Tuesday, August 26, 2008

NBC Coverage of Out Gay Olympic Gold Medal Diver A Belly Flop

In a huge upset of the highly favored Chinese divers, Matthew Mitcham, the only publicly out gay man at the Beijing Olympics, won gold. Mitcham completed an almost perfect final dive to clinch the gold medal. Outsports, , GLAAD and others have taken NBC to task for their failure to note that Mitcham is gay during their coverage of the event.

The issue of whether or not to acknowledge an athlete’s sexual orientation is a complicated one. If the athlete is not publicly out, but is gay, I believe the media (and anyone else for that matter) has no right to out her or him. I am a firm believer that making one’s gay, lesbian or bisexual orientation public is a decision that should be in the hands of each person. Even if I am sometimes frustrated that more LGB athletes are not publicly out, it is not right to out them without their consent. There are many reasons why LGB people choose to keep their sexual orientation out of the public eye besides homophobia.

I do have exceptions to this guideline for hypocrites like Ted Haggart or Larry Craig who secretly engage in same-sex activities, but have a high profile anti-gay agenda opposing equal rights for LGBT people. I feel sorry for them, but I also abhor the damage these people do.

Coming out is not equally easy for all LGB people. Lesbian and gay parents sometimes are concerned about child custody battles. LGB people of color face both racism in the LGBT community and homophobia among heterosexual people of color. In a white dominant society, losing friends and family of color is a more complex risk than white LGB people face. Many LGB people cannot afford to lose their jobs or are living in a community where they face real threats of harassment or violence for being perceived as gay. Many LGB athletes are not prepared to face the media scrutiny or distractions being a pioneer often brings. Others fear losing sponsorships or the trust of teammates and coaches or even a place on the team.

All that said, this was not the case with Matthew Mitcham. He had come out publicly before the Games. His coming out was a compelling part of his incredible story at the Olympics. Information about his sexual orientation was freely available to the media and his partner was in Beijing with him and Matthew celebrated his gold medal by going into the stands and kissing him. He did a poolside interview with this mother on one side and his partner on the other. He kissed them both on TV.

NBC has responded with some pretty weak reasons for their silence. Does this mean NBC is homophobic? I do believe that silence is part of homophobia. Silence often goes hand in hand with discomfort about gay, lesbian and bisexual people. Most of us have grown up learning that LGBT topics are taboo or learning that talking about sexual orientation is equivalent to talking about someone’s sex life. Sports commentator feel completely comfortable talking about a heterosexual athlete’s significant other and their children or plans to have children. This happens often with heterosexual women athletes (the disparity between the coverage of heterosexual male and female athlete’s spouses and families is a topic for another day). Immediately after winning the gold in beach volleyball, with the sand still sticking to their exposed bellies, we learned in an NBC interview that both Misty May and Kerri Walsh are planning to make babies with their husbands now that the Olympics are over, for God’s sake. TMI, in my opinion. NBC also covered the search for and recovery of Kerri Walsh’s wedding ring which flew off in the sand during play. Don’t tell me the sexual orientation and personal relationships of heterosexual athletes are not covered. Don’t tell me there is no double standard when a publicly out gay athlete is effectively “ined” by NBC (as opposed to outed, that is.)

In the minds of some people, heterosexual people have spouses and families, lesbian, gay and bisexual people only have sex and that makes these folks uncomfortable. The spouses or dating partners of lesbian and gay people are not given the same status as those of heterosexual athletes. Their families are not seen as equivalent to the families of heterosexual athletes. For some people, gay men and lesbians only have sex partners, not life partners.

I also think there is some confusion on the part of media commentators about what is ok and what is not ok to say with regard to coverage of LGBT issues in sport. This is about ignorance. Even the most supportive people often need help, education, guidance about how to talk about LGBT issues. I’ve found this often in my classes at UMass and in working with coaches and athletes. It is not helpful to just pound them for getting it wrong. Let’s educate them so they can get it right next time: NBC, It is perfectly fine to acknowledge a publicly out LGB athlete’s sexual orientation, partner, or family. In fact, I believe it is a journalist failure not to. Being the only publicly out gay man competing at the Olympics is newsworthy. Winning a gold medal as the only openly gay male competitor is even more newsworthy. It’s not only ok to tell viewers Matthew Mitcham is gay, it is an omission not to. It doesn’t warrant special treatment, but it does warrant an on-air mention. It is a part of Matthew Mitcham’s story.

I am sure that Ted Rybka at the GLAAD Sports Desk is all over this. I have confidence that Ted will be contacting NBC to make some helpful suggestions about how to cover publicly out LGB athletes in the future. It is just a shame that such a wonderful opportunity to talk about a successful and openly gay athlete on the world stage was lost. Whether it was homophobia or ignorance or fear, it is still a shame.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Lauren Lappin, Out Lesbian Olympian: It’s No Big Deal (And It's A Very Big Deal)

Here’s a great story about Lauren Lappin, one of the 13 publicly out lesbian, gay or bi Olympians competing in Beijing. Lauren’s story of coming out, first to herself and then to her family, coaches and teammates and now to the public is a success story on every level. The reactions of everyone close to her have enabled Lauren to be herself and focus on realizing her athletic goals without carrying the burdens of secrecy and fear that go with life in the closet. This is how it should be.

