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.