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U.S. professional sports called the ‘last closet’

40 years after Stonewall, no ‘out’ player in major league baseball, football, hockey



Brittney Griner, Wade Trophy, gay news, Washington Blade

Brittney Griner, seen here accepting the Wade Trophy, came out as a lesbian but didn’t receive a lot of media attention, even though she is recognized as the best woman basketball player to enter the WNBA draft in 2013. (Photo by Sphilbrick; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

LGBT sports enthusiasts were thrilled earlier this year when professional basketball player Jason Collins and pro soccer player Robbie Rogers came out as gay, becoming the first two out gay men to emerge as current players in the professional leagues for the two sports.

Around the same time, Brittney Griner, the top-rated 2013 college basketball player in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) draft, came out as a lesbian. Her coming out made no difference to the Phoenix Mercury WNBA team, which quickly signed her on as a player.

The decision by Collins, Rogers, and Griner to disclose their sexual orientation followed coming out stories last year of another women’s pro basketball player, Seimone Augustus, and a women’s pro soccer player, Megan Rapinoe.


While these developments are viewed as encouraging signs by LGBT sports fans and activists, they come at a time when no open gays have ever emerged as players in three of the nation’s most popular professional sports — baseball, football and ice hockey. And though the NBA’s Collins came out four months ago, he remains a free agent.

No male professional golfer has ever come out as gay anywhere in the world and just one pro tennis player who is male has ever come out, according to Cyd Zeigler, editor and publisher of OutSports, a widely read online publication covering LGBT people in sports.

“People call it the last closet. And I think that’s what it is,” Zeigler told the Blade in discussing the lack of LGBT people in professional sports. “I think homophobia for decades has been more entrenched in sports than it has in most other areas in our culture,” he said.

“It starts when these kids are young. And they’re five years old and 10 years old and playing sports and the coach calls them a faggot and tells them not to be a sissy and this idea that being a faggot is less than being a man,” he said. “It starts there.”

Zeigler and other experts in the field of gays in sports say they are optimistic that cultural and political changes that opened the way for LGBT rights advances in recent years, including the approval of same-sex marriage in a growing number of states, will soon spill over into the realm of professional sports.

Forty-three years after the Stonewall riots in New York sparked the modern LGBT rights movement, LGBT activists say they are hopeful that baseball, football and hockey along with other professional sports will soon join the ranks of other professions in becoming more welcoming for LGBT people.

Zeigler said nearly all professional sports leagues have policies that ban discrimination based on sexual orientation along with other categories such as race, religion and ethnicity.

Earlier this year, at the request of New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, the National Football League and Major League Baseball agreed to strengthen their non-discrimination policies pertaining to sexual orientation.

In a statement released in April, Schneiderman said he pushed for the strengthened policies after his office learned of complaints by at least three prospective NFL players that they were asked questions about their sexual orientation at the league’s recruitment scouting meeting held in February in Indianapolis.

“According to one prospective player, representatives of NFL teams asked prospects if they had a girlfriend, were married, or liked girls,” a statement released in April by Schneiderman’s office says.

Nationals Park, Washington Nationals, Major League Baseball, gay news, Washington Blade

The NFL and Major League Baseball adopted non-discrimination policies on sexual orientation in 2011 as part of collective bargaining agreements with the NFL and MLB and their respective player’s associations. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The statement and a follow-up statement released in July says both the NFL and Major League Baseball adopted their initial non-discrimination policies on sexual orientation in 2011 as part of collective bargaining agreements with the NFL and MLB and their respective player’s associations, which act as player unions.

The statements say that in response to Schneiderman’s request, the NFL and MLB agreed to adopt a workplace code of conduct specifically addressing sexual orientation discrimination and to post the policy document in all team locker rooms among other places.

“Both on the field and away from it, Major League Baseball has a zero-tolerance policy for harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation,” MLB Commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement related to the code of conduct document.

