Thursday, April 28, 2011

Update on U of Minnesota Lesbian Golf Coach Discrimination Lawsuit

Here is an update on the lawsuit filed by former University of Minnesota Women's golf coach, Katie Brenny. I first wrote about this situation on December 13.

I do not know the facts of the case, but it is preposterous to me to think that a young lesbian coach would put herself in the public spotlight in this way just to get a payday from a well-heeled professional good ole boy and Minnesota favorite son who is the golf director. This is what Harris' lawyer is claiming in his call to have the case thrown out. At the very least, this case should be heard, not thrown out at this stage.

It is far more believable to me that Harris hired, what he thought was an attractive straight woman to coach women's golf, and then flipped out when he realized that he had actually hired an attractive lesbian to coach women's golf. Because of his status as a former athlete, a professional golfer and general big dog in Minnesota sports, I believe he thought he could impose his personal prejudice on the golf program with impunity.

I hope the judge rules that this should be allowed to play out in court and see what a judge or jury thinks after hearing all the evidence.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The IOC Draws A Line in the Sand of Sex (But Only for Women)

On April 5 the International Olympic Committee released new rules for determining whether or not women who have higher than usual levels of naturally produced testosterone will be eligible to compete in women’s sports. Though the IOC denies it, it seems likely that this clarification is motivated by the embarrassing and shameful handling of the challenge to South African runner, Caster Semenya, two years ago at the World Championships.

The new rules, which will be in place for the London Olympics in 2012, state that a “panel of independent medical experts” will examine any woman found through a blood test to have “hyperandrogenism” and then make a recommendation about whether she should be eligible to compete. These situations will be handled on a case by case basis and the athlete will be referred to “specialist medical centers around the world” where they will be checked to see if they have any conditions that are a health risk that need treatment.

This process will be triggered in three ways: an athlete can request an “evaluation.” (Pause). I am trying to imagine a woman stopping by her nearest “specialized medical center” to ask, “Can you tell me if I am a woman or not? I can run so fast, I’ve begun to question” The second trigger is if during routine urine testing for performance enhancing drugs, the required observer notices that the athlete has “male characteristics.” This would be a penis, I assume. The third trigger is that drug testing results reveal “abnormal” testosterone levels. One good thing about these new rules is that it will no longer be possible for competitors to trigger an investigation on the basis of their perception that a woman is “too” masculine in appearance or performance. The IOC promises “strict confidentiality” for this process.

If the athlete is ruled ineligible, she would be informed of what “conditions she needs to meet in order to return to competition.” Presumably this could include forcing the athlete to take some kind of drug that suppresses her natural level of testosterone. (How can that be normal?) Athletes who are ruled ineligible for competition as women will also be ineligible to compete with men effectively banishing them to a “third sex freak” category athletically.

There is no question that determining sex is a very complicated process. The IOC is determined to draw a line that separates the men from the women for the purposes of determining athletic eligibility when most medical experts who specialize in this area agree that drawing a hard and fast line is pretty tricky.

The IOC claims that their focus on drawing this line separating men from women is about insuring a “level competitive playing field.” However, as Alice Dreger points out, far more eloquently than I can, the IOC only seems concerned about level playing fields for women only. Their new rule is inherently sexist. No one on the IOC medical panel seems at all concerned about male athletes with “abnormally” high testosterone levels having an unfair advantage over their less “manly” competitors. The IOC seems only concerned about policing women’s bodies and insuring that only “normal” women are allowed to compete. Of course, they get to decide who is normal.

Will we next rule ineligible women who are “too” tall, or have “abnormal” oxygen update capacities or “too many” fast twitch muscle fibers? Once we start excluding women athletes based on their naturally occurring physiological differences and labeling those who have exceptional capacities “not normal,” where does it end?

I am especially concerned that this policy could be adopted by college and high school athletic governing organizations. Policies that stigmatize girls or women with exceptional natural physical characteristics or athletic abilities as abnormal will not promote inclusion, fairness or excellence in women’s sports and will only serve to perpetuate the belief that only some women athletes, those deemed “normal” by arbitrary social standards, are welcome.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

LA Lakers Do A PSA on Name-Calling (Kobe Apology Part 3)

Okay, I hope this will be my last post about Kobe Bryant’s anti-gay slur. The LA Lakers have made a public service announcement featuring Kobe and several other players condemning name-calling of any kind. You can see it here.

Good for the Lakers for doing this. The PSA certainly won’t win any prizes for production quality or originality, but the message is clear.

