Monday, March 30, 2009

What Would You Do?

ABC has a new TV show called, What Would You Do? I’ve never seen the show, but I read about it on and then went to YouTube and watched a few of the different segments of the show posted there. Apparently, the show focuses on setting up a situation in a public place to see how people react. It involves hidden cameras and actors setting the scene and then recording people’s responses and interviewing them afterwards. A little creepy, but actually several of the segments I watched pose interesting questions exploring how people respond to “controversial” behavior, like two men kissing in the park or illegal behavior like three teenagers vandalizing a car, or when they have to make a choice about ignoring or intervening when they witness homophobic, racist, or sexist behavior. Here’s the set up for the segment highlighted on Bilerico. A white gay male couple (who are actors and partners in real life) engage in a public display of affection in a sports bar in New Jersey. A “homophobic” provocateur who is in cahoots with the program stirs the pot by making negative comments to other bar patrons about the gay men and then we watch how people respond to the situation.

I put aside my initial fear that the gay couple might be opening themselves to a violent response and was pleasantly surprised by the reactions of most of the people. The “homophobic” provocateur actually ticked most people off, not the gay couple. People stood up for the right of the gay couple to be physically affectionate with each other in the same way that a heterosexual couple (also in cahoots with the TV show) at the other end of the bar were.

The scene was repeated later in the evening with more people in the bar and the gay couple being more demonstrative in their affections. They also upped the ante by having the planted straight couple make negative comments about the gay men. One white male bar patron seemed particularly upset by the gay men, calling them disgusting. He was aggressively challenged by a woman at the bar who became quite upset by his homophobic comments. The TV crew interviewed her and the guy who made the anti-gay comments after she confronted him. She said that she had gay friends and it upset her to see the two gay men in the bar treated as they were. The guy who comfortably and vocally expressed his disgust at the sight of two gay men being affectionate in “his” bar when he did not know the camera was rolling, turned into a “live and let live” “I don’t care what other people do” kind of guy when he knew he was going to be on TV. It seems the light of public scrutiny induced a conversion experience for him – from blatant homophobia to professed tolerance.

Here’s the video segment. Check it out and then let’s talk about it.

So what is the take away from this little experiment?

• Most homophobes are cowards who back down or are silenced when confronted, find out they are in the minority, or that they are on TV.
• More heterosexuals (at least in this bar in NJ) are more offended by vocal homophobes than gay men kissing
• Having gay friends, co-workers or family members makes it more likely that people will be offended by homophobic behavior (actually research does tell us that having gay people in your life does make you more accepting of gay people)
• I wonder what difference having a lesbian couple or a gay couple of color kissing would have made? Or if the gay couple had been a little more stereotypical in their appearance or mannerisms?

I think about this TV show segment in relationship to recent news articles about the increase in homophobic chants and jeers by large groups of fans at men’s sports directed at opposing players. I have never attended a sporting event where this was happening so I have not personally witnessed this. I don’t know if other fans who are offended by the homophobia confront the ones yelling or holding up crude posters.

Maybe it feels less personal at a sports event because no one really thinks the targeted players are actually gay. It’s just a way to put them down, get them to lose their concentration, throw their game off. It is all at the expense of gay people though. It assumes it will be upsetting and insulting to be called gay.

The problem, of course, is that it isn’t only the targeted players who feel the impact of homophobic fans’ abuse. It contaminates the entire sporting climate for everyone attending the game. It scares people who are lesbian or gay. I imagine it makes lots of other people uncomfortable. I worry about the message it sends to young fans. At sporting events where alcohol is served, the potential for violence is increased. It puts heterosexual allies in the position that the people in the bar were in –You have to decide whether or not to speak up. You have to decide whether to be a silent bystander, which is often read as support or approval, or make your disapproval known, like the heterosexual people in the bar did.

