August 20, 2014 at 4:16 pm EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Yogi Berra lends name to sports equality movement
Yogi Berra, gay news, Washington Blade

Legendary Yankees catcher Yogi Berra is an Athlete Ally ambassador. (Photo by Martyna Borkowski; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

In a little-noticed development, famed New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra agreed last year to become a ceremonial ambassador for Athlete Ally, an organization that partners with big name sports figures to advocate for full acceptance of LGBT athletes in professional sports.

In addition to allowing Athlete Ally to use his name in promoting LGBT equality, the nationally acclaimed baseball Hall of Famer embraced a proposal to include an LGBT exhibit in the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center located on the campus of Montclair State University in New Jersey.

“Yogi is a wonderful example making good choices,” said David Kaplan, executive director of the Berra Museum. “All of our programs and exhibits are about fairness and respect. And our involvement with Athlete Ally and shedding some light on this cause was just so consistent with our mission,” he said.

Berra declined an interview request, due to health issues.

Athlete Ally is among at least a dozen organizations that have either sprung up or expanded their mission in the past several years to take on the cause of LGBT athletes in American sports, both on the professional level and on the high school and college level.

Sam Marchiano, Athlete Ally’s outreach director, said Berra is one of 100 professional athlete ambassadors the group has lined up to advocate on behalf of LGBT equality. She said another 100 college athlete ambassadors have been recruited.

Photos of many of them, including Berra, are prominently featured on the group’s website along with the text of a pledge that Athlete Ally asks all of its allies to sign.

“I pledge to lead my athletic community to respect and welcome all persons, regardless of their perceived or actual sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression,” the pledge says. “Beginning right now, I will do my part to promote the best of athletics by making all players feel respected on and off the field,” it says.

Cyd Zeigler, co-founder and editor of Out Sports, an online publication that reports on LGBT people in sports, said Athlete Ally is the only organization that currently operates exclusively as a straight ally group.

He noted that all the others, including longtime existing groups like Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, have sports-related programs that work with straight allies but are focused mostly on LGBT athletes.

According to Zeigler, the growing number of professional athletes that have come out as gay or lesbian in recent years has begun to change the focus of what he calls the LGBT sports movement from supportive allies to LGBT athletes themselves.

“I come from the perspective that straight allies are fading very quickly into the distance of this movement because there are so many LGBT athletes and LGBT people who are joining the sports movement that straight allies just aren’t needed anymore,” he said.

David McFarland, executive director of United for Equality in Sports and Entertainment, and Wade Davis, executive director of You Can Play Project, two recently formed groups that advocate for LGBT athletes, each agree that the growing number of LGBT athletes coming out publicly is an encouraging development.

But the two also said the number of LGBT athletes coming out is far less than what it should be and that most LGBT athletes on the high school, college and professional level remain reluctant to self-identify as LGBT.

“While many of the most powerful sports institutions have made great strides to publicly support and embrace LGBT equality such as the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, etc., the truth is that sexual orientation and gender identity remain problematic for many of these organizations within sports at all levels,” McFarland said.

“That’s the reality,” he said. “If this were not the case we would see hundreds if not thousands of LGBT athletes on the playing fields,” said McFarland. “And we would see many more coaches and sports administrators that felt safe enough to come out without the risk of losing their jobs.”

Davis is gay and a former NFL player who, among other teams, played for the Washington Redskins. He said he knows of a number of professional athletes in several different sports that are out to their teammates but are not out publicly.

Davis and McFarland said their respective groups either currently provide or plan to provide educational resources, including training sessions, for players and coaches to dispel myths about LGBT people and lessen the fears and underlying feelings that make it hard for LGBT athletes to come out.

Another of the newer generation of advocacy groups for LGBT athletes is ‘Go! Athletes,’ which consists of a nationwide network of mostly LGBT student athletes and their straight allies. With members in cities throughout the country, the group, which was founded in 2008, has been “spreading the word about LGBT athletes and our experiences with coming out, receiving support, fighting homophobia, transphobia, racism, sexism, and other anti-LGBT discrimination in the world of athletics,” a statement on the group’s website says.

The website says Georgetown University student Craig Casey Jr., who’s gay and was elected as an Advisory Neighborhood Commission member, serves as a Go! Athletes Collegiate Ambassador for Washington, D.C.

The group Br{ache the Silence also works with LGBT student athletes in its mission to “shift the focus from homophobia to inclusion,” it says on its website,

“Br{ache the Silence (BST) advances LGBTQ inclusion in sports through professional college campus integration initiatives and public awareness campaigns,” a message on the website says.

The New York-based Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) advocates for LGBT youth in school sports programs beginning in grades K through 12 through its Changing the Game Project. Among other things, the project works with gym teachers and school athletic programs to curtail and eliminate anti-LGBT bias targeting students.

“What you see at the pro level really starts in kindergarten and on the playground in recess time,” GLSEN official Robert McGarry told the Blade in a past interview. “We’ve been doing training across the country with mostly high school coaches and physical education teachers who seem very receptive and anxious to have this kind of training because it’s not something they get in their preparation and they don’t know what to do.”

GLAAD spokesperson Rich Ferraro said GLAAD for several years now has worked closely with major league sports organizations to persuade them to adopt internal non-discrimination polices protecting LGBT athletes. Virtually all of them have done so, including Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League.

Ferraro said the GLAAD sports project has also lobbied professional sports leagues and teams to make public statements endorsing LGBT equality and condemning anti-LGBT bullying. In response to efforts by GLAAD and other groups, the New York Yankees recently adopted a strict policy prohibiting homophobic taunts and chants by fans at Yankee Stadium during games that calls for ejecting those who violate the policy, Ferraro said.

In its Athletes for Equality program, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation draws attention to LGBT rights by arranging for runners, both LGBT and straight, to participate in marathon races to raise money for the HRC Foundation, according to foundation official Jay Brown.

Brown said HRC sponsored a marathon and half marathon in Akron, Ohio, earlier this month as part of the Gay Games. He said Athletes for Equality will be participating in October in the annual Marine Corps Marathon in D.C.

Zeigler said another recent addition to the LGBT sports advocacy scene was the creation in 2012 by leaders of these and other groups of the LGBT Sports Coalition, which serves as an association of organizations and individuals working to end anti-LGBT bias in sports by 2016.

Last October, Nike Corporation, which bills itself as the world’s largest sports company, donated $200,000 to the LGBT Sports Coalition, expressing strong support for the coalition’s efforts to end bias and discrimination in sports.

Following is a partial list of LGBT athlete advocacy groups.

Athlete Ally
Changing the Game Project
You Can Play Project
United for Equality in Sports and Entertainment
GLAAD Sports Project
Go! Athletes
Br{ache the Silence
Homophobia in Sports Project
LGBT Sports Coalition

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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