Monday, February 21, 2011

Remembering Betty Hicks (1920-2011)

Let’s play a little sports Jeopardy. The category is Women Sports Pioneers.

The answers in this category are:

• Winner of the 1941 U.S. Women’s Amateur Golf Championship.
• 1941 Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year.
• Founder of the Women’s Professional Golf Association, the precursor to the LPGA.
• One of the founding players on the LPGA and contemporary of Babe Didrikson Zaharias.
• Professional woman golfer who, along with Babe Didrikson Zaharias, appeared in “Pat and Mike” the 1952 Hepburn & Tracy movie.
• Golf teacher, golf coach, aviator, flight instructor, author and gourmet cook.
• Inductee into the Women Sports Foundation International Hall of Fame

The question for all of these answers is: Who is Betty Hicks?

Betty Hicks was also the first woman athlete to write about lesbian athletes. Her 1979 article appeared in Christopher Street, a now defunct gay publication. I found it in the early 1980’s while doing my own research on the topic. When I had the opportunity to meet this gutsy and accomplished Renaissance woman I jumped at the chance. I was in the process of gathering information and doing interviews for writing Strong Women, Deep Closets, my book about lesbians in sport. I was on sabbatical in California and I called her and introduced myself. She invited me to her home, took me out to lunch and even offered me, basically a total stranger, the use of her car while I was in California. She was a true pioneer in women’s sports. She was a fearless feminist who lived her passion for golf, flying and writing. She inspired me and encouraged me as I struggled through my own self-doubts as a writer.

Betty told me amazing stories about the early days of the LPGA tour and offered insights into how the fear of being called a lesbian haunted the women on the tour during the 1950’s. Remember this was during the McCarthy Era when Senator McCarthy was holding hearings to root out Communists and homosexuals in the national government and other institutions in the U.S. It was the 20th Century version of the medieval witch hunts in Europe and seventeen century United States. Police routinely raided bars frequented by lesbians and gay men, herded the patrons into paddy wagons and newspapers published their names which led to public humiliation, disruptions of personal lives, job loss and terror. The lucky ones escaped out the back door or paid off the police to protect their anonymity.

The last time I saw Betty was about eight years ago when she visited Kathy and I while she was in Boston for some golf business. She hustled us out to the local Stop & Shop to buy the ingredients for the gourmet meal she was planning to cook us. She took over our kitchen and we served as her sou chefs as pots, pans and flour flew. The meal was great and we enjoyed seeing Betty. We just did not know it would be the last time.

Betty was 90 years old when she died this week. Imagine the changes she lived through both in women’s sports and in women’s and LGBT rights. I often think of social change as a relay race with each generation of people running their leg and passing the baton to the next generation with each successive leg of the race building on the hard work and courage of the one before. I like to think I took the baton from Betty and have run my leg in a way that she would be proud of. Tonight, I raise a glass in your honor, Betty. Thanks for being an inspiration and for being my friend.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Out: The Glenn Burke Story

In November Comcast Sports aired a documentary, Out: The Glenn Burke Story, about a gay pro baseball player. It did not air in my area and I had a difficult time getting a copy of the video so I could see it. However, thanks to my friend, Jim Buzinski at, I finally was able to watch it this weekend. Here is a review of the documentary that Jim wrote in November.

It seems fitting that I watched this video during Black History Month since Glenn Burke was a Black gay man. He was a stand out basketball and baseball star at Berkeley High School in the late 1960s and 1970. He played professional baseball for the LA Dodgers, starting in the World Series in 1977 where the Dodgers lost to the NY Yankees. Despite his excellence on the field and being a popular teammate in the clubhouse, Burke was traded to the Oakland A’s (more about that later). He retired from baseball in 1980 at 27 years old with many potential years of baseball still ahead of him. He came out publicly in a Sport magazine article and on the Today show in 1982. Glenn Burke was later diagnosed with AIDS and died of complications related to AIDS in 1995. The documentary includes interviews with several of his former Dodger and Athletics teammates as well as family members, friends and Billy Bean, the only other gay ex-professional baseball player to ever come out publicly.

