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states have marriage equality, hate crime legislation has been passed, and “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and DOMA have been repealed.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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.