Monday, January 26, 2009

It’s No Name Calling Week In A School Near You

Wouldn’t it be nice if every week was no name calling week? Unfortunately name calling is a staple part of school culture in the United States. To address this seemingly ubiquitous practice, GLSEN sponsors an annual No Name Calling Week every year in January and this is the week. You can go to the No Name Calling Week web site to find a slew of activity and curriculum ideas for addressing name calling in schools.

No Name Calling Week focuses on name calling of all kinds. It’s all painful stuff when you’re in school and homophobic name calling is a big part of the problem. In grades 5-8, the ages targeted by GLSEN’s No Name Calling Week, calling someone a “faggot,” “queer,” or “lezzy” probably has more to do with non-traditional gender expression as it does with sexual orientation and it illustrates how interconnected homophobia and sexism and gender oppression are. Of course, “that’s so gay” is a universal middle school put down of just about anything from clothes to food.

It Takes A Team is proud to be a partner with GLSEN for No Name Calling Week. We have developed several activities and curriculum ideas specifically for school athletics to be used with coaches and athletes. These activities are available on the It Takes A Team web site news and features page. I don’t have any stats, but I’m betting that name calling in athletics is a particularly persistent problem since sports are so tied up with masculinity. Homophobic and sexist taunts among male athletes and fans are an on-going problem in sports at all levels. Among women athletes and coaches, the lesbian label is still used to discredit, intimidate or taunt a team, a coach, or a player.

When I was in junior high (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth), we had this thing called “Queer’s Day.” It was every Thursday. If you wore green on Thursday, everyone called you “queer” all day. It was a big joke to most people. LGBT people were so invisible back then that the thought that one of your classmates could really be queer was unimaginable. Except that some of us were…queer and we didn’t think Queer’s Day was a joke. The word itself terrified me and I would have died if anyone knew about me. I was extra careful about my choice of clothes on Thursday. Anything green (and I) stayed in the closet. The teasing would have been too close to home for me. I often wonder which would be worse, having homophobic name calling be so common in schools that we need an official No Name Calling Week to address it or having the silence about gay people be so deafening that it could all a big joke to be enshrined in middle school culture as Queer’s Day.

Either way, it hurts. It hurt young people back then and it hurts young people now. Enough.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Tony Dungy: Homophobe and/or Role Model?

It seems appropriate on Martin Luther King Day and the eve of the inauguration of the first Black President of the United States to talk about race and sexual orientation and the significance of these identities among LGBT sports activists and all activists for that matter.

Tony Dungy, the first Black coach to win a Super Bowl, resigned last week as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts. Dungy is respected by many as a man of integrity as well as a winning coach. He is a devout Christian who has been quite public about his opposition to marriage equality for same-sex couples and his support of religious-based organizations that oppose marriage equality, gay parent adoptions and civil rights for gay people. On the other hand, He has devoted much time and advocacy on behalf of programs that help Black young men out of poverty, crime and hopelessness. So, suffice it to say there are things to admire about Tony Dungy and things that provoke condemnation and disappointment.

Last week I read two responses to Dungy’s retirement and his off the field commitments. One article was written by LZ Granderson, a Black gay sports reporter for ESPN Page 2. The other was a response to LZ’s article by Cyd Zeigler, a white gay co-owner of I know, like and respect both Cyd and LZ and I found their takes on Dungy’s anti-gay activities informative about how the gay part of who we are is so “colored” by the rest of what makes us who we are, in this case our racial identity. So, here’s me, a white lesbian, adding my two cents worth –

Cyd cuts Dungy no slack for his anti-gay stance and takes LZ to task for apologizing to Dungy for not coming to his defense when gay groups were attacking him for his anti-gay statements and fund-raising efforts on behalf of anti-gay organizations. For Cyd, the issues are (pardon me) black and white: Dungy should be roundly condemned by all gay people for his anti-gay positions. Whether intentional or not (and I suspect not), Cyd sets up a comparison between the damaging effects of racism and homophobia/heterosexism and assumes that, because of LZ’s failure to completely condemn Dungy, he believes that the plight of Black men is more serious than that of gay men.

