more dangerous, more coercive? What is it about us that makes us want to exercise power over and “test” others who want to be in our group by degrading them, laughing at them or even injuring them as a way of “accepting” them?

What does it take for schools, parents, coaches, athletes and administrators to take hazing seriously? In cases where a student objects to hazing or, God forbid, blows the whistle on the fun, they are likely to be seen as a wimp or traitor or spoilsport by the rest of the group, including other hazees and coaches.

Unfortunately, it often takes some poor kid dying as a result of hazing to make the point. What a way to ruin the fun.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Homophobia and Bullicide: Terrorism in Schools Has Got to Stop

Carl Walker-Hoover was an 11 year old student who played basketball and football. He was a Boy Scout. He went to school in Springfield, MA, about 30 minutes from where I sit right now. He is the latest victim of “bullicide." He was taunted and threatened daily in school by classmates who called him gay and made fun of his clothes. Last week Carl hung himself in his bedroom with an electric cord while his mother cooked dinner downstairs. His mother knew about the bullying and had complained to school authorities to no avail. Carl hung himself, but his death was the result of peer cruelty and school indifference or ineffectiveness in response –bullicide. According to Eliza Byard, Executive Director of GLSEN, Carl’s suicide is the fourth among middle school students linked to bullying in the last year.

Whether Carl was gay or not doesn’t matter. Being called gay and threatened because other students think you are gay is one of the most common forms of bullying among middle and high school students and clearly one of the most deadly.

Eric Mohat, a 17 year old student in Ohio killed himself after being bullied and called “fag,” “homo,” “queer. He was habitually pushed and shoved in school, sometimes in view of school staff who did nothing to stop it, according to his parents. They are suing the school in federal court, not for money, but to require the school to address bullying. They claim that bullying was also a significant factor in the suicides of three of Eric’s classmates in 2007. Four student suicides linked to bullying at the same school in one year? Where are the adults in this school? They need to be sued to get them to act in the face of these student deaths?

Bullying is so much more sophisticated now. Cyber-bullying via the internet, social networking sites and cell phones make it virtually impossible to escape the hatred and cruelty. When students targeted by bullying see death as the only way to escape their tormentors, we must acknowledge that schools are not protecting students. They are not safe places to be if you are unlucky enough to be targeted by anti-gay bullying. Some students, as was the case in some of the school shootings over the years, bring guns to school to protect themselves in the absence of protection by the adults in schools. Other students, as in the case of Larry King’s killer last year, bring guns to kill gay kids. How can we avoid the realization that schools in which bullying and homophobia are commonplace have become terrorist sites every bit as dangerous as a war zone for anyone who is different or is perceived as different or vulnerable.

Yet community groups, often driven by religious conviction and school administrations, often driven by cowardice in the face of community protest, see gay students, or those assumed to be gay, and their friends as the problem. How many communities have protested anti-bullying curriculum in schools because it addresses anti-gay bullying? How many schools have denied students their right to form a Gay-Straight Alliance based on the lies and distortions of anti-gay community groups? Even when research tells us that GSAs in schools can help change the school climate for the better and provide support for students who are targeted by bullying, some school administrators try to forbid them. Some school boards have disbanded all student clubs in order to prevent students from starting a Gay-Straight Alliance as is their right according to the Federal Equal Access Act.

As we approach the annual GLSEN-sponsored Day of Silence on April 17 in which students in schools volunteer to take a vow of silence for the day in protest of anti-gay harassment and discrimination, Christian-based groups are responding with their own Day of “Truth” where they spread their hateful lies about LGBT people. Some of these groups encourage parents to keep their children at home to register their outrage that the school allows students to participate in a Day of Silence. Where is the outrage at the death of students tormented by anti-gay bullying? Are their children participating in the bullying based on their parents’ example?

