Friday, May 28, 2010

When Gay Coaches and Athletes Come Out

The New York Times published two articles in May, one on an openly gay male college lacrosse player and the other about an openly gay male college coach. The lacrosse player, Andrew McIntosh, and the softball coach, Kirk Walker, describe how they their openness has been a completely positive experience for them and for their teams.

The common thinking has always been that it is more difficult for gay men in sport than it is for lesbians in sport. Many people accept as a given that male athletes and coaches are more uncomfortable with the idea of a gay coach or teammate than women athletes are. Perhaps there is some truth to that, but the stories that Andrew and Kirk tell of their own experiences challenge these assumptions and suggest that the sport world, at least the college sports world is changing. Maybe not in every school or on every team, but the times are definitely changing.

So, what is the recipe for a positive coming out story in sport? I have always believed that, in the case of athletes coming out, the coach sets the tone. If the coach creates a hostile team climate, whether she or he does it intentionally or unintentionally, athletes are less likely to come out, even if teammates are accepting. And here’s an important factor to consider: Silence does not signal a positive climate. To intentionally send a message of openness, a coach must speak up to stop team members from using anti-gay slurs and the coach must use inclusive language. The coach must assume that there are lesbian, gay or bi members of the team or team members who have LGB family members. The coach must believe that creating a team climate of openness to difference is an integral part of developing a winning team on which every athlete can bring all of who they are to every game and every practice.

Andrew says that, even before he came out, his coach talked to the team about their use of anti-gay slurs. He was setting the tone. He was demanding that the team think about the effects of their casual bigotry. Andrew took notice and when he was ready, he knew his coach would be there for him and he was. It is so simple, really. Why is it so difficult for so many?

This is a message I always try to give to coaches. They are the leaders of their teams. They set the example – good or bad. At this moment in the long journey to equality in sport, coaches are playing catch up with their athletes on LGBT issues. This is another part of the recipe – Young heterosexual people, both male and female, know more LGBT people and are more comfortable with them in their lives than their coaches. Athletes of this generation are more likely to wonder what the big deal is about same-sex marriage, passing federal non-discrimination laws protecting sexual orientation and gender identity, or lesbian and gay people serving openly in the military. An important generational shift is underway and coaches need to get up to speed. Even if the team is open, if a coach is not, the coach sets the tone. They are the key to what the team climate will be.

Another part of the recipe for success is, of course, the athlete or coach who is coming out. Both Andrew and Kirk are leaders. They command respect because of who they are as members of their teams. They are both comfortable with themselves. In a culture where being gay, lesbian or bisexual is often equated with the worst kinds of sin, sickness and depravity, it is a testament to strength, resilience and the powerful drive to live one’s inner truth that LGBT people overcome social hostility and resistance to say, “This is me. I am worthy of respect. I will live my life according to what I know is my truth.”

Kirk and Andrew are role models for others too who have not quite gotten to this point of inner strength so that they are ready to come out publicly. One of the most important parts of each of their stories is their willingness to be a resource and role model. Kirk talks about the emails and phone calls he receives from other closeted coaches who want to talk to him. I am sure Andrew has received similar emails from closeted athletes. Every athlete and coach I know who has come out publicly serves as an example for others who are sick of the lies and the secrecy that restricts their experience in sport. Kirk and Andrew and Sherri Murrell, the openly lesbian basketball coach at Portland State, provide hope and possibility to many athletes and coaches who are still living in the shadow of fear and prejudice.

As more coaches and athletes come out, the stereotypes that kept Andrew from accepting himself will die: Gay men do play sport. Lesbians and gay men are parents. They are team captains and they win championships.

