Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Sprinting To The Light: An inspiring Story of An African-American Gay Athlete

Columbia University sprinter, Cory Benton, has chosen to share some of his experiences as an African-American gay athlete on Outsports. He shares some his fears and some of his triumphs as he struggled at first with the decision to come out to his coaches and teammates. He describes the incredible support he has from his coaches and how his teammates have learned to be supportive. He links their journey to his own journey toward being more comfortable with and open about himself as a gay man. He has experienced some disappointments in how his teammates reacted, but overall his coming out has helped his teammates confront and overcome their prejudices and fears about having a gay teammate.

I’ve always believed that the coach sets the tone for how teams respond to having a lesbian, gay or bi teammate. If the coach is hostile or uncomfortable, the chances are greater that the team will be too. If the coach leads with acceptance, love and support, the team will respond with the same. In Cory’s situation, Coach Wood and his assistant coach certainly did provide the kind of support and acceptance Cory needed to thrive as an openly gay team member.

The other part of Cory’s story that I think is so important is that Cory is African-American. Coming out for gay men in athletics can be tough enough for those who are white. For men of color the decision to come out to teammates, friends and family can be even more challenging. Cory speaks to some of these challenges he faced. LGBT athletes of color must contend with homophobia and racism. It is no wonder that they often choose not to share their identities with teammates.

At the NCAA Gender Equity Forum this week where I led a session on the importance of linking homophobia and sexism in sport, an African-American woman who works at an HBCU (Historically Black College or University) stated that she believed that it would be very difficult to have a workshop for coaches or athletes on LGBT issues at her institution because of the silence and the hostility on her campus towards lesbian and gay people and the assumption that LGBT issues are white issues.

To the extent that she has portrayed campus climate for LGBT people of color accurately, it must be incredibly difficult to be a Black LGBT person there, in or out of athletics. How sad to be on a campus where the African-American part of your heritage and identity are celebrated and nurtured, but the gay part of your identity is looked at as shameful or a “white” affectation to be hidden.

I do not feel comfortable as a white person supporting the assumption that homophobia/heterosexism is more intense on a Black campus than on one that is predominantly white. The homophobia/heterosexism on “white” campuses can be just as intense. The vast majority of instances of harassment and discrimination I hear about take place at predominantly white schools. However, I can say that if homophobia is a problem at an HBCU, I hope that the leadership on these campuses take some responsibility to protect and nurture ALL of their students, not just the ones who are heterosexual. I hope they provide education for all students about LGBT issues and the intersections of race and sexual orientation that can create a hostile climate for some of their students and condemn others to ignorance about the diversity in their own communities.

Thanks, Cory, for sharing your story. I am sure that there are young African-American gay athletes who will read it and know that they are not alone and that living their lives as openly gay African-American athletes who love all of who they are is possible.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Are You Gay Enough to Play Gay Softball?

The NCLR has filed a lawsuit against the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Association (NAGAAA) on behalf of three male softball players charging that the NAGAAA violated Washington state law during the 2008 Gay World Series Softball in Seattle by enforcing an NAGAAA rule that each team in the tournament must have no more than two heterosexual players on the roster. Washington state has a non-discrimination law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in public accommodations and the tournament took place on public athletic fields. The NAGAAA also has a non-discrimination policy that includes “sexual orientation or preference” which apparently means little to them since the rule limiting heterosexual players is in direct contradiction to their non-discrimination policy.

During the championship game, members of an opposing team at the World Series charged that D2, a team from San Francisco competing in the Championship game, had too many straight men on their team. After the game, the NAGAAA called five D2 players in for a protest hearing before 25 people. Following the hearing, during which the five D2 players were subjected to a series of invasive questions about their personal sexual histories and preferences, the panel voted on whether or not each player was gay or straight.

Among other questions, the “suspect” players were pushed to say whether they were “predominantly attracted to women or men.” Three of the players, who were all men of color, were determined to be not gay enough to play. They received “disciplinary” action and were ruled ineligible. The San Francisco league was also disciplined and D2 had to forfeit their second place finish in the World Series. The other two men were white. One of them gave the same answers as one of the men of color who was voted gay. Apparently some or all of the three men declared ineligible identify as bisexual, but that was not gay enough for the NAGAAA.

