Monday, March 22, 2010

Sherri Murrell: Coming Out and Winning

Sherri Murrell is the head coach of the Portland State Women’s basketball team. They just concluded a successful season winning the Big Sky tournament and scoring a spot in the NCAA tournament. Facing number 2 seed, Texas A&M, the 15th seeded Vikings held their own for a half before losing to A&M 84-53. But there is way more to this success story. When Sherri took the job at Portland State she decided that it would be a new era in her coaching and personal life. She decided she would be completely open about being a lesbian. She is the only Division 1 women’s basketball coach to do so. Think about that. The only Division 1 women’s basketball coach to come out publicly. For those who think it is easy for lesbians in sport, this should give you pause.

Sherri includes her partner and children in the Viking media guide. This is a refreshing change from the complete absence of personal information characteristic of most closeted lesbian coaches’ media guide descriptions. This, of course, is a dead giveaway since most heterosexual coaches use the privilege they have to blab about their families all they want in the team media guide.

She told the PSU athletic director and upper administration of her decision to be out and received their full support. Her players are supportive (they babysit for her children). Coaches in her conference are supportive. It seems like a complete success story and one that more coaches, parents and athletes need to know about.

I’ve had a couple of opportunities to talk to Sherri. I interviewed her for the It Takes A Team newsletter, but did not get it published before the newsletter ended. Here is another great interview she did which covers much of the same territory ours did.

Sherri seems little surprised to be called a trail blazer. Yet she is that and a role model for younger coaches. What I most admire is that, in addition to being a successful coach AND being open about being a lesbian, Sherri has taken on the opportunity to speak out against homophobia in sport. Many athletes and coaches who come out do not want to be seen as a “flag waver.” They just want to do what they do as athletes and coaches and do it without the hiding, deception and secrecy. Fair enough, but it sure is wonderful to have coaches like Sherri who is willing and committed to using her visibility to fight homophobia in sport and make it easier for the next generation of coaches and athletes to come out.

She calls her coming out as a lesbian coach a “non-issue” to her team, her school administration, opposing coaches, and the parents of her players. I know what she means by this. It means that her lesbian identity is received by those she works with as a part of her in the same way any heterosexual coach’s personal relationships and family are a part of them. That’s great.

At the same time, Sherri’s coming out publicly is definitely NOT a non-issue. It is an important step toward a future when a coach’s sexual orientation will not be news of any kind. When a coach’s professionalism, integrity, coaching knowledge, teaching ability and winning record will be what matters. Until that time comes, it sure is great to have a coach like Sherri Murrell who is all of these things and an out lesbian too.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Skating on Thin Ice: Stars on Ice Says No to Johnny Weir

The perennial post-Olympic Stars on Ice tour is getting under way , but it will be without Olympian Johnny Weir. He was not invited to the Stars on Ice party. They say they just don’t have room to include everyone, nothing personal against Johnny Weir. Johnny thinks it is because they don’t think he is “family friendly.” GLAAD agrees.

I think the figure skating “community” in general and, in this case, the Stars on Ice people in particular are a little uptight about how male figure skaters are perceived. They are uncomfortable with Johnny Weir’s refusal to be anything other than who he is: A male skater whose skating style embraces everything that makes the figure skating gender police nervous: sequins, flowers, leotards, artistry, sassiness, flirtatiousness and make-up. Because of his gender expression, he is perceived as gay, but has declined to identify his sexual orientation for the media. He is outspoken about just about everything else. Put it all together and the figure skating poobahs just don’t know what to do with him. They wish he would just go away. They think he is bad for the image of male figure skating.

This blog includes a funny video clip about this whole thing.

For Stars on Ice to say they don’t have room for a member of the 2010 Olympic team is ridiculous, especially since skating audiences loves Johnny Weir. He knows how to put on a great show. He gets people clapping and cheering. He is a great performer. You’d think Stars on Ice would be thrilled to include a well known Olympic skater and three time National Champion who will bring in the crowds. But no, they have no room. They can’t include everyone, you know.

They have room for Jeremy Abbott, another member of the Olympic team who bombed at the Olympics (at least it looked like that to me. He was so nervous). He didn’t skate nearly as well as Johnny Weir did, but his costume was more manly (read boring) and his skating was definitely more butched up. He is more “family-friendly” I guess.

It was bad enough when a couple of ignorant Canadian broadcasters disparaged and mocked Johnny Weir on the air at the Olympics for his gender expression and assumed gayness. Now Stars on Ice is displaying the same kind of ignorance. Just because they try to camouflage it a little by claiming it is about roster limits, doesn’t make it any more acceptable. No room for a current Olympian and former National Champion and great showman? Are you kidding me?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Gay Lacrosse Player Comes Out

Often when male sports writers, athletes or coaches are asked how a sports team would respond to having an openly gay teammate, they respond that it would be difficult;The team would be uncomfortable; they wouldn't accept him; it would be a distraction; It would detract from team unity. Well, here is the story of Andrew McIntosh, a captain of the men's lacrosse team at State University of New York at Oneonta and it tells us that the times are changing. Enjoy!

