Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Talking Trans: A Report from Inside the Tank

Sunday I flew into Indianapolis for the “Equal Opportunities for Transgender Student-Athletes” Think Tank that the Women’s Sports Foundation/It Takes A Team co-sponsored with the National Center for Lesbian Rights/Sports Project. Helen Carroll and I have been planning for the think tank for months and the day had finally arrived.

At the opening reception Sunday evening the 35 invited participants had a chance to mingle and meet before we began our intensive day of work on Monday morning. The participants were an impressive group of people invited for their expertise on and experience with transgender issues and/or their expertise in high school and intercollegiate athletics. Our goal was to finish the day with some concrete thoughts about effective and fair policy recommendations that we could make to high school and collegiate athletic leaders about including transgender athletes on school sports teams.

We began the day with several short overview presentations to give us all a grounding in the topic from some of our participants selected for their knowledge in the areas of medical issues, legal issues, transgender advocacy, drug testing policies in athletics, transgender youth, and a review of the excellent Canadian report “Promising Practices.”

We then moved into small groups each charged with reviewing one of the existing pioneering policies on transgender inclusion in sport looking for problems, positive aspects and fresh approaches that would apply in the interscholastic and intercollegiate setting. Group leaders reported highlights of these discussions back to the whole group.

Over lunch we focused on the experiences of trans-identified athletes. We had two participants who spoke of their experiences in college and national elite sport contexts. We also showed a short video, Helen and I prepared with four other trans-identified athletes talking about their experiences. This was a very moving part of the day. Hearing trans athletes talking about their experiences, disappointments, struggles and triumphs brought home the importance of this work in a way no theoretical discussion can.

After lunch we focused on taking the discussions from the morning to the next level which was to begin to identify policy components that we believed would meet our goal of being fair, practical and effective in the school sport context. I think we were a little concerned that this goal was too lofty or that our process might break down as we struggled to reach some consensus on what were the best ways forward on this challenging task. However, we were able to reach consensus on our recommendations on many important aspects of policy development. I did think my head would explode by the end of the day though with all the creativity, passion and excitement in the room.

It was quite exciting to participate in a group with so much knowledge and passion about this topic and so willing to share it for the common goal of making athletics a safer, more respectful , more inclusive place for all student-athletes. The energy in the room was high. We talked. We laughed and we listened. Most importantly, we made some progress. It was very satisfying. Helen and I are so grateful to all think tank participants for taking the time to join us in this important conversation. I know for myself, as a non-trans-identified woman, it was a great learning opportunity and I have expanded my network of colleagues whose expertise on transgender issues in athletics to include a terrific group of folks.

Now it is Helen’s and my task to synthesize our work from the think tank into a draft report to be reviewed by think tank participants. Ultimately, we plan to create a document that will include an overview of the issues, policy recommendations and best practice recommendations for high school and college athletic leaders, student-athletes, coaches and parents.

Did I say I love this work? How lucky can you be to have the honor of working with such dynamic and smart people on important issues of social justice in an area, sport, that you are passionate about? I am one lucky duck.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Forced Femininity = Heterosexual Drag = A High School Principal Still Living in the 1950’s

Ceara Sturgis is gay. Everyone in her school in Mississippi knows that. She is also an honor student, a trumpet player and the goalie on the school girls’ soccer team. Ceara wore a tuxedo for her yearbook picture. Once school officials found out, they said no, Ceara would have to retake the photo wearing the traditional drape that female students are forced to wear for yearbook photos. Only male students can wear a tuxedo. Now the ACLU is involved and insisting that Ceara has a right to wear a tux for her yearbook picture.

Ceara’s mother says the school is trying to force her daughter to be more feminine and that she doesn’t even own a dress. Her mother says, "The tux is who she is. She wears boys' clothes. She's athletic. She's gay. She's not feminine." Ceara says, "I feel like I'm not important, that the school is dismissing who I am as a gay student and that they don't even care about me. All I want is to be able to be me, and to be included in the yearbook."

There was a day in the not too distant past when women and men could be arrested if they were caught by the police not wearing at least three articles of clothing deemed “appropriate” to their sex. This happened in large metropolitan areas like New York City and San Francisco in the 1950’s. Apparently the principal of Ceara’s school in Mississippi did not get the memo that, 60 years later, most of us understand the right to freedom of expression.

