Monday, April 28, 2008

More on Homophobic Sports Fans…And Ways To Address the Problem

In my February 18 blog I commented on the disgraceful fan behavior at the men’s basketball game between UCLA and Oregon where UCLA freshman Kevin Love and his family in the stands were subjected to a barrage of homophobic and other degrading taunts from Oregon fans. Unfortunately, this event is not an isolated incident. It seems like a trend that has become more common in both men’s and women’s sports at all levels.

Recently, the homophobic atmosphere created by fans at New York Rangers Ice Hockey games has been in the news. It turns out that Kevin Jennings, the executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network, a national advocacy organization for addressing LGBT issues in schools, is a Rangers fan. He found the homophobic atmosphere at Madison Square Garden so uncomfortable that he stopped going to games. Then Kevin, being the incredible activist and educator that he is, did something about it: He arranged a meeting with representatives from the New York Rangers and the Garden.

According to an article in the New York Times, the Rangers and Garden staff agreed to implement a specific action plan based on recommendations provided by Kevin and Jeff Kagen, the director of the New York City Gay Hockey Association (Apparently fans erupted in a chorus of boos when the group’s name appeared on monitors above the ice). I’m not sure what the specific action plan is, but I hope other professional and college officials follow suit.

This is not a problem limited to men’s sports. Last year the Mills College soccer team (Mills is a women’s college) was subjected to homophobic and racist taunts from opposing players during a game with another school in their conference. In response, the Mills soccer team introduced a proposal to the NCAA for legislation that bans derogatory behavior during sporting events. The legislation was passed.

That’s the first part of the battle – developing a policy. The tough part is getting schools and professional teams to adopt and enforce policy. As I have said before, I think it is way past time for professional team and college administrators to set some standards (and enforce them) on what is acceptable fan behavior. I hope the New York Rangers’ willingness to set such policy is a good start.

You don’t need to be Kevin Jennings or a leader of a national GLBT advocacy organization to make a difference. If you attend a game and are subjected to homophobic, racist or sexist behavior by other fans, call the school AD or the team management. Some fans of European football, where the same fan behavior plagues games, have organized mass actions at games to indicate that they do not accept homophobic, sexist and racist taunts as part of cheering for (or against) teams. Similar group actions organized by local fans could make an important statement and let the goons who engage in this offensive behavior that it will not be tolerated.

If we don’t let sports leaders know what we think, our silence is interpreted as comfort with the hostile, and potentially violent, climate that is created when offensive behavior is tolerated.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A Short Blogging Hiatus

Just a quick note to say I am on a short blogging hiatus until April 27. I am in California and have limited internet access, but I'll be back in two weeks. I went to the Billies Tuesday night. The Women's Sports Foundation media awards event in LA. It was really fun and inspiring. Elton John gave us an amazing mini-concert at the end that was great. Plan on coming to next year's event. It is really fun. Now I am on to Northern California for a family visit after spending two days in Pasadena geocaching with my pals the geogirlz.

Monday, April 7, 2008

“The Lesbians Are Coming! The Lesbians Are Coming! Everyone To Get From the Street!”

Remember the 1966 comedy, “The Russians Are Coming”? Maybe not, it was a long time ago. A Soviet sub runs aground near a small New England coastal town. The sub captain sends a bunch of Russian sailors ashore to steal a boat so they can try to pull their sub off the sandbar without being detected by the locals. They try to get everyone living in the town off the street by going door-to door pretending to be Americans warning families to hide from hostile Russians who have landed on their shore (This was during the Cold War). They do this in some hare-brained scheme to steal the boat and get their sub back out to sea without being detected or something like that. They knock on doors and try to scare people into hiding by shouting in their limited English, “The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! Everyone To Get From the Street!”

In the days leading up to the Final Four the St. Petersburg and Tampa newspapers have each published articles describing large numbers of lesbians descending on the Bay Area for the NCAA women’s final four and the parties that local lesbian entrepreneurs have planned to capitalize on the event. The articles seem to have been modeled on the movie. I remember a similar article in a Cleveland paper last year.

Wild estimates in the paper claim that 75% of the fans are lesbians and that the other 25% are closeted. The Final Four is described as the Lesbian Super Bowl. Are there lots of lesbians in town? Yes. Should this be a big whoop? No. Perhaps a side story, but above the fold as a major story about the Final Four? I don’t think so. The focus should be on the four teams who have made it through the tournament and are here to compete. Some of players are gay and some of them are straight, but this weekend, they are all basketball players, elite athletes who deserve to be celebrated for their athletic achievements. The same goes for the fans: some of us are gay, some of us are straight, and this weekend we sit elbow to elbow in the St. Pete’s Forum to cheer on the teams we support, united by our enjoyment of the games.

I’m trying to image a similar story in a San Antonio paper this week where the men’s final four is, “Alamo Under Siege as Hoards of White Heterosexual Men Descend on the City for Partying and Basketball, Hooters Looks to Cash In on Thirsty Men.” Or how about a story that speculates on why these men are so devoted to watching other men in baggy shorts and tank tops play basketball.