Cynics will say the Lakers and Kobe just want to put this controversy behind them and this PSA is merely an attempt to do that. That may be. I’m choosing not to be cynical though and hope that this is just the first step for the NBA in setting a better example for young people when it comes to respect, even in the heat of the moment when you are really angry about an official’s call or an opponent’s action. We’ll see.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Kobe Apologizes: Part 2

In response to reactions to his use of an anti-gay slur during a game last Tuesday,which was caught on national TV, Kobe Bryant sat for an extended interview on ESPN to talk more about the incident. Because I have been one of Kobe’s critics on this incident, I want to say that, for the first time, what Kobe says feels like a step in the right direction. What is most important to me is that he appears to understand the negative impact on young people that his comment has and he talks with more understanding about his responsibilities as a role model for young people.

He also says that he thinks it is important to take some actions to raise awareness about anti-gay slurs and turn what has been a negative event into a positive learning experience, “I believe it's our responsibility as athletes and those in the spotlight to bring awareness of these issues. It's coming from a negative light, but it's our responsibility to make it into a positive and raise awareness as much as we can and say it's not okay to insult or discriminate. It's not the right thing to do.”

This sounds great. I hope that, after the media attention fades, that we can count on Kobe to turn this stated commitment into action. He has such a great opportunity here to do something really important for young people. Let’s hope he follows through.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Thoughtful Responses to Kobe O’Bryant’s Anti-Gay Slur

Here is a New York Times editorial response by gay ex-NBA player John Amaechi to Kobe’s use of an anti-gay slur. Please read it. It is an eloquent explanation of why what Kobe said is unacceptable.

This link is an article about the PSA shot by GLSEN, the Ad Council and the NBA with current NBA players Grant Hill and Jared Dudley directed at young people with the message that using anti-gay slurs is “not cool.”

The PSA was filmed coincidentally on the same day Kobe dropped his double F-bomb. What a different message to young people Grant and Jared are sending. This PSA will be part of the Think B4 You Speak series which has so successfully called attention to the negative effects of the ubiquitous school put down, “That’s so gay.” The NBA shoot is part of GLSEN’s efforts to focus on K-12 school sports and physical education through their new project, Changing the Game (which, in the interests of full disclosure, I am directing).

Friday, April 15, 2011

An Open Letter to Kobe Bryant: Kids Are Watching and Listening to You, Dude.

Dear Kobe:
You are an amazing athlete. You get paid a lot of money to play basketball and endorse sports shoes. You get lots of media attention. People watch what you do and listen to what you have to say. People wear your jersey and root for you. Many of these people are young and they look up to you.

Whether you like it or not, some realities come with the privileges you have as a wealthy marquee sports star. One of them is that you are a role model whether you like it or not. You can choose to be a good one or a bad one, either way young people take note of what you do and many want to emulate you.

That is why it is so painful for those of us who are working to make sports, schools and society safer and more respectful places for everyone, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to watch you use your celebrity platform to send such a careless and dangerous message to your young fans. Using anti-LGBT slurs is never excusable. I don’t care how mad you were at that referee. It doesn’t make any difference that it was “in the heat of the moment” or that you issued the standard non-apology afterwards. There is simply no excuse for what you said.

A mother of a 14 year old boy who is one of those young people I mentioned who look up to you said this about your nationally televised slur: Thanks, Kobe (with loads of sarcasm), I’ve worked for two years to get my son to stop using anti-gay slurs and you, in one thoughtless explosion of temper, undid it all. He thinks if Kobe uses this language, it must be ok.

Kobe, you do not get a free pass on this. It’s a good thing that the NBA fined you $100,000, but that’s like telling most of us we have to forfeit our morning coffee for two days. Instead of appealing the fine as you apparently plan to do, why don’t you show us that you really have learned something from this. Why don’t you show us in a meaningful way that you really are sorry and understand how dangerous the words you used are?

In the last year at least 10 young people have killed themselves because classmates tormented them with ant-LGBT slurs and those are only the ones we know about. Words matter, Kobe. As a young African-American man in America, you should know this. Where do you think young people learn that it is ok to hurl these cruel and dangerous words with the intent to hurt and humiliate: From people like you, dude. What. You. Say. Matters. Think before you speak; especially when you are in the “heat of the moment.”