Going back to the title of the TV show – What would you do? It’s a great question to ask ourselves. If your teammate is making anti-gay or racist comments in the locker room, if one of your opponents on another team is taunting you or a teammate with gay or sexist slurs, if fans sitting near you at a game are holding up anti-gay posters or calling someone on the opposing team “dykes” or “fags,” what would you do? And remember, chances are, if you do speak up, others will follow your lead and back you up. That’s a big take away from that little bar in New Jersey.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Ground-Breaking Scholarly Conference on Sex and Sexuality in Sport

Last Wednesday through Friday, I attended a conference on Sport and Sexuality at Ithaca College in NY. The conference was organized by Dr. Ellen Staurowsky, a professor in Sport Management and Media at Ithaca. Over the course of two days and an evening, attendees were treated to a wonderful menu of research presentations, panels, Jeff Sheng’s Fearless photo exhibit, and a captivating two hour talk by John Amaechi. This conference was ground-breaking. As far as I know, it was the first scholarly conference to focus on sport and sexuality.

Established sport scholars like Sue Rankin from Penn State, Diane Gill from UNC-Greensboro, Vikki Krane from Bowling Green University and Becky Beal from Cal State-East Bay and Mo Smith from Cal State, Sacramento were joined by a younger generation of up and coming sport scholars like Erin Buzuvis, JD from Western New England College, Amy Sandler from UNLV, Kerrie Kauer from Cal State Long Beach, and Tre Wentling and Kristenne Robison from Syracuse. I hesitate to mention any names because all the presentations I attended were high quality and it is impossible to list everyone here. It was encouraging that so many young scholars are interested in and receiving support for research on LGBT issues in sport.

Those of us who focus on the practical side of these issues also had a chance to talk about our work with coaches and athletes. Some of these presentations were made by me, Helen Carroll from the NCLR Sports Project, Karin Lofstrom from the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women’s Sports, Ted Rybka from the GLAD Sports Desk, and Allison Subasic, LGBT Center director from Penn State. Good work is happening in the world of athletics to make sports a safer and more respectful place for all athletes and coaches, including LGBT people. I left the conference energized and excited about the connections I made and ready to get back to work.

Next time around (and I hope there will be a second conference on sport and sexuality), I hope we can focus more on intersections among gender, sex and sexuality with race, disability and religion. That would provide an even richer discussion of these important social justice issues in sport.

Kudos to Ithaca College, Ellen Staurowsky and all the folks to helped for planning and conducting a wonderful event.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Bayard Rustin: Black Gay Activist AND Athlete

Here is a fascinating history lesson from Patricia Nell Warren about Bayard Rustin. I knew he was one of Martin Luther King’s top lieutenants in the early Black Civil Rights Movement and that he organized the March on Washington in 1963 and that he was a closeted gay man. I also knew that MLK asked him to step down to avoid controversy because of his homosexuality. I did not know that Rustin was also an athlete. Leave it to the ever fabulous Patricia Nell Warren to educate us all.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Sport in Society Announces “Athlete Bill of Rights”

The Center for Sport and Society lives at Northeastern University in Boston. Their mission as described on the web site is:

“Through innovative programming and extensive outreach that impacts thousands both locally and worldwide, Sport in Society uses the power and appeal of sport to foster diversity, prevent men’s violence against women, eradicate youth violence, and improve the health of disenfranchised urban youth, all of which are critical to the health and safety of our citizens.”

CSS is a long time leader in addressing multiple social justice issues in sport, including racism, sexism, homophobia/heterosexism, and ableism. I attended and gave a keynote speech at their Power of Sport Summit last summer. Human rights and athlete activism in sport were themes that ran through the entire conference.

Eli Wolff, the manager of research and advocacy at the center, sent me their newly developed Athlete Bill of Rights. The Sport in Society Athlete Bill of Rights focuses on the rights of athletes within athletics. One of the main goals of the Bill of Rights is to “empower athletes to advocate for their own rights” through open discussion and debate and through this process, encourage athlete activism.