There are so many things I have to say about this that it is difficult for me to know where to start so I’ll just dig in with no particular order in mind.

Sorry, guys. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t be against discrimination based on sexual orientation in the larger world and then turn around and do just that in your sports league, at least not if you use public fields and other public facilities. If you want to be a completely private league using private facilities, ok, but not if you are using public accommodations. If we don’t think it’s ok for the Boy Scouts of America to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and get to use public facilities, how can we defend the NAGAAA’s eligibility rule?

Ok, I do understand the reasoning behind the rule (sorta). It is difficult for gay men to find a safe, welcoming, gay-affirmative space in mainstream sports. Many gay men just give up sport after too many shoves into a locker at school or being called a “faggot” one last time by a coach, PE teacher or teammate. Others keep playing but carefully hide their sexual orientation. There is a reason that no professional athlete has ever come out as gay while he is still playing: men’s sports teams can be hostile places for gay men.

There is a need for gay sports leagues where players can be out and the climate is gay-affirming. Their popularity and number in every large city in the US attests to the important place gay sports leagues have in the gay community. I played softball in a “lesbian” league for about 25 years and it was great. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. We become a family and we had a lot of fun. We had no eligibility rule that limited the number of straight teammates. We were probably 95% lesbian, but we had straight teammates some years. We had bisexual teammates other years. We had teammates who started the season straight and ended it gay. Sometimes I had no idea what a teammate’s sexual orientation was. What made the difference was the climate, not tallying up the straights and gays. It was understood that it was a place where you could be open about your orientation and your life. Anti-gay (or anti-straight) attitudes and comments were not tolerated. It was about the climate. If you have to set eligibility rules, focus on the climate. Make it clear that anti-gay comments and behavior are not acceptable.

I know part of the argument in favor of limiting straight players is that straight men can find lots of opportunities to play sports in environments that affirm their sexual orientation, but gay men cannot. True. However, I don’t think having more than two straight men on a softball team means that the team climate has to become hostile to gay men. I imagine that the straight men who enjoy playing sports with gay friends in gay leagues are gay-affirmative. Since they do have other choices, why else would they want to play in a gay league? That’s why they are there and I say good on them for it. That’s how you change the world.

I also find it difficult to imagine that without a limit on the number of straight players that straight men will flock to gay leagues and take them over. Sorry, but that feels a little paranoid to me. I don’t know if there is an embedded assumption in limiting the number of straight players that their superior athleticism will relegate the gay guys to the bench. If so, I think this could be one of the more self-hating underpinnings of the rule. The stereotype that gay men are not athletic, competitive and tough-minded is just more confusion about gender expression and sexual orientation and a big stereotype that needs to be challenged for what it is - hooey.

The next thing is that the “either/or” understanding of sexual orientation feels a little 20th century to me. Kinsey gave us his scale in the 1940’s. We’ve known about bisexual men and women for a long time. Where has the NAGAAA leadership been? Ok, so the “gay community” has a sad history of not accepting bisexual people, but we’ve learned a lot over the last 30 years, or so I thought. For those of us who feel rooted in our identities as lesbian or gay, we need to grow up and accept the fact that not everyone experiences their sexual orientation the way we do. Those who identify as bisexual are just as much a part of our community as we are and should have access to sports leagues without pretending to be gay or undergoing an interrogation about their sexual orientation.

Related to this is the whole process of the protest hearing. I cannot even imagine being a part of such a creepy interrogation process as the one described in the NCLR press release. “Are you now or have you ever been part of the Communist Party?” Does that ring a bell, NAGAAA? Enough said.

