Monday, January 28, 2008

Heeeere's Johnny!

Last night I had planned on watching the UConn Women’s Basketball team trounce Notre Dame, but while cruising through the channels I came upon the U.S. National Figure Skating Championships men’s final free skate.

Evan Lysacek, the defending champion, was in second place to Johnny Weir, the former three time champ, after the short program. Now, I know next to nothing about figure skating (Except that you are not allowed to whack your opponent across the knees with a baseball bat right before the competition. Thank you, Tonya Harding). My own ice skating choreography is limited to the combination of a single toe stumble followed by a double arm windmill culminating in a double cheek butt slam (Ouch). Nonetheless, men’s figure skating in general, and Johnny Weir in particular do capture my attention because, in the words of junior high school students everywhere, it is so gay (not that there is anything wrong with that).

Much to the dismay of national and international skating officials, men’s figure skating has always been perceived as a “gay” sport what with all the sequins, make-up and leotard tops. And truth be told, there probably are lots of gay male figure skaters, a few of whom have come out publicly: Rudy Galindo, Brian Orser, and John Curry to name three prominent gay skaters.

Alas, figure skating governing organizations and judges are very conservative about their gender politics. They like the women to be child-like, frilly and feminine, not too athletic or muscular, please. They like the men to butch it up on the ice: More quad jumps and “classic elegance” (read masculine choreography, whatever that is),” and less “flamboyance” and fewer sequins (read gay). Suffice it to say that men’s figure skating is a teensy bit defensive about its gay image. In pairs competition, heterosexual pairs only, of course. Same-sex pairs are strictly verboten.

Johnny Weir loves sequins. He has described his costumes as “princessy.” He refuses to “butch it up” on or off the ice. Commentators describe his skating style as “lyrical,” “artistic,” and “flamboyant” which, of course, means “gay.” Johnny must drive the figure skating establishment nuts. I bet they were all rooting for Evan Lysacek last night. (FYI, Evan did win even though he and Johnny had the same number of points. Apparently the free skate, which Evan won, carries more weight in the scoring).

Speculation about Johnny’s sexual orientation is rampant on the internet. He certainly gets my gaydar twanging. Johnny, however, has not come out. He maintains that who he sleeps with is no one’s business but his. In a bizarre twist, he has been publicly criticized for not coming out by a really snarky gay guy, Mark Lund, who is head of International Figure Skating and Rudy Galindo, an openly gay former national champion who has taken over Leona Helmsley’s title as the Queen of Mean.

Some heterosexual reporters have defended Johnny’s refusal to identify his sexual orientation on the basis that it is private information. Other commentators claim that it is homophobic for reporters not to ask because the silence assumes being gay is something that should be hidden and creates a double standard when heterosexual athletes’ sexuality is on display for all to know.

I always celebrate when gay, lesbian and bisexual athletes come out. I believe their openness makes it easier for other gay athletes who come after them. I wish they would all just get it over with and tell everyone.

I also know that, because we have not yet won the battle against homophobia in sport, there can be negative consequences for some athletes and coaches who are openly gay. For this reason, we need to respect, or at least understand, their decisions to keep it on the down low. We need to work on changing sport and society so that hiding who you are isn’t necessary. Factor in other things like racism for LGBT athletes of color and sexism for lesbian and bisexual women and the whole coming out thing gets more complicated than just calling the ones in the closet a bunch of scaredy cats.

Plus, we all know how objective figure skating judges are, right? Ok, I know what you probably thinking – Johnny might as well come out because everyone thinks he is gay anyway. Well, maybe he will, but maybe he won’t. Maybe he isn’t. We do keep confusing gender expression with sexual orientation, don’t we? I mean who suspected that Esera Tuoalo, an NFL lineman, was gay? Why not? Because he looked “straight” and played professional football. Some gay men are flamboyant and artistic; others can hide in plain view because they don’t fit our preconceived stereotypes that are mostly based on gender expression, not sexuality. Quentin Crisp said that we are all born naked, the rest is drag. Something we should all remember. Why couldn’t a heterosexual man love sequins too?

