Monday, October 15, 2012

The Incredible Omnipresent Yet Invisible Lesbian Athlete

For someone like me who has made a career advocating for the elimination of the discrimination and harassment that LGBT people experience in sport, it has been a dizzying two years of progress.  The topic of LGBT inclusion in sport is now a standard fixture in mainstream sport media. Everyone seems to be speculating about when the first gay athlete in the NFL, NBA, NHL or MLB will come out while he is still playing.  More and more straight male professional athletes are championing gay rights, speaking out against discrimination against LGBT athletes and declaring that they would welcome a gay teammate.  

 It feels like every two weeks another organization pops up with the purpose of making sports a welcoming place for LGBT athletes: Changing the Game, Athlete Ally, You Can Play, The Last Closet, GO! Athletes, Br{aching Silence, the Equality Coaching Alliance, the Stand Up Foundation to name some, but not all of them.  Nike hosted a national LGBT Summit in June to which representatives of all the major players in these and other sports and LGBT organizations gathered to discuss how to maximize our effect in this LGBT sports “moment” we are in.  I could go on.

Alas, no progress comes easily or without steps backward even as we move forward. As I celebrate the growth of what I call an LGBT sports equality movement, I have had a nagging concern that has blossomed now into a full blown red flag of frustration.  It is this: Concern about homophobia in women’s sports has somehow taken a seat on the bench as all the starters in this game focus on men’s sports.  Now, don’t get me wrong, the silence about gay men in sport has been deafening for far too long and I am thrilled that barriers for gay men coming out in sport seem to crumbling at all levels. I love hearing about gay high school and college male athletes coming out. I love it that the Toronto Blue Jays recently suspended Yunel Escobar for painting an anti-gay message in his face black and that his salary for the three days (around $80,000) will be given to two organizations fighting for LGBT inclusion in sport.  It’s great that Escobar met with Patrick Burke of You Can Play and openly gay soccer player David Fasto. I am thankful for straight male athlete allies like Hudson Taylor, Patrick Burke, Ben Cohen and all of the male professional athletes who are speaking out.  It is all long overdue and absolutely necessary to change men’s sports culture.

The problem for me is that somehow with all of the attention focused on men’s sports, homophobia in women’s sports is in danger of being treated as either a non-issue or a less important issue.  I’ve noticed for some time that media coverage of “gays in sports” has focused almost entirely on men’s sports.  Women’s sports, if mentioned at all, are dismissed in the first couple of paragraphs. The final straw for me was an article on this week which was a thoughtful piece generally about homophobia in (men’s) sports with quotes from male athletes. The writers had this to say about homophobia in women’s sports:“Today, (Billie Jean) King is also an advocate for gay rights, but for most of her career, she stayed in the closet. Now, it's not uncommon for a female pro athlete to come out.”  

That’s it. Homophobia in women’s sports? It used to be a problem. No problem, today though.  Women’s sports are full of lesbians, don’t you know? 

Every time I am interviewed by a reporter about LGBT issues in sports, I talk about the differences in how homophobia is manifested in men’s and women’s sports. I talk about the ways in which homophobia in women’s sports is still a huge problem.  The reporters listen politely and then ask me another question about when I think a gay man will come out in professional baseball or football. The article comes out – nada about women’s sports.

I know, I know. I should be used to women’s sports taking a back seat to men’s sports in the media, even when the topic is homophobia. 

But it isn’t just the mainstream media, it is the LGBT community and our allies too.  This past weekend dot429 Magazine, an LGBT publication, sponsored StraightTalk, “an annual event bringing together LGBT influencers for a weekend of discussion and debate, where politicians, business professionals, celebrities, and educators explore issues important to the LGBT community. The event exemplifies dot429’s mission to connect and engage our members so that together, we can move forward and achieve even more.” 

StraightTalk included a panel on, I quote, “LGBT in Athletics.”  The panel was moderated by LZ Granderson, a gay ESPN columnist and CNN commentator.  The panelists were Hudson Taylor, founder of Athlete Ally; Wade Davis, a gay former NFL player; and Chris Mosier, a transgender male triathlete.  Not one woman on the panel. I could name at least five or six amazing women in the New City area alone who could have been a part of this discussion. Were they asked? I cannot believe the organizers of StraightTalk could not find a woman athlete for this panel. Don’t get me wrong. I know and have great respect for every man on this panel, but how can a panel that purports to address LGBT issues in athletics not include at least one (token) woman? 