It couldn’t immediately be determined whether the new non-discrimination policies would encourage gay baseball or football players to come out. But experts familiar with LGBT people in sports say factors other than homophobia and anti-LGBT bias may be playing a role in discouraging LGBT people from coming out in professional sports.

“I think the athletes themselves are ready to have an openly gay teammate,” said Patricia Griffin, Professor Emerita in Social Justice Education at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

Griffin, a former swimming coach and author of the book “Strong Women, Deep Closets: Lesbians and Homophobia in Sports,” told the Blade that concern over media attention may be keeping some LGBT athletes from coming out.

“I think one of the things that keeps athletes in the closet is not necessarily that they’re afraid of the homophobia of their teammates, but that it’s still such a news story, especially for the men,” Griffin said. “You have to be prepared to deal with all of the media attention. And I think there are a lot of gay athletes and that’s not what they want to do,” she said.

“They would like to be out. They want to be out. But they don’t want to have to deal with the attending media crush as well as probably requests from every gay organization in the world to be a spokesperson and so on,” she said.

Zeigler said he, too, believes reasons other than anti-LGBT bias have prompted many LGBT athletes in professional sports to stay in the closet. He noted that in the NFL, the average career often ends after three and a half years. The average baseball and hockey career is likely to be longer, but most players are ready for retirement by their late 30s, he said

“These guys from high school are working essentially full-time jobs and going to school,” he said. “And a lot of them say they don’t have time to explore their sexual orientation. Their idea of coming out in the middle of the pressure of trying to make a college squad, trying to get playing time, trying to make an NFL squad, trying to get a good contract” is not something that appeals to them, he said.

“So coming out is a complication, an unnecessary complication for some of them,” said Zeigler.

Robert McGarry, senior director of education and youth programs for the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), said his organization is working with public schools and teachers, including physical education teachers, to curtail anti-LGBT bias among youth.

“What you see at the pro level really starts in kindergarten and on the playground on recess time,” McGarry said. “The kind of exclusion of kids who step outside of what society expects of their gender fuels that. What fuels it also is educators not addressing anti-LGBT language and bias.”

He said GLSEN retained Patricia Griffin to develop a GLSEN sports project called Changing the Game, which is designed to address homophobia and trans phobia in school sports programs from kindergarten to the 12th grade.

“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 that they get in their preparation and they don’t really know what to do,” he said. “So we’re trying to fill that gap.”

Griffin said educational programs like GLSEN’s sports project and the changing attitudes throughout the country on LGBT equality will soon lead to more openly LGBT professional sports players, including players in the NFL and MLB.

“I think one of these days there’s going to be a quarterback from some college football team, Division 1, who gets recruited up high in the draft and he’s going to come in to the NFL as an out gay man,” Griffin said. “I actually think that’s more likely to happen than having an established star come out after he’s been playing for a while.”

Added Griffin, “They never knew what it was like to be ‘in,’” she said of the up and coming young athletes. “They are out and that’s how they live their lives. That alone is going to change the face of sports in the next few years.”

McGarry of GLSEN cautioned that although it will help the cause of LGBT people in sports if more big name stars come out, that alone won’t address the underlying cause of homophobia in sports.

“It’s a shame that everybody is sort of waiting for the first NFL player to come out,” he said. “There are many people who think that’s going to be the great solution – to have a football player come out of the closet. I think there’s a lot more work to be done.”

D.C. Police Sgt. Brett Parson, the gay former head of the department’s Gay & Lesbian Liaison Unit, is a longtime amateur ice hockey player and former referee with the National Hockey League who says he witnessed firsthand the culture of professional hockey players.

“While we’ve come a long way, football, basketball, baseball, ice hockey – those sports still have the machismo that inhibits people from coming out and disclosing they’re gay for fear of being ostracized,” Parson said.

“I think we’re maybe not a generation away but we’re still a few years away before more people feel comfortable doing that,” he said.

Griffin said more women’s professional athletes have already come out than male professional athletes, but this often goes unnoticed because historically the public and the sports media pay more attention to men in sports.

