Monday, June 29, 2009

Discrimination in Sport: What’s The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) Got To Do With It?

On June 24, Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank submitted a bill to the United States House of Representatives that, if passed by both houses of Congress and signed by President Obama, would prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), as the bill is known, would ensure fair employment practices by making it illegal to fire, refuse to hire, or fail to promote an employee based on real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity (Religious organizations, the military and businesses with a small number of employees would be exempt from the law). The first version of this “gay rights” bill was introduced in 1974 by Representatives Bella Abzug and Ed Koch from New York. Thirty-five years later, prospects for passage of this basic civil rights protection into federal law are much better, and reflect changing societal perspectives on lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender rights.

Currently twenty states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws prohibiting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. Twelve of these states also prohibit discrimination based on gender identity/expression. In addition, many cities and towns across the US have similar laws. If it became law, ENDA would be the first federal law extending non-discrimination protection based on sexual orientation.

A version of ENDA that did not include gender identity/expression was introduced in 2007, but was not acted on. At the time ENDA supporters in the legislature believed that they could not pass the bill with gender identity included. The decision to drop protections for gender identity discrimination prompted several gay rights organizations and leaders to withdraw their support of ENDA.

So, what does ENDA have to do with sports? It is a sad and shameful truth that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (or those perceived to be) are still discriminated against in sports. Prospective women coaches are still not hired because they are (or are perceived to be) lesbian or bisexual. Women coaches thought to be lesbian or bisexual are harassed, stereotyped, fired or targeted by negative recruiting by rival coaches.

Male coaches who are gay or perceived to be gay would also be protected by ENDA. Though men’s sports has traditionally been perceived to be a hostile environment for gay men, more gay coaches, administrators, athletic trainers and other staff are choosing to identify themselves. Negative recruiting against male coaches based on sexual orientation is an increasing problem as gay men become more visible in sport.

All lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender athletic employees need legal protections from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, not just in twenty states or twelve states, but in all fifty states. That is what a federal non-discrimination law would ensure. ENDA would extend discrimination protection to all states and would provide employees targeted by gender and sexual orientation discrimination with a powerful legal tool equivalent to other federal laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex, race, religion, national origin and disability.

Passage of ENDA would provide federal protection from sexual orientation and gender identity/expression discrimination for LGBT employees in school athletics: athletic administrators, coaches, athletic trainers and all others who work in athletics.

Supporters of equality in sport for women have a stake in supporting legislation that protects athletic employees from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. As long as any coach, administrator or other athletic staff member is subject to discrimination based on real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, all are at risk of being targeted by this kind of unfair treatment. Women’s and men’s sport will benefit from ensuring that all athletic employees are able to work in a climate where their achievements are based on their competence and character, not their sex, sexual orientation or gender identity.

According to a December, 2008 Newsweek national poll, 87% of the respondents believed that LGBT people should have equal employment opportunity; that includes athletic employment. If you agree, contact your representatives in the U.S. Congress and tell them to vote for ENDA.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Girls, Grunts and Ground Strokes OR Ladies, Loud Noises and Lobs (Take Your Pick)

An article in the Boston Globe yesterday discussed the possibility that the ever so proper tennis establishment is contemplating a new rule banning grunting among the women players. Not among the men mind you, just the women. It would be called a “noise hindrance.” I think it should be called a “violation of the lady code.” Why? Apparently, it is ok for men to grunt when they hit the ball, but for the ladies? No, dear God, no.

And there is the additional issue of the gendered way these “noise hindrances” are discussed. The women’s noises are described as “shrieks,” “squeals,” and “screams.” I’d love to hear someone describe Raphael Nadal’s noise as a “shriek.” It just isn’t manly, you know?

I do get the point that these noises, by men and women, could be distracting for opponents. If I close my eyes while watching Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams play a match, I could mistake it for a remake of the Texas Chain Saw Massacre. However, it is equally disconcerting to hear the men grunting like they seriously need a dose of Dulcolax.

Could you imagine any other sport, other than golf, instituting a rule where competitors can be penalized for making too much noise (I’m sure there are others, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head).

I think the whole thing is silly. Let them all grunt, squeal, snort, scream, snuffle or fart (ok, maybe I take that back). Or stop everyone from making loud noises regardless of their gender. To make a rule that applies only to the women players can only be construed as sexism. And that don’t play with me.