Glenn Burke’s story is both tragic and triumphant. The tragedy is that, despite his considerable baseball talent and his engaging, larger than life personality and popularity with the men who played on teams with him, Glenn Burke’s career was cut short by anti-gay prejudice among the baseball management for both the Dodgers and the A’s. His Dodger teammates knew Burke was gay, but most of them loved his sense of humor and appreciated his production on the field.

The Dodgers’ management even offered Burke $75,000 to would marry a woman. They couldn’t have a gay man sullying the macho heterosexual image of baseball after all.

Tommy Lasorda, the manager of the Dodgers, had a gay son called Spunky, whom he never acknowledged as gay. Burke became friends with Spunky and possibly dated him while he was playing for Lasorda. That must have been the final straw for Lasorda leading to Burke’s trade to the A’s. In the interviews in the documentary his former teammates expressed shock and disbelief that Burke had been traded as well as an understanding that the trade had little to do with making the Dodgers a better team and everything to do with getting rid of Glenn Burke because he was gay.

Burke struggled on the Oakland team. He went from the Dodgers, a national league championship team, to a cellar dweller. His teammates there were less comfortable with a gay man in the locker room. The worst part of the move, however, was Billy Martin, the A’s manager. Martin was extremely homophobic and his cruelty and open hostility toward Burke made playing baseball a miserable experience leading to Glenn’s retirement well before is playing days should have been over.

Glenn Burke loved living in San Francisco, however, and found a home in the gay community there. He enjoyed the freewheeling sexual life of the pre-AIDS era and was an icon on Castro Street. Sadly though, baseball was Glenn Burke’s passion and he did not leave the sport he loved on his own terms. He was forced to make a choice between playing baseball or being true to himself as a gay man. I am sure that loss haunted him the rest of his life. He eventually became enmeshed in drug and alcohol abuse. He served some time in prison. At the end of his life, he was homeless and dying of AIDS: A senseless and tragic end to a life that held so much promise.

You might ask where is the triumph in this story. I saw it in the eyes of his former teammates as they recalled the Glenn Burke they knew and loved – the laughter, the dancing in the locker room, the red jock that hung in his locker, the timely hit, the stolen base, the impossible catch in the outfield. Glenn Burke is credited with inventing the High Five, a testament to his love for baseball and being part of a team: Standing on the dugout steps, high fiving a teammate who had hit a home run, scored a run, made a great defensive play.

Glenn Burke never felt shame about being gay. He never pretended he wasn’t gay. He did not come out publicly during his playing days, but he was just who he was: A Black gay ball player who loved the game and enjoyed the company of men on and off the field. I find that triumphant, especially in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, especially for a professional baseball player of that era.

I found it interesting that the documentary did not address race at all. The fact that Glenn Burke was a Black man must have affected his experience as a gay baseball player. I wanted to hear more about this from the mostly Black and Latino former teammates who participated in the documentary. Both Lasorda and Martin were white. Did that have any effect on their treatment of Burke? Or was it just that neither man could reconcile the contradiction of a gay man who was also a heck of an athlete. Was it that Lasorda and Martin just couldn’t overcome their deeply held stereotypes about gay men, no matter what their race, to really see Glenn Burke, the man and the ball player.

Telling Glenn Burke’s story is an important part of reclaiming the mostly invisible history of LGBT people in sport. How many Glenn Burkes have played professional sports, suffered similar discrimination and we will never know their stories? We will never know what they could have accomplished on the field. We lost them as leaders in the fight for LGBT rights in and out of sports.

Out: The Glenn Burke Story is a great Black History Month teaching tool. It is a great teaching tool at any time for looking at fear and prejudice and at the tragedy of discrimination and oppression. It also made me wish I could have known Glenn Burke. It’s true this documentary enables him and his story to teach younger generations of athletes about homophobia in sports, but wouldn’t it be even more powerful if Glenn was able to be here to tell us his story himself.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Why Sports Are Important for LGBT Young People

Here is a great story of success for a high school gay wrestler. Jaime’s story illustrates why making high school athletics safe for students of all sexual orientations and gender identities is so important. If you are a lonely or isolated young person, if you are a closeted or questioning young person, participation on school sports team with a coach and teammates who believe in respect and support for everyone on the team can save a life.