I need to ask Hudson, Wade, LZ and Chris if they knew about this omission before the event. I need to ask if they called it to the attention of the organizers. I need to know if they called it to the attention of their audience during the panel.

Last week Hudson Taylor wrote an article in the Huffington Post entitled, Sexism and Homophobia in Sports.  It’s a wonderful description of the connections between homophobia and sexism in sport and how they affect the ways women athletes try to counteract the masculine and lesbian associations that are placed on them because of their athleticism.   It’s a great piece of writing by Hudson who is Straight Male Ally in Chief in my book.  Beyond the connections that Hudson makes in his article about how homophobia and sexism lead many women athletes, particularly straight women athletes, to defend themselves from the lesbian label is this: Homophobia and sexism in women’s sports is at the root of on-going discrimination and harassment of all women who are perceived to be or who actually are lesbians. All is not well for lesbians in sport. Sport is not the lesbian mecca some imagine it to be. This is what sports reporters, bloggers and even LGBT conference organizers do not seem to understand or are not interested in.

Yes, I would agree that many college and professional women’s sports teams are generally open to and comfortable with lesbian teammates. Yes, many lesbian professional athletes are out to their teammates and coaches.  Of course, lesbians have always been important participants in and advocates for women’s sports.  On some teams lesbian coaches and athletes are welcomed and invited to be as open about their sexual orientation as they choose to be.  Yet, as we celebrate this openness, we must understand that situations like these are also true:

  • College coaches of women’s teams still have “no lesbian” team policies
  • Lesbian athletes are dismissed from college teams, find their playing time limited or are harassed until they quit teams solely because of their sexual orientation or gender expression
  • College coaches of women’s teams still use negative recruiting tactics to insinuate that coaches of rival teams are lesbians
  • College coaches who are lesbians are afraid to identify themselves out of fear that it would be used against them in personnel decisions and recruiting
  • Only one Division 1 women’s basketball coach in the entire United States is publicly out as a lesbian (Sherri Murrell at Portland State University)
  • Lesbian athletes are discouraged from being open about their lesbian identity lest it “tarnish” the entire team’s reputation
  • Lesbian coaches, athletes and sports administrators are targeted with anti-LGBT vandalism and anonymous harassment

With regard to the last item on this list, read this article about a lesbian high school athletic director in California who is currently under attack by vandals who are targeting her because she is a lesbian.

In closing I want to offer a couple of challenges:

  • To sports reporters, bloggers and others who are writing about homophobia in sport: Be inclusive in your coverage. If you are talking about LGBT issues in sports or homophobia in sports, remember that women play sports too and that homophobia in women’s sports is a serious continuing problem
  • To straight and gay men who are speaking out about LGBT issues in sport: Educate yourself on how homophobia is manifested in women’s sports. Talk about how homophobia affects women’s sports in general and lesbians in particular.  If you are on a panel about LGBT issues in sports and no women have been asked to participate, call out the organizers and make it happen. That’s what male allies do, whether straight or gay.

Let’s make sure that we are advancing the cause of the LGBT sports equality movement and not just the LGBT sports movement.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Purple? Man, That’s So Gay!

This is what the banner said. The banner was held up by student spectators at a nationally televised high school football in Alabama.  You can read about it here.  The purpose of the banner was to insult the opposing school team whose team color was purple. The thinking goes like this: In most high schools (and many colleges too) being called gay is an insult. You never call something gay as a compliment. “Gay’ is a substitute for stupid, boring, ugly or anything that is seen negatively. If the color purple is gay and your school football team wears purple, then we can insult your team by calling it gay. 

Two years ago a similar incident occurred in Ohio when student football fans chanted, in response to the light blue uniforms of their opponents, “Powder blue faggots!”  Calling opposing players anti-gay names or yelling other insulting comments from the stands happens in professional and college sports too. I assume many high school sports fans learn this behavior from watching these events.  There is nothing new or unique about any of these incidents, unfortunately.

