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LGBT equality in sports

A progress report and 3 steps to ending homophobia, transphobia in athletics

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homophobia in athletics, gay news, Washington Blade
homophobia in athletics, transphobia in athletics, gay news, Washington Blade

Hudson Taylor is executive director of Athlete Ally and guest editor of the Washington Blade.

The pace at which LGBT equality is being achieved in society and under the law has been remarkably accelerated in recent years. Today, the average age of a person coming out is 16, all U.S. states have marriage equality, hate crime legislation has been passed, and “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and DOMA have been repealed. These advances are the direct result of an organized strategy across the LGBT civil rights movement, advances that would not be possible without the sacrifice and unwavering determination of those who have made LGBT equality their life’s work.

Despite the staggering progress made in recent years, on the road to LGBT equality we are still forging new paths, and not yet arrived at our ultimate destination. Across the United States, LGBT individuals are not afforded workplace protections and can still be denied housing. Anti-LGBT language is still a common occurrence throughout K-12 education; LGBT youth suffer disproportionately from homelessness; and the majority of LGBT young people still report experiencing anti-LGBT bias and bullying.

Unfortunately, as we begin to assess where our sports culture falls on the continuum of respect, inclusion and equality, it is clear that athletics continues to be one of the last bastions of homophobia, transphobia, and heterosexism.

Below are what I believe to have been successful tactics and philosophies employed by past social justice movements and how they can be applied to sports. I will highlight the particular challenges still facing our work within sports and conclude by positing some of the ways in which individuals and organizations can better work together to maximize the impact and progress of the LGBT sports movement.

Step One: Diversity of Approach

The LGBT civil rights movement has benefitted from a diversity of approaches from the organizations and individuals involved. For sports culture to share similar advancements, we must have equally diverse tactics for our work. Across the movement, there are three primary areas of advocacy: social services, information and education, and civil liberties and social action.

LGBT social services in sports are centered on providing resources and opportunities for those that would otherwise not have them. This includes scholarships for LGBT athletes, creating safe spaces for LGBT individuals, providing sports equipment and putting in place LGBT specific systems of support. This work is crucial as oftentimes the perceived or actual barriers to entry for LGBT individuals are greater than those of their heterosexual counterparts. Unless safe and accessible athletic opportunities are provided, LGBT youth may forego participating in sports for other activities.

The second area of advocacy is that of education and information. The constituents of this work are both LGBT and non-LGBT athletes, coaches, administrators, parents and fans. This work is often comprised of educating communities about the experiences of LGBT individuals in sports, acknowledging the work still needed and highlighting the steps we can take to bring about greater LGBT equality in sports. While there continues to be an emerging field of qualified and passionate educators, the majority of athletic institutions have not yet invested in this type of training. The divide between those who need LGBT education and those who actually receive it, becomes greater when we take into account differences in age, geography, sport and positions of power.

The final area of advocacy is that of civil liberties and social action. This work is chiefly focused on the adoption and implementation of LGBT inclusive policies and best practices. For many institutions this work is centered on having inclusive policies and facilities for transgender athletes, creating appropriate punitive policies for anti-LGBT conduct or clearly articulating an LGBT inclusive non-discrimination policy. For some faith-based institutions, the policy advances look quite different, as prohibition of pre-marital sex forms the foundation for LGBT protections, or lack thereof. It should also be noted that the experiences of our athletic communities extend to life outside of sports, making the city, state, and federal protections of LGBT individuals equally important to the success of the LGBT sports movement.

Step Two: Diversity of Messengers

The success of the LGBT sports movement is contingent upon, in part, finding and elevating diverse voices. While there has never been a successful social justice movement for a minority group without the support of the majority, we must not forget that without the visible testimony of the LGBT community, all our work remains theoretical.

The advancement of LGBT equality in sports is predicated upon reconciling the perception of sports culture, with the reality of sports culture. That is, if the perception is that homophobia, transphobia or heterosexism in sports exists, then LGBT individuals will not be encouraged to share their true selves with their sports community.

To change this, we must find and elevate as many LGBT voices within sports as possible, as well as find and elevate the voices of supportive allies. Because the perception of sports culture is defined by what one sees, hears and experiences, the telling of positive stories will be the connective tissue between each organization and individual’s advocacy approach.

Step Three: Framing the Message

In addition to a diversity of messengers, how the LGBT sports movement collectively frames its messaging is directly proportional to its ability to affect change. Historically, large-scale social change happens in a very particular way. Research suggests that the way a culture changes is not by engaging in conversations of right vs. wrong, but instead by redefining and appealing to the dominant identity of a target audience.

