Thursday, January 2, 2014

Women in the LGBT Sports Equality Movement: New Year and Birthday Thoughts

It’s the start of a new year and it’s my birthday. Both are great occasions to reflect on the past and look to the future.  I have been an active and out lesbian LGBT sports advocate and educator since 1982 when I spoke out for the first time publicly about homophobia in women’s sports at a national conference on the future of women’s sports.  As you might imagine, at that time, it caused quite a stir.  You just did not talk about lesbians or homophobia in sport above a whisper or in public! I actually had a colleague ask me once if homophobia meant fear of going home.

Billie Jean King had been outed by her former lover the year before and lost all of her commercial endorsements. Martina Navratilova had just been outed in a New York newspaper. She did not want them to publish the article until she had received her US citizenship since sexual orientation could have been used to deny her application.  Dave Kopay’s ground-breaking book was published 6 years before.  Renee Richards was the only trans athlete we knew of because she won her right to play in women’s competitions in 1977.  All in all, it was a fairly lonely and risky experience to be a fledging LGBT sports advocate in 1982. I did have role models though. Ellen “Lennie” Gerber and her partner, Pearl Berlin were my mentors when I was getting my Master’s degree.  They introduced me to Jan Felshin, a professor at East Stroudsburg, who was such an open and outspoken lesbian that she both inspired and scared me.

In the early 90’s, I met and began working with Helen Carroll, then athletic Director at Mills College and now director of the NCLR Sports Project; Sue Rankin, then an openly lesbian softball coach at Penn State during the Rene Portland anti-lesbian era and now a top researcher on LGBT issues on college campuses; Dee Mosbacher, who produced the first educational documentary about homophobia in women’s sports, Out for A Change, in 1995; Mariah Burton Nelson, professional basketball player and author; and Mary Jo Kane, a sport sociologist from the University of Minnesota specializing in research on media images of women athletes. Each of these amazing women inspired me and we supported each other in our efforts to challenge homophobia in women’s sports. It meant everything to have friends and colleagues who cared as deeply as I did about women’s sports and making sports a safe and inclusive place where LGBT people could compete openly without fear of discrimination or harassment.  With encouragement and support from these women I wrote Strong Women, Deep Closets in 1998, the first book to explore the depth of homophobia in women’s sports.  I am still humbled (and proud) when women athletes and coaches tell me that my book changed their lives in some way or helped them to understand and speak out against the destructive dynamics of heterosexism and sexism they experienced in sports.  I probably wouldn’t have completed the book without the support of my women’s support network.

Over the last fourteen years we have experienced an incredible explosion of advocacy and change in the women’s and men’s sports world.  The creation of LGBT sports advocacy organizations and the emergence of young leaders of all sexual orientations and gender identities who are creating change in sports at all levels.  The success of the LGBT sports equality movement is assured by these amazing young people.  Though we have many obstacles remaining before the work is done, we are up to the challenge.

My work as an LGBT sports advocate grew out of my own experiences as a closeted lesbian athlete and coach in high school and college.  I wanted to be part of a movement that would insure that future LGBT athletes and coaches would be able to compete and coach in the sports they loved without fear and discrimination.  As a high school and college woman athlete who competed and coached pre-Title IX, I also am very sensitive to the need to keep our focus on women’s and men’s sports.  Though we have made enormous progress, we have not yet achieved equality for girls and women in sports on the playing field, in coaching, in sports reporting or in sports administration. 

This fight against sexism is also a part of the LGBT sports advocacy movement.  We must not succumb to the myth that homophobia is no longer an issue or less important in women’s sports or let the media’s focus on men’s sports influence our agenda. Addressing heterosexism and transgender oppression in women’s and men’s sports is equally important. Heterosexism and transgender oppression sometimes manifest themselves in different ways because of sexist gender expectations, but their effects are equally devastating on women and men and boys and girls.  Our advocacy efforts must focus on both women’s and men’s sports equally.

One of the most exciting aspects of the thriving LGBT sports advocacy movement is the emergence of talented young women leaders whose work is grounded in a commitment to challenging, not only sexism, but racism, biphobia and classism both in and outside of the LGBT sports movement. 

