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Sports leagues lend a hand in fight for LGBT rights

Arizona, Indiana efforts boosted by NFL, NCAA

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Brendon Ayanbadejo, gay news, Washington Blade
Brendon Ayanbadejo, gay news, Washington Blade, Baltimore Ravens

Former Ravens player Brendon Ayanbadejo is among high-profile pro athletes who’ve endorsed LGBT rights in recent years. He served as guest editor of the Blade Sports Issue two years ago. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

As the LGBT community faces new challenges, including religious freedom measures seen to enable anti-LGBT discrimination, advocates have found a new ally in their fight: sports teams and related organizations.

In the past two years, professional and collegiate sports organizations helped derail measures that would have undermined LGBT rights in Arizona and Indiana. By speaking out, their statements aided efforts to combat the proposals.

Sarah Kate Ellis, president of GLAAD, said, “We’re seeing the sports landscape change” in terms of support for the LGBT movement.

“We’re seeing more and more professional leagues, and collegiate sports, actually take a stand for LGBT fans and players,” Ellis said.

In Arizona last year, the state legislature sent to Gov. Jan Brewer’s desk SB 1062, a controversial bill that would have enabled businesses and individuals to discriminate against LGBT people in the name of religious freedom.

Brewer vetoed the bill after a media firestorm and opposition from Republicans like Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, John McCain and Jeff Flake. Key opposition came from the National Football League, which at the time was planning to host Super Bowl XLIX in Scottsdale, Ariz.

As controversy over the measure intensified, the Arizona Super Bowl host committee issued a statement saying it disagreed with the bill and voiced concerns about its impact on America’s economy.

“On that matter we have heard loud and clear from our various stakeholders that adoption of this legislation would not only run contrary to that goal, but deal a significant blow to the state’s economic growth potential,” a committee spokesperson said. “We do not support this legislation.”

Catherine Alonzo, co-chair of Equality Arizona, said the contributions from the NFL and sports teams were “really important” in defeating SB 1062.

“It really was this diverse upsurge of people…who weren’t necessarily traditionally involved in the movement, but stood up and said, ‘This is wrong,'” Alonzo said. “The sports teams were part of this overwhelming diverse response.”

Alonzo said it’s “difficult to know” if Brewer would have vetoed the bill anyway without help from the Super Bowl organizers, but she maintained the support of the NFL “can’t be overstated.”

The situation repeated itself this year in Indiana with SB 101, except this time the firestorm didn’t emerge until after Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed the measure into law. The controversy that later ensued prompted him to sign a fix clarifying the law won’t enable LGBT discrimination in the state in most situations.

Among the critics of the initial law was Mark Emmert, president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which is based in Indianapolis and was planning on hosting the Men’s Final Four basketball tournament in Indiana that year.

“We will work diligently to assure student-athletes competing in, and visitors attending, next week’s Men’s Final Four in Indianapolis are not impacted negatively by this bill,” Emmert said. “Moving forward, we intend to closely examine the implications of this bill and how it might affect future events as well as our workforce.”

Another critic of the Indiana measure was retired basketball star Charles Barkley, who called the law “unacceptable” and said officials should move the Final Four out of the state. Moving the tournament would have resulted in a loss of an estimated $70.8 million in revenue from Indiana.

David McFarland, founder of the Los Angeles-based United for Equality in Sports & Entertainment, said the events in Arizona and Indiana demonstrate the power of sports to influence people on LGBT rights.

“What we saw play out in Indiana and Arizona is how sport can act as a universal language and a common denominator that has the ability to break down walls and barriers to create social impact and change that can help violations against LGBT people,” McFarland said.

Before Arizona and Indiana, sports teams haven’t been overtly opposed to LGBT rights, but support from those organizations in fights against religious freedom measures stand out because they provided a crucial element of support when LGBT rights were in danger.

Other efforts on behalf of LGBT rights include NFL players Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo filing briefs in support of litigation against California’s Proposition 8 before the Supreme Court in 2013. The four major men’s sports leagues — the NFL, the MLB, the NHL and the NBA — have enacted sexual orientation non-discrimination protections for players and workers (although gender identity protections remain omitted from those polices). WNBA enacted a similar policy.

Five major sports leagues — the NFL, the MLB, the NHL, the NBA and the WNBA — are among the organizations that coordinate with GLAAD for Spirit Day, an annual event each on Oct. 15 that encourages individuals to wear purple to express opposition to anti-LGBT bullying.

McFarland said the atmosphere within the sports world, however, is another matter entirely for LGBT people.

“Even though America’s cultural, social and political climate is becoming increasingly accepting of LGBT Americans, competing and participation in sports is still considered to be an unsettling environment for many LGBT people,” McFarland said. “In fact, many Americans believe homophobia and transphobia are more common in sports than in the rest of society.”

But just as sports organizations have helped the general public become more accepting of LGBT rights, LGBT advocates have pushed the sports community.

One example is the public transition this year of Caitlyn Jenner, the transgender athlete and TV personality who won the Olympic decathlon title in 1976 and this year won the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at ESPN’s annual ESPY awards show.

Ellis, who was in attendance during the ceremony, said Jenner’s speech helped change the hearts and minds of audience members at the high-profile award show.

“It turned those people you could see were uncomfortable and might be leaning over talking to their seat mates and sort of giggling and whatever people do when they feel discomfort [and] silence them,” Ellis said. “And I thought that was a pretty profound momentum in sports for this year, for this decade.”

