Tuesday, May 27, 2008

LGBTQ Athletes Are Doin’ It For Themselves

It seems like forming LGBT student-athlete groups is an idea whose time has finally come. Times have changed enough and there are enough openly gay collegiate athletes so that groups are beginning to spring up at schools around the country.

I tried to start one at UMass back in the 80’s. It was all women. We met in the basement of my house around a wood stove and ate cookies and drank coke while everyone talked about what it was like for them to be a lesbian on their teams. None of them were publicly out and none of them were interested in being publicly out at that point in their lives. We were strictly a support group. We met a few times and then the school year ended and so did the group. What I learned was that the lesbian athletes had their own closeted social network within athletics with athletes from several teams, plus non-athlete friends who all partied together. They were not ready for activism or challenging homophobia in the athletic department.

I worked with some other UMass staff and an athlete again about five years ago to start another group, which we called a gay-straight athlete alliance. We had a web site and everything. We met a few times and then the school year ended, the athlete who was the driving force behind the group graduated and the group stopped meeting.

In 2002 two student-athletes at the University of Pennsylvania, Paul Farber (track) and Karrie Moore (lacrosse)started a group called PATH - Penn Athletes and Allies Tackling Homophobia. This group is still active as far as I know. It is listed as a resource on the Penn LGBT center web page. They sponsor discussions, panels, social events for LGBT athletes and allies. PATH was a student-athlete initiated group that has had some good success on their campus.

I know of similar groups recently organizing at Vassar College and Purdue University. It makes sense. More LGBTQ athletes are out and looking for support, resources and ways to challenge homophobia in athletics. I’ve learned by working with athletes and coaches that the athletes are waaay ahead of their coaches on this topic. I believe that LGBTQ student-athletes and their straight teammates who are allies are the ones who will change sport more than one or two professional athletes coming out ever can.

Andrew Langenfeld is a swimmer on the Purdue team and he is gay. Andrew is not satisfied with just starting an LGBTQ student-athlete group at Purdue. He has a plan for developing a national network of LGBTQ athletes and hopes to organize a “summit” of interested athletes to develop this network. Andrew has contacted me, Mac Chinsomboon from the Gay and Lesbian Athletic Foundation, Ted Rybka from the GLAAD Sports Desk, among others, to seek advice and assistance with his vision. The page he has put up on Facebook for the group has already quadrupled in numbers. Andrew has organized a steering committee of men and women athletes who are working with him to make this network happen.

I think this is so cool. I’m getting to the age now where I sometimes feel like the student-athletes I talk to must look at me as if it’s their old dyke grandmother talking to them about homophobia. I guess this is not all bad, dyke grandmothers do have a long range perspective on things, but I think peer-initiated activism and leadership is so powerful and important. Andrew is taking that leadership and he has some incredible ideas. I just hope ol’ granny can help him to make them a reality.

Are you a coach, athlete or staff member in athletic department? Do you know of student-athletes who would be interested in working with Andrew or starting an LGBTQ student-athlete group at your school? If so, let me know, Granny Griffin can connect you with the resources and people to join a very exciting movement.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Another Title IX Retaliation Case With Homophobic Overtones

The NCLR Sports Project is representing the former head women’s basketball coach and her partner, the team director of operations, at Mesa Community College in San Diego. Lorri Sulpizio and Cathy Bass have been at Mesa for seven years. They allege that they have been subjected to hostile treatment because of their sexual orientation and that they were fired after coach Supizio complained about gender inequity in the athletic department. Is this starting to sound familiar?

The number of Title IX retaliation cases in which coaches and administrators who complain about gender inequity in the athletic department are fired seems to be growing. In almost all instances the firings occur despite outstanding performance records. These lawsuits indicate the continuing resistance among some male administrators to ethical and legal requirements that women and men should receive equitable treatment in athletics. These cases also highlight the stunning arrogance behind administrative decisions to fire coaches solely because they have the audacity to demand equality. How dare these uppity women challenge the status quo!

The interconnections between homophobia and sexism in these cases keep popping up too. The cases often include charges that administrators in these situations use the L-word to intimidate women coaches, regardless of their sexual orientation, create a hostile climate for lesbians or they accuse women coaches of “inappropriate relationships” with women athletes or student managers without credible evidence to back their charges. In the Mesa Community College case, the plaintiffs are lesbians and charge that they were fired in part because of their sexual orientation.

Here’s the Dishonor Roll of Title IX retaliation cases so far: Fresno State, University of California Berkeley, Feather River Community College, Florida Gulf Coast University, Montana State, University of Hawaii, and now, Mesa Community College. Jill Lieber of USA Today recently wrote a great article about these cases. The Title IX Blog is also an excellent place to visit if you want to keep up the most recent development on Title IX.