Jaime’s story also shows the importance of coaches as role models, whether they are gay or straight. Here are some questions for coaches: How would an athlete on your team know that you are someone who she or he can talk to about being gay? Would you be prepared to listen to and support an athlete like Jaime on your team? Since coaches set the tone for what kind of climate is created on their teams, what kind of climate do you set on your team for LGBT athletes? Thanks, Roger, for the story and for being the coach and role model you are.

Monday, February 7, 2011

A Call for Heterosexual Women and Men in Women’s Sport to Stand Up to Anti-Gay Discrimination

Sean Avery, a member of the NHL New York Rangers, told the Toronto Sun that he will support any young hockey player who wants to come out. He says that if any player anywhere (I am not sure he is including girl hockey players, but I hope he is) wants to come out and they need support, he will fly to their town and be with them as they come out to their teammates.

Avery says, "I'll stand beside him in the dressing room while he tells his teammates he is gay. Maybe if Sean Avery is there, they would have less of a problem with it."
I am excited about the increasing numbers of male professional athletes in the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL who are standing up publicly to support young gay people, marriage equality, anti-bullying laws as well as saying positive things about having gay teammates. It’s a far cry from Tim Hardaway’s anti-gay rant when John Amaechi came out.

At the risk of leaving someone out, Sean Avery joins professional athletes Scott Fujita (NFL), Steve Nash (NBA), Reggie Bush (NFL), Charles Barkley (NBA), Brendon Ayanbadejo (NFL), who have, in the last year, spoken out publicly against anti-gay discrimination or harassment. OK, there are still many athletes who are silent, but it wasn’t that long ago when public anti-gay comments were the norm and the absence of positive comments was total. Add to this list former NFL commissioner Paul Taglibue, Toronto Maple Leafs GM, Brian Burke and his son Patrick and Ohio State Football Coach, Jim Tressel and the number of men in men’s sports speaking up gets longer. It gets longer still if you add Boston Red Sox Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia and Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, who have all spoken out in support of Boston sportswriter, Steve Buckley’s coming out. And of course, we must cite the amazing advocacy of rugby player Ben Cohen and former wrestler and now wrestling coach, Hudson Taylor.

So, as I have asked before in my blog: Where are the heterosexual women athletes and coaches who are willing to stand up publicly against anti-gay discrimination and harassment? People always assume that women’s sports are more accepting of lesbian athletes and coaches. If this is so, where are the straight women allies among the professional ranks or among collegiate sports? Is homophobia in women’s sport what keeps straight women silent? It is true that women’s sports still have to contend with assumptions that many people make about an athlete’s sexuality because of her athleticism and the lesbian label is still used as a way to intimidate and discredit individual women and whole sports. But isn’t it time for heterosexual women in sport to step up and challenge homophobia like some of their male counterparts are? Is the homophobia in women’s sports what is silencing heterosexual women? And while we are talking about it, what about all the heterosexual men coaching women’s sports, when can we expect to hear some of them speaking up against homophobia in women’s sports? No one is accusing them of being lesbians.

I know there are many heterosexual coaches and athletes, male and female, who privately do not condone anti-gay discrimination and harassment in or out of sport. I’d like each of them to consider how much more powerful it would be for them to speak up publicly as increasing numbers of heterosexual men in men’s sports are. If we are to eliminate homophobia and heterosexism in sport, we need more heterosexual allies to speak up publicly, both women and men.

Consider this a challenge to heterosexual men and women in women’s sports to do so. Your voice makes a difference. Stand up. Speak up. Use your heterosexual status and credentials to make sports a better place for everyone. If you are afraid to do it alone, get together with a group of coaches or athletes in your sport or your school to make a statement. Do it. Do it now. It is the right thing to do and it makes all sports a better place for coaches and athletes of all sexual orientations.