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.


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