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U.S. Tennis Association continues partnership with gay group

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Jonathan O'Brien, Gay and Lesbian Tennis Association, gay news, Washington Blade
Jonathan O'Brien, Gay and Lesbian Tennis Association, gay news, Washington Blade

Jonathan O’Brien on his way to the finals at a recent Gay and Lesbian Tennis Alliance tournament, the Capital Classic XXII, hosted by the Capital Tennis Association. (Photo courtesy Chris Burch Photography)

The last three years have seen much attention on the diversity training and programs that are in place in professional sports in the United States.

In 1993, the United States Tennis Association began an initiative to focus on minority participation in the tennis community. By 2003, the initiative became a department known as USTA Diversity & Inclusion.

They have established five targeted guides to reach out to key minority communities across the United States that include African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics and the LGBT community.

The guides are distributed to local programs and clubs and community tennis associations throughout the 17 established geographical Association sections in the United States with the goal that anyone from anywhere should be able to compete and play the sport of tennis.

“This outreach program has been built to attract and retain members in the USTA,” says D.A. Abrams, chief diversity officer of the Association. “Diversity is fine, but you need the inclusion.”

Back in 2010, the Gay and Lesbian Tennis Alliance met with the Association for the first time to discuss how they could both benefit from collaborating together.

The Alliance is the international governing body for the LGBT tennis community and sponsors about 65 tournaments for its 10,000 members throughout the world. Just last month, the two governing bodies signed a partnership agreement which will create a formal link between the two entities.

“The fact that a national governing body such as the USTA has partnered with the international GLTA speaks volumes about their commitment to us,” says Dan Merrithew, Alliance commissioner/secretary.

The Association was established in 1881, has 700,000 members and invests 100 percent of its proceeds to promote and develop the growth of tennis, from the grassroots level to the professional levels.

The only tennis organization the United States Tennis Association has ever partnered with before this agreement is the American Tennis Association, which is the oldest African-American sports organization in the United States.

“We don’t normally sponsor or partner with tennis organizations,” says Abrams of the United States Tennis Association. “This partnership was a mixture of a good business decision and the right thing to do.”

The partnership agreement will involve tournament support, advertising, media associated with tours, press releases, logos, merchandise and more.

The Alliance hosts an annual tour championship where the top eight ranked players in each division (Open, A, B, C, D singles and doubles) compete for the respective world titles, becoming essentially an LGBT Grand Slam of tennis.

The event rotates between two consecutive years in North America followed by one year in Europe. At the championship in Palm Springs, CA from Feb. 6-8, the event will be titled the GLTA World Tour Championships sponsored by the United States Tennis Association.

According to Merrithew, the partnership is going to offer more exposure for LGBT tennis clubs around the United States and encourage more players to join.

“Tennis is still very much a white country club sport in the United States and many people don’t feel welcome in the USTA leagues,” Merrithew says. “This partnership sends a clear message to kids that it is OK to be gay and play tennis.”

Another area that will be addressed in the outreach is the pockets of the U.S. where there are no LGBT tennis clubs such as North Dakota and South Dakota along with outreach in other countries around the world.

The Alliance now has a tournament and club in Cape Town, South Africa and is in the process of developing clubs in South America.

There is still one more thing that the Alliance is hoping to achieve.

“LGBT Day at the U.S. Open is something that many of us have been thinking about for a long time,” Merrithew says.

 

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High hurdler Trey Cunningham comes out as gay

Florida State University alum grew up in Ala.

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Trey Cunningham (Photo courtesy of Cunningham's Instagram page)

He didn’t get to punch his ticket to the Olympics this summer but Trey Cunningham, 26, one of the world’s best high hurdlers, is in the news for a far more personal reason: He publicly came out as gay. 

“We say our goals out loud,” Cunningham told the New York Times Monday, explaining a technique he has relied upon in his training as an elite athlete. “If there’s something we want to achieve, we say it. Putting something in words makes it real.”

His sexuality isn’t exactly a secret. Cunningham came out to his parents and friends by phone five years ago at age 20. 

“It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done,” he told the Times, recalling that he found himself dripping with sweat as he waited for the ringing to end and for the calls to be connected. 

Cunningham revealed to the newspaper that he got the sense that at least some of his friends were not at all surprised by this news, and had been “waiting for me,” he said. “I was really lucky to have a group of people who did not care.”

He was in college then, starting to “explore the idea” of his sexual attraction. 

“It took me awhile to know it felt right,” he said. 

His high school years in Winfield, Ala., were a time for friends and fun, dreaming of playing pro basketball with the Boston Celtics before discovering he enjoyed “flinging myself at solid objects at high speed,” he said. It was not a place conducive to dating other boys. 

Cunningham recalled his hometown as “rural, quite conservative, quite religious: The sort of place where you did not want to be the gay kid at school,” he told the paper. “So, I had certain expectations of what my life would look like, and it took me a little while to get my head around it, looking different to that.”

So, it was not a surprise that his parents gave him some “pushback” — in his words — when he called them with the news five years ago. 