One of the things I see is that when lesbian, gay and bisexual athletes and coaches come out, they invite their teammates and colleagues to live up to their best selves. Their quest to live openly and honestly calls on everyone around them to live up to ideals of respect and understanding for people who are different from ourselves. That, my friends, is quite a gift. We should all have such people in our lives. Thank you, Andrew. Thank you, Kirk. Thank you, Sherri. College sport is a better place with you in it.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Softball Players to the Media: “We Are Not Lesbians, Damn It”

I don’t want to go back over the whole “Is Elena Kagan is a lesbian because she played softball 17 years ago” conversation, but I do want to note that the whole goofy discussion has, unfortunately as I feared, tapped in the homophobia that lurks just beneath the surface in women’s softball. All the media attention to the innuendoes about softball and lesbians has prompted some reporters to ask some women softball players and the president of the International Softball Federation to weigh in on the discussion. Here is what they said with my snarky commentary :

"We've come so far," said Jessica Mendoza, a two-time Olympian and president of the Women's Sports Foundation, "and to have even one person think that showing a photo would correlate with someone's orientation, I want to yell out and say, 'Where have you been? Look around.'"

We’ve come so far? What, from having everyone think softball players are dykes? And, oh the pain, the trauma of having even ONE PERSON think of someone’s “orientation” when they see a picture of a woman playing softball. C’mon, Jessica, can’t you even say the word “lesbian?” By the way, as President of the Women’s Sports Foundation, you should check out the resources for addressing homophobia in sport on your own organization’s web site.

Two-time Olympian Jennie Finch said, "It is shocking, that here we are in the 21st century and something like this is being brought up.”

“It’s shocking! Shocking, I say! To think that “this” (apparently Jennie can’t say the L-word either) is being brought up in the 21st Century! What, Jennie, that lesbians play softball? That the lesbian label is still being used to trivialize women’s accomplishments? That, despite your best efforts to heterosexualize softball with your soft porn photo shoots, hair ribbons and cute family photos with your husband and baby, people could still associate softball with lesbians? Oh, the tragedy! The heartbreak! Jennie, really, two of your Olympic teammates are out lesbian and bi –Lauren Lappin and Vicky Galindo. Please go talk to them. Get yourself together.

Former Olympic softball player, Stacey Nuveman says, “In the sporting community, having gay and lesbian players on teams is more accepted and a known entity than it once was," she said. "But it's still something that, in the general landscape of things, we have a long way to go."

Well, finally! A softball player who can say “lesbian!” I know she is trying by saying that “it is more accepted to have gay and lesbian on teams, but Stacey, Stacey Stacey, we were on the teams before you even thought of swinging a bat. I bet there were lesbian coaches and older players who helped teach you how to play softball. Accepted? Honey, you should celebrate the dykes who paved the way for you. And can’t you do better than calling them a “known entity?” For crying out loud, you make it sound like lesbians in softball are creepy weirdos and it is better to know who they are so you can protect yourself from them. I have no idea what you meant in your last sentence. Long way to go to what? I hope you don’t mean completely stifle any lesbian visibility in softball?

Finally, Don Porter, President of the International Softball Federation says, “"The media has chosen to try to put a label on athletes who play this sport. I've heard more about softball that way in one week than I did about our sport, period, in one year during the campaign to get softball back in the Olympics. While it's good to hear our sport mentioned in the major media during the past few days, it has been more in a negative sense than positive. "

Mr. Porter, with all due respect, the label has been on women athletes a long time and the more defensive we are about it, like your reaction, the more we buy into the homophobia that is behind the labeling. Mr. Porter, it would appear, is lesbian-challenged also. He has heard more about softball “THAT WAY” as in “Is she that way?” as opposed to the heterosexual way, of course. Why can’t people just say it – L-E-S-B-I-A-N. There, that’s not so difficult is it? Don is just so sad that all this major media attention is soooooo negative! You get the media to talk about your sport and it’s all about those damn lesbians.

Wow! Talk about being thrown under the team bus. With friends like these, the dyke softball mafia might need to rethink the decision to let straight girls and boys into women’s softball.