Here is another similar story told by Brian Simms, a gay former college football player. Enjoy more!

NCAA Drops Future Plans to Use FOTF Ads

Just to wrap up this thread, I understand that the NCAA has quietly dropped all plans to use the FOTF ads in the future, specifically during the fast approaching men’s NCAA basketball tournament. Thanks to the NCAA for doing the right thing. Kudos to all the folks who wrote to the NCAA expressing your concern/outrage/disappointment about the NCAA associating themselves with FOTF and their exclusionary political agenda. Also, a special hat tip to Sean Chapin who created that wonderful video that clearly explained the problems with the NCAA being associated with FOTF.

Hearing from so many individuals from member schools, NCAA sports fans and others convinced the NCAA that the ads would only serve to distract from the basketball and reminded them that people take the NCAA’s stated commitments to diversity and inclusion seriously and expect them to do the same. I hope the tone of these letters and email to the NCAA were more civil and reasoned than many of the emails and blog comments I got from people who disagree with my position on this.

It’s been an education for me. I don’t think I have ever been called a “hate-filled ignorant hypocritical fascist” before. I have been called a “sexual deviate,” and a “pervert” before, but I don’t recall being told there was no such thing as gay people, which is weird since I am one and know a whole bunch of others who are. It’s not like we are a nation of Easter Bunnies after all. A few people said they would pray for God to have mercy on my soul or called on me to repent. Thanks, but no thanks. I certainly have many failings and imperfections, but loving a woman isn’t one of them and I am certainly not a sinner because I disagree with a particularly narrow interpretation of what it means to be a Christian.

A part of me would like to have a face to face conversation with some of the folks who wrote to me about my blogs on the NCAA/FOTF situation (others, not so much, they are a little scary). I think it is good when we can get out of our own echo chamber sometimes to talk with people who see things differently whether we are talking politics, religion or social justice. But, for me to engage in that conversation, it would need to be civil and respectful. The goals would need to be understanding and seeking common ground, not conversion or condemnation. It is a sad commentary on how polarized our public dialogues have become that I don’t see this kind of conversation as a realistic possibility anytime soon.

Friday, March 5, 2010

“If we appreciate each other, then we have a chance for something great.”

This is a quote from an interview this week with Jim Tressel, the Ohio State football coach whose team won the Rose Bowl this year. Tressel agreed to do the interview with Outlook Columbus, a local GLBT magazine. I am not sure of this, but I am betting it is the first time a Division 1 football coach has sat down for an interview with an LGBT publication.

He has some great things to say about his coaching philosophy in general and some specific things to say about coaching gay football players and importance of appreciation for differences on a team.

Here are a few quotes from his interview that stood out for me:

“We strive to teach and model appreciation for everyone,” Tressel says. “One, we are a family. If you haven’t learned from your family at home that people have differences and those strengthen the whole, then you are hopefully going to learn it as part of the Ohio State football family.”

“We try to tell our guys that an authentic you is the best you,” Tressel says. “That’s truly what freedom means, and the beauty of living in America. People can live their beliefs.”

When asked by the interviewer to impart one winning concept to his GLBT students, alumni, faculty and fans, he replied: “If we appreciate each other, then we have a chance for something great.

Because we don’t often hear football coaches talk about diversity and inclusion, specifically when it refers to LGBT people, I’m tempted to speculate about why Coach Tressel decided to do this interview. Is it because he has some gay players on his team? Does he have LGBT family members? Maybe one of his assistant coaches is gay.

In the end, though it doesn’t really matter what motivated Coach Tressel to speak out, I’m just really appreciative that he did. Thanks, Coach. I think I have to become an OSU football fan now.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Pity The Poor Christians. They ClaimThe NCAA is Discriminating Against Them

Give me a break. Because the NCAA pulled the Focus on the Family ads on, FOTF and its sister organization, the American Family Association are now claiming that yanking the ads constitutes discrimination against Christians. Give me a freaking break.

Since when do right-wing Christian political organizations have a right to advertise with a non-religious sport organization? I always thought that the freedom of religion in the U.S. included the right to be free of religion in the secular, public arena. The NCAA is not a religious affiliated organization and is under no obligation to accept ads from any religious organizations from any part of the religious spectrum. This is not discrimination, it is called respect for diversity and valuing inclusion which is part of the NCAA mission.