Some people excuse this fan behavior as harmless expressions of school spirit.  Others claim that “gay” as an insult has become so pervasive that it no longer has any association with being homosexual so it’s use as a putdown does not hurt anyone.  A few years ago, a college athletic director claimed that school attempts to control sports spectators’ use of anti-gay slurs was an infringement of free speech. I am not kidding. This was in response to an incident when now NBA star, Kevin Love and his family were subjected to unrelenting anti-gay harassment during an entire game. 

I know it will come as no surprise that I disagree with those who excuse or defend anti-gay, or any other fan behavior that is racist, sexist or in any other way meant to be insulting or demeaning. I think it is important for all schools and professional sports organizations to set and enforce standards of appropriate behavior for sports spectators. It is particularly important for schools to take the climate at athletic events seriously. If it isn’t ok to yell out slurs and insults in the school hallways, locker rooms or cafeterias, why is it ok at school-sponsored sports events? Excusing or ignoring this behavior contributes to a school climate of disrespect and hostility for all students.  No one is learning anything good when mean-spirited and thoughtless behavior is tolerated. For students, like many LGBT students, who might already feel marginalized, the effects of a hostile school climate can be devastating, even life-threatening.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Read the recently released 2011 GLSEN School Climate Survey.  Two items from the survey illustrates this point: 84.9% of LGBT students surveyed heard “gay” used in a negative way frequently or often at school. 91.4% reported that they felt distressed because of this language.  Even more disturbing, 56.9% of students reported hearing homophobic remarks from their teachers or other school staff.

A couple of other items specific to athletics:
  •  LGBT students cite the locker room as one of the least safe areas in schools.
  •  More than half of the LGBT students in the survey reported being bullied or harassed in physical education classes.
  •  LGBT students are half as likely to play interscholastic sports as their heterosexual peers.
  •  5% of the LGBT students who do play sports report being harassed or assaulted while playing on a school team.
  •  Of all the adults in schools, coaches and PE teachers are the ones that LGBT students are least likely to feel comfortable talking to about LGBT issues.

Sports are a central part of high school culture. At their best, they are positive and engaging opportunities to experience a sense of belonging, develop social, physical and psychological skills and express school spirit. The potential for school sports to provide these positive results for students makes it all the more disappointing when these opportunities are tainted by coach or student behavior that makes some students unwelcome and unsafe.  Name-calling, hazing, bullying and harassment in the hallways or on the athletic field or in the stands are unacceptable and schools that do not take these actions seriously or who throw up their hands in response to them are not serving their students, any of them, well.

The point is not to blame the students or the adults affiliated with schools that experience these problems. Instead, we need to find better ways to help all schools create a school climate, in and out of athletics, in which respect and safety are the prevailing norms for everyone. Check out GLSEN and their sports project – Changing the Game - for resources for K-12 schools.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Olympics Are Coming!

The London Olympic Games begin in a little over a week so, of course, speculation begins about the number of openly LGBT athletes will be competing.  This Advocate article identifies a handful of openly lesbian and gay athletes who will be competing and I am sure this number will increase as we get closer to the opening ceremonies.  This number has topped out around 13-14 openly LGBT athletes in past Olympics and I hope that number will increase in London. Though the number of openly LGBT athletes is a small percentage of the thousands of athletes who will competing in London, it is safe to assume that there are many other LGBT athletes who will competing from the closet.  

Apparently, a heterosexual married couple who are on the Australian shooting team believe that there are huge numbers of same-sex couples who will rooming together in the Olympic village.  They claim that they are being discriminated against because, as heterosexuals, they are not allowed to room together in the athletes’ village and are making a big deal out of it.  Please.  Is this really how they want to spend their time preparing for their competition? Is this how they are making their mark on the London games? 

Like the Vancouver Olympics there will be a Pride House in London open to all athletes and other visitors. Pride House is not sponsored by the Olympics, but by a local group as was true in Vancouver. Nonetheless it does provide some LGBT visibility at an international sporting event.

Why does it matter if athletes come out publicly or if there is a Pride House at the Olympics? It’s about visibility and role models. It’s about athletes not needing to spend energy hiding and keeping secrets and using that energy to focus on the competition. It’s about being honest with teammates and true to yourself.  It’s about sending a message to young LGBT athletes that the world is changing and their future in sports looks better and better.  