Over the last 10 years, we have seen significant changes to the culture and policies of the majority of Fortune 500 companies. These changes have been made possible by clear and concise messaging articulating the business case for LGBT equality. If we suppose that the dominant identity of a company is to make more money, retain and recruit better talent and appeal to more customers, then the most effective messaging to appeal to corporate culture is that which connects LGBT equality to those business objectives.

Similarly, if we suppose that the dominant identity of athletics is to win more games, recruit better athletes, appeal to more fans and be the best possible teammate, then our most effective messaging within sports will be that which clearly connects LGBT equality in sports with those same athletic objectives. In this way, the efficacy of the LGBT sports movement is contingent upon our ability to make LGBT equality synonymous with athletic success.

Step Four: Understanding Our Obstacles

The continued presence of anti-LGBT bias, bullying and discrimination in sports is not by accident; it’s by design. The institution of sport suffers from three systemic issues. First, it is one of the few environments that is segregated by gender. Second, it is a competitive reward structure designed to rank one athlete over another, due not to the content of their character, but because of physical characteristics. Third, one’s ability to participate in sports is ultimately determined by a third party. Together, these factors create a unique environment within sports in which conforming to a narrowly defined standard of masculinity, femininity, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression is not only strongly encouraged, but often required.

In practice, and because of these factors, male athletes who more readily conform to orthodox concepts of masculinity are likely given more playing time (because that’s how you need to act in order to do well). The increased amount of playing time leads to a disproportionate improvement of skills for those who conform vs. those who do not. The disproportionate improvement of skills leads to increased success, which leads to increased popularity, which leads to an increased likelihood that an athlete will stay with his or her sport through high school and college. Those athletes who compete in high school or college are more likely to go on to become coaches only to teach the next generation of athletes the same value system that afforded them their success. In this way, homophobia, transphobia and heterosexism in sports is cyclical, intergenerational and unlikely to change unless the way in which we think about sports is substantially redefined.

The final obstacle for the LGBT sports movement is the perceived risk of speaking out as an ally or coming out as LGBT, versus the perceived reward. Because our coaches determine participation and our coach’s employment is determined by their athletic director, athletic institutions implicitly disdain uniqueness. If an athlete or coach’s identity or beliefs overshadow their performance as an athlete or coach, they are at risk of losing their livelihood. In this way, conforming to athletic culture and remaining silent on various social justice issues is still unfortunately often the smart decision to ensure longevity of one’s career.

Step 5: The Path to Victory

Ending homophobia, transphobia and heterosexism in sports can be accomplished if we work together. Whether you are a current member of the athletic community, a casual fan or never participated in sports, we all have the ability to help affect positive change within our communities. As the saying goes, “A thousand candles can be lit from a single candle.” Below are a list of actions that if done collectively, will bring us closer to realizing a future of LGBT equality in sport and society.

  1. Spark Conversations – Personal stories change lives. Pick up a pen and paper and write a letter to your old coach, to the athletic director of your alma mater. Ask for a policy to be changed or training to be implemented. Attend the next PTA meeting and ask what your school is doing to address homophobia, transphobia, and heterosexism in sports. Wear an LGBT-themed T-shirt to the next little league game or ask everyone you know why they think there aren’t more out LGBT athletes and what can be done about it.
  2. Build Bridges – Find other social justice groups or organizations within your community, get involved with their work, and ask them to get involved with yours. If we are ever to put an end anti-LGBT bias, bullying and discrimination in sports then we need to work together. Ending one form of prejudice is connected to all other forms of prejudice. If we can make our work intersectional, we can maximize its efficacy by building coalitions of change agents.
  3. Organize and Mobilize – If there is a policy you want to see changed, create a petition. Get others to sign it. If you can organize and mobilize, you have the ability to change the world. This doesn’t mean petition the largest governing bodies of all the sports leagues, this means being strategic. Start small. What do you want to change about your local rec league? What policy should be put in place at the high school? If your community is small, the number of people you need to organize to make an impact becomes far more manageable. Regardless, strength in numbers is strength in advocacy.
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Opinion | LGBTQ Virginians advocate D.C. statehood

The right of all Americans to be part of our democratic society

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My hometown will always be Washington, D.C. It’s the place where I was born and spent all of the first seven days of my life. As a lifelong Virginian however, where I live and attended schools, I straddle two communities important to me. 

As a business owner of 30 years in Washington, D.C., I pay many of my taxes and payroll taxes to the Nation’s Capital while I also pay income tax to Virginia where I’m a citizen.