Discrimination against Christians? Puleeze! Do you know how embedded evangelical Christian sport ministries are in sport at all levels in the United States? From the Baseball Chapels that are affiliated with every MLB team to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) prayer breakfast held at most national coaches association meetings to the Athletes in Action (AIA) exhibition teams that play against college teams and proselytize the fans at half-time to the local chapters of FCA that have gained semi-official status in many public school athletic departments to the gospel nights at WNBA games, evangelical Christian organizations are part of the fabric of interscholastic, intercollegiate and professional sport. Their mission is to bring athletes, fans and coaches to Christ. Read their web pages. They make it very clear that is their goal and they are accepted with open arms by sport organizations and schools across the U.S. As far as I know no other religious groups have the kind of open access to sport that these Christian organizations do. I’ve never heard of a Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or Wiccan sport ministry, have you? Discrimination, my patootie!

I am not anti-religion. I fully support individual religious freedom in sport, even if I do not agree with the basic tenets of a particular religion. Athletes have a right to express their faith though I admit that the endless images of championship winners on TV thanking God for their victories has become annoying and that seeing groups of athletes on bended knee praying in the middle of field feels like more of a calculated exhibition than a genuine spontaneous expression of faith. Wouldn’t you, just for fun, love to hear a victorious athlete thank Satan for victory once, just to shake things up a little? (For readers with no sense of humor, this is a joke, ok?)

I believe that athletes and coaches of all faiths or none should respect each other. It means we have to agree to disagree on some points, but it doesn’t mean we can’t treat each other with dignity and respect. I’ve built some great relationships with some Christian women who work for FCA and AIA over the last few years. We focus on our common ground, not our differences, and we’ve led some successful workshop session together on this topic at the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association. Our relationships are built on mutual respect for the truth that we each bring to the table, even though that truth is not the same. We’ve learned from each other and expanded our points of view. We still do not see eye to eye on many things, but we can live with that because we respect each other’s truth even if we don’t agree.

Where I draw the line is when coaches suggest, pressure or require their teams to pray or attend Christian prayer meetings or Bible studies, or read or recite Christian scripture to teams. Or when sport organizations affiliate themselves with a particular religious point of view by providing exclusive access to athletes and coaches or accepting advertising from religiously affiliated groups. This is wrong. It is a violation of the principle of the separation of church and state which, ironically, has protected freedom of religion for over two hundred years. It seems to me that the Christian point of view has had unprecedented access in sport for years already so, please, don’t cry discrimination just because the NCAA isn’t accepting your ads.

The NCAA is made up of people and institutions representing many political, religious, sexual, racial differences. It only creates division and disrespect for the NCAA to affiliate with messages of exclusion or exclusivity, no matter how blandly they are couched in advertising slogans. To FOTF and AFA, don’t cheapen the cause of social justice by claiming that you are being discriminated against here. I’m embarrassed for you.

Good Huffington Post Article on the NCAA Decision to Pull FOTF Ads

Here is a great article in the Huffington Post that recognizes the NCAA for pulling the FOTF ads and articulates the reasons why ads from organizations espousing controversial or extreme political views are a big mistake for the NCAA far better than I can.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Winter Olympics Gay Postscript

The Vancouver Winter Olympics are over and I know I will be getting a lot more sleep now. I stayed up way past my bedtime several nights to watch the action during the past two weeks. Of the 4-5 publicly out lesbian athletes (there were no openly gay, bi or trans athletes) competing at the games, two won medals – both gold. Ireen Wust, a Dutch speed skater won gold in the 1500 meter event. Sarah Vaillancourt was a member of the Canadian gold medal Ice Hockey team. That’s a pretty good percentage. Can we say coming out helps athletes to compete better?

The other gay-related news from the games was about the first ever Pride House and the on-air homophobic radio commentary about Johnny Weir by two French language speaking broadcasters. You can read summaries of these stories here at the Pride House web site.

Though it seems that there were no openly LGBT winter Olympians who visited Pride House, there were lots of other visitors, including Steven Colbert, and some great educational programming and lots of champagne and celebration. I still think Pride House served a purpose. It provided visibility for the issue of LGBT athletes and homophobia in sport and it sets a standard for future Pride Houses at future games. Maybe more publicly out Olympians will visit Pride House the next time around.

The two broadcasters who thought it was ok to make some pretty out of line comments on the air about U.S. figure skater, Johnny Weir, provide ample evidence why more Olympic athletes choose not to come out. What competitor would want that kind of distraction? Johnny Weir has chosen not to reveal his sexual orientation, but his skating style pushes the buttons of commentators, judges, spectators and other competitors who are uncomfortable with his refusal to “butch” up his costumes or skating programs. It really is amazing how Weir’s refusal to tell what his sexual orientation is and his insistence on being true to his own sense of artistry and fashion on the ice really drives people nuts and, as in the case of the Canadian broadcasters, brings out their worst bigoted beliefs. One of my favorite sports writers, LZ Granderson, wrote a great article discussing issues of masculinity, sexuality and sports that Johnny Weir challenges us to examine. Check it out here. Here is an editorial by GLAAD president Jarrot Barrios on the coverage of Johnny Weir and gay athletes in general also.