She noted that Brittney Griner didn’t receive a lot of media attention when she came out this year, even though she is recognized as the best woman basketball player to enter the WNBA draft in 2013.

“Part of that is because it’s sort of like a weird kind of sexism, where we always think men’s sports are more important and we pay more attention to men’s sports,” she said. “So it makes sense that if a gay man comes out in men’s sports we pay more attention.”

According to Griffin, the less-noticed coming out by Griner may be the better path for all LGBT athletes going forward.

“With women it’s not such a surprise because people assume that there are lesbians in sports,” she said. “But when she came out it wasn’t like a giant announcement. She was just very matter of fact. It’s who I am. I’m proud of who I am and, you know, let’s move on,” said Griffin.

“And I think that’s going to be the future of more athletes who come out rather than having this be this giant, traumatic announcement that they make and feel like they’re risking their career by coming out,” she said.

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Formula One racing star wears LGBTQ Pride helmet at Qatar Grand Prix

“It’s down to whether you decide to educate yourself, hold the sport more accountable and make sure the sport is actually doing something”



Lewis Hamilton Formula One helmet design via Hamilton's Twitter

DOHA, Qatar – Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team’s seven time Grand Prix champion driver Lewis Hamilton won in the inaugural run of the Qatar Grand Prix Formula One race Sunday.

That was not the only significant event that the 36-year-old race car driver participated in during his Qatar stay as prior to the race, Hamilton had shown support for the LGBTQ+ community during a practice session on Friday, wearing a a helmet featuring the Pride Progress Flag, a redesigned and more inclusive version of the traditional rainbow flag, and emblazoned with the words “We Stand Together.”

The flag features additional black and brown stripes to highlight the oppression of people of color, as well as pink and blue stripes for the trans flag and a purple circle on a yellow background, which is the intersex flag.

On his personal Twitter account the Formula One racer tweeted pictures of his helmet, which he wore at the end of Trans Awareness Week and this weekend which marks the International Transgender Day of Remembrance on Saturday.

Hamilton had received a knighthood from the British monarch Queen Elizabeth II in December a year ago for his human rights and advocacy work with his private charity, The Hamilton Commission, which the Stevenage, Hertfordshire, UK native set-up to simultaneously address the underrepresentation of Black people in UK motorsport, as well as the STEM sector.

The queen’s honors are awarded twice a year, in late December and in June, when the monarch’s birthday is observed. The awards acknowledge hundreds of people for services to community or British national life. Recipients are selected by committees of civil servants from nominations made by the government and the public.

In an interview with the Guardian, Hamilton said that he believes “sportspeople are duty bound to speak out on human rights matters in the countries they visit. With Qatar hosting its first Formula One Grand Prix this weekend and facing new allegations of worker exploitation and abuse in its preparations for next year’s football World Cup, Hamilton insisted he would hold the sport to account for the places it chooses to race.

Prior to the debut of the Qatar Formula One race and with the 2022 FIFA World Cup matches slated for 2022 in Qatar, focus once more fell on human rights issues. The Guardian reported that workers within the state have claimed that reforms to the country’s restrictive kafala labour sponsorship system have been ineffective while human rights groups continue to highlight oppressive male guardianship policies as well as discriminatory laws against women and LGBTQ+ individuals.

Lewis Hamilton 2016 Malaysia Grand Prix
(Photo by Morio)

“We’re aware there are issues in these places that we’re going to,” Hamilton told the Guardian. “But of course [Qatar] seems to be deemed as one of the worst in this part of the world. As sports go to these places, they are duty bound to raise awareness for these issues. These places need scrutiny. Equal rights is a serious issue.”

He added: “If we are coming to these places, we need to be raising the profile of the situation. One person can only make a certain amount of small difference but collectively we can have a bigger impact. Do I wish that more sportsmen and women spoke out on these issues? Yes.

“It’s down to whether you decide to educate yourself and hold the sport more accountable and make sure the sport is actually doing something when they go to those places.”