Most important of all, as a gay Virginia voter, I can think of few lifelong political goals more important to me than achieving statehood for Washington, D.C. One of the compelling reasons I still make my home in Virginia and cross the Potomac River every day of my life, is because of my right as a Virginian to vote for two U.S. senators and for a member of the House of Representatives with the power to vote in Congress.

(It is still shocking to know that, with Washington, D.C. statehood still beyond grasp, the Honorable Eleanor Holmes Norton who represents D.C. in the U.S. House of Representatives, has never yet had the authority to vote on the floor of the House.)

At an early age, I was dumbfounded to know that D.C. then did not even have a local government. We lacked an elected mayor and city council, with almost all decisions for the District of Columbia made by the federal government. Yet today, even with a mayor and local government in place, it is breathtaking to know that my friends, neighbors and co-workers still have zero voice in the Capitol and no one to vote for them – and for us – in Congress.

Consider that one of the world’s most diverse and educated cities has so often been bullied by extreme conservative leaders on Capitol Hill who – whenever possible – turn back the clock for D.C. citizens on voting rights, abortion rights, gun measures and our civil rights including LGBTQ equality. Not a single voter in D.C. has much, if any, say over any of those decisions.

The absence of statehood and the lack of real voting rights means that the unforgivable strains of racism and homophobia often held sway not just for Washington D.C., but in denying the United States a true progressive majority on Capitol Hill too. 

Virginians get it. In the past decade, we’ve worked very hard in every county and city in the commonwealth to turn our regressive political past into a bright blue political majority. We have elected LGBTQ candidates to state and local offices in unprecedented numbers. Our vote is our power.

More significantly, through the work of Equality Virginia and its many allies, we are repealing scores of anti-LGBTQ measures and reforming our statutes and constitution to secure equal rights as LGBTQ voters, adoptive parents, married couples, students, and citizens. Doesn’t Washington, D.C. deserve that future?

Virginia needs more states – like D.C. – to join forces and represent all Americans. To achieve this, and to defeat or neuter the anti-democratic Senate filibuster rule, we need our friends, allies and neighbors, the citizens of Washington, D.C. to share in our democratic ambitions.

Long ago, Washington, D.C. resident, abolitionist and civil rights leader, Frederick Douglass declared that “the District is the one spot where there is no government for the people, of the people, and by the people. Washington, D.C. residents pay taxes, just like residents of Nevada, California or any other state. Washington, D.C. residents have fought and died in every American war just like residents of Ohio, Kentucky or any other state. The District deserves statehood and Congress should act to grant it.” 

Speaking for LGBTQ Virginians, we agree. Conferring statehood is not a gift nor a blessing from the rest of us, but instead, it is the absolute right of all Americans to be part of our democratic society. As LGBTQ Americans, if we are to pass the Equality Act and other fundamental civil rights measures, we need the State of Washington, D.C. and its voters by our side.

Bob Witeck is a longtime LGBTQ civil rights advocate, entrepreneur, and Virginian, with long roots and longstanding ties to D.C.

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Opinion | Representation matters: The gayest Olympics yet

From one out athlete to more than 160 in just 33 years

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OK, I really want a Tom Daley cardigan. The now gold-medal Olympian told Britain’s The Guardian that he took up crocheting during the pandemic. He even has an Instagram page dedicated to his knit creations, MadeWithLoveByTomDaley. It’s all very adorable; it’s all very Tom Daley. 

All that aside, you’d have to be practically heartless to not feel something when Tom Daley and his diving partner Matty Lee won the gold on Monday in the men’s synchronized 10-meter diving competition, placing just 1.23 points ahead of the Chinese. And then seeing him with tears in his eyes on the podium as “God Save the Queen” played. Later that week, he knitted a little bag featuring the Union Jack to hold and protect his medal. So very wholesome

Daley is certainly one of the highest profile LGBTQ athletes in these games. Besides the diver, the 2020 Summer Olympics, now in 2021 because of the pandemic, are hosting more than 160 out athletes. A record to be sure, but calling it a record does it somewhat of an injustice. The United States sent the first out athlete to the 1988 Summer Olympics, Robert Dover an equestrian rider competing in dressage. Dover remained the only out (sharing the title once in 1996 with Australian diver Craig Rogerson) for 10 years. Then, during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the number of out athletes jumped to 15. London’s 2012 Olympics saw the number increase to 23. The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro saw the number jump to 68 out athletes. And now we’re at over 160. 

So you get the trend building here. From one out athlete to more than 160. So very far, so very fast. And competing in everything from handball to sailing to golf to skateboarding. Also, noteworthy, New Zealand sent the first trans athlete, weightlifter Laurel Hubbard. These are but numbers and names, but to be sure, this sort of representation, this sort of visibility, is hugely important. Not just for athletes coming up behind them, but let’s think too of those out there, not yet even out, maybe watching in their parents’ living room. Seeing Tom Daley thank his husband, mention their son, this sort of queer normality being broadcast as if it is both groundbreaking and at the same time nothing at all — the importance of this cannot be overstated. 