Anna Aegenes, the executive director of GO! Athletes; Nevin Caple, executive the director of Br{ache The Silence; and Caitlin Cahow, the US Olympic ice hockey medalist and member of the Presidential delegation to the Sochi Games are three young women who are providing the leadership that the LGBT sports advocacy movement needs to successfully reach its goals.  They, in turn, are inspiring other young women who are working on their campuses, on their teams, in their schools to follow their example. It is an honor to work with these young women and to celebrate their successes.  And so the cycle of supporting, mentoring and learning from women continues.

I have always thought that the struggle for social justice is like a relay race.  Older members of the team complete their leg and pass the baton on to younger generations who continue the race to the finish line.  Women like Lennie, Pearl and Jan passed the baton to me. I am inspired to know a younger generation of women leaders, exemplified by Anna, Nevin and Caitlin, as teammates who are taking the baton and running their leg with the kind of fierce determination and power we need to win and making sure that women are part of the race and the victory.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Making Connections: White Privilege in the LGBT Sports Advocacy Community

Last week I just happened to turn on CNN at the exact moment that President Obama walked into the White House press conference to make a surprise statement in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin Murder trial outcome.  I almost never watch TV during the day, but it was blazing hot and wicked humid out and I was stuck in the house enjoying the AC. A little bored, I turned on the TV just in time to hear the president make his extraordinary personal statement placing the reactions of many African-American people to the Zimmerman acquittal in the larger context of race and racism in the United States.  

As someone who considers myself a white ally on issues of race and racism, I was impressed by Obama’s statement and his intentional injection of race and racism into the conversation about the Zimmerman trial. I am so sick of hearing white people proclaim that racism is over and that this particular incident had nothing to do with race.  I am outraged that John Roberts and the majority of the Supreme Court believe that it is no longer necessary to monitor individual states’ efforts to make it difficult or impossible for poor people and people of color to vote because racism is over according to their white privileged world view.

I am angry that when African-Americans or other people of color point out how race and racism are still prevalent and relevant in the United States these efforts are attacked by white people as divisive attempts to revive racial tensions of the past or dismissed as “biased” or “too sensitive.” That is exactly what happened when Obama spoke out yesterday.  The twitter world lit up with white conservative politicians and pundits dismissing and criticizing his heartfelt statement.

The problem is not calling attention to race and racism and demanding that we address the on-going institutional manifestations of it. The problem is our inability as a nation and as individual citizens to acknowledge that racism is still deeply embedded in the fabric of our culture and ourselves.  It is NOT calling attention to the on-going significance of race and racism that is divisive; it is the refusal to consider the effects of racism that is divisive. It is the dismissal and erasure of the perspectives of people of color about their experiences in a white-dominated culture that are problematic.

I do not expect blatant white racists to change their perspectives any time soon. Neither do I expect the white conservative pundits who claim that we live in a post-racial society to understand the complacent naiveté of the white privilege embedded in their smug pronouncements.  What I do expect is that white allies, me and white people like me who claim to abhor racism, will stand up and speak out alongside our friends and colleagues of color about the disturbing dismissal of race and racism in our national and personal conversations about justice, both legal and social. 

It is simplistic and not productive to think that it is enough to see oneself as a “good” white person who does not participate in or condone overt acts of racism. This perspective places white people outside of racism looking in. It separates white people from the need to engage in self-reflection or action. This perspective enables “good” white people to stand on the sidelines without confronting our own ignorance, fear, guilt and privilege when it comes to difficult conversations about racism and the ways we good white people are complicit in perpetuating it.  The truth is that white people, all white people, benefit from racism. Those of us who claim to believe in social justice need to confront this uncomfortable reality.  Conversations about racism among white people are often complicated by our guilt, fear and ignorance. Avoiding conversations about racism because we feel guilty, afraid or uninformed is unacceptable. It is the nature of privilege that it is difficult for those who have it to see it.  Becoming aware of one’s privilege can be a painful, yet liberating process. It is a process white people who claim to be allies must engage in.  President Obama called this process soul searching. Unless “good” white people are willing to take on this challenge (and the choice to refuse the challenge grows out of our privilege), we will never effectively achieve racial justice and never understand our roles in either perpetuating or eliminating racism.

