Monday, January 28, 2013

Straight Women Allies in Sport: Rare Sightings of An Important Species

Over the last several months an impressive number of high profile straight men in sport have stepped forward to speak out publicly in support of marriage equality and the inclusion of LGBTQ people in sports as well as against anti-LGBTQ bullying in schools.  NFL players Chris Kluwe, Brendon Ayanbadejo and Scott Fujita; NHL players Sean Avery and Tommy Wingels, NBA players Grant Hill and Steve Nash are among the increasingly visible straight male allies speaking up publicly.
In addition, several MLB teams, including the San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox, have produced “It Gets Better” videos adding their voices to the thousands of others offering hope to LGBT youth who are bullied by their peers.  Recently, San Francisco 49er Coach, Jim Harbaugh, spoke in support of gay football players on the eve of his team’s appearance in the Super Bowl.
In addition to these expressions of support, three straight male allies, Hudson Taylor of Athlete Ally; Patrick Burke of the You Can Play Project; and Ben Cohen of the Stand Up Foundation, have taken their LGBT advocacy to the next level by creating organizations that focus on making sports a safe and inclusive place for LGBT athletes and coaches and take strong stands against anti-LGBTQ bullying. 
The visibility and outspoken support of high profile straight professional team sports athletes and the education and advocacy efforts of allies like Hudson, Patrick and Ben are a vital part of making sports inclusive and respectful for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities/expressions. Truly, the increasing visibility of straight male allies in sports is astounding given the pervasive silence and even hostility surrounding LGBT issues that was more typical of men’s sports prior to the last couple of years.
I define allies as members of privileged social groups in relation to a particular form of social injustice. For example, white allies standing against racism, male allies speaking out against sexism and straight allies fighting heterosexism/homophobia broaden the reach of change efforts and serve as visible role models for others to act and speak for social justice. Allies play a vital role in all social justice movements including the LGBTQ sports equality movement.
Amid the celebration of visible straight male allies in the burgeoning LGBTQ sports equality movement, however, we must ask the question: Where are the high profile straight women allies? What professional or Olympic straight women athletes are speaking out for marriage equality and LGBT inclusion in sport? What high visibility college women coaches are taking a public stand against anti-LGBTQ bullying and discrimination in sports?  Where are the counterparts to Hudson Taylor, Patrick Burke and Ben Cohen starting advocacy organizations to challenge anti-LGBTQ discrimination in sports?
It isn’t that there are no straight women allies in sport.  I have spoken to many straight women coaches and athletes who decry discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. Sherri Murrell, the only publicly out lesbian coach in D1 women’s basketball, receives a lot of personal support from her straight coaching colleagues. Straight women college and professional athletes are embracing their lesbian and bisexual teammates on teams all across the US.  In working with college student-athletes, I find that women’s teams are often much more open about and comfortable with the sexual orientation diversity on their teams than the men are.
The problem is that straight women allies in sport are invisible and they offer their support privately.  By confining their support to private conversations within their teams or one on one to coaching colleagues, straight women athlete and coach allies fall victim to the same old homophobia and fear of association with lesbians that has plagued women’s sports since Senda Berenson organized the first women’s basketball game at Smith College in 1893.   Don’t get me wrong, private allies are better than no allies.  But we need public allies who speak out consistently and boldly if we are to change the culture of fear and secrecy that persists in women’s sport.  To most effective challenge heterosexism and homophobia in women’s sports, straight women allies must be willing to speak out publicly.
When lesbian athletes and coaches like Seimone Augustus, Megan Rapinoe and Sherri Murrell come out; we need their straight teammates and coaches to publicly and privately support them. We need straight women on NCAA panels speaking out against LGBTQ discrimination in sport.  We need straight women allies in sport to take their place beside the lesbians and bi women, the straight men and the gay and bi men, the transgender men and women who are already working to challenge anti-LGBTQ discrimination in sport. Their absence speaks volumes about the difference between heterosexism/homophobia in women’s and men’s sports.
Several factors account for the silence of straight women allies in sport.  Certainly sexism in sport combined with homophobia affect straight women in ways that straight men don’t even think about. The lesbian label has a long history in women’s sport of being used as an effective means of silencing, intimidating and discounting women in sport as well as women’s sports in general.  Male athletes and men’s sports are privileged in terms of resources, media access and gendered cultural expectations. While individual straight men who speak out publicly against LGBTQ discrimination in sport may be called “gay,” in an attempt to silence them, the effects of this gay-baiting are not as damaging as they are under the persistent shadow of negative lesbian stereotypes that still looms over women’s sports and all women athletes. Negative recruiting based on actual or perceived sexual orientation is still a reality in women’s sports.  Lesbian coaches still lose their jobs because of their sexual orientation. Lesbian athletes are still dismissed from teams or shunned by teammates because of their sexual orientation.
It is also possible that straight women allies do not get the media attention that male straight allies receive. We know that women’s sports in general do not and that lesbian athletes who come out publicly do not.  It might be that there are high profile straight women athletes publicly expressing their support for LGBT people in sport, but it is not perceived as newsworthy by the male-dominated sports media.  Another reason straight allies might not get the media attention they deserve is that too many sports journalists assume that discrimination against lesbians and bi women in sport is no longer a problem.  They assume, incorrectly, that we must focus all of our attention on men’s sports and, they become obsessed (in my opinion) with when the first major team sports professional male athlete will come out while he is still actively competing.  Given gender and sexual orientation stereotypes, the public and the media see gay men and straight male allies in sports as more surprising and therefore, more newsworthy. This perspective often masks a more damaging fundamental belief that all women athletes are lesbians so it isn’t news when a women athlete announces publicly that she is what everyone assumed she was anyway.
These and other factors could offer explanations for the relative silence of high profile straight women when it comes to the public discussion of LGBTQ issues in sport.  However, none of these factors excuses the near total absence of straight women’s voices in this conversation.  At a time when the President of the United States welcomes the LGBT rights movement into the civil rights mainstream in his second inaugural address, it’s embarrassing to say that I cannot name a single high profile straight women athlete or coach who speaks publicly, proudly and consistently on behalf of LGBT inclusion in sport.
 Consider this an invitation. Consider this an exhortation. Whatever it takes, we need the voices and faces of straight women athletes and coaches to help us transform sports for all women and men. We need you to join your straight brothers if we are to make sport an inclusive and respectful place for all of us. Come out; come out, wherever you are!