You should see my high school graduation picture, the one that appeared in my high school yearbook. I did not have the sense of self that Ceara does. Though I too knew I was gay then, I submitted to the traditional picture required for girls when I would have loved to have posed in a tux. That would have been the real me. If I had been able to wear a tux, I would not laugh at my high school picture every time I see it as I do now. The girl posing in that photo wasn’t me. She was who everyone else wanted her to be. I lost a lot of time trying to fit into that girly hetero mold terrified of the truth I knew about me. Posing for that picture did not make me straight. It did not make me feminine. It just made everyone more comfortable.

You go, Ceara. I salute your courage and determination to be you. I salute your mother for supporting you. Thanks to the ACLU for reminding your principal that he doesn’t get to be the gender police and you don’t have wear three articles of “gender appropriate” clothes any more. I hope you play soccer in college. I want to root for your team.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Where Are They Now? Lesbian Coaches, Athletes and Lawsuits

I was reflecting on three lawsuits I reported on in my blog over the last year and wondering what the status of each one is. So, I googled around and here is what I found. If anyone else knows more about any of these lawsuits, I’d love to know what the latest updates are.

Jennifer Colli vs. Rhonda Rompola and Southern Methodist University

The Nutshell: Jennifer Colli was a player on the SMU women’s basketball team. Rhonda Rompola is the coach. In September, 2008 Colli filed a lawsuit against Rompola and the university claiming her scholarship was unfairly revoked after she complained to the AD that coach Rompola had an unusual interest in relationships among teammates and hypocritically condemned them since it was common knowledge that Rompola had a previous relationship with one of her women assistant coaches. Several players on the team backed up Colli’s allegations. An internal investigation found no wrong doing and backed coach Rompola. Rompola is now married to the former coach of the SMU men’s basketball team who now coaches the team at UNC- Greensboro making for a long commute to see his wife (Makes you go hmmmmm).

The Update: I could not find any more information about the status of this lawsuit. We know Rompola is still coaching at SMU. Jennifer Colli is in LA pursuing a modeling career From the photos on these linked web sites, it seems that Jennifer, who identified herself as a lesbian and acknowledged having a relationship with a teammate while at SMU, is pretty focused on her modeling career these days and presenting herself as a Danica Patrick wannabe in the photo shoots posted on the internet.

An interesting tidbit I uncovered while trying to get an update on this situation – In 1982 People Magazine reported that Nancy Lieberman, Martina Navratilova and Rhonda Rompola (then a star player at SMU) were roommates. For those of you too young to remember, this was the time when Nancy Lieberman held a press conference to announce that she was straight that and she and Martina were not in a relationship. She later fessed up in her book Lady Magic.

Brooke Heike vs. Sue Guevara and Central Michigan University

The Nutshell: In February, 2009 CMU basketball player, Brooke Heike sued Coach Sue Guevara and CMU claiming that she was benched and her scholarship was revoked because she was NOT a lesbian. Heike claimed that her coach told her she wore too much make-up and that she was not “her type” which Heike interpreted to mean not a lesbian. Coach Guevara and the university claim that Heike lost her scholarship because of her attitude and unwillingness to work hard on improving aspects of her game that she was repeatedly given feedback on. An appeals panel upheld the decision to revoke Heike’s scholarship after hearing testimony from Heike and Guevara.

The update: Last month a federal judge dismissed key parts of the lawsuit by ruling that Coach Guevara and other university officials have immunity from such legal claims in their official capacity. The judge did not rule on the merits of Heike’s lawsuit. Heike’s lawyer announced that they would be filing a state lawsuit to get around the ruling at the federal level. She also held out the option of pursuing the case federally by going after Guevara and the athletic director in “their personal capacities.” I’m not sure I understand any of these rulings, but it seems that at least one lawsuit of some kind is alive and well in the eyes of Heike and her attorney. Sue Guevara held her first basketball practice of the season and is excited about the team according to an article posted on the CMU web site. Brooke Heike is still a student at CMU.