On top of that, growing up gay, how many times were we all told, whether outright or simply implied, that sports were more or less off limits to us. Meant to display the peaks of gender and ability, sports were not meant for those who couldn’t fit neatly into that narrative. But it appears that that narrative is slowly becoming undone. Just look beyond the Olympics, to the wider world of sports. Earlier this summer, pro-football’s Carl Nassib came out.   

And maybe I’m just of a generation that marvels at the destruction of each and every boundary as they come down. We had so very little as far as representation back then. Now to see it all, and in so many different sports, you can’t help but to wonder what the future will hold for us; and it really delights the imagination, doesn’t it? 

It is the gayest Olympics yet. And if the trend laid out above continues, it will only get gayer as the years go on. And if it’s a barometer for anything, I think we will see a lot of things getting a bit gayer from now on.

Brock Thompson is a D.C.-based writer. He contributes regularly to the Blade.

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Opinion | Blame Mayor Bowser for violence epidemic?

In a word, ‘no,’ as the problem is nationwide

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The simple answer to the question “Does the Mayor get the blame for the violence epidemic?” is NO! This is not something that can be laid at any one person’s feet. The epidemic of gun violence is gripping the entire nation. 

The frustration and outrage I and everyone else feels are palpable. It’s frightening when you hear gunshots in your neighborhood. It makes bigger headlines when the shots fired are in neighborhoods not used to that like the recent shooting on 14th and Riggs, N.W. When the shots rang out patrons of upscale restaurants like Le Diplomate ran or ducked under their tables for cover. When shots were fired outside Nationals stadium the national media lit up to report it. The truth is we must have the same outrage every time shots are fired and people hurt or killed in any neighborhood of our city.  

Trying to lay the blame for this at the feet of the mayor, as some people on social media and in opinion and news columns in the Washington Post are doing is wrong. Some would have you believe the mayor is just sitting by and allowing the violence to happen. There are pleas “Mayor Bowser do something!” as if she could wave a magic wand and the shootings will stop. 

In a recent Washington Post column, “Bowser pressed to act after shootings,” a number of Council members are quoted including Chairman Phil Mendelson, Ward 2 member Brooke Pinto, Ward 4 member Janeese Lewis George, At-large member Anita Bonds and Ward 5 member Kenyan McDuffie. They all call for something to be done but not one of them says what they would do. It’s clear they are as frustrated and outraged as the rest of us but have no easy answers. What is clear is casting blame on the mayor and police commissioner won’t help to stop the violence and shootings. 

Again, this epidemic of violence isn’t just an issue for D.C. but a national epidemic. Recently our mayor sat beside the president at a White House meeting called to discuss what can be done about this with mayors and law enforcement officials from around the nation. No one from the president down had an answer that can make it stop right away. Many in D.C. would be surprised at the ranking of the 50 cities with the most violent crime per 100,000 residents showing D.C. with 977 violent crimes per 100,000 residents at number 27 behind cities like Rockford, Ill., Anchorage, Ala., and Milwaukee, Wisc. Crime in nearly all those cities and murder rates have gone up, in many cases dramatically, since the pandemic. 

The solution to ending gun violence is to get the guns out of the hands of those who are using them for crime but that is easy to say and much harder to do. We know ending poverty will make a difference. Giving every child a chance at a better education and ensuring real opportunities for every young person will make a difference. We must also hold people responsible for the serious crimes they commit and often courts are a system of revolving door justice where we find the same people arrested for a serious crime back on the street committing another one and the same gun used for multiple crimes.

There are anti-crime programs that might work but they need buy-in from the entire community including activists and the clergy who must work in concert with our political leadership. D.C. is funding a host of programs including ‘violence disrupters,’ job training, and  mental health and substance abuse programs. They all need more money and more support. 

In D.C., we have only 16 elected officials with real power; the Council, the mayor, the attorney general and our congressional representative. We have community leaders elected to local ANCs. When members of the council attack the mayor, some simply to make political hay for their own future election, it won’t solve any problems. 

This must be viewed as a crisis and our 16 elected leaders should sit down, agree to a series of anti-crime programs and efforts they will adequately fund, and stop attacking each other. Once they agree on the programs to fund they should bring together ANC members from across the city to a meeting at the convention center and work out a plan for what each can do to move us forward to safer neighborhoods. 

We must work together as one if we are to succeed in making life safer and better for all. 

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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