Seriously, though, at the very least, these folks need some serious media training on how to respond to media questions about homophobia and lesbians in sport without sounding like defensive, uncomfortable, homophobic twits. I long for the day when straight women athletes, male coaches of women’s teams and male leaders of women’s sports organizations can respond to these questions in a straight forward and open way that acknowledges that women softball players are straight, gay, bi and questioning. They come in all sizes and shapes and that all of them are valued members of the team.

Why can’t softball spokespeople talk intelligently about homophobia in softball (or any other women’s sport) and its negative effects on all women athletes instead of implying that it’s those lesbians and their stupid stereotypes who have the negative effect on softball? I guess what I am asking is, why can’t they talk about homophobia in sport instead of exemplifying it?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Supreme Court Nominees, Lesbians and Softball

When the Wall Street Journal (Rupert Murdoch’s right wing mouthpiece) published an article yesterday about Elena Kagan, President Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, they printed a picture of Kagan playing softball with the article. She is at bat. She is a righty. (Does this mean bad things for progressive causes?) She has a pretty good stance (It’s good to know what her stance is on something). Her grip is a little choked up (Does that mean she is a conservative hitter?). She is smiling toward the pitching mound (Is this evidence of her ability to bridge political differences with opponents?). actually asked some baseball players to analyze her stance.

We could ponder the symbolism of the softball picture in this way, but really, the question is, did the WSJ intend to imply that Kagan is a lesbian by showing her playing softball? I could believe that they might. After all, the WSJ is Rupert Murdoch’s paper. They might buy into the old lesbian softball stereotype. They’d probably like to try to smear President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee any way possible. If the nominee had been a man, they might have tried to dig up an old photo of him cheerleading or figure skating. Plus, there are plenty of more recent photos out there of Elena Kagan that are more professional, judicial, if you will. They had to really do an historical search to dig up that old softball photo.

Let’s review the clues. Kagan has short hair. She is “single” or at least not married to a man. She has no children. She is a powerful woman who has risen to the top of her profession. OMG, now that I think of it, Candolezza Rice must be a lesbian too! She fits this description AND she is a huge football fan.

I haven’t see Kagan’s shoes in other photos, so I am not sure if they are comfortable or not. No data there. She, as far as I know, hasn’t shown up for her meetings with Congress people today in a flannel shirt. No one seems to know what her musical tastes are. Melissa Etheridge? kd lang? Who knows? And who cares, really? As long as we know she played softball one time at some point in the past, that pretty much nails it, don’t you think? She must be a card carrying member of Lesbian Nation. Now, isn’t this whole conversation ridiculous?

Whether or not the WSJ intentionally tried to imply that Kagan is a lesbian by associating her with softball, the BIGGER questions are: Why is this photo getting so much attention from all sides of the political spectrum including LGBT activists? Why does the lesbian softball player stereotype live on despite the best feminizing efforts of Jennie Finch and hundreds of other young softball players playing in make-up and brightly colored ribbons decorating their long blond ponytails? What’s the problem if we do have a lesbian softball player Supreme Court nominee? And most of all, what’s Elena’s Kagan’s love life got to do with it, as Tina Turner asked several years ago.

That said, would I be happy to have a lesbian Supreme Court Justice? Sure, but I’d rather have someone who could help stand up to the right-wing ideologues whose judicial activism have pushed the Court so far to the right that anyone left of Attila the Hun is viewed as a drooling crazy ass radical anarchist tool of Satan.

But, enough of that. Let’s get back to the lesbian softball question. I will be curious to see whether or not USA Softball seizes the opportunity to capitalize on the photo. “Look, Supreme Court nominees play softball. That’s great for our sport. Let’s get her to throw out the first pitch at our next exhibition game.” The problem, of course, might be that the possible lesbian insinuation that has been raised about the photo might trigger the latent homophobia of USA Softball. They prefer to promote the heterosexy players with make-up and ribbons, not the girls with short hair, no ribbons and naked faces.