In the meantime, I think we should just let Johnny be Johnny – flamboyant, lyrical, artistic and outrageous, and maybe gay. The figure skating establishment may not appreciate it, but Johnny Weir is the most interesting and authentic character on the ice right now and, in the best of worlds, whether he is gay or not really wouldn’t matter. He’s a great skater. Even an accident waiting to happen on the ice like me can see that.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

At UNC, Sexual Harassment Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

Last week, after 10 years, the second sexual harassment lawsuit filed against the highly successful University of North Carolina women’s soccer coach, Anson Dorrance, was settled. Both lawsuits were filed by former players on the women’s soccer team, Debbie Keller and Melissa Jennings. Keller settled out of court in 2004.

The players charged that Dorrance repeatedly initiated discussions and asked questions about the players’ sex lives. At first, Dorrance denied the charges. Then, apparently after the charges were corroborated by witnesses, he described his comments to the players as ‘locker room banter of a joking or jesting nature.” However, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last spring that the charges did constitute sexual harassment and could proceed to trial.

Dorrance finally described his actions as “inappropriate and unacceptable” in a public letter of apology which was required as part of the settlement. To summarize: First, he denied making the comments, then he trivialized the comments as locker room banter, finally he apologized and called his comments inappropriate and unacceptable.

In his apology letter, Dorrance acknowledged that between August 1996 and June 1998, he participated with his players in group discussions of team members’ sexual activities and relationships with men (now there’s a coaching technique he left out of his video).

Then in classic non-apology style, Dorrance said in response to the settlement, "Since August 1998, I have looked forward to clearing my name in court. That is still true today. I understand, though, that after nine years of litigation, it is best for the University, our soccer program and all of us involved in this case for it to end here."

How magnanimous of him! He is only doing what is best for the university and his soccer program and even the women who brought the lawsuit by apologizing! Though he had looked forward to clearing his name, he is letting that go so everyone will benefit. What a guy!

Wait a minute. How can he clear his name when he admits that the charges are true? Oh, never mind.

Isn’t it amazing how an apology can turn around so that it isn’t really an apology at all?

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor James Moeser called Dorrance, “a great teacher and leader in advancing women’s opportunities in sports.” He continued, "We have never believed that the case had any merit. We’ve stood by Coach Dorrance since this case started and we stand by him now." So much for student-athlete welfare concerns. So much for taking sexual harassment charges seriously.

Clearly the university believed that Dorrance was the victim here and the two players were the perpetrators. If it weren’t for a required review of the university’s sexual harassment policies by an outside lawyer as part of the settlement, it seems like the university would be happy to move on as if nothing happened. Anson Dorrance is their guy and that’s the end of that.

Since this is an LGBT Sports blog, I have to say that I find it very difficult to imagine a university standing up for a lesbian or gay coach who made sexual comments to players. I even find it hard to believe a straight woman coach making these kinds of comments would be supported.

In the spirit of Coach Dorrance’s apology: I’m sorry if anyone is offended by anything I said in this blog post.

Monday, January 14, 2008

A Big Day at the NCAA

I was at the NCAA convention this weekend in Nashville. I helped plan a panel discussion at the conference called “Time Out! A Conversation about Including LGBT Student-Athletes.” It was definitely a two step forward day in the journey toward social justice in collegiate athletics. I worked with Charlotte Westerhaus, Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion at the NCAA to pull this event together. We had a terrific panel of John Amaechi, gay former NBA player and fabulous spokesperson for social justice in sport; Laurie Priest, out lesbian Athletic Director at Mount Holyoke College and amazing leader in women’s sport (plus she’s darn cute); and Neil Giuliano, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and former mayor of Phoenix, Arizona. The moderator was Jill Pilgrim, general counsel for the LPGA and, may I say, she set a new standard for me the next time I am asked to moderate a panel.