Ironically on the same day you were having your little homophobic hissy fit, the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network was filming a PSA in conjunction with the NBA to discourage young people from using anti-LGBT slurs. Grant Hill is featured in the PSA. Grant Hill is a star athlete who understands that he is a role model and uses his celebrity status in a positive way to send a different message to young people. We need a lot more highly visible athletes like Grant Hill to step up. We can only hope that the PSA Grant is making with GLSEN attracts as much positive attention as the negative attention your comments have.

So, in conclusion, Kobe. Save your phony apology. Forego the ritualized meeting with the head of some LGBT rights organization who bestows “official” forgiveness on you. I don’t give a rat’s ass about these “performances.” The only thing that speaks to me is if you did something that really makes a difference. Donate your time, as Grant Hill has, or donate some of your fortune to support organizations that work to undo the damage your carelessness causes. Be a different kind of role model: One that stands for respect and inclusion. Young people are looking to you. Don’t let them down.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

An Update on Lesbian High School Softball Player’s Lawsuit Against her Coach and School District

In December I wrote about a lawsuit filed by a lesbian high school softball player, Skye Wyatt, and her mother against the Kilgore, Texas school district. Here is a December news item about the case. In a nutshell the lawsuit alleges that the softball coaches locked Skye Wyatt in the locker room and bullied her about dating a woman who had previously dated the softball coach. The coaches then outed Skye to her mother and kicked her off the team. At that time the school district defended the coaches’ and athletic director’s actions and it seems that they are sticking with that story. The school district has a policy that requires staff to reveal the sexual orientation of students to their parents.

I’d love to hear how the school district defends this policy and the coaches’ and athletic director’s actions. On what planet is it acceptable to lure a student to a fake meeting for the purpose of locking her in the locker room to bully her about what should be none of their business and then reveal personal information about her to her mother for no other apparent purpose than to cause her trouble and then to top it all off by kicking her off of the team . It’s OK on Planet Kilgore, Texas, apparently. I feel sorry for students in this school district if this is what the school district leaders consider appropriate adult behavior for professional educators in the schools.

And some people wonder why we need to address LGBT discrimination in sports. The trial is scheduled for November.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Does Acceptance of Women's Sport Require Dismissal of LGBT Discrimination?

On Sunday ESPN’s Outside the Lines aired a segment on Kye Allums, the transgender man who plays on the George Washington University women’s basketball team. The segment focused on Kye and his mother with a follow-up interview with Helen Carroll from NCLR; Wendy Parker, a sportswriter/blogger and Kevin Blackistone, also a sports reporter. You can see these OTL segments here and here.

Kye impresses me as a young man with incredible courage who has a clear sense of his identity and is willing to be open about his transition journey so that others can learn from and benefit from his experience. I am also impressed with GWU staff and the basketball team who have addressed Kye’s transition and the public attention it has drawn with fairness and sensitivity.

Kye’s mother shared her struggles with his transition and still thinks of him as her daughter, repeatedly referring to Kye as “she” during the interview. I can empathize with the emotions a parent must experience when a child announces that her or his gender identity contradicts the gender she or he was assigned at birth. We have a long way to go before most people understand transgender identity let alone accept it. Kye’s mother is wrestling with her own feelings and her hopes for her child. She deserves more support in this struggle. I hope she will reach out to some of the great organizations and people who could fill that role. One I would suggest is Gender Spectrum.

One of the final questions the interviewer asked Kye was did he believe that it was “healthy” for him to be playing on the women’s team. What a curve ball question. Kye was clearly taken aback by the question and wasn’t sure how to respond. I don’t blame him. What was the interviewer looking for? Was he assuming that it is somehow not healthy for Kye to play basketball at all? To play on the women’s team? Is he concerned about the general “health” of women’s basketball or women’s sports in general when transgender people participate? What did he mean? I think the question reflects ignorance about transgender identity and also anxieties about gender, especially when our preconceived notions of gender as fixed and binary get challenged as they do by transgender people. I’ll pick this theme up in a discussion of the interview with Helen, Wendy and Kevin that followed the OTL segment on Kye.