Time Out.  

If you are wondering why, in an LGBT sports blog, I am talking about racism, then you are exactly who I would like to engage in this conversation.  A national conversation among white people about white privilege and our roles in perpetuating racism, consciously or unconsciously, is not only about the larger cultural issues of racism and legal justice, voting rights, gun violence or poverty.  We need to integrate these conversations into our everyday lives including our LGBT sports advocacy, education and research. 

To the extent that we unconsciously think of whiteness as the “default” when we are talking about LGBT inclusion and discrimination in sports, we are guilty of privileging white people and ignoring the experiences of LGBT people of color. 

Every time we plan an LGBT educational panel, conference program, research project, course syllabus or workshop and fail to talk about race and racism or include the voices of people of color, we perpetuate racism.

When we sit silently at LGBT sports educational or advocacy events that do not include people of color or don’t even notice this lack of representation, we are perpetuating racism.

When we leave it up to colleagues or friends of color to speak out about racism or to remind us to include voices of color, we are enjoying our white privilege.

When we discount the perspectives of people of color as “too sensitive” or “seeing racism everywhere,” we privilege our own perspectives and experiences over theirs.

When we congratulate ourselves for including a few people of color in our programs without challenging our white privilege, we are perpetuating racism. 

If, when challenged about our ignorance, fear or lack of action about racism, we let our discomfort or hurt feelings silence us, we are retreating into our privilege.

If we claim to be white allies, but have not really taken on the challenge of educating ourselves about racism and the white privilege racism enables, then we are not really engaged in the kind of soul searching that is required to reach our goal of full LGBT inclusion in sports.

One of the keys to social change is identifying our spheres of influence and taking action to address social injustice in those spheres.  We must start with ourselves and talk to other white people about white privilege and racism and then work with people of color to challenge racism with the individuals and organizations we are a part of. 

That would be one way that we in the LGBT sports advocacy world can challenge the white lie that race no longer matters and that racism is no longer a problem in or out of sports.  I am in. Are you?

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Psychotic Coach Behavior: Have We Really So Totally Lost Our Way in College Athletics?

On Tuesday Outside the Lines aired a segment featuring a video of Mike Rice, the Rutgers men’s basketball coach, physically, emotionally and verbally bullying players on his team during practice. Not just one time at one practice, the video was a montage of several instances of the coach’s rages over a two year period.  His tirades included homophobic slurs directed at players, shoving, kicking, yelling and throwing the ball at players’ heads, shins, groins at close range. It was a disgraceful display of rage. The coach’s behavior resembled temper tantrums one would normally only expect from a two year old child.

The OTL segment provoked an immediate response from everyone from Chris Christie, the Governor of New Jersey, to LeBron James, to your average social media savvy sports fan.  On Wednesday, the day after the video went public, Mike Rice was fired. 

Mike Rice’s behavior was appalling enough, but the question now is why wasn’t he fired in November when the video came to the attention to the Rutgers Athletic Director, Tim Pernetti, and the University President, Robert Barchi.  Their decision at that time was to suspend Rice for three games, fine him $50,000 and make him go to anger management  classes AND to keep the whole thing a secret.  It wasn’t until the video became public this week that Pernetti and Barchi started backtracking and finally decided to fire the coach.  Pernetti described his initial punishment for Rice as an attempt to “rehabilitate” the coach.

If anyone on the street engaged in the actions Rice directed at his athletes, they would be arrested for assault and battery.  If a professor at any university treated a student in class the way Rice treated his team, they would lose their job immediately.  If a men’s or women’s golf coach had treated their athletes like Mike Rice did, they would have been looking for a new job the next day. 

College coaches have way too much power, especially men’s football and basketball coaches.  When school leaders tolerate abusive and discriminatory coach behavior or respond to it with a slap on the wrist, or rationalize it away as coach being “fiery,” or “competitive,” or “intense,” we can be sure that that school has sold its soul to the devil of the mighty dollar.  In soulless and hypocritical athletic programs like this, student-athletes are pawns.  Their welfare is not important. Protecting the school’s reputation through secrecy and dishonesty is the priority.  Protecting the cash cow is the priority. Can you say “Penn State?”