What made this event so terrific (besides the fact that it happened at all?) Several things:

• It was a great example of what good can come of collaborations between an LGBT education and advocacy organization (It Takes A Team!) and a sport governing organization (the NCAA) to address homophobia in athletics
• The quality of the panel discussion. John, Laurie and Neil were terrific: insightful, personal, funny and knowledgeable. Jill, as I said, was amazing as she directed questions to the panel and also contributed her own perspectives as a heterosexual ally
• The attendance. There were 150-200 people in the room (I’m terrible at estimates like this, but the room was full and it was a big room. I remember doing sessions like this at sport conferences years ago when the only people in the room were a few brave lesbians who believed they were risking their professional reputations by coming into the room.
• The diversity of attendees. This audience included women and men, straight folk and LGBT folk, white folk and folk of color, young people and older folk, coaches, athletic directors and student-athletes.
• Attendees were looking for resources and information: I had an It Takes A Team! resource table outside the room with our DVDs, posters, safe space stickers and a handout on guidelines for addressing LGBT issues in athletics. My goal was to make sure that the table was bare by the end of the panel. Every resource I had with me was taken and I got to go home empty handed. Plus, about 30 people signed up for the It Takes A Team monthly eletter. Contrast this with resource tables I’ve “womaned” in years past at these kind of conventions: People gave me and the table a such a wide berth as soon as they saw the words “lesbian” and “gay” that you’d think talking to a gay person or taking the resources would cause you to be gay (or make others think you were gay)
• National LGBT advocacy organizations like GLAAD are getting on board to help in the fight against homophobia in sport. GLAAD has a new sports desk headed by Ted Rybka, who I met at the panel. I see lots more collaboration ahead between It Takes A Team! and GLAAD.
• Last, but not least, as I sat listening to the panel with my good friend and colleague, Helen Carroll of the NCLR Sports Project, I realized that we are not in this alone anymore. There was a time when I felt like a voice in the wilderness trying to call attention to LGBT issues in sport. On Saturday, Helen and I got to be audience members and appreciate how far we have come and how many organizations and amazing individual people are signing on to address LGBT issues in sport.

Definitely a two step forward day to savor, especially when the one step back days come, as I am sure they will. Thank you, NCAA, Charlotte Westerhaus, Jill Pilgrim, John Amaechi, Laurie Priest and Neil Giuliano for a great day. I smiled all the way home.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Another Week, Another Email from an Angry, Scared Parent

I got another email last week from a mother whose lesbian daughter is being harassed and bullied by her coach because of her sexual orientation. The good news is that more parents are supporting their gay and lesbian children. They expect coaches and teammates to treat their out lesbian and gay kids with respect. They get mad when this is not happening. They want to do something to stop the discrimination, harassment or just plain meanness that is making their child miserable. They don’t want special treatment or to make a big deal. They just want what every other parent wants for their children: they want them to be safe, successful and be happy. So, they write to someone for help. Sometimes this is me.

I thank them for supporting their child. Some parents do not. I give them all the advice about actions they could take that might help them and their child. I identify all the resources I know of that will give them the legal, educational and emotional support they need. I encourage them to stay in touch with me, ask more questions and let me know how things turn out.

Then I get angry. I get angry at the ADs who support coaches who are bigots and bullies. I get angry at coaches who have the power to ruin young people’s athletic dreams and do it so casually. I get angry at teammates who are too intimidated by their coaches or too afraid that someone might think they are gay to support a gay teammate. I get angry at schools, sport governing organizations and coaches associations that are too timid to make or enforce policies that include actual consequences for coaches who bully lesbian and gay athletes (or those they presume are).

Typically, when a parent emails me they tell me that their child wants to handle the situation themselves. They don’t want their parents to intervene. I understand this (and so do the parents), but we worry that the deck is stacked against their child. An athletic department looking the other way, a coach with the power but not the wisdom and teammates who just want to keep their own heads down below the line of fire present formidable obstacles for one young athlete to challenge alone.

I admire the courage and heart that drive these young people to challenge such overwhelming odds for the love of the game. I respect their parents for loving their lesbian and gay children just as they are and for wanting to fight for them when things get tough. I just hate that these young people and their parents have to fight for the right to be treated with dignity and fairness.