CNN reported that British intersex activist and columnist Valentino Vecchietti finalized the version seen on Hamilton’s helmet, which includes the intersex flag. “It means everything,” Vecchietti told CNN. “I can’t express what an amazing, massive, massive thing Lewis Hamilton has done. And I feel emotional talking about it, because we are so hidden and stigmatized as a population.”

The Pride Progress flag by Valentino Vecchietti to include representation for the intersex community.
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International Olympic Committee issues new “Framework On Fairness” for inclusion of Trans Athletes

The International Olympic Committee announced new guidance allowing “every person” to participate & abandons testosterone levels as criteria



International Olympic Committee Headquarters (Photo by Greg Martin; courtesy IOC)

LAUSANNE, Switzerland – Following the first Olympic Games in which transgender athletes not only competed but made history by winning a gold medal, the International Olympic Committee stunned the world of sport Tuesday by not revising the criteria focused on testosterone, as expected, but moving away from it altogether. 

The IOC announced its new Framework on Fairness, Inclusion and Non-Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity and Sex Variations in a Zoom meeting hosted in Lausanne, Switzerland.

The leaders said they consulted with 250 athletes and “concerned stakeholders” including medical and legal experts over two years, and determined “every person has the right to practice sport without discrimination and in a way that respects their health, safety and dignity.” While stressing that competitive sports “relies on a level playing field,” the IOC tacitly acknowledged the complaints of trans-exclusionary cisgender women athletes by stating support for “the central role that eligibility criteria play in ensuring fairness, particularly in high-level organized sport in the women’s category.”

GLAAD heralded the announcement as making it clear that “no athlete has an inherent advantage over another due to their gender identity, sex variations, or appearance.” 

“This is a victory for all athletes and fans, who know the power and potential of sports to bring people together and make us all stronger,” said Alex Schmider of GLAAD. “Sports are for everyone, and fairness in sports means inclusion, belonging and safety for all who want to participate, including transgender, intersex, and nonbinary athletes.”

What the IOC didn’t do was issue new criteria for testosterone levels and did not define who is or isn’t a woman, and for the first time in modern Olympic history, is walking away from its “one size fits all” guidance. It’ll be left up to each sport and governing body to determine who is eligible to compete. The IOC guidance is that the criteria should respect internationally recognized human rights, rely on robust scientific evidence as well as athlete consultation, and that “precautions be taken to avoid causing harm to the health and well-being of athletes.” 

Although intended to guide elite athletes, the committee suggested all levels of sport, even recreational and grassroots sport, respect inclusion and non-discrimination policies.

Here are the 10 principles outlined by the IOC to to welcome all athletes at every level of participation, centered on the values of inclusion, prevention of harm and non-discrimination.

1. Inclusion 

2. Prevention of Harm

3. Non-discrimination

4. Fairness

5. No presumption of Advantage

6. Evidence-based Approach

7. Primacy of Health and Bodily Autonomy

8. Stakeholder-Centered Approach

9. Right to Privacy

10. Periodic Reviews

Athlete Ally was one of the agencies consulted by the IOC in determining this framework. “We hope to continue working closely with the IOC to ensure that the policies and practices governing sport actually include and represent the diversity of people playing sport,” said Anne Lieberman, Director of Policy and Programs at Athlete Ally. 

“Far too often, sport policy does not reflect the lived experience of marginalized athletes, and that’s especially true when it comes to transgender athletes and athletes with sex variations,” said Quinn of Canada’s Olympic Soccer team and the world’s first trans nonbinary gold medalist. “This new IOC framework is groundbreaking in the way that it reflects what we know to be true — that athletes like me and my peers participate in sports without any inherent advantage, and that our humanity deserves to be respected.”  

“I think that the IOC has made a powerful statement in favor of transgender inclusion, but I think that items 5 and 6 in their framework are problematic,” said Joanna Harper, the visiting fellow for transgender athletic performance at Loughborough University in the U.K. and a former IOC consultant. 