The LGBT community has come a long way over the 40 years since Stonewall. The NAGAAA rule limiting the number of straight players on a softball team and their process for determining who is gay and who is straight feel like a giant step backwards to me.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Religion, Marital Status and Sexual Orientation As Coaching Credentials

The University of Missouri has hired a new women’s basketball coach. Robin Pingeton, from all accounts, is an accomplished coach with all the credentials you might want in a college women’s athletic program. She has lots of coaching experience and success. She was named regional coach of the year for her season at Illinois State University. She sounds dynamic and positive in interviews. She has a 5-year contract with a base salary of $300,000 and the chance to earn up to $600,000 with incentives. The Missouri athletic director talks about the importance of increased spending on women’s basketball so the team can compete in the tough Big 12 Conference. It all sounds great, right?

Yes, I thought so too until I got to this part of the ESPN article,

“Calling herself a Christian who happens to be a coach, Pingeton was accompanied by her husband and 3-year-old son. An aunt and uncle who have lived in Columbia for nearly 50 years sat proudly in the audience…She emphasized the theme of family throughout her remarks, noting that the three assistants who will follow from Illinois State are each married with children.”

Pingeton’s particular personal religious convictions should be irrelevant in this context. She is going to be coaching at a public institution, not a private religious institution. Her husband and son were at the press conference as were her proud aunt and uncle. Nothing unusual about that. Family is often present to celebrate professional achievements (unless, of course, the family is a same-sex partner). But then she goes on to make sure we know that heterosexual marital status is important to her by noting that all of her assistants are married with children.

So, we now know as much about Pingeton’s religious convictions and status as a heterosexual married mother as we do about her coaching achievements and plans. We can also infer that she believes that one of the most important qualities in assistant coaches is being heterosexual and married since this is what she chose to highlight at the press conference rather than their basketball credentials.

The reporter notes that Pingeton “emphasized the theme of family throughout her remarks.” Nothing wrong with that. Except that when the coach leads with a description of herself as a Christian and boasts at her first press conference about how straight her assistant coaches are, you have to wonder about what kind of team climate she will promote for student-athletes who are not Christian or who are not heterosexual.

Why do you think a coach would foreground this information in her introduction to the community? Is she beginning her recruiting efforts already by sending a not so subtle message to potential athletes and parents that Missouri is now a Christian heterosexual team? Maybe in Missouri this is perceived as a positive message. I don’t know. I’ve never been to Missouri.

It just amazes me that a coach at a public institution feels entitled to focus on religion, marital status and heterosexuality as part of her and her assistant coaches’ professional credentials. It does not bode well for anyone on the University of Missouri team who is not a Christian or not heterosexual. I hope I am wrong, but it doesn’t seem like a good beginning. It makes no sense to me that new coach would limit her potential recruiting pool to heterosexual Christians either. No offense, Coach Pingeton, but that is not the way to win a championship. It certainly isn’t the way to communicate a message of openness, respect or inclusiveness.

Additional Note: Check Mechelle Voepel's blog for more information on this topic. The first part of her blog is devoted to the new University of Colorado coach and then she discusses Pingeton's press conference in the second half. Several readers made interesting comments on the post also.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The WBCA and Training Rules: Whose Problem is Homophobia Anyway?

I just ran across this story about the Women’s Basketball Association’s (WBCA) refusal to allow the documentary Training Rules to be shown as part of their convention program in San Antonio last week. Dana Rudolph at also wrote a blog about this. Since I was the one who proposed showing the film as part of WBCA convention session, I decided to write a little more about this. I mentioned it in one of my recent posts, but I think it deserves a little more comment after reading the article.

When I proposed this session for the WBCA convention, they asked me to send them a copy of the film so they could review it, which I did. I did not hear back from them about whether or not the session would be included on the program for a few months. When I did hear back it was from WBCA CEO Beth Bass who told me that they would not allow Training Rules to be shown as part of the WBCA convention program. She believed the film would be controversial and that it rehashes a situation that has been resolved. As a result, she did not see what was to be gained by showing the film as a part of the convention program.

This squares with Beth’s quote in the article above, "Our job is to protect the coach and the profession. The coach that is the subject of the Training Rules documentary is no longer in the coaching field and the situation has been handled by the institution."

