Thursday, January 2, 2014

Women in the LGBT Sports Equality Movement: New Year and Birthday Thoughts

It’s the start of a new year and it’s my birthday. Both are great occasions to reflect on the past and look to the future.  I have been an active and out lesbian LGBT sports advocate and educator since 1982 when I spoke out for the first time publicly about homophobia in women’s sports at a national conference on the future of women’s sports.  As you might imagine, at that time, it caused quite a stir.  You just did not talk about lesbians or homophobia in sport above a whisper or in public! I actually had a colleague ask me once if homophobia meant fear of going home.

Billie Jean King had been outed by her former lover the year before and lost all of her commercial endorsements. Martina Navratilova had just been outed in a New York newspaper. She did not want them to publish the article until she had received her US citizenship since sexual orientation could have been used to deny her application.  Dave Kopay’s ground-breaking book was published 6 years before.  Renee Richards was the only trans athlete we knew of because she won her right to play in women’s competitions in 1977.  All in all, it was a fairly lonely and risky experience to be a fledging LGBT sports advocate in 1982. I did have role models though. Ellen “Lennie” Gerber and her partner, Pearl Berlin were my mentors when I was getting my Master’s degree.  They introduced me to Jan Felshin, a professor at East Stroudsburg, who was such an open and outspoken lesbian that she both inspired and scared me.

In the early 90’s, I met and began working with Helen Carroll, then athletic Director at Mills College and now director of the NCLR Sports Project; Sue Rankin, then an openly lesbian softball coach at Penn State during the Rene Portland anti-lesbian era and now a top researcher on LGBT issues on college campuses; Dee Mosbacher, who produced the first educational documentary about homophobia in women’s sports, Out for A Change, in 1995; Mariah Burton Nelson, professional basketball player and author; and Mary Jo Kane, a sport sociologist from the University of Minnesota specializing in research on media images of women athletes. Each of these amazing women inspired me and we supported each other in our efforts to challenge homophobia in women’s sports. It meant everything to have friends and colleagues who cared as deeply as I did about women’s sports and making sports a safe and inclusive place where LGBT people could compete openly without fear of discrimination or harassment.  With encouragement and support from these women I wrote Strong Women, Deep Closets in 1998, the first book to explore the depth of homophobia in women’s sports.  I am still humbled (and proud) when women athletes and coaches tell me that my book changed their lives in some way or helped them to understand and speak out against the destructive dynamics of heterosexism and sexism they experienced in sports.  I probably wouldn’t have completed the book without the support of my women’s support network.

Over the last fourteen years we have experienced an incredible explosion of advocacy and change in the women’s and men’s sports world.  The creation of LGBT sports advocacy organizations and the emergence of young leaders of all sexual orientations and gender identities who are creating change in sports at all levels.  The success of the LGBT sports equality movement is assured by these amazing young people.  Though we have many obstacles remaining before the work is done, we are up to the challenge.

My work as an LGBT sports advocate grew out of my own experiences as a closeted lesbian athlete and coach in high school and college.  I wanted to be part of a movement that would insure that future LGBT athletes and coaches would be able to compete and coach in the sports they loved without fear and discrimination.  As a high school and college woman athlete who competed and coached pre-Title IX, I also am very sensitive to the need to keep our focus on women’s and men’s sports.  Though we have made enormous progress, we have not yet achieved equality for girls and women in sports on the playing field, in coaching, in sports reporting or in sports administration. 

This fight against sexism is also a part of the LGBT sports advocacy movement.  We must not succumb to the myth that homophobia is no longer an issue or less important in women’s sports or let the media’s focus on men’s sports influence our agenda. Addressing heterosexism and transgender oppression in women’s and men’s sports is equally important. Heterosexism and transgender oppression sometimes manifest themselves in different ways because of sexist gender expectations, but their effects are equally devastating on women and men and boys and girls.  Our advocacy efforts must focus on both women’s and men’s sports equally.

One of the most exciting aspects of the thriving LGBT sports advocacy movement is the emergence of talented young women leaders whose work is grounded in a commitment to challenging, not only sexism, but racism, biphobia and classism both in and outside of the LGBT sports movement. 

Anna Aegenes, the executive director of GO! Athletes; Nevin Caple, executive the director of Br{ache The Silence; and Caitlin Cahow, the US Olympic ice hockey medalist and member of the Presidential delegation to the Sochi Games are three young women who are providing the leadership that the LGBT sports advocacy movement needs to successfully reach its goals.  They, in turn, are inspiring other young women who are working on their campuses, on their teams, in their schools to follow their example. It is an honor to work with these young women and to celebrate their successes.  And so the cycle of supporting, mentoring and learning from women continues.

I have always thought that the struggle for social justice is like a relay race.  Older members of the team complete their leg and pass the baton on to younger generations who continue the race to the finish line.  Women like Lennie, Pearl and Jan passed the baton to me. I am inspired to know a younger generation of women leaders, exemplified by Anna, Nevin and Caitlin, as teammates who are taking the baton and running their leg with the kind of fierce determination and power we need to win and making sure that women are part of the race and the victory.