If we read or watch news accounts of homophobic bullicide in schools or hear about school inaction or indifference to anti-gay harassment by students or teachers, if we sit back and do nothing when schools in our communities refuse to enact programs to address bullying or refuse to allow students to form a GSA or participate in a Day of Silence or No Name-Calling Week, then we enable cruelty, fear, hatred and ignorance in schools. By our silence and inaction, we contribute to the violence, terror and suffering that was the day to day experience of Eric Mohat, Carl Walker-Hoover, Larry King and still is for far too many other young people who are targeted by anti-gay bullying. Whatever our views on being gay, how can we live with that and call ourselves a civilized society?

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Training Rules: A Powerful Examination of the “No Lesbian” Era of Penn State Women’s Basketball

Saturday night I attended the premiere of Training Rules, the Dee Mosbacher and Fawn Yacker documentary about the Rene Portland “no lesbian” era of Penn State women’s basketball. The film premiered at the Philadelphia Film Festival to a full house who gave Dee and Fawn an enthusiastic standing ovation before the film began and repeated this honor again after the 61 minute film ended.

All of the principals who appeared in the documentary were present for the premiere except one of the courageous athletes targeted by Portland’s 25 year assault on all things she perceived as lesbian. The former Penn State basketball players who spoke out in the film included Cindy Davies, Lisa Faloon, Chris and Corinne Gulas, Courtney Wicks and Jennifer Harris. Jennifer Harris, the athlete who filed the 2005 lawsuit against Penn State and Portland and Jen’s mother and father were featured in the film as was Portland’s assistant coach in the early 80’s, Liz McGovern. Sue Rankin, the former Penn State softball coach who has tirelessly fought homophobia at Penn State for over 30 years, was included in the documentary. Adding commentary and context were Helen Carroll, NCLR Sports Project Director and former NCLR attorney, Karen Doering, who was one of the attorneys who represented Jennifer Harris. It was my honor to also be included in the documentary as a “talking head.”

Hugs and introductions were exchanged as we all waited in the VIP line to enter the theatre. The sense of anticipation and pride I think we all felt about the roles we had each played in the making of this fine documentary was palpable. I felt like we were a band of sisters who shared a common purpose in seeing justice done by getting this shameful story of cruelty, abuse of power, irrational fixation on lesbians and blatant discrimination out in public so that no athlete ever again has to suffer the way the courageous women featured in the film did.

The documentary is extremely well done. Dee and Fawn have created a riveting story line weaving interviews, action shots and information into a compelling narrative that shocked the few audience members who did not know about this regrettable era in Penn State Athletics. The film is an amazing educational tool that will spark discussion and self-reflection for everyone connected to women’s athletics whether they are athletes, coaches, administrators, parents or fans.

The core of the documentary is the experience of the former basketball players who speak out. Jen Harris bravely stepped forward and initiated the final fall of Rene Portland, who resigned shortly after the lawsuit was settled in 2007. Muzzled by the terms of confidentiality imposed by the lawsuit’s settlement, Jen Harris was unable to speak to us at the premiere, but her lead role in the documentary and in the lawsuit was acknowledged with another standing ovation from the audience as she stood shyly before us after the film ended. Jen and her parents, with the able and committed resources of the NCLR took on Penn State and Portland in a bitter legal battle that lasted over two years. Harris’s claims alone might have been dismissed as the complaints of the disgruntled troublemaker that Portland claimed she was, but the willingness of the other five former PSU basketball players and one former assistant coach to step forward in support of Harris’s claims make it impossible to ignore the truth that comes through in their collective accounts of each one being targeted by Portland’s lesbian purges. That their experiences spanned the entirety of Portland’s 25 year career at Penn State, from the Gulas twins in 1980 to Jen Harris in 2005 is a stunning monument to institutional indifference or complicity. I don’t know which is worse. Maybe it was a little of both.

Hearing these women recount what Portland said and did to them is wrenching. Portland was a bully and carelessly destroyed dreams and tried to crush spirits with intimidation and threats. And she did it over and over anytime her twisted “gaydar” twanged. I was left wondering how many other former Penn State basketball players were similarly bullied, but did not have the courage to speak up. I wondered how many others there are who have not recovered from their Penn State experience and cannot tell their stories.