I am a little disturbed by the thought that the job of the WBCA is to “protect the coach and the profession” in this context. Does that mean that the WBCA’s mission is to protect coaches when they discriminate against athletes or engage in unethical behavior? Wouldn’t the profession be better served (or protected) if its national organization took a strong leadership role in addressing discrimination and unethical behavior among its membership? It also raises the question of what responsibility the WBCA has to the student-athletes their members are coaching?

The second part of the quote, “The coach that is the subject of the Training Rules documentary is no longer in the coaching field and the situation has been handled by the institution," implies that the problem of anti-lesbian discrimination addressed in the film is confined to Penn State and former coach, Rene Portland, thus there is nothing to be served by showing the film to other coaches. Sadly, the problem of anti-lesbian discrimination is bigger than Penn State and Rene Portland, yet Beth’s quote implies that the problems addressed in the film are in the past, “handled,” to use her word. I could only wish this were true.

Anti-lesbian prejudice among coaches, parents of athletes, athletic administrators and student-athletes is still a huge problem in women’s basketball. I talk to young women and their parents every year who face similar anti-lesbian discrimination described by the former Penn State basketball players in Training Rules. The point of showing the film is to educate viewers about anti-lesbian discrimination in sport and analyze how it is allowed to happen in institutions of higher learning that profess to value diversity and non-discrimination. By asking coaches to discuss these issues, we can pave the way to better policies, more accepting team climates, and, yes, fewer lawsuits in the future. Now that could protect both coaches and athletes.

Beth says the WBCA is about protecting coaches? All you really need to know is that there is only one publicly out lesbian Division 1 coach of women’s basketball – Sherri Murrell of Portland State University. Of course, there are more lesbian coaches, but they are closeted out of fear of discrimination and they are also members of the WBCA. What of the organization’s responsibility to protect them?

I sat across the table from Beth Bass at the national think tank on negative recruiting based on perceived sexual orientation in 2007. I know she believes it is important to address anti-lesbian practices and policies among coaches. She led efforts to institute the WBCA coaching ethics code that every member must sign. The WBCA has also sponsored several convention workshops that I have been a part of over the last 15 years that address homophobia in women’s basketball. So it’s not that Beth or the WBCA are hostile to lesbian coaches or student-athletes.

However, like so many women’s organizations that happily accept and thrive on the work of lesbians, I wonder if the WBCA is more comfortable when those lesbians are silent about who they are. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is in effect in many places besides the military. Perhaps another factor in the WBCA’s decision not to allow Training Rules to be shown at the convention is that Rene Portland was a prominent member of the organization. The WBCA twice awarded her their Coach of the Year Award. Portland’s “no lesbian” policy was an open secret for her entire tenure as coach of the Penn State team. It is difficult to believe that other coaches voted for her knowing her anti-lesbian beliefs, but they did. That has got to be a little embarrassing.

I remember not long after the lawsuit against Portland became public in 2005, the women’s basketball coaches of the Big 10 conference, of which Penn State is a member, released a public statement supporting Portland. How could they do that knowing about the rumors that have swirled around her for more than 20 years? But they did.

We need coaches to stand up and insist that their colleagues treat student-athletes with respect and fairness no matter what their sexual orientation. We need national coaching organizations like the WBCA to lead the way by shining a light on discrimination and unethical coaching among its membership, not “protecting” coaches and the profession from examining the ugly truth of homophobia among their ranks.

I hope that, by writing this blog post, I am not alienating the WBCA and as a result have led my last WBCA workshop on homophobia in women’s basketball. We still have a lot of work to do. The problem is not old news, handled or confined to one institution or one coach. But if I have offended the WBCA or Beth Bass by speaking my piece, so be it. It needed to be said.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Martina vs. Breast Cancer: Her Own

Martina Navratilova announced today that she has breast cancer. Apparently her prognosis is very good. She has had surgery and will undergo radiation. I expect she will take on this battle the way she has taken on every political issue, athletic challenge or social justice cause she has encountered in her life: with focus, honesty and candor. Her diagnosis must have been a shock for a woman who takes such excellent care of herself and prides herself on her physical health and athleticism even as she enters middle age.