Unfortunately, the lesbian label is still a powerful tool, in and out of women’s sports, wielded by anyone who wants to make a strong woman back down. Calling a woman a lesbian is like saying she isn’t a “real” woman (which, of course means heterosexual and attractive to men). Calling a woman a lesbian is an attempt to discount and trivialize everything else about her: her professional or athletic accomplishments, her personal character, her womanhood.

As for me, I like the idea of a woman with an athletic past becoming a Supreme Court justice whether she is a lesbian or not. When you look at that photo of Elena Kagan in the batter’s box ready to take a cut , her stance is pretty good. She looks solid. She looks like she is having fun. She looks like she could knock it out of the park. But does it mean she plays for my team (wink, wink), only if you buy those tired old stereotypes that strong women, women who play softball, women with social or political power just must be big old dykes… I wish.

“Corrective Rape” and Black Lesbian Athletes in South Africa

ESPN has a new prime time newsmagazine called E:60 featuring profiles, investigations and emerging stories. This 16 minute video and story, by Jeremy Schaap, is incredibly powerful and disturbing. It focuses on the phenomenon of “corrective rape” in South Africa. So-called “corrective rape” is a form of sexual violence directed toward lesbians, particularly lesbian athletes. The intention of “corrective” rapists, in addition to the motivations of violent domination and humiliation characteristic of other rapes, is to teach a lesbian, or a woman assumed to be a lesbian, that she is a woman, that she should stop “acting like a man” and to make her straight.

Several lesbian football (soccer) players have been victims of corrective rape, often a gang rape accompanied by brutal beatings. The most well known instance of corrective rape was Eudy Simelane, a player on the national South African women’s football team and a lesbian activist. She was gang raped, beaten and stabbed 25 times in the face, legs and chest and then her body was dumped in a creek near her home. Her murderers were finally charged after an international outcry. Only two of the four men were convicted. This is a YouTube video about Eudy Simelane:

Sadly, “corrective rape” is primarily a black on black crime in South Africa perpetrated in small, poor townships where the rapists and the women who are targeted often know each other. The rapists are rarely punished and the women must live with the probability of seeing their rapists or being taunted and threatened by them after the attack. Even though South Africa has a progressive constitution with legal protections for LGBT people, hatred and bigotry toward LGBT people is still alive and well.

There is always a danger in focusing on injustice in another culture. That danger is to fail to hold a mirror to one’s own culture and recognize the injustices at home. My intention in writing about “corrective rape” in South African is not to ignore anti-gay bigotry in the United States or to focus on black homophobia as opposed to white homophobia. Anti-gay violence and hatred of women who challenge sexist and heterosexist assumptions are social problems around the world and homophobia and sexism infect all racial and cultural groups. It all makes me angry. It all makes me sad. I don’t want it to also make me feel helpless to do something about it. So, I am writing about it so you can read this and watch the videos if you choose. Then you can help to make others aware of the “corrective rape” of lesbians, particularly lesbian athletes, in South Africa. You can also reflect on homophobia and sexism in your own culture and how women athletes, especially women athletes who challenge gender and sexuality norms, are treated where you live.

There is something else you can do to help the brave women of South Africa who are fighting against “corrective rape.” The men’s World Cup in soccer will be played in South Africa from June 11 to July 14. For those who would like to help South African activists call attention to “”corrective rape” and the indifference of South African authorities to it, there is an online petition sponsored by DailyKos, an online progressive community and news site. You can sign the petition asking that FIFA, the World Cup sponsor to “honor Eudy Simelane and all of the South African women who have suffered "corrective rape" at the hands of homophobic thugs who are rarely even brought to justice in South Africa.”

Monday, May 10, 2010

Greg Louganis to Mentor USA Divers

This headline would be unremarkable in most situations. After all Greg Louganis dominated international men’s 3m and 10m diving from 1980-1988 winning World and Olympic championships and being named Athlete of the Year in 1988. His accomplishments would make him a logical candidate to coach elite divers. However, another part of Greg’s story helps to explain, at least in part, why he has been absent from diving for 22 years. Greg is gay and HIV-positive. He spent his entire competitive career in the closet, revealing both his sexual orientation and his HIV status in his 1996 book, Breaking the Surface.