Sulpizio & Bass vs. San Diego Mesa College

The nutshell: Lori Sulpizio was the women’s basketball coach at Mesa College. Cathy Bass, her domestic partner, was Director of Basketball Operations. Despite a successful eight year coaching career at Mesa, Sulpizio and Bass were fired at the end of the 2007 academic year. Their dismissal came after Sulpizio had advocated strongly for equal treatment of women athletes at the school and after a local publication identified Sulpizio and Bass as domestic partners with three children. Sulpizio and Bass filed a lawsuit charging Mesa with discrimination, harassment and retaliation. In September, 2008, the United States Office of Civil Rights found that there were substantial inequities in the treatment of male and female athletes at Mesa College which constituted a violation of Title IX.

The Update: This case is set to go trial by jury in San Diego Superior Court in two weeks. I plan on posting updates on this trial on my blog as the trial progresses. That is assuming that the case is not settled out of court in the next two weeks. Sulpizio is coaching at another school in the same conference as Mesa College and Bass is the Director of Basketball Operations.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

GLAD To Be Working Together

The Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders
(GLAD) is a New England-based legal rights organization dedicated to ending discrimination based on sexual orientation, HIV status and gender identity and expression. They were one of the driving forces behind successful efforts to legalize same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont in addition to addressing a broad range of other discrimination issues. GLAD is now interested in taking on homophobia and transphobia in sport.

As a first step, GLAD is conducting an online survey of the experiences of LGBT coaches and athletes. They describe the project as “collecting the stories of LGBT athletes, coaches and allies who can shed light on the challenges and barriers homophobia and transphobia present. We’re also interested in your success stories and positive experiences.”

Last week I was part of a phone conference with Ben Klein, Jennifer Levi and Jamal Brown from GLAD, Helen Carroll of the NCLR Sports Project and Ted Rybka of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) Sports Media Project (You might recognize Jamal as an out track athlete from Dartmouth College who is also part of Jeff Sheng’s Fearless Photography Exhibit of LGBT high school and college athletes). Our conversation focused on how each of our organizations addresses LGBT issues and discrimination in sport based on sexual orientation and gender identity. We also talked about how we can collaborate with each other to extend our influence and effectiveness.

It is exciting to welcome another major LGBT rights organization to our on-going efforts to eliminate homophobia and transphobia in sport. You can help out by visiting their web site and completing their survey. Whether you are LGBT coach or athlete or a straight ally, if you have a story to tell, GLAD wants to hear it.

Welcome aboard, GLAD, It Takes A Team looks forward to working with you!

Monday, October 5, 2009

When Professional Football Players Speak Out In Support of Marriage Equality

Baltimore Ravens linebacker, Brendon Ayanbadejo, wrote an article in the Huffington Post in April expressing his support for marriage equality for same-sex couples… Say what? That’s right, an NFL player speaking out publicly in support of gay marriage. His outspokenness is notable for several reasons.

NFL players rarely get engaged in public conversations about public policy issues of any kind, especially controversial ones, most especially ones that are related to support of LGBT issues. The more typical portraits of an NFL player is calling an opponent, reporter, or a teammate a “faggot” or expressing his belief that a gay man could be a drag (no pun intended) on team unity and locker room solidarity.

It’s true that more male professional sports coaches and players have spoken up in the last few years to say that having a gay teammate wouldn’t be a big deal to them. But it’s also true that others have spoken up to share their discomfort or hostility with this possibility. Think Tim Hardaway, LeBron James or Jeremy Shockey. It is also true that there has never been an openly gay professional football, baseball, basketball or ice hockey player. We know there are gay professional athletes, but so far, we never find out until after they retire.

So what are we to make of Brendon Ayanbadejo’s comments? They weren’t in response to some reporter’s question either. He initiated the article in the Huffington Post and also sent it to teammates and coaches. That’s way more significant than being ambushed in the locker room by a reporter’s unexpected question.

Here’s what I think – Brendon represents a new breed of male professional team sport athlete. His generation went to high schools in which GSA’s were part of the school’s extracurricular options. They had gay teachers (and maybe coaches too) and knew gay classmates. They see gay characters on TV. They know about openly gay politicians, entertainers, even retired gay professional athletes. They are exposed to the public discussion about gay issues – Marriage Equality, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Non-Discrimination Legislation, Hate Crimes. National polls tell us that young people are much more supportive of equality for LGBT people than older generations. Why would we expect that young football players would not be part of this trend too?