Athletes are sometimes thought of as products owned by professional franchises or college athletic departments. Some coaches assume as their prerogative the power to control an athlete’s personal and political expression including how they spend their time out of the athletic context, and with whom they socialize. Potential distractions from the athletic agenda are discouraged. From this perspective, an athlete’s “job” is to maximize their athletic performance to produce championships and fill sports arenas. Scholarship athletes in Division 1 programs are often expected to be single mindedly focused on this goal, and of course, get grades that enable them to maintain their athletic eligibility. In this context, little time or discussion is devoted to human rights or athlete activism in sport.

Being a member of a team and a representative of a school in the case of collegiate sport does require submitting to some common expectations and “rules” and coaches should make these expectations clear to team members. The rub, of course, is deciding what are reasonable expectations for team rules. Is it reasonable for a coach to forbid an athlete from: Speaking at an anti-war rally on campus? Assuming leadership of a campus political advocacy group? Coming out publicly as lesbian, gay or bisexual? Participating in a political protest? Wearing a style of clothes or choosing a hair style the coach objects to?

Coaches have amazing power over the athletes on their teams. Coaches decide who gets to play and who sits on the bench. Coaches are sometimes given incredible license to act in ways that would not be tolerated by a professor with students in the classroom or a supervisor with employees in the workplace. Screaming at an athlete nose to nose on national TV, shaking an athlete or in some other laying hands on them, throwing temper tantrums (and chairs or clipboards), using obscenities and slurs and any number of other behaviors that would not fly in another educational or professional context.

In response to such coach behavior, athletes have few options: suck it up and try harder, transfer and play at another school, quit the team and sport altogether, or in rare cases, bring a lawsuit if they don’t like the coach’s rules or treatment. They could complain to athletic administrators, but, if the coach has a winning tradition or the backing of powerful alumni, it takes a lot of courage to challenge a coach. An athlete in this situation sometimes can’t even count on teammates to back them up. Most athletes choose to suck it up. Some even believe that this kind of coach behavior is merely evidence of intensity and commitment, necessary components of motivation and a winning attitude. They might even be suspicious of a coach who didn’t act this way.

Because this description is reality for some athletic programs, the idea of protecting athletes’ rights in sport and encouraging athlete activism in or out of sport challenge some deeply embedded practices and beliefs in big time collegiate and professional athletics.

Sounds like a plan to me.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

College Student-Athlete Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay Teammates

This article is a report of an interesting informal email survey of student-athletes at Bryn Mawr-Haverford College in Pennsylvania about their perspectives on lesbian and gay teammates. A few gay, lesbian and bi athletes also talk about their experiences with straight teammates. OK, granted these are Division 3 athletes at small relatively elite schools and I have found that the climate is generally more open and accepting in Division 3 schools. Nonetheless, their comments, both men and women, are generally positive and thoughtful. They do note a difference in the climate for gay athletes on men’s teams: Women’s teams are generally perceived to be more open. I’ve also noted this difference when I speak to collegiate student-athletes. I think it would be fair to say that I’ve never spoken to a group of athletes where it was NOT the general consensus that women’s teams are more open and accepting than men’s teams are, especially the men’s team sports.

It Takes A Team completed an evaluation project of how viewing our DVD and discussing LGBT issues in sports affected the perspectives of collegiate student-athletes. We developed a 10 item pre-post survey which student-athletes completed before and after viewing the video and discussing the topic of LGBT people in sport. One of the most interesting results was that there was no significant difference in the perspectives of men and women athletes on having a gay teammate or coach. They were all fairly positive before and became more positive after viewing and discussing the video. It is true that we did not do any long term follow up, so it might be that our short-term results were not reliable. However, if we assume that the results of our survey fairly describe the perspectives of the athletes in our evaluation project, what does it mean that the men’s attitudes about gay teammates fly in the face of conventional wisdom about the chilly climate in men’s sports as compared to women’s sports?

I have a theory, untested, but interesting to think about. I wonder if individual men, even football players, who have the reputation of being most hostile about gay teammates whether deserved or not, are more open in private than they are willing to express in front of their teammates. Is it possible that individual male athletes writing anonymous answers are more likely to express their personal perspectives rather than the one they think their teammates would agree with?