The good news is that coaches and administrators who choose to challenge Title IX retaliation, with or without a little homophobia thrown in for good measure, are winning big time in court or receiving settlements that should make other athletic departments sit up and take notice. “Should” is the operative word here. You’d think that the Fresno State jury awards to the coaches and administrators who filed lawsuits there would at least give other administrators pause. Unfortunately that has not been the case at Florida Gulf Coast University. The school and athletic administrators there seem determined to go down in flames rather than acknowledge that there are any problems at all with gender equity and homophobia in the athletic department. There are so many lawsuits filed and apt to be filed at FGCU that the lawyers will need to take a ticket to determine who gets to rake the school and athletic department over the coals first.

As activist and author Suzanne Pharr said, “homophobia is a weapon of sexism.” The truth of her statement is clear in the noxious mix of these two social diseases in many of these cases. It’s a good reminder that we cannot only fight sexism and we cannot only fight homophobia and heterosexism. Neither can we only fight racism or classism or only fight transgender oppression. They are all connected and grow from the same root: the desire to hoard power and resources for the few at the expense of the many.

Some schools and athletic departments have to learn the hard way that these inequities will no longer be tolerated. Coaches and administrators as well as athletes who experience discrimination because of sex, sexual orientation or gender identity are speaking up more often. They get lawyers. They sue. They often win. The old days when administrators and coaches who enforce discrimination could count on intimidation, submission and fear are gone.

It’s too bad really. Equality is not as painful as some folks apparently think it is. Surely it is not as painful as a public trial with multi-million dollar jury penalties or years of bad press and large financial settlements. Ask Fresno State. Ask Penn State. Unfortunately, I have a feeling you might be able to ask FGCU and Mesa CC about this too in the not to distant future.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Honoring Openly Lesbian and Gay Coaches: Vote for Your Choice

Outsports.com has teamed up with Logo, the LGBT TV channel, to nominate four openly gay or lesbian coaches for Logo’s NewNowNext award honoring “the best of the best in today and tomorrow's gay culture.” Thanks to Logo for including sport among the categories for the awards.

Cyd Zeigler of Outsports asked me for suggestions for nominees and I am happy to say that three of the nominees are folks I suggested: Jenny Allard, women’s softball coach at Harvard University, Shannon Miller, women’s ice hockey coach at University of Minnesota Duluth, and Kirk Walker, women’s softball coach at Oregon State University. The fourth nominee is Kyle Hawkins, former men’s lacrosse coach at the University of Missouri.

All of these coaches are pioneers and deserve recognition. There are still not that many publicly out lesbian and gay coaches at any level. More and more coaches are openly gay, but what distinguishes these four is their willingness to speak out publicly as gay. They have spoken on “homophobia in sport” panels and had news articles written about them and their families. In doing so they help to dispel the myth that lesbian and gay coaches pose a threat to their program’s reputation or to the athletes they coach.

Jenny, Shannon and Kirk are all successful coaches who head up well known collegiate programs and do so as openly gay coaches. Kyle is currently coaching in Germany. When prospective athletes and their parents see openly gay successful collegiate coaches who are supported by their schools, their teams and the parents of their team members, it sends a strong message that counteracts the stereotypes that thrive in silence and invisibility.

Go to Outsports.com to learn more about the four nominees and cast your vote for which of these four coaches should be honored with the NewNowNext award. It’s a shame really that they can’t all be honored. As pioneers, all four of them deserve our recognition and our thanks for helping to make sport a better place for the LGBT athletes and coaches who will come after them.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

I Feel Pretty, Oh So Pretty!

Multiple Choice Question:

The WNBA rookie orientation took 1/3 of its time focusing on:

A. Fitness and Nutrition
B. Media Training
C. Make-up Application and Fashion Tips
D. Financial Advice

If you picked C, you would be correct. That’s right, according to a Chicago Tribune article, one third of the orientation was focused on helping the new pros look more feminine and sexy. Here we have a 2008 class of incredible athletes led by Candace Parker, Candice Wiggins, Sylvia Fowles who can, as demonstrated in Tampa, bring fans into the stands and get them to turn on the TV based on their ability to play ball and what does the WNBA focus one-third of the orientation time on? That same old tired, disproven, apologetic and insulting strategy of “let’s sell their femininity and heterosex appeal.”

Now, I don’t give a rat’s patoot if women (or men for that matter) want to wear lipstick, eye shadow, blush or eyeliner. If you want to wear stiletto heels and evening gowns that show cleveage down to your navel, go for it. But for the WNBA to include this in their rookie orientation? Seriously, is this the best marketing strategy they can come up with? For Pete’s sake, these are some amazing athletes, does the WBNA really think lipstick and Gucci stiletto heels will draw more fans?