 Oh, and that Aussie couple? Instead of crabbing about sleeping arrangements, they should count the many other privileges they have as married heterosexuals and stick to trying to shoot straight.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Keelin Godsey talks about his experience as transgender athlete

Keelin Godsey is a world class athlete who competes in the women’s hammer throw. Keelin recently placed fifth in the US Olympic Trials, narrowly missing the cut for the team going to London.  Keelin is a transgender man who has not made a medical transition so that he can continue to compete in the women’s hammer throw.  Not making a medical transition means that Keelin is not taking testosterone and has not undergone any surgical procedures as part of his transition.  

Keelin sat down for an interview with Ann Schatz after the trials:


Many people are confused by the thought that a transgender man would want to or be allowed to compete in women’s sports.  Some would say, “Ok, if you are a man, compete in the men’s hammer throw.” One of the many powerful parts of this interview is to hear Keelin talk about the importance of his identification as an athlete, and even more specifically, an elite hammer thrower. He talks about how being an athlete saved his life.  He talk about how being a hammer thrower is such an important part of his identity and a source of his positive feelings about himself.  I don’t see how you can listen to Keelin talk about this and not understand how devastating it would be to take away his opportunity to compete in his sport, women’s hammer throw.  

You also can get a little insight into the process of deciding to transition, whether that is a social transition and/or a medical transition. You also get a small insight into the internal struggles and social obstacles that transgender people face in and out of sport just to live their lives as their truth demands.  You feel the pain, the struggle, the courage and the determination to define yourself in opposition to powerful gender expectations that push us all into little boxes that limit our ability to see ourselves in any way that defies the gender binary we are taught is “normal.”
Keelin’s interview should be required viewing for anyone in sports who wants to learn, up close and personal, what it is like to be transgender and an athlete and to insist on the right to honor both parts of that identity.  

It is also important to recognize that Keelin’s story is his. Every trans athlete has her or his own story and that Keelin’s story is only one of a larger mosaic of transgender experience that is as diverse and personalized as any of our stories.  I recommend taking the 20 minutes necessary to watch and, more importantly, listen to Keelin. I promise you will come away with a deeper appreciation for what it means to be a transgender athlete.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

U.S. Soccer Star Megan Rapinoe to the World: I’m Gay.

Megan Rapinoe, in an interview with Out Magazine, clarified a statement she made in an earlier interview with Kick TV that seemed like she was coming out, but only if you paid close attention.  The thing is she was not really closeted, but she wasn’t public about it either.  That has changed and it’s a great thing she is doing by coming out publicly now before the Olympics.  Megan Rapinoe is a great athlete and a very popular member of the US women’s soccer team. She decided to come out publicly in part because she understands her status as a role model for young people and wants to be part of changing the world for young LGBT people in sports.

She is comfortable with who she is. She has been out with teammates, friends and family for a while. Making the decision to be public about being gay feels like the right next step and why not? I can only hope that more women and men in sport make similar decisions about coming out publicly.  I am not in favor of outing public figures, but I love it when they decide to come out. We need their visibility to help change the sports world top to bottom.

Megan discusses some of her perceptions about the differences between coming out for female and male athletes: She believes that it is easier for women athletes to come out and be supported by their teammates than it is for gay men in sport.  I agree that it seems like women’s teams at the college, professional and Olympic levels are more accepting in general of lesbian teammates and coaches.  However, I think we also need to acknowledge that things are changing fast in men’s sports.  We cannot assume as we did a few years ago that it would be unthinkable for a gay man in a pro team sport to come out.  Cyd Zeigler’s interviews with NFL players indicate a big change among in pro football and these changes are mirrored in comments by other male pro team sport athletes as well. Change is afoot in men’s sports. 

Sometimes the media greet lesbian athletes’ coming out with a big yawn, as if it only matters now when gay male athletes come out.  Witness the incredible media frenzy recently when Wade Davis, a long retired NFL player came out as compared to the coming out of WNBA Star and Olympic team member, Seimone Augustus.  Wade Davis – interviews on CNN and hundreds of articles in the mainstream media.  Seimone Augustus? Crickets chirping in the night.  Do you seriously think her coming would have the same media response if she were an NBA player?