In one of the articles an NCAA spokesperson was quoted, “To say any NCAA championship appeals to a certain percentage of a particular segment of the population, especially without any scientific backing, is without merit. The truth is each tournament appeals to a core group of fans but that core is as diverse as the American population itself.”

Is that a tortured comment or what? I wonder how many people it took to come up with that. If they had to comment at all on these stupid “lesbians are overrunning our city” stories, I wish they could have acknowledged the lesbian fan base and taken the opportunity to state their organizational position on homophobia in sport, discrimination against lesbian coaches, athletes and fans and cited some the initiatives they have undertaken to address these issues. An editorial in an Orlando paper does address this.

In a variation of the words of LGBT activists at pride marches everywhere, “We’re here, we’re queer, we cheer…get used to it.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Seeking Common Ground: Lesbians and Christians in Women’s Sports

In my last post I promised a report on the WBCA convention session I helped to organize in Tampa with women from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Athletes in Action. We had about 40 coaches attend the session. I would have loved to have had more folks there, but those who were there were engaged and appreciative of the opportunity to focus on this “taboo” topic.

The other five panelists besides me were:

Helen Carroll, Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights Homophobia in Sport Project and former athletic director and basketball coach

Debbie Haliday, athletic director and coach at Hillcrest Christian School and formerly with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and former D1 basketball and softball player.

Donna Noonan, vice president of coaching ministries at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and former D1 golf coach.

Lea Robinson, a graduate student at Suffolk University and former D1 basketball player and coach.

Tracey Wolff, Athletes in Action staff member and former D1 basketball coach.

The conversation was just as amazing as I had hoped it would be. There was mutual respect and a willingness to take risks. People shared personal experiences and struggles in the places in their lives where religion and sexuality have come together to create moral dilemmas or painful choices. There was risk-taking and challenging of assumptions and stereotypes about lesbians and about Christians.

I felt the joy the Christian women expressed in their faith. I hope they felt the comfort and rightness the lesbians on the panel feel in our identities. We talked about spouses and children in our lives. We talked about our shared commitments to women in sport and respectful treatment for all women in athletics. We talked about some of our concerns about having this conversation: fear of being hurt, misunderstood, offending others, compromising our values.

Tracey and Lea, as African-American women, shared how race intersects with sexuality and religion in their lives. We shared learning edges or places where we continue to struggle with how religion and sexuality fit into how we live our lives. I found myself nodding in agreement not only with what the other lesbians on the panel said, but also with the Christian women. We all listened to each other. We talked about “crossing bridges.” We talked about “respecting our own and each others’ truths.” We laughed.

We challenged ourselves and the folks who attended the session to identify ways the conversation could be a model for teams to build bridges across differences, not only religion and sexuality, but also race, class, culture.

At the end of the hour, I tried to sum up my feelings about the session by saying that I could imagine myself playing on a team with these five women. I could imagine coaching them or being coached by any one of them. It felt like a huge wall of silence and distrust had come down.

I am not na├»ve enough to believe that the conversation we had in that room among the six of us and the 40 coaches who shared it with us will change the world, but it did create possibilities. It did open doors. It is a start. It showed me and, I hope, all of us there on Saturday morning that we can create a common ground of respect across differences if we intentionally set out to make it happen, if we listen to each other. The six of us agreed to continue the conversation. We don’t want the session to be a “one and done” event. I look forward to thinking together about what our next step might be.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Seeking Common Ground in Tampa

I am leaving tomorrow to fly to Tampa for the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association Convention and the Final Four. Sadly, my Maryland Terps will not be making the trip so I have switched my allegiance to Stanford for the next week.

Last year at the final four in Cleveland I made contact with some women from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Athletes in Action during our time in the exhibit area. I wrote about it in my blog post on April 5, 2007, Reaching Across the Divide: Religion and Sexuality in Sport.” You can check it out in the index to the right.

We had a good conversation last year and all agreed that we would love to replicate our conversation as a formal program at the conference this year. We pursued this option and our proposal was accepted. We are scheduled to do a panel on Saturday morning in a 9:45 session at the WBCA convention. The FCA and AIA folks and I have been talking by phone several times over the last few months as we planned the session and we are all excited about it.

The panel will be Helen Carroll, Debbie Haliday, Donna Noonan, Lea Robinson, Tracey Wolf, and me. The session is entitled, “Seeking Common Ground in Athletics: A Conversation Among Lesbians, Christians and Christian Lesbians.” I’ll be blogging about the session so check it out in a few days.

I’m excited, a little nervous and am anxious to see how many folks attend and what their reactions will be. We’ve got an hour for the session and, since there is nothing scheduled in the room after out session, we plan to stay and continue the conversations with anyone who is interested. My goal is to start a dialogue about how lesbians and Christians on sports teams can all compete and coach together with respect even when we may have fundamental differences in perspectives about sexuality and religion.

Stay tuned.