Olympic teammate, shortstop Natasha Watley, summed this up best in the article, "This team is very accepting. We don't care if you're purple, green, from another planet. We just don't care. It's who you are. It's no big deal. Now if Lauren went into a hitting slump, then we'd have a problem." It’s no big deal. That’s the way every team should be. Unfortunately, not all coaches and teams are so accepting, so it is a big deal that it no big deal.

Contrast the responses of Lauren's coaches, teammates and family with what happened in Ponce De Leon, Florida recently. When a student complained that she was being taunted because she is a lesbians, the high school principal told her being gay was wrong and told her to stay away from children. He then scheduled a "morality" assembly for students at the school. When other students supported this student who was taunted, the principal interrogated them about their sexual orientation. The ACLU was called in and a judge ruled that the principal was wrong. The principal was demoted to the classroom (demoted to the classroom?), but apparently some folks in the community and even the school superintendent don't think he did anything wrong. So, yes, teammate, coach and family reactions to Lauren's coming out are still a big deal.

Lauren says she would like to be an “ambassador” to help others through her experience. Lauren, here is an open invitation to work with It Takes A Team! I know we could find ways for you to help other athletes, coaches and families create the kind of respectful and affirming response you’ve enjoyed. I’ll be in touch.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

“The legacy of most elite athletes is to be completely vanilla” John Amaechi

Athletes at all levels are often thought of as apolitical. Many athletes are unwilling to use their visibility to speak out about politics or any other "controversial" topic. Some commentators, John Amaechi among them, have called for athletes in Beijing to speak out publicly about human rights issues in China while they have the world stage.

A German magazine, Suddeutsche Zeitung, made a similar call for the entire German Olympic team to participate in a campaign called, “We are all Chinese.” The focus of the campaign is to call attention to the Chinese government’s violations of human rights and limitations of free speech among Chinese citizens.

Nine German athletes responded by protesting the Chinese Government’s treatment of Chinese dissidents. Among the athletes joining the protest was Imke Duplitzer, the four time Olympic fencer who is also one of the thirteen publicly out gay or lesbian athletes in Beijing (AfterEllen added two more names to the roster of publicly out lesbians competing in Beijing). Duplitizer held a poster of Gao Zhisheng, a Chinese lawyer and human rights activist who has been imprisoned and reportedly tortured by the Chinese government for calling attention to human rights violations in China.

Forty other Olympians from around the world have signed an open letter to the Chinese government protesting human rights violations by the host country. Organizers of the protest letter claim that some athletes have withdrawn their support out of fear of retaliation or backlash.

Amaechi is blogging from Beijing for Amnesty International and providing basketball commentary for the BBC. John is an outspoken advocate for athletes to speak out about human rights or any other social justice issue. Check out his blog for some thoughtful reflections on the Beijing Olympics and athletes as activists.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Lesbian, Gay, Bi Olympians

Outsports and other gay internet sites, like AfterEllen, have noted that the Beijing Olympics include 11 publicly gay, lesbian and bi athletes (at last count). This number includes:

Judith Arndt – Cyclist, Germany
Imke Duplitzer – Fencing , Germany
Vickie Galindo – Softball, USA
Gro Hammerseng – Team Handball, Norway
Katja Nyberg – Team Handball, Norway
Natasha Kai – Soccer, USA
Lauren Lappin – Softball, USA
Matthew Mitcham – Diving, Australia
Victoria Svensson – Soccer, Sweden
Rennae Stubbs – Tennis, Australia
Linda Bresonik – Soccer, Germany

Some things I notice about this list: only one of these 11 athletes is a gay man, all the athletes are from North America, Western Europe and Australia, only four athletes are competing in individual sports, the other 7 are team sport athletes, Gro Hammerseng and Katja Nyberg, the Norwegian Handball players, are also a lesbian couple, Germany and the USA have the most out athletes at 3 each, soccer is the sport with the most publicly out lesbian athletes at 3, one athlete, Vickie Galindo, identifies as bisexual, the rest of the women are lesbians. Natasha Kai and Vickie Galindo are the only athletes of color, I think, but I am not sure of this. As far as I know, there are no transgender athletes competing in Beijing. Canadian cyclist, Kristen Worley, who had hoped to participate, is not part of the Canadian team.

Eleven publicly out athletes out of over 10,000 Olympians seems like a small number and is comparable to the number of out athletes in Athens four years ago. However, given the pressures of world class competition, I understand that many LGB athletes prefer not to call public attention to their sexual orientation during the Games. I assume for every one of these publicly out athletes, there are many more who are quietly competing, if not in the closet, than only out to teammates, friends and family. Let us also remember that for athletes representing countries with laws prohibiting homosexual behavior and for which the penalty can range from imprisonment to death, coming out is not even a choice.

I want to thank these 11 athletes and the many previous out LGB Olympians for choosing to be publicly out about their sexual orientation as they compete on the world stage. They are champions and pioneers. Their choice to be publicly out is a political statement as well as a personal one. They help to pave the way for future Olympians to be open. Competing in the closet takes a lot of energy away from focusing on athletic performance. Pretending to be straight or concealing one’s sexual orientation is a kind of performance that saps the joy from competition and the integrity from relationships with teammates, coaches and fans.

Let’s hope that in 2012 in Great Britain the numbers of publicly out LGBT athletes from all over the world and in all sports is much higher than eleven.