We cannot also assume that everything is cool for lesbians in women’s sports.  That would be a dangerous assumption.  In the last two years, we can point to several instances of discrimination against lesbian athletes or coaches in high school and college sports.  Golf coach, Katie Brenny’s lawsuit against the University of Minnesota is still going through the courts.  Let’s not forget Texas high school softball player, Skye Wyatt, who was kicked off her team and outed to her mother by her coach, whose actions were backed up by the school committee.  Remember Niki Williams the high school basketball coach (also in Texas) who was dismissed before she coached her first game because school administrators realized that she is lesbian.  Oh, yeah, and soccer coach Lisa Howe at Belmont University who was dismissed when school administrators found out her partner was having a baby. 

Negative recruiting based on perceived sexual orientation is still an issue in women college sports.  Sherri Murrell is still the only publicly out lesbian basketball coach in division 1 college hoops.  Only 42% of women’s college teams are coached by women these days. That makes it difficult for lesbian coaches to come out if they think it might jeopardize their jobs or their ability to recruit which will also jeopardize their jobs.

Maybe we do not see the same level of anti-gay name-calling in women’s sports that we do in men’s sports, but it is there.  Among softball players you might have noticed an increase in hair ribbons worn during games? There is a saying among women softball players, “No bow? Lesbo.”  One softball player told me about a straight teammate who freaked out when she realized that she forgot to bring her bow to an away game.  What kind of welcoming climate do you think that makes for a gay softball player?

 I could go on, but I hope you see my point: Megan Rapinoe’s coming out matters.  We still have prejudice and discrimination to fight in women’s sports. Let’s not forget that it still takes courage and a willingness to be in the spotlight for something other than your athletic ability for an athlete who is actively competing to come out, female or male.  Thank you, Megan. Let’s hope your coming out empowers more LGBT athletes and coaches to do the same.

We still have work to do in women’s and men’s sports before any athlete, male or female, coming out is not a big deal.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

40 Years and Counting: Title IX and the Road to Equality

This week we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the passage of Title IX.  For anyone who still does not know what Title IX is – it’s a federal law passed in 1972 that prohibits sex discrimination in education.  Perhaps the biggest area of Title IX’s impact is high school and college athletics.  I will leave it to others to cite the vast increase in the participation of girls and women in sports since 1972. It is impressive. The sports landscape for girls and women in the United States as a result of Title IX is much improved over the last 40 years. 

Despite this progress, girls’ and women’s sports have still not achieved parity with boys’ and men’s sports, both of which have continued to grow.   No matter the facts, Title IX opponents claim that Title IX has a negative impact on sports programs for boys and men.

When athletic programs cut men’s sports teams, the administrators making these decisions often blame Title IX rather than accepting responsibility for their decisions.  Too often the force behind these decisions is the increasingly untenable believe that men’s football and basketball programs must be protected at all costs. 

In fact, we are in the midst of an unprecedented arms race in which colleges are spending buckets of bucks to upgrade men’s football and basketball. The folly of these decisions is that few college football programs actually make money and their  revenues do not support other sports. Most football programs produce revenue, but they do not make a profit. Football in the vast majority of schools is a costly sport to maintain.  This phantom profit is used as the justification for spending more and more money on football.  It is much easier for administrators to blame Title IX for the elimination of so-called men’s “minor” sports like wrestling, swimming,  tennis and even baseball than to own up to the greed and duplicity that drive these decisions.

Title IX has the overwhelming support of the general public. This includes the moms and dads who have daughters and sons who play school sports.  At its most fundamental level Title IX speaks to these parents who wouldn’t think of discriminating against one of their children at the expense of the other. 

My favorite test of assessing equity between men’s and women’s sports programs in a school is this: Would the participants and coaches in one gender’s athletic program happily trade places with and participate in the athletic program of the other gender.  If all resources, media coverage, scheduling, support mechanisms, etc. are equal, this would be an easy decision.  Unfortunately, in many schools the truth is that boys and men would never trade because they know it would be a step down to accept what the girls and women have.

So while we celebrate the progress Title IX has brought, let us not forget that we are still on the journey to equality in sports for women and men. We still have a lot of work to do.  We still need to be vigilant.  Those of us who are committed to equality and social justice in sport should take a moment to celebrate how far we have come and then get back on the road to achieving real equality in sport.