The bigger question now is what should happen to Tim Pernetti and Robert Barchi.  How can Rutgers not hold these administrators accountable too.  They badly mishandled their responsibility to protect student-athletes from the irrational behavior of an abusive coach. These men showed incredibly poor judgement in responding to the video of Rice’s behavior.   That they failed to immediately see that Rice needed to be fired in November when they first saw the video, is a testament to the ways that money, the quest for winning teams and big time men’s college athletics can skew your values. Whatever their personal reactions to the video, they decided to take the sleazy way out and hope for the best.  I bet they’d love to have that decision back now.

I also bet that there are other coaches, athletics directors and college presidents who are wondering if similar videos of their team practices are floating around. Unfortunately, Mike Rice is not the only practitioner of the abuse and humiliate model of coaching.  I guess we can hope that fear of the public embarrassment that Rutgers is now living through might motivate other schools to rethink their values and enforce higher standards of coaching behavior from their overpaid diva coaches. Unfortunately, I doubt it. Winning and the money and attention it brings inspire cowardice and hypocrisy in too many college administrators, like Pernetti and Barchi, who’d rather hedge their bets and sell their souls, than do the right thing, at least until their moral compromise hits the evening news.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Coaches, Athletes and Sex: Not a Good Game Plan

In December, Bev Kearney, the highly successful women’s track and field coach at the University of Texas, was looking forward to a new contract from the university with a substantial raise.  In early January she resigned to avoid being fired for having a consensual relationship with a woman on her team in 2002. It is unclear who brought the relationship to the attention of the university, but Kearney acknowledged that she did have a relationship with a student-athlete.

Anyone familiar with athletics knows that some coaches do have sexual relationships with their athletes. It happens at all levels – youth sports, high school, college and professional.  At the youth and high school levels, it is a criminal offense. At the college or professional levels, it may not be a criminal offense, but it is a breach of coaching ethics and an abuse of power by the coach, even when the relationship is consensual.

I believe that coaches who engage in sexual relationships with athletes on their teams should be fired. I draw a hard line on this issue. It doesn’t matter what the gender or sexual orientation of the coach is, it’s wrong and should not be tolerated.

What complicates Bev Kearney’s situation is that, in the wake of her resignation, the University of Texas has now publicly acknowledged that an assistant football coach who had a sex with a female student team manager was treated quite differently. 

Major Applewhite, a former quarterback for UT and now an assistant football coach admitted to having sex with the student during the Fiesta Bowl in 2009.  In addition to keeping his breach out of the media, Applewhite, who was married at the time, was disciplined, had his salary frozen for eleven months and received counseling, but retained his job.  The incident was minimized as a “one night stand.”

Though the ethics and/or criminality of sex between coaches and athletes should apply equally to all coaches – male or female, gay or straight – often the reactions and punishments assigned to the coaches do not. The University of Texas’s differential responses to Applewhite and Kearney highlight the problem.

Applewhite, a white, married heterosexual man coaching football was protected from public embarrassment. His breach of ethics was minimized as a one time lapse of judgement punished lightly and he continues to be employed in good standing by the university. 

Kearney, an African-American lesbian track and field coach, was immediately offered the choice of resigning or being fired for her breach of ethics eleven years ago.  She is no longer employed by the University of Texas. Over. Done.

Even given the differences in the specifics of each situation, UT’s wildly different responses to the two coaches’ ethical breaches is apparent. 

Kearney has  filed a lawsuit against the University charging race and gender discrimination based on the different sanctions meted out to Kearney and Applegate  (I suspect Kearney might have also included discrimination based on sexual orientation too, but Texas has no laws protecting against this kind of discrimination).

The UT board of regents met earlier this month to discuss personnel matters "regarding legal issues concerning individual athletic personnel and legal issues related to inappropriate relations between employees and students." I bet they are talking about Kearney’s lawsuit too.