“They had certain expectations for their little boy, for what his life would be like, and that’s OK,” he told the Times. “I gave them a 5-year grace period. I had to take my time. They could take theirs, too.” 

Cunningham drew a parallel between his own process and theirs. “What was true for me was also true for my parents,” said the world-class sprinter. 

And he is world-class, even if he’ll be watching the Summer Games instead of competing in them. As the Times reported, Cunningham is ranked 11th in the world. In 2022, he won the silver medal in high hurdles at the world championships in Eugene, Ore., and last month he placed ninth in the 110-meter hurdles at the U.S. Olympic trials. 

“If you do well in the U.S. trials, you know you have a good shot at a medal,” he said.

Following his disappointing finish in what he described as a “stacked field” of competitors, he is coming out as gay in an interview with a journalist now because everyone who he feels needs to know has known for some time, he said. Also, he recognizes that being out is still rare. 

“There are lots of people who are in this weird space,” said Cunningham. “They’re not out. But it is kind of understood.”

What he hopes is that both sports and the wider world will someday get to a place where “people do not have to ‘come out,” he said, where people can “just get on with being them.”

In addition to being an elite athlete, Cunningham has a Master of Science degree from Florida State University, a deal with Adidas and — with his scruffy square jaw and pouty lips — he is a sought-after Ford model.

He said in the interview that he realized coming out comes with practical and potentially financial considerations: Competing in countries where being gay is a crime, like Qatar. Although he doesn’t think hiding his sexuality inhibited his performance or that some great weight is now lifted, he believes being public about it has value.

There are times, Cunningham said, when it pays to say something out loud, to make things real. This is that time. 

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Transgender nonbinary runner Nikki Hiltz makes Team USA

‘Woke up an Olympian’

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(Screenshot)

They ran like the wind, broke the tape at the finish line, and clutched their chest with the broadest smile on their face. Then Nikki Hiltz collapsed to the track, having set a new record in the 1,500-meter race at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials and earned a spot on Team USA. 

As the realization sank in that they would be representing the U.S. in Paris as an out transgender nonbinary athlete, what the Paris-bound Olympian did next was to scribble a message of LGBTQ representation on the last day of Pride Month, writing with a red marker upon the glass of the camera that records each athlete’s signature on a whiteboard: 

“I ❤️ the gays,” they wrote, and above it, they signed their first name. 

Hiltz, 29, finished the race on Sunday at the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field in first-place with a final time of 3:55:33, breaking third-place finisher Elle St. Pierre’s 2021 record of 3:58:03. 

Hiltz credited St. Pierre, the top-finishing American and third-place finisher in the women’s 1,500 at the Tokyo Olympics, with motivated them and the other competitors to race faster. With a first lap time of 61 seconds, St. Pierre led the race for the majority of its duration. St. Pierre and Emily Mackay, who placed second, also both earned spots in the Paris Olympics.

“If someone would have told me this morning that 3:56 doesn’t make the team, I don’t want to know that. I’m just in the race to run it and race it and that’s what I did,” Hiltz said after the race. The Santa Cruz native who came out in 2021 as trans nonbinary told NBC Sports that the accomplishment is “bigger than just me.”

“I wanted to run this for my community,” Hiltz said, “All of the LGBT folks, yeah, you guys brought me home that last hundred. I could just feel the love and support.” 

On Monday, Hiltz reflected on the race and how they became an Olympian in a post on Instagram.

“Woke up an Olympian. 🥹 Yesterday afternoon in Eugene Oregon a childhood dream of mine came true. I’m not sure when this will fully sink in … All I know is today I’m waking up just so grateful for my people, overwhelmed by all the love and support, and filled with joy that I get to race people I deeply love and respect around a track for a living. 🙏”

Hiltz also shared a photo with their girlfriend, runner Emma Gee, and captioned it: “Remember in Inside Out 2 when Joy says “maybe this is what happens when you grow up … you feel less joy”? Yeah I actually have no idea what she’s talking about. 🎈🌈🤠🦅🥐🇫🇷”

They shared photos in their new Team USA garb, too. 

While they will be the first out trans nonbinary member of the U.S. track and field team, Hiltz will not be the first nonbinary Olympian. That honor goes to Quinn, who played soccer for Canada in Tokyo and holds the record as the only nonbinary athlete to have won a gold medal. So far. 

Many of the posts by Hiltz, Team USA and others have been trolled by bigots and ignoramuses who have mistaken them for a trans woman who was presumed to be male at birth and transitioned genders. Right-wing outlets and anti-trans activist Riley Gaines have commented on their victory and questioned their gender identity and decision to compete against cisgender women. 

But in the spirit of the late Marsha P. Johnson, who famously said the “P” stood for “pay no mind” to the haters, Hiltz shared a photo of a handwritten motivational note to themself, which ends: “I saw a quote online the other week that said, ‘respect everybody, fear nobody,’ and that’s exactly how I’m going to approach this final. I can do this.” 