The recently passed health care reform bill once included provisions to address health care issues faced by LGBT people, but they were removed in the final bill. According to this article, there will be an opportunity to add these provisions back in later (but going by how difficult it’s been to pass ENDA and repeal DADT, I’m not seeing it in the near future). This article describes some of the ways that LGBT couples face higher health care costs because our relationships are not recognized by the federal government.

According to the Mautner Project, a national lesbian health care organization, “Lesbians are more likely to smoke, drink more alcohol, and be overweight, which increase the risk of cancer. They are less likely to use oral contraceptives, bear children or breast feed, and to go to the doctor regularly, which can decrease the risk of cancer. Lesbians and bisexual women are also significantly more likely than heterosexual women to have never had a mammogram and to eat fewer fruits and vegetables daily.”

I wish part of the efforts by women’s basketball and other women’s sports to promote breast cancer awareness and raise funds to fight it specifically addressed the issue of lesbians and breast cancer and women of color and breast cancer who also face elevated risk factors. It would be a great service to lesbian and women of color athletes and fans to make them aware of these elevated risk factors.

Maybe Martina will take this on as she enters a club that I am also happy to be a member of – cancer survivor. Like Martina, my ovarian cancer was caught early and I celebrated my 20th cancer-free year this January.

I also hope that Martina has a family of friends and relatives who will surround her with the love and support she will need for the next stage of her treatment. Martina, my best wishes for your speedy recovery. We need you out there leading the way as you always have.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Greetings From San Antonio!

First, I apologize for being MIA for awhile. Kathy’s mom died on March 22 and we’ve been in California taking care of her affairs. It was not expected so we are also dealing with the shock of it. We’ve now both lost our moms this year. Hug your mom if you still have her.

Anyway, I’m in San Antonio for the Women’s Final Four, WBCA convention and showings of Training Rules (the documentary film about former Penn State women’s basketball coach and her “no lesbian” policy).

I had proposed a program for the coaches convention that featured Training Rules as a focus point for discussing homophobia in women’s basketball, but the WBCA would not allow us to include the film in our session. Too controversial, they said. Well, needless to say I was disappointed with that reaction.

Dee Mosbacher, the producer of TR, decided to find a venue here in San Antonio and show the film anyway, though it would not be a part of the coaches convention. We had two showings yesterday at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center. After the film we had great audience discussions with Dee and Fawn Yacker (the producers), Helen Carroll of NCLR, Cindy Davies (one of the athletes featured in the film), Sherri Murrell (the only publicly out Division 1 women’s basketball coach -Portland State coach), and me.

We had about 30-40 people at each showing and good conversation afterwards, but it was tough to publicize the event with coaches attending the convention so there were not many who found out about it and came.

This morning, Helen Carroll, Jenelle DeVits (former basketball player at Univ of New Hampshire and member of Our Group (an LGBT student-athlete group), and I led a session at the coaches convention. We had a terrible time slot – 9am on the last day of the convention, but had about 75 coaches come to our session – men, women, black and white, all three divisions, head coaches and assistant coaches. It was way more than we anticipated.

Our topic was “A Coach’s Guide to Effective Policy and Practice Addressing Homophobia in Collegiate Women’s Basketball.” Helen, Jenelle and I role played some typical situations that coaches ask for help on – parents of recruits asking a coach if there are lesbians on the team, a coach forbidding intra-team dating, gay-straight splits on a team, coaches with religious objections to lesbian team members, to name a few of the topics we discussed.

The session was great! We had an hour time slot and the coaches stayed for a half hour overtime. We had great discussions with lots of coach participation. I loved it that there was such interest and commitment to making teams safe and respectful for everyone among the coaches who attended. One coach told me after the session ended that her only criticism was that we didn’t have enough time. WBCA are you listening?

It is sessions like this that keep me going: Great colleagues like Helen and Jenelle to work with and coaches who want to make their teams good places for ALL of their athletes. Definitely a one step forward day.