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.