And they did. 

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Every MLB team except this one celebrated Pride

Right-wingers react to ‘backlash’ against Rangers: ‘Bullying is unacceptable’

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Once again, the Texas Rangers opted not to celebrate Pride last month with a dedicated day or night on its 2024 promotion schedule. And once again, the American League West team is the only Major League operation to do so. 

This repeated omission by the reigning World Series champs has sparked what one conservative news site calls a “ridiculous backlash.” As the Washington Examiner’s Kimberly Ross wrote this week:

“There is no getting away from these ubiquitous celebrations. Instead of ‘to each his own,’ major league teams are nearly required to give in and perform in an effort to placate the loudest crowds. It’s not good enough to include everyone at all times. You must kowtow or else. This kind of bullying is unacceptable, and it’s worth pushing back against whether you’re a regular citizen or the 2023 World Series champion Texas Rangers.”

But the only evidence of the “backlash” was a balanced report by Schuyler Dixon of the Associated Press that appeared on the website of KSAT-TV in San Antonio, detailing the frustrations of local LGBTQ advocates and fans. His report was posted by the AP under the headline: “Why are the Texas Rangers the only MLB team without a Pride Night?” The virulently anti-trans British tabloid, the Daily Mail rehashed that same AP piece but added that LGBTQ groups were “FURIOUS” without substantiating that claim with a single quote. 

At most, DeeJay Johannessen, chief executive of the HELP Center, an LGBTQ organization based in Tarrant County, where the Rangers play, told the AP he felt “kind of embarrassed.” The Daily Mail headline writer was apparently “kind of” clickbaiting. 

“It’s kind of an embarrassment to the city of Arlington that their team is the only one that doesn’t have a Pride night,” Johannessen said. Local advocate Rafael McDonnell said, “It pains me that this remains an issue [after] all these years.”

How painful? McDonnell told the AP he considered not attending the championship parade with his boyfriend when the Rangers celebrated their first World Series championship last fall. Ultimately, he decided to go. So much for “FURIOUS.” 

McDonnell is the communications and advocacy manager for the Resource Center, which is an organization that grew out of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. He added that his group has worked with the Rangers, at their invitation, to help them develop a policy of inclusion, starting about five years ago.

The team has sent employees to volunteer for programs supporting its efforts in advocating for marriage equality and transgender rights.

Although McDonnell said members of the Rangers staff keep in contact with him, he told the AP he can’t recall any conversations with the team since its five-game victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks in last year’s World Series. 

“For a long time, I’ve thought that it might be somebody very high up in the organization who is opposed to this for some reason that is not clearly articulated,” McDonnell said. “To say that the Rangers aren’t doing anything for the community, well, they have. But the hill that they are choosing to stake themselves out on is no Pride night.”

The Rangers did celebrate Mexican heritage during a game last month, and also host nights throughout the season dedicated to other groups as well as the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, first responders, teachers, and the military. The team also recognizes universities from around the Dallas-Fort Worth area and other parts of the Lone Star State. But not Pride. 

Why? The Rangers issued a statement, very similar to one from 2023. It lists various organizations the team has sponsored and steps it has taken internally to “create a welcoming, inclusive, and supportive environment for fans and employees.”

“Our longstanding commitment remains the same: To make everyone feel welcome and included in Rangers baseball — in our ballpark, at every game, and in all we do — for both our fans and our employees,” the team said. “We deliver on that promise across our many programs to have a positive impact across our entire community.”

“I think it’s a private organization,” said Rangers fan Will Davis. “And if they don’t want to have it, I don’t think they should be forced to have it.” Davis is from Marble Falls, about 200 miles southwest of the stadium in Central Texas and attended a recent game with his son’s youth baseball team.

“I think if it were something where MLB said, ‘We’re not participating in this,’ but the MLB does participate in it. And the Rangers have chosen not to,” said Rangers fan Misty Lockhart, who lives near told the ballpark. Lockhart told the AP she attends almost three dozen games every season. “I think that’s where I take the bigger issue, is they have actively chosen not to participate in it.”

While Lockhart says she doesn’t see Pride night as a political issue, she suggested there would be more pressure on the Rangers if their stadium was downtown, in the heart of Dallas County, where the majority of elected officials are Democrats. Tarrant County, home to Arlington, Fort Worth and Global Life Stadium, is generally more conservative, just like the governor, lieutenant governor, legislature, and fans like Will Davis. 

“In something like this, this is a way for people to go as a state,” Davis told the AP. “We don’t want the political stuff shoved down our throats one way or the other, left or right. We’re coming out here to have a good time with friends or family and let it be.”

Unfortunately, some Rangers fans decided they could not “let it be” the one time the team welcomed local LGBTQ groups to a game as part of a fundraising event, as it does for other groups. This was in September 2003, two years after the Chicago Cubs hosted what is considered the first-ever Pride game. At that time, Rangers fans raged about the invitation on a website, and showed up to protest outside the stadium before that game. 

The Rangers never extended that invitation again. 

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