LZ’s article is more nuanced. As a Black man himself and a father of a son, he feels the urgency in addressing the discrimination and prejudices young Black men face and knows about it from an inside perspective. He sees Dungy as a role model for Black men and an advocate for Black (heterosexual) families at the same time that he laments Dungy’s anti-gay perspective. Condemning Dungy isn’t so cut and dried for him because he is Black AND gay.

I’m betting that Dungy’s anti-gay public stance hurt LZ all the more because he respects the man so. But, as he says in his article, sometimes LZ just needs to turn it off to get through the day. Racism and homophobia/heterosexism are a double down for LZ, but not for Cyd or I. LZ faces the consequences of racism and heterosexism daily. Cyd and I, and other white LGBT activists/educators, do not. We may call ourselves allies against racism, but we have the privilege of focusing on homophobia because racism doesn’t target us. We have to keep reminding ourselves that our take on homophobia, especially when it collides with race and racism comes from a privileged white perspective.

It’s not that I don’t condemn Dungy for his anti-gay position. It makes me sick and sad to know that he will probably now have more time to devote to anti-gay organizations. However, I believe the lesson for those of us who are white and gay or lesbian is to pause before we assume that our take on gay issues, whether it’s Tony Dungy’s legacy or the role of the Black church in passing Prop 8 in California, is the perspective that all self-respecting lesbian or gay people should have. Our LGBT sisters and brothers of color often see things differently and we could learn much by listening.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Research Confirms Two Ways We Can Make Sports Safer for LGBT Athletes

I recently read two reports of encouraging research findings that have implications for LGB athletes in high schools and colleges. The first report is about research completed by Dr. Caitlin Ryan, a researcher at San Francisco State University. She is affiliated with the Family Acceptance Project, a community initiative.

This study found that parental rejection of LGB children has serious health consequences for young people. The study identifies specific negative parental behaviors and documents the health consequences of young LGB people whose parents exhibit these behaviors. Several previous studies over the past 20 years have documented the increased risk of suicide among some LGB young people, but linking suicide and other health risks to parents’ behaviors provides direction (and motivation) for changing behavior and for increasing the physical and mental well-being of young LGB people.

The second research report comes from the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network’s 2007 School Climate Survey. Among the information reported in the survey is the finding that schools with gay-straight alliance clubs for students may be safer than schools that do not have such clubs. Students in schools with GSAs reported hearing fewer anti-gay comments and LGBT students reported experiencing less harassment or assault because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. They also reported feeling a greater sense of belonging to their school.

Both research reports have implications for making the experiences of high school and college LGBT athletes more positive and productive. Student-athletes whose parents support them (or at least do not reject them) have an important foundation to build on as they negotiate homophobia in the sports world. It makes sense to me that the results of the parent study can also be extended to coaches’ reactions to having an LGB team member. Being on an athletic team is similar to being in a family. Coaches are often highly regarded mentors who have tremendous influence on their teams on and off the field of play. We already know that how they react to LGB team members sets the tone for how the rest of the team responds. This research also indicates that a coach’s negative reactions can potentially have serious health consequences for LGB athletes. Would awareness of this effect make coaches stop and think before they say or do something that rejects LGB team members or creates a negative climate for LGB team members?

The connections between a safer school environment and the presence of a GSA in the school can be applied to the athletic context as well. In addition to a safer overall school climate, wouldn’t it make sense that in athletic departments in which there is a Gay-Straight Student-Athlete Alliance or LGBT Student-Athlete Club of some kind the climate would also be more respectful and safe? Increasing numbers of LGBT student-athlete groups or Gay-Straight Student-Athlete Alliances are beginning to pop up around the United States. The findings of the GLSEN School Climate Survey supports the contention that these clubs can have a salient effect on the experiences of LGBT student-athletes and the climate for them in the athletic department.