My final impression is, after seeing the documentary and then talking with each of the former players after the film, that far from crushing their spirits, these women are amazingly strong and resilient. These women are survivors who, despite the fear and intimidation they endured, refused to allow Portland to steal their spirits or make them feel shame or doubt about who they choose to love. They each stepped forward when asked, with the common purpose of shining a light on perhaps their darkest and lowest moments so that younger generations of athletes will not have to endure what they did. All of these women are sheroes and I thank Dee and Fawn for giving them the opportunity to close a difficult chapter in each of their lives.

Portland was a successful coach for many years, by the standard of wins and losses. Her teams were in the top 20 and made two trips to the Final Four. She never won the big games though. They always fell just short. The former players in the documentary talked about the fear and stress that all women on the team learned to live with as they protected themselves as best they could from their coach’s judgmental and prying eye. After the film, they spoke about the numbers of players they knew who left the team over the years, unwilling or unable to tolerate Portland’s rampages. Is it any wonder then that Penn State could never win the big ones? Basketball is a game of trust and teamwork. How could they, playing under clouds of suspicion and fear, bring their best basketball to the stressful final three minutes of a close game?

The documentary also calls attention to the entire women’s collegiate basketball coaches’ community. They knew about Portland’s “training rules” yet their silence about Portland’s rule was complete. To the contrary she was honored twice by the WBCA as Coach of the Year. How are we to understand this reaction? We can only hope that the bravery of Jen Harris and the other former players featured in Training Rules encourages coaches to reflect on the cost of their silence to young women’s lives and moves them to choose a different response in the future to prevent the egregious abuse of power tolerated at Penn State from ever happening again.

The good news is that in the wake of Portland’s resignation, change is afoot at Penn State. The athletic department has taken several steps to educate staff and student-athletes about the necessity to respect the rights of lesbian, gay and bisexual athletes and coaches. The new women’s coach, Coquese Washington, shows an active interest in making sure that everyone on her teams are treated with respect and is quietly rebuilding a team left in shambles after the public controversy at the end of Portland era.

Dee tells me that Training Rules will be in distribution in October. In the meantime it will be screened at film festivals around the country. Go to the Training Rules web site for information about where you can to see it. If you care about women’s sports, if you care about social justice in women’s sports, you need to see Training Rules. If you don’t understand why people like me keep harping about LGBT issues in sport, if you think the days of discrimination against lesbians in sport are past, you need to see Training Rules.

In fact, I have a new training rule I’d like to propose for all sports: No bullies, no bigots, and no bystanders. It has a nice ring, don’t you think?

Friday, April 3, 2009

On The Road to the Final Four

I will on the road for the next five days. First stop - Philadelphia - to attend the premiere of "Training Rules," Dee Mosbacher's documentary on the Rene Portland "no lesbian" era in Penn State women's basketball, which thankfully ended in 2007 when Portland resigned. The film will be part of the Philadelphia Film Festival.

I am looking forward to seeing the film and will post my reaction to it here. I did see a rough cut about a year ago and what struck me most then was hearing several of women Portland targeted over a 20 plus year period talk about their experiences. It is a powerful testimony to the damage and pain Portland caused and to the strength and resilience of these women who chose to tell their stories publicly for the first time in the documentary.

Then I am on to St Louis for the Final Four and the WBCA convention. I am part of a convention session entitled "Seeking Common Ground: Lesbians and Christians in Women's Sports- Take 2." Last year at the convention I helped plan and participate in a similar session with some women from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Athletes in Action, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

We are doing the session again, but instead of a panel, this year we are focusing on small group discussions among the folks who attend the session. Last year we had a wonderful dialogue and this year we hope to extend it to include more voices. We hope to leave the session with a brainstormed list of ways to make sure that all women on a team - Christian and non-Christian, lesbian, bi or straight - feel respected and included. I'll post something after the session which is Tuesday, right before the final game.

I'm hoping for a Stanford vs. Oklahoma final game, by the way. I know I am probably fighting an uphill battle rooting for Stanford to beat UConn, but they did it last year. Why not a repeat?

Take care and I'll talk to you from the road.