If the men’s locker room is a place where “fag” jokes and slurs are commonplace, it would take a strong and independent team member to object to this talk or express acceptance of gay teammates. I could see how some men might join in just to go along. I suspect that to express a different, more accepting point of view in this context might invite a lot of teasing and perhaps suspicion about why he was speaking up. So, might it be that there are lots of guys in that locker room who don’t participate in the “fag” bashing talk and don’t agree with it, but remain silent about their beliefs?

The concept of the “Bystander” is used often when educating about bullying, sexual harassment or other forms of abuse to describe people who are present and observe this behavior, but do nothing to object to or stop it. I’m wondering how many bystanders there are on men’s teams when it comes to creating a hostile or intolerant climate in men’s sports. I’m wondering if the number of male athletes who are actively anti-gay is actually a small minority and it is the large numbers of bystanders who enable the persistence of the perception that men’s sports is a hostile place for gay men.

I’ve also thought that the concept of “social norming” is a useful way to think about changing the climate in men’s sports. Social norming is used a lot on campuses to change attitudes about the abuse of alcohol. Briefly, the idea is to make students aware that it is a small minority of students who drink to excess and that most students do not think it is cool to get puking drunk every weekend. I wonder if this might apply to homophobia in men’s sports. If male athletes knew that anti-gay attitudes were in the minority on their teams and that most of their teammates were open and accepting of gay teammates, would it empower those silent bystanders to speak up more? Would it help to change the conventional wisdom that men’s (team) sports are dangerous places for gay men to come out? Would it make it uncool to be homophobic? Would it silence the anti-gay minority? Would it begin to change their perspectives? Am I a Pollyanna?

I’d be interested to hear what you think about all this.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Imagine…The First Openly Gay Male Professional Athlete

I found this video on YouTube while casting about trying to decide what to write about this morning. It is a fictional account of the first openly gay professional baseball player. Sean Chapin, who put the video together, uses almost verbatim commentary from news accounts and reactions to the first Black professional baseball player in (white) professional baseball, Jackie Robinson to imagine what the reaction to the first openly gay baseball player might be. It is an interesting comparison of racism in 1947 and heterosexism/homophobia in 2009 in men’s professional sport. Listen to the language. Listen to the fear and hatred expressed.

I wonder if the first openly gay professional baseball player would be greeted with the same level of hatred and prejudice that Jackie Robinson endured in 1947. I’d like to believe that the John Rockers and Tim Hardaways of the professional sports world are increasingly in the minority. I’d like to believe that male sports fans and team management are more concerned about athletic performance than sexual orientation. Recently, Larry King asked Joe Torre, manager of the LA Dodgers, about acceptance of gay baseball players. Torre said having an openly gay player was no big deal for him and he hoped players would feel the same. We have yet to see how this fictional scenario would play out since all of the male gay professional athletes who have come out waited until their playing days were over.

I believe that the first male openly gay professional athlete will already be out when he gets to professional sport. There won’t be some big surprise announcement from an already established pro. Instead, he will have played collegiate sport as an out gay man and will make the transition to professional sport having already dealt with the media and fan reactions. He will have the support and respect of most of his collegiate teammates and coaches. This is how I believe men’s professional sport will change – as younger players, gay and straight, come into the professional ranks. For many, perhaps most of the straight players, gay athletes will not be remarkable. The questions for them will be: Can he play the game? What kind of teammate is he? Can I count on him on the field and off? The same questions they ask about any teammate. Younger gay athletes will come into the pros will greater confidence about and comfort with who they are and this will influence how teammates, coaches and fans respond to them.

I also believe this day will come sooner rather than later. Somewhere out there, a young boy is playing youth sports. Coaches are starting to notice his talent. He might not be out yet, but he will be. He will be the first male openly gay professional athlete, not be the last. Like Jackie Robinson, he will break down barriers of prejudice, fear and hatred, but I am hoping it will be an easier task for him than it was for Jackie Robinson.