If you are interested in starting a group for athletes, check out the web page for Our Group, a national network of collegiate LGBT athletes and their friends. The guide for starting such a group which is available on the It Takes A Team resource page.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Athletes As Activists: Dave Zirin’s Clarion Call

Dave Zirin has raised some important questions and provided a timely history lesson in his blog, The Edge of Sports. His thoughtful (as always) commentary makes some interesting connections between past racism in the Mormon Church and the current day Mormon backing of the anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 which was passed by the citizens of California on November 5.

The history lesson in Dave’s commentary is about how some prominent Black athletes, including Olympic long jump gold medalist Bob Beamon, refused to compete against Brigham Young University because of the Mormon Church’s then belief that Blacks, tainted by the curse of Ham, were inferior and unworthy to be priests in the church. These athletes paid a price for standing up for their principles when their coaches kicked them off the team or revoked their scholarships. Some athletes from the University of Wyoming challenged these action in court and their teammates all wore black arm bands in a game in support of them.

According to Zirin, in 1969 Stanford University suspended relationships with Brigham Young and supported athletes’ “right to conscience” which allowed athletes to refuse to participate in an event they found “personally repugnant.” This movement among athletes and schools gained momentum as more and more teams refused road trips to Utah. In 1978 the IRS announced it was looking into the Mormon’s tax exempt status. Amazingly, the Mormon leadership soon after announced that a revelation from God indicated that Blacks were no longer inferior. The IRS inquiry went away and athletic competition with BYU resumed.

Ok, so this all happened in the late 60’s and 70’s, an era of much student participation in the anti-war movement, anti-racism movement, disability rights movement, feminist movement, and the gay rights movement. Black sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black gloved fists on the Olympic medal podium in Mexico to protest racism. Jack Scott was writing about athletes’ rights and social activism. It was a different time and social context.

Nonetheless, Zirin draws a parallel between the activism of Black athletes then (and their teammates support of them) and the potential for student-athlete activism today in response to the Mormon Church’s institutional support for Proposition 8 and for their institutional encouragement from the pulpit for Mormons to support Prop 8 with financial donations and volunteer activity.
Zirin believes that homophobia in men’s sport makes it unlikely that male student-athletes will be leading boycott efforts, but raises the possibility that, because homophobia in women’s sport is less toxic, perhaps women athletes will rise up in protest. I know it is a common sense assumption that homophobia in women’s sports is less a problem, but I don’t buy it entirely. True, more lesbian athletes and coaches are out and their teammates and coaches are more accepting in general. But anyone who thinks homophobia in women’s sports is a thing of the past is seriously misinformed (This is a topic for another blog).

I love the idea of student-athletes, men and women, becoming more socially active. I love even more the thought that school administrations and coaches would, like Stanford in 1969, support athletes’ right to conscience, rather than punish them. I would love to see schools refuse to play religious schools whose leadership advocates an anti-civil rights stance toward lesbian and gay people and backs their position with financial and person power by engaging in political activity while simultaneously enjoying tax exempt status as a religious institution.

If I were a gay student-athlete or a straight student-athlete who believes in civil rights for gay people, it would gall me to participate in an athletic contest against a school that views me or some of my teammates as an inferior beings, undeserving of civil rights protections and would mobilize its members and raise unprecedented amounts of money to make sure my rights were denied or taken away.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if a few student-athletes and a few schools took the lead and made a principled stand for social justice for LGBT people just as Stanford, Bob Beamon, Tommie Smith, John Carlos and the Black 14 from the University of Wyoming did forty years ago against racism? Of course, the closet is a serious obstacle as well as the relative apolitical perspective many athletes take as they single-mindedly focus on athletic goals. Student political activism in general is less frequent. Still, it gives me chills to think of the possibilities.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

Here is a short 2008 month by month round up of LGBT Sports news I thought you might enjoy. It was put together by Roger Brigham for the Bay Area Reporter.