Monday, March 3, 2008

Returning to Penn State: A Journey of Hope

Last week I spent two and a half days in State College, Pennsylvania at Penn State University. Lea Robinson, my friend and colleague from Suffolk University and I were invited by the Penn State LGBTA Student Resource Center to make an all campus presentation on homophobia in sport. Allison Subasic, the director of the LGBTA, also contacted the Penn State Athletic Department to see if there was interest in having me make a presentation to athletic staff and student-athletes in addition to the all campus talk.

Athletic Director, Tim Curley, agreed and two sessions were set up for Friday morning – one for athletic staff and another for student-athletes. As most followers of women’s basketball know, Penn State was embroiled in a lawsuit for the last two years filed by a former player on the women’s team over allegations that former coach, Rene Portland, discriminated against players she perceived to be lesbians. Rumors about Portland’s “anti-lesbian” policy have circulated among women’s basketball fans and players since the early 80’s. Last spring the lawsuit was settled and Portland resigned a few weeks later.

In 1992 I was invited to do a presentation for the Penn State athletic department as part of the university’s response to public criticism resulting from media attention to Portland’s policies. As I described in my book, Strong Women, Deep Closets, that session was one of the most painful of my career as an educator committed to making athletics safe and respectful for LGBT coaches and athletes. Not many athletic departments had, at that time, made serious efforts to address LGBT issues and working with any group of coaches was challenging. Working with coaches at Penn State in 1992 was especially challenging given the controversy raised by allegations about Portland’s treatment of lesbian athletes.

So here I was sixteen years later at Penn State again anticipating another presentation with Penn State athletic staff. The session was voluntary so there was no way to tell how many people would come. The room was huge and, before people came, I made a mental note to ask everyone to sit on one side of the room since I thought we’d probably have lots of empty seats.

As the time for the session to begin approached, people kept coming in. The room was abuzz as everyone enjoyed the breakfast buffet set up in the back of the room in the Bryce Jordan Center. Several people came up and introduced themselves to me. By the time Tim Curley started the session by introducing me to his staff, about eighty people filled the room.

We had 90 minutes together. Later Tim and I agreed that was not enough time, but it was a productive time nonetheless. I set up small group discussions about such issues as athletes coming out to staff, conflicts between religious values and lesbian and gay athletes on teams, romantic relationships on teams, negative recruiting based on perceived sexual orientation, and anti-gay name-calling in athletics. As I moved around the room “eavesdropping” on these conversations, I had the sense of educators who are committed to making athletics at Penn State a place where every athlete is respected and treated with fairness. Perhaps there was also a sense of feeling freed from the burden of negative attention and publicity that Penn State athletics has borne for some time. Whatever the source of the energy in the room, it was gratifying. The issues being discussed are not always simple and I enjoyed listening to and talking with good people working to find fair and practical responses to the discussion topics.

I'm a firm believer in the importance of the active and visible support of department leadership to make athletics safe and respectful for LGBT athletes and coaches. That leadership was present during the sessions on Friday at Penn State. I hope that, among all the pressing business of running a Division 1 program, attention to the importance of addressing LGBT issues will not be left in that room in the Bryce Jordan Center.

There is reason for optimism - Penn State athletics has instituted a diversity and inclusion committee whose mission is to continue to address these issues over the long term. Allison Subasic also provides a yearly orientation program for new student-athletes in which she helps incoming athletes to be better prepared to respond positively to lesbian or gay teammates. These initiatives give me hope that change is in the wind at Penn State. It’s been sixteen years since my last visit to Penn State athletics, but it feels like a new generation of leadership and programming at State College and the possibility of renewal for everyone, including LGBT coaches and athletes.

1 comment:

calugg said...

Wow, simply wow.

I'm a grad of PSU (1995), and at that time the climate was pretty darned hostile. During the fall of 1994, there were a series of ugly gay-bashings both on campus and off-campus. It wasn't until the local alternative paper reported the story that PSU official-dom got of the dime to act.

So, Wow on your trip.