Ok, so “football culture” and male professional team sport culture are still pretty macho, misogynist and homophobic. The Brendon Ayanbadejos of the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL are probably in the minority, but they are there and they are beginning to speak up.

It’s also a lesson in challenging our own stereotypes, in this case, of football players. I once did a “homophobia” workshop with a group of coaches and in the back sat this big guy wearing a football polo shirt. He was quiet, sat with his massive arms folded across his chest for the whole workshop, his face impassive. In my mind I relegated him to the ranks of “typical” football coaches and mentally prepared myself for his challenge to the message I was trying to communicate. I expected him to stand up at some point and give a speech about how there were no “fags” in football and that’s way it should be.

Well, he did raise his hand toward the end of the workshop. I invited him to speak (preparing myself for the anticipated attack). Here is the gist of what he said, “I have a gay brother. I’ve seen him take a lot of crap from ignorant people and I can tell you, he is the toughest, most courageous man I know. I’d be honored to have him on my team. He could teach my guys something about integrity and courage. And if I ever hear any player on my team call someone a “fag” or laugh at gay people, I am in their face because they are talking about my brother and they need to learn some respect. I just won’t have it. What you are doing is great. I hope everyone here is listening.” So much for my own stereotypes. I know there are more football players out there like Brendon Ayanbadejo and the coach in that workshop. I hope we hear more from them as time goes on.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Equal Opportunities for Transgender Student-Athletes

On October 25-26 in Indianapolis, The Women’s Sports Foundation initiative, It Takes A Team will be partnering with the Sports Project of the National Center for Lesbian Rights to host a national think tank entitled, “Equal Opportunities for Transgender Student-Athletes”. Helen Carroll, director of the Sports Project and I have been working for the past several months on this collaborative project. We’ve invited 35 participants from across the U.S. whose legal, medical or athletic knowledge and perspectives will inform a discussion about effective, respectful and fair policy recommendations and guidelines for the inclusion of transgender, genderqueer and gender variant young people in collegiate and high school athletic programs. Think tank participants represent a broad range of transgender and non-transgender professional and personal expertise related to transgender and gender variant experience. The WSF and NCLR will issue a joint report following the think tank which will include policy recommendations and guidelines for athletic administrators, coaches, parents and student-athletes.

Some sport governing organizations have developed pioneering policies aimed at providing guidance for decision-making about the inclusion of transsexual and transgender athletes who have completed a transition process. The International Olympic Committee, the Federation of Gay Games, the Gay and Lesbian International Sports Association (sponsors of the Outgames) are examples of organizations that have developed policy at the international level. USA Track and Field, the United States Golf Association and USA Rugby have also developed policies modeled largely on the IOC policy. The Washington State Interscholastic Association, which governs high school athletics in that state, is the only high school organization that has developed a policy that addresses gender identity and sports participation.

I call these efforts pioneering because, as is often the case with pioneering efforts, some are flawed in some ways and, with the exception of the WIAA policy, each is focused on the inclusion of adult transgender athletes who have no eligibility limitations on their ability to participate in their sports as is the case with collegiate or high school athletes.

Our goal in the think tank is to address, not only the participation of athletes who have completed a transition or who are in the process of transitioning, but also athletes who are not undergoing a transition but whose gender identity and expression do not conform to typical expectations. We plan to discuss overall inclusion of transgender athletes as well as the day-today issues such as locker room and toilet access, hotel room sharing, language use, and education of athletic staff and athletes.

This is a topic fraught with much misunderstanding and prejudice as well as concern for competitive fairness to all athletes and I’m excited that the think tank report might be able to offer some guidance on sound policy recommendations based on the best thinking of a gathering of people who, collectively, bring to the table legal, medical, practical and experiential knowledge about transgender issues and an understanding of the world of high school and collegiate athletics.

I know I, as a non-trans-identified woman whose gender expression is a little queer, am continuing to learn about trans issues in sport so that I can be an effective advocate for good policy that enables all young people to participate in sport regardless of their gender identity or expression. I expect to learn a lot at the end of October.