It feels so defensive…so desperate. Renee Brown, WNBA VP of player personnel said (with my interpretations in parentheses), “ The league aims to show its players as mothers, daughters, sisters, nieces and entrepreneurs (but not lesbians!) and their womanhood (heterosexual femininity) is important to promote the league (so fans don’t notice the lesbian players or the ones who are not so feminine). Later, she says, “You’re a (heterosexual) woman first. You just happen to play sports. They enjoy dressing up and trying on outfits, when back in the day (when all women athletes were lesbians), everyone just wore sweats. Call it what you want, we are just celebrating their womanhood (heterosexual femininity).” Does that help everyone to understand what this is about?

Since the WNBA is going down this tired old path, after all, the All-American Girls Baseball League used this strategy back in the 1940’s, I have a suggestion. Let’s have the new WNBA tag line this year be, “I Feel Pretty.” They can do TV promos with the song from West Side Story. Here are some of the lyrics:

I feel pretty
Oh so pretty
I feel pretty and witty and gay (whoops, maybe not so gay, we’ll need to change that one)
And I pity
Any girl who isn't me today
I feel charming
Oh so charming
It's alarming how charming I feel
And so pretty
That I hardly can believe I'm real
See the pretty girl in that mirror there?
Who can that attractive girl be?
Such a pretty face
Such a pretty dress
Such a pretty smile
Such a pretty me!

Whaddaya think? Am I on to something here, or what?

Thursday, May 1, 2008

A Little Reminder About What It’s All About

This post doesn’t have anything to do with LGBT issues in sport and it has everything to do with LGBT issues in sport. Last week in a conference softball game between Central Washington and Eastern Oregon that determined which team would move forward to the post-season, a 5’2” senior on the Oregon team, Sara Tucholsky,came to the plate. Hecklers in the stands went to work on Sara as she dug in to the batter’s box. The diminutive Sara, like a female Dustin Pedroia, took a big swing and hit the first home run of her collegiate career that would her team the lead. As she rounded first base, Sara stumbled and fell in agony with what turned out to be the dreaded ACL injury.

In an extraordinary act of compassion, sportswomanship, empathy, selflessness – call it what you will – Mallory Holtman, a senior on the Central Washington team, offered that she and teammate Liz Wallace could carry Sara around the bases, and make sure her uninjured foot touched each base so that the home run and the RBIs that went with it would stand. So, they did it as the fans on both teams cheered.

I have to tell you when I saw the report of this incident on TV last night, I got all teary-eyed. I am kind of sap anyway, truth be told, but something about Mallory Holtman’s offer and the sight of her and Liz carrying Sara around the bases just got to me on some fundamental level. I am tearing up again now writing about it.

I spend so much time writing about and fighting against outrageous acts of bigotry, selfishness, ignorance and stupidity in sport by fans, coaches, athletes, athletic administrators. Even those amazing moments when I am working with a group of coaches or athletes and they are engaged and I feel their intention and commitment to sports equality for all women and men do not affect me the way this story did.

No one would have criticized Mallory Holtman if she had not offered to carry Sara Tucholsky around the bases. Breaks of the game, right? We win. You lose. Sorry about your knee. I’m not sure I would have offered to carry Sara around the bases had I been in Mallory’s spikes. Post-season play was at stake. It was her senior year. A chance to play another game. Wear that uniform one more time. Maybe more.

Maybe that’s it. Her offer so countered what we expect in sport these days. Her offer was so spontaneous, so natural. She was surprised later by all the fuss over it. She just thought it was the right thing to do and she did it.

It reminds me of playing in the Mary V. Softball league here in Northampton, MA. A league dedicated to “feminist” softball played by mostly lesbians. Despite the score of the game, everyone on our team got equal playing time regardless of skill or experience. I believed in this ethic with all my heart, but I have to tell you sometimes when the game was on the line, I cringed with regret when I saw a fly ball heading toward a teammate who I knew from experience was as likely to duck it as catch it. One day this happened. Bottom of the seventh, we are in the field, two outs, two runners on, we are ahead by one run. The ball was hit to right field. Our rightfielder stumbled hesitantly, but gamely under the ball, I held my breath as the base runners whizzed past me on third base heading for home. She stuck her glove out…and caught the ball. Third out. Game over. We win. The look of surprise and accomplishment on my teammate’s face when she turned the glove around and saw that ball nestled in the pocket was priceless. I felt a little ashamed that my desire to win the game, at least for that moment of regret, was stronger than my commitment to her opportunity to go for it, to have the chance to succeed (or fail). Seeing the joy in her eyes and that wide smile of accomplishment was one of those pure moments in sport like the one that happened on that softball field on the west coast last week. We need those little reminders every now and then. I do anyway.