In 2005 I had the great pleasure of meeting Julian Bond, a leader of the American Civil Rights Movement and former head of the NAACP.
He was speaking at the Equality Maryland Jazz Brunch and his words made a lasting impression on me. He said, “Sexual disposition parallels race; it is unchangeable.”
It is his belief that the road to equality for the LGBT community, as was the case for the black community, is subject to the way we are perceived by the general public.
While the path to equality for blacks had its own twists and turns, Bond pointed out that there are many similarities in the LGBT path. Bond himself had to leave Virginia in 1961 to marry his white fiancé as miscegenation was not allowed in that state until 1967.
In the 1940s and ’50s, blacks were portrayed in movies and on television in roles that stereotyped them as lesser human beings.
During this period there were large pockets of the United States where white people had no interaction with black people, leaving their opinions to be formed by what was presented to them in the media. Sound familiar?
Around this same time professional sports organizations began to allow black athletes to compete in their leagues. Brooklyn Dodgers player Jackie Robinson is certainly the most recognizable name to emerge during that transition. These athletes who broke the color line distinguished themselves on the field as well as in their personal lives. Their behavior became a credit to their race.
Due to enforcement of Jim Crow laws, black athletes had been competing in the Olympics since 1904. While everyone is aware of what Jesse Owens accomplished at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, it may have been a singular black woman who helped to change a nation in transition. In 1960 at the Rome Olympics, Wilma Rudolph won three gold medals, and her grace, charm and athleticism captured the attention of the world’s press. Back in the United States, she became a national hero to both black and white Americans. Her accomplishments still resonate.
With the recent failure of the Maryland same-sex marriage legislation, I cannot stop thinking that this is all because of how the general public perceives us. In September 2010, GLAAD counted 23 LGBT characters on major network television. Most are stereotypical roles that portray us as cartoon characters. I cringe every time Mitch and Cam on “Modern Family” end one of their arguments with a slap fight or the gay head swing. Recently there was criticism from the LGBT community because the characters of Mitch and Cam were not showing any affection on the show. The network chose to air an episode indicating Mitch’s character to be uncomfortable showing affection in public. How convenient.
So where are the LGBT sports heroes to come and save us? They are out there, but just not having much impact on public opinion. I’m a firm believer that every ripple in the water is important. Much can be said of what impact groups like the sports teams under the Team D.C. umbrella have at a grass roots level. Each year, more and more straight athletes are joining our LGBT sports teams. These athletes are then imparting their experiences with us to family and friends which hopefully affect some changes in the perception of us.
The Team D.C. sports teams are also competing nationally against both straight and gay athletes. Several times I have heard the snickers or negative comments while competing at a straight swim meet. More often than not though, the commonality of our sports experience brings the straight athletes to interact with us in a positive way before the end of the swim meet.
One of the lessons to be learned from the black march to equality is that we need to be aware of public opinion. There are still large pockets of the Unites States where people have never met a gay person. I was recently told by a Maryland legislator that many of her peers vote against their own beliefs and instead vote on what they have heard from their constituents.
The next time you feel the need to point a finger at a religious group, a politician or the media, you should ask yourself a simple question.
Am I doing my part?