Helen Carroll worked with GW to help them respond to Kye’s wish to make his transition public in a way that was fair to Kye, the team and the university. She has worked with other transgender student-athletes, their parents and schools on these issues. As a former athlete, championship coach and athletic director Helen knows what she is talking about when she discusses transgender issues and is also committed to women’s sports in general. Wendy Parker is a knowledgeable sports reporter who focuses on and is committed to women’s sports. How she was tapped for this interview however is an interesting question. Her comments reflected a lack of understanding of transgender issues and insinuated that somehow Kye’s participation on a women’s team threatens the mainstream acceptance of women’s basketball. That is a big burden to place on the shoulders of an athlete who is merely trying to live his life openly according to what is true for him. Wendy even questioned Kye’s integrity by implying that he was only participating on the women’s team to retain his scholarship. How cynical of Wendy. Kye was very clear that he is attending GW to get an education and play ball. Having a scholarship is enabling him to do both. He earned the scholarship. Why would he suddenly not have a right to keep it?

Wendy also wondered why Kye would want to be so public about what she apparently considers a private issue no one should talk about. She misses the point that Kye is probably saving lives by being public about his own experience. As Kevin points out, we have a suicide problem among young people who are bullied because of their perceived or actual sexual orientation or gender identity. Wendy, though professing to admire Kye, seemed more concerned about the effects on his teammates of playing on a team with a transgender man. In, perhaps, her most ridiculous comment, Wendy even implied that the GWU team’s fall from the top ranks is somehow Kye’s fault and that Kye’s participation on the women’s team reflects a selfish disregard for the effects of his presence on the GW program and his teammates.

I know from reading Wendy’s blog and from her comments on my blog that she considers discussions of “social causes” in sport to be nothing more than politically correct distractions from more important issues in sport. Wendy’s message to LGBT people in sport: Shut up and keep your identities to yourself. You make women’s sport look like a freak show and impede our ability to draw mainstream sports fans and writers. Wendy was especially upset that ESPN aired this segment on the opening day of the women’s final four for this reason.

Wendy continues this line of thinking in her blog, where she expresses “some puzzlement over a self-identified male who wishes to be true to himself but still wants a place — and a scholarship — on a women’s team…Those were questions he avoided during the interview, and the lack of candor was obvious.”

There was no lack of candor in Kye’s responses, only a lack of understanding on Wendy’s part. I think Kye was incredibly open in his responses about his experiences and his relationship with his mother. It is really cynical to accuse him of lacking candor.

However, I am sure Wendy is asking a question that others who also lack information about transgender issues in athletics might also want an answer to. So, let me try. First, it is none of Wendy’s business (or anyone else’s) why Kye chooses to play on the women’s team. It is completely within NCAA rules for him to do so as long as he is not taking testosterone, which he is not. His teammates support Kye and have expressed that support publicly. His coach supports Kye and has said so also, even as he struggles to understand Kye’s identity. Kye’s basketball skills and abilities have not changed. He does not have any unfair physical advantage over his teammates or opponents. Don’t worry, Wendy, the women’s semi-final games were incredibly exciting Sunday night demonstrating the increasing talent and parity in the game so Kye’s participation hasn’t hurt women’s basketball as far as I can tell.

There is no relevant reason why Kye should not play on the women’s team. Perhaps the only reason is that having a transgender man on a women’s basketball team makes some people uncomfortable.

On the other hand there are lots of good reasons why Kye would want to play on the women’s team rather than the men’s team. His teammates on the women’s team are his friends. They are a source of support for him. Anyone who knows athletics understands the important role that teammates often play as a second family. Why would Kye want to separate himself from this, especially at this time in his life? Kye is a basketball player. For any student who loves the game and has played it throughout her or his school life, why would they give it up? To force Kye to play on the men’s team would mean, in all likelihood, that he would sit on the bench if he made the team at all. Why would he, why should he, give up participating on a team where he is accepted, supported and can get playing time when his participation is completely within the rules?

Wendy also writes in her blog that, “the women’s game is a full-fledged enterprise that long ago dwarfed narrow social causes but that still generate a very bright — and I think unwarranted — media spotlight.”

What on earth makes Wendy Parker think that sport, men’s or women’s, is somehow exempt from the need to address what she pejoratively calls “narrow social causes” that receive an “unwarranted” media spotlight? In other words she believes the expectation that sports, especially school sports, should reflect basic social justice values of equality, fairness and inclusion is only the concern of marginalized special interest groups who are forcing their agenda on women’s sports and impeding mainstream acceptance in the process.

Insisting that mainstream acceptance requires that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender athletes and coaches must suffer discrimination in silence or give up their right to participate in sports is so 1950s, Wendy. I believe that both sports and the general public who watch it are better than that. Things are changing. Not because we have been silent about social justice issues in sport or dismiss them as distractions, but because some of us insist that sports must change with the times. Kye’s participation and acceptance on his team are only one sign that this is so.