“On average, transgender women are taller, bigger and stronger than cisgender women and these are advantages in many sports,” Harper told the Los Angeles Blade. “It is also unreasonable to ask sporting federations to have robust, peer-reviewed research prior to placing any restrictions on transgender athletes in elite sports. Such research is years or maybe decades away from completion. I do think that recreational sports should allow unrestricted inclusion of trans athletes.” 

As San Francisco-based trans journalist Ina Fried noted in Axios, the IOC said that sex testing, genital inspections and other medical procedures to determine gender put all athletes at risk of harm and abuse, not just trans, intersex and nonbinary athletes. But the bottom line, Fried wrote, is that this new framework isn’t legally binding on any sports governing bodies, which now have carte blanche to write their own rules for eligibility.

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Proud to be a Fury

New film a touching tribute to the history of women’s rugby



(Photo courtesy of Coleen McCloskey)

The last time that the Blade checked in with DC Furies player Liz Linstrom, she mentioned that she would always contribute to the club even if injuries sidelined her ability to play.

That statement proved to be prophetic as Linstrom experienced her third ACL tear while in the beginnings of filming a documentary about the Furies.

Linstrom had created a short documentary on women’s rugby and femininity as an undergraduate student at William & Mary and the itch was still there to produce more creative work.

Even though she was working three jobs and playing with the Furies, she felt she had enough work flexibility to pitch a documentary to the club in the fall of 2019.

The original idea was a past, present, and future look at women’s rugby in the United States through the lens of the players. 

Established in 1978, the Furies quickly developed into a highly competitive club, and they are currently competing in the Mid-Atlantic Rugby Union and the Capital Geographic Union, with both Division 1 and Division 3 teams.

In March of 2020, the Furies were ramping up to host their 40th annual Ruggerfest tournament, one of the largest all-women’s rugby tournaments in the United States with brackets including high school, college, social, and competitive clubs.

Then the unexpected happened.

“COVID hit, the tournament was cancelled, and filming of the documentary came to an abrupt stop,” says Linstrom. “The story shifted to the resilience of women and club sports in a way that professional and semi-professional sports teams can’t relate.”

The resulting film, “Furious,” is a touching tribute to the history of women’s rugby, women’s rights, the Furies, tradition, family, and maneuvering through COVID.

Four gay women are central figures in the film with one being married and another nonbinary. The players share what women’s rugby was like in the 1970s.

“The beginnings of women’s rugby in the United States coincided with Title IX in 1972. As a sport in its early beginnings, teams couldn’t afford to push people away. If you wanted to hit someone, you were on the team,” Linstrom says. “By the 1990s, the women’s rugby community was advocating for LGBTQ rights and the Furies had Candace Gingrich as a long-time player. Eighty percent of the team were lesbians.”

Other aspects of women’s rugby that are brought to light are the camaraderie, commitment, sense of family, and the queer elements of the community.

One Fury player breaks her nose 20 minutes into a match, shoves a tampon up her nose, and goes back in as a blood substitution. Another player breaks her wrist and carpools five hours the next day to North Carolina to support her team during a game.

Toward the end of the film, Linstrom addresses the impact of COVID on a club team such as the Furies. Some are concerned about coming back to play and wonder whether the excitement will still be there. Others think about trying to replace the players who are leaving the D.C. area.

“Nothing will keep us from getting together. We are not pro athletes, but the highest levels of women’s rugby in the United States is still club teams,” says Linstrom. “The legacy of the club is very important to all of us. Every time we step onto the pitch, we are standing on the shoulders of the players who came before us. They are our founding bricks.”

“Furious” premiered online in September for family, friends, and Furies players with viewership in 15 states. Linstrom funded the project as producer and director along with a grant from Arlington Cultural Affairs. The film will now be submitted to festivals to reach a larger audience. 

Linstrom has moved on from her three part-time jobs and is now working full-time as a video editor at a production studio in Alexandria along with coaching rugby at American University. 

The Furies were able to play sevens rugby over the summer and had the first game of their fall fifteens season on Sept. 25.

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