Greg attributes his absence from diving to homophobia and I would add probably also fear of AIDS. However, he is back now hoping to help US divers figure out how to beat the divers from China who have dominated both men’s and women’s diving for the last several years. This past weekend, however, the USA men defeated the Chinese divers while the USA women lost to them again.

The announcement that Greg would serve as a mentor to the USA divers follows the success of Canadian Figure Skating Champion Brian Orser as coach of 2010 Olympic gold medalist Kim Yu-Na. Brian is also gay and like Greg spent his entire competitive career in the closet, but is now coaching as an out gay man.

Late last year Pia Sundhage, the coach of the USA women’s soccer team, came out publicly on Swedish television, though she was not really in the closet before that.

Of course, there is also tennis legend and American icon, Billie Jean King, who coached the USA Olympic team and the Federation Cup women’s tennis teams. Shannon Miller, now coach of the University of Minnesota Duluth women’s ice hockey team which won the NCAA National Championship in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2008 and 2010 and was the Canadian women’s coach which won the silver medal in 1998. Billie Jean and Shannon have had amazing coaching success at the national and international level.

These stories provide hope that openly lesbian and gay athletes who want to coach at the national and international after they retire from competition are increasingly judged on their athletic credentials, rather than their sexual orientation. Who knows how many other past or current national and international coaches are lesbian or gay? Probably more than this handful of out coaches. We know that the closet is as confining for coaches as it is for athletes and that coaches can do a better job when they are not protecting a secret in addition to dealing with all the pressure that comes with coaching at the national or international level.

It is noteworthy that all of these out coaches are working with women athletes or women’s teams except for Greg Louganis and he is officially serving as a “mentor” not as a coach of the USA team. We have a longer way to go before more openly gay men are coaching men’s teams, especially at the elite level and most especially working with team sports rather than individual sports.

Nonetheless, congratulations, Greg, and welcome back to diving. Your experience and knowledge will surely benefit both the USA men and women divers as they continue to rise to the challenge of surpassing the excellence of the Chinese divers.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Judge Throws Out Anti-Heterosexual Lawsuit Against Women’s Basketball Coach

Last year I wrote about a lawsuit filed by a heterosexual women’s basketball player at Central Michigan University. The lawsuit charged that the player was discriminated against by the coach because she was NOT a lesbian. The judge threw out part of the lawsuit in September and did the same with the rest of it yesterday. You can read more about it here.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Taking On Homophobia In Sport in Canada, the UK and Australia

The Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women in Sport and Physical Activity, AthletesCAN, and Coaches of Canada are sponsoring a program for the Canadian-led International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO) on May 17 that focuses on addressing homophobia in sport. Entitled “Speaking about Silence: Homophobia in the Sports World,” this coalition of Canadian sports organizations offers action suggestions and resources for addressing homophobia. I am proud to say they have included some of the resources on the It Takes A Team web site in the campaign.

It does make me wonder about what is our problem here in the United States when I see coordinated efforts by national sport governing organizations in Canada to address homophobia in sport. Similar sport specific efforts are underway in the UK – men’s football, and in Australia – men’s rugby. This would be the equivalent of an NFL anti-homophobia campaign here in the United States.

Though things are improving and I know the NFL does some diversity training that includes “gay issues” for rookie camp every year, I am not seeing the kind of national level efforts that compare with the Canadian “Speaking About Silence” campaign or the “Kick It Out” campaign in the UK or the “This is OZ” rugby photo exhibits in Australia. Can you imagine pro athletes like Kobe Bryant, Derek Jeter and Tom Brady holding up signs for a photo shoot that say things like, “It’s not who you are, it’s how you play the game,” or “Everyone deserves a sporting chance, stand up against homophobia.”

Me neither. It’s just reminder that, though we are making progress, we still have a long way to go and that we are lagging behind other countries in our efforts.