For more on this topic check out One Sport Voice and After Atalanta.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Missy “The Missile” Giove Arrested for Transporting Marijuana

Missy Giove was one of the most daring downhill biking racers on the circuit before she retired in 2004. She won several championships and was known for her “take no prisoners” style of riding which led to numerous crashes and injuries in the process. Missy was also the rare lesbian athlete who didn’t need to come out because she was never in. She was always open about being a lesbian. In a sport like mountain bike downhill racing, which embraces the non-traditional more than more mainstream women’s sports, Missy was a popular star whose outrageousness endeared her to her fans of all sexualities. According to this article, it seems that Missy's zest for living life on the edge ( of legality in this case) extended beyond mountain biking.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Remembering Joanie Weston: Roller Derby Amazon

Apparently it is karma for me to write about roller derby today. I led a workshop last week for some high school coaches and one of the women who attended told me she is competing on a flat track roller derby team here in Western Mass. Then the next day I ran across an article on the internet about women’s roller derby. It got me thinking about my own association with roller derby in the 1950’s. I know this really dates me, but you young ‘uns out there hang in there with me, ok?

In the mid-50’s I was about 10 years old. I already knew I was an athlete, but it was sort of like being all dressed up with no place to go back then. There were no sports leagues for girls, except for swimming, which I didn’t get into until I was 12. The sports I liked, baseball and football, were basically off limits for me, at least in any organized way. I played both sports every day after school with the boys in my neighborhood – baseball in spring and summer, football in the fall and winter. I was always the only girl on the field, but no one cared about that. I knew how to play and that was all that mattered to my buddies back then.

My sports heroes were men – Roy Sievers of the Washington Senators and Eddie LeBaron of the Washington professional football team with the racist mascot name that shall not be spoken by me. My Grandmother Griffin and I were huge Senators fans and loved to listen to games together. I remember when my Grandmother Scott took me to the wax museum in DC when I was around 10 years old and I saw a wax figure of Babe Didrikson frozen at the top of her golf back swing. I was transfixed – here was a woman athlete famous enough to be in the wax museum with Presidents and movie stars. After that, I read everything I could about the Babe and was thrilled to learn about her accomplishments in so many different sports. Her story told me that there were women like me after all. Women who loved making diving catches, hitting the long ball, outrunning the defense, stealing home.

Back in the 50’s, remember, television was new. Our family had one with a small screen and a rabbit ear antenna sitting on top. It seemed like the only things on TV were Milton Berle, professional wrestling and roller derby, at least that’s all I remember. Roller Derby is what stands out most for one reason – Joanie Weston, the Blond Bomber, the Roller Derby Queen, and an Amazon among the other roller derby players.

She was tall, 5’10”, and she was tough. You did not want to be on the receiving end of one of her elbows. She’d regularly send her opponents catapulting over the railing or leave them sliding and spinning out of control on their butts in her wake. She was an all around athlete who once hit 8 home runs in a college softball game. When she took on roller derby she approached it with a dedication and devotion to the sport and training for it that made her the marquee player of that era.

Watching her take off on a jam chasing the pack with powerful strides that ate up the distance, swooping and ducking around opponents, gliding on her skates, bracing for contact and accelerating past entire teams for the maximum score and then clamping her hands on her hips to signal the end of the jam was thrilling and I loved watching her. She was everything that I felt was inside me, but had no outlet. I just knew, given a chance, I could be like Joanie Weston. Knowing that there was a Joanie Weston and a Babe Didrikson held out possibilities. I wasn’t the only one. There were other ways to be a woman than the ideal of domestic bliss – wives taking care of their husbands and children - that dominated the post-war 50’s. It took me a little longer to understand that another part of my longing then was, not only did I want to be like Joanie Weston, I had a big fat crush on her too.

I hadn’t thought about Joanie Weston and the roller derby for a long time before this week. I googled her and found out that she died in 1997 at 61 of a rare brain disease. She was married to a man, but co-owned a gay bar in the Bay Area with some of her roller derby teammates. She continued to give roller derby clinics almost right up to her death and she played softball in the lesbian softball leagues in the Bay Area. It seems Joanie defied convention right up to her untimely death.

Little girls today, especially the ones whose souls burn with a passion for sport – for running and swooping, for jumping and rolling, for pushing harder and faster – have so many Joanie Westons and Babe Didriksons in so many different sports. I hope someday in the distant future each of these little girls has a chance to reflect on her sports sheroes and remember fondly a woman who helped to show her the way to be herself like Joanie Weston did for me.

Check out this great documentary featuring some of the women, including some wonderful older lesbians, in the early roller derby, High Heels On Wheels.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Lesbian Coach’s Team in Deep Doo Doo

I ran across this interesting news item from the Bangor Daily News (That’s in Maine, for you non-New Englanders). It seems that high school softball coach, Kelly Jo Cookson, was fired in 2006 by the school system. The school claims she was fired because she forced her team to walk barefoot through sheep feces at a team picnic as a hazing activity in 2005. Cookson claims she was fired because she is a lesbian and that the hazing incident was just a pretext for the real reason for her dismissal. Cookson’s lawsuit is the first one to be heard after Maine included sexual orientation as a protected category under their Human Rights Law. OK, let me take this one chunk at a time.

Anyone who reads my blog knows I am completely opposed to team hazing in all forms, especially when the coach (who should know better) is forcing the hazing on her or his team. It is bad enough when teammates do it to each other. When the coach is directly involved, it is particularly egregious. It is tough enough to opt out of hazing from older teammates. Who would want to be a party pooper (a particularly appropriate phrase in this case) when the coach is leading the hazing?

I just need to get this out of my system, ok? I’m trying to imagine how Cookson came up with this idea of forcing her team to walk barefoot through sheep doo and how she made this all happen. This was not just a spur of the moment activity (“Hey, I know! I’ll just stop by the sheep field and pick up a load of crap and have the team squish through it barefoot at the picnic this afternoon.”). Cookson had apparently been doing this for three years. That is a lot of ewe doo.

Is she a sheep farmer on the side? How did she get it to the picnic? In the back of her SUV? Where did she put it? In a child’s wading pool? On a big plastic sheet? Did she just dump it onto a field in the picnic area? Did they have the feces fest before or after they had the picnic? I mean, that would be a major appetite killer for me. I’m sure sheep poop has some bonding effects – to your feet, your clothes, your legs – but I’m sorry, Coach Cookson, I don’t get how tiptoeing through the t---field bonds me with my teammates in any effective way.

What is wrong with people? This just goes to show that lesbian coaches can be just as stupid as straight coaches can be.

OK, now that I’ve got that out of my system, let’s get to the other part of this story. Cookson claims that other coaches at her school also led hazing activities on their teams and they were not punished. She was singled out. Further, Cookson had already been reprimanded by the school superintendent for hazing her team. She claims she was not fired until after it came to the attention of the new school superintendent that she was a lesbian (and after one of her team member’s parents notified the school that they intended to file a law suit over the hazing incident).

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has kicked the case back down to a lower court and made it clear that they believe Cookson may have some basis for her claims that the hazing incident was merely a pretext for firing her because of her sexual orientation. Cookson’s attorney used a sports metaphor in responding to the Supreme Judicial Court’s decision:

“While the Brewer School Committee has been high-fiving around home plate, Kelly has scored the tying run on a sacrifice squeeze and we’re going to extra innings. The game is never over until the last woman is out.”

I don’t know if Cookson was not rehired because she is a lesbian. The jury will have to determine that. It certainly wouldn’t surprise me. This stuff still happens and it happens a lot more often than most people think. Lesbian coaches and athletes at the high school and college level are still dismissed from teams, not rehired, harassed, and ostracized.

I have had two conversations in the last month with women targeted by this kind of discrimination. One conversation was with a college coach who has been dismissed after being accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a player. There was no investigation, no evidence presented. Just the accusation and boom, the coach is gone. The coach denies the accusation and is seeking legal counsel to defend herself. The other conversation was with two lesbian athletes who were dismissed from a college team. Their previous coach was fine with them being out and in a relationship. Their new coach…not so much. In both cases there were charges made to cover over the real reason for the dismissal or to supplement the charges, in the case of the coach. So, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if, in this case, the school system is using the hazing incident as a pretext for firing a lesbian coach.

If so, I hope the school system finds itself in as deep a pile of sheep doo doo as the softball team did.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Including gender transitioning and transitioned athletes

A new report jointly released by AthletesCAN, the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sports and Physical Activity (CAAWS), and the Candian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES) entitled Promising Practices: Working with Transitioning/Transitioned Athletes in Sport, examines issues related to the inclusion of transitioned/transitioning athletes in sport (the document intentionally uses this terminology instead of “transgender” or “transsexual”). The report is a thoughtful and well informed discussion of the major issues to be considered in developing effective policies that are respectful and fair to all competitors. This document advances the conversation about gender transition and sport in important ways and should be on the reading list of all sport leaders in the United States.

The report also raises lots of questions. For example, we just don’t have the research to answer questions about whether transitioned/transitioning athletes have a physical advantage or disadvantage when compared with physically born men and women. What we do have is research on transitioned and transitioning non-athletes and the effects of testosterone and estrogen on their physiology, but how this applies to athletes’ performance and at what level of competition is a big question. We have no reason, according to research, to assume that transitioned athletes have an advantage or a disadvantage. As the report notes, we already know that the variability in performance and hormonal levels varies greatly among physically born men and among physically born women and that each binary gender category of male and female overlaps the other in performance and hormonal levels.

We also know that much of the conversation about inclusion of gender variant athletes is contaminated by prejudice, misconceptions and mistaken assumptions. This report is a major giant step forward in addressing these problems. The report is a reasoned and up-to-date discussion that counters some of the most persistent misconceptions and stereotypical assumptions about gender variance and gender binaries in general and as they pertain to the sport context.

This is great stuff. I encourage everyone to read this ground-breaking report. Thanks to our Canadian friends for laying the foundation for a challenging and important conversation, not only in the United States, but around the world.