LGBT advocates also continue pressing for openly LGBT players in the major leagues to enhance LGBT visibility.

Robbie Rogers, a Major League Soccer player for LA Galaxy, is currently the only openly LGBT player for a major sports team in the United States. Jason Collins, who came out as gay in 2013, played for a year with the Brooklyn Nets, but then retired. Michael Sam was drafted into the NFL, but never saw time on the field.

Just this week, David Denson, a first baseman with the Milwaukee Brewers minor league affiliate in Helena, Mont., came out as gay, but no active player in Major League Baseball is openly gay.

McFarland said having more openly LGBT players would have “tremendous impact” on visibility for the LGBT community, but acknowledged sports organizations aren’t yet in that place.

“Unfortunately, for too many LGBT young people the built in safety nets of support, acceptance and caring do not exist fully in sport,” McFarland said.

Another opportunity for the sports world to support the LGBT community may come in Houston, where LGBT advocates are fighting to pass an LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination ordinance at the ballot in November and the NFL is planning to host Super Bowl LI in 2017.

Ellis said the NFL has a similar opportunity to speak out in favor of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance just as it came out against the Arizona religious freedom measure.

“I’m hoping that we’ll see the NFL again take a stand like they did in Arizona and send a message that the Super Bowl doesn’t belong in a place where there’s anti-LGBT discrimination allowed,” Ellis said.

The NFL didn’t respond to a request for comment this week on whether it would support HERO as it prepares for Super Bowl LI.

Alonzo said the ability of a sports team to carry a message of LGBT inclusivity to an audience that might otherwise not hear it will be important for any effort for LGBT advocates going forward.

“This is a fight that we’re all in together, and this is something that we’re all affected by whether it is a part of your daily life or not,” Alonzo said. “Sports teams have been really important in bringing that message to their fans and will continue to be.”

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Out professional soccer player calls out ‘homophobic abuse’ from crowd

The Adelaide United player said he had “no words” to describe his disappointment at being the target of anti-gay insults from the crowd

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Photo courtesy of Josh Cavallo Instagram

Professional soccer player Josh Cavallo, who became the only openly gay top-flight male professional footballer last year, told his Instagram followers over the weekend that he experienced “homophobic abuse” during his last game. 

The Adelaide United player said he had “no words” to describe his disappointment at being the target of anti-gay insults from the crowd at AAMI Park during his team’s Saturday game against the Melbourne Victory.

“As a society it shows we still face these problems in 2022,” he wrote. “This shouldn’t be acceptable and we need to do more to hold these people accountable. Hate never will win. I will never apologise for living my truth and most recently who I am outside of football.”

Cavallo added that he was also targeted after the game online. 

“To @instagram I don’t want any child or adult to have to receive the hateful and hurtful messages that I’ve received,” he said. “I knew truely being who I am that I was going to come across this. It’s a sad reality that your platforms are not doing enough to stop these messages.”

The Australian Professional Leagues (APL) said it was “shocked and saddened” to hear Cavallo’s reports of “homophobic bullying,” according to the Guardian

“Our players, staff and fans have the right to feel safe on and off the pitch,” APL CEO Danny Townsend said. “There is no place for bullying, harassment or abuse in Australian football and we have zero tolerance for this harmful behaviour.”

The APL is working with both teams to investigate the incident, adding that sanctions will be issued to anyone involved. 

In a statement, Adelaide United Chief Executive Officer Nathan Kosmina said that the team was “appalled” at the “verbal abuse” that Cavallo received. 

“Adelaide United is proud to be an inclusive and diverse football club, and to see one of our players subjected to homophobic abuse is disappointing and upsetting,” he said. “Josh continues to show immense courage and we join him in calling out abuse, which has no place in society, and it will not be tolerated by our Club.”

The Melbourne Victory added that it “sees football as a platform to unite fans no matter what background. Spectators found to have breached these standards will be banned from future matches.”

At the end of his Instagram message, Cavallo thanked those sending him positive messages, love and support. 

“Love will always win,” he said. 

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Transgender climber completes 5th of 7 highest summits

Erin Parisi is the first out trans mountain climber to reach such heights. Next up she’ll make a second attempt to conquer Mount Denali.

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Erin Parisi (Photo courtesy of Erin Parisi)

SANTIAGO, Chile – Erin Parisi just returned from the bottom of the world, but already the out transgender  woman has set her sights on her next challenge in her mission to conquer the highest summits of each of the seven continents. 

”I have been trying to train and get to the tops of the highest mountain on every continent: Seven Peaks, seven summits, seven continents,” she said. “I just finished Antarctica, which is an extraordinarily difficult climb as far as logistics, as far as dealing with the weather and the environment, a mountain that’s only been climbed 2,000 times before.”

(Photo courtesy of Erin Parisi)

It was New Year’s Day when she spoke by phone to the Los Angeles Blade, from a hotel room in Santiago, Chile, where it’s summertime. Five summits down, two more to go. 

“In order, the first five are Mount Kosciusko in Australia. Then I did Kilimanjaro a second time — I climbed it once manifesting as a dude, and I decided that I wanted to do them all post-transition,” said Parisi. “Next, I did Mount Elbrus in Russia and then I did Aconcagua in South America, not too far from where I’m sitting right now.”

Parisi, 45, reflected on both her climb 16,050 feet to the summit of Vinson Massif in Antarctica, and her plans to return later this year to the tallest spot in North America: Mount Denali, 20,310 feet above sea level. Not the highest of the seven summits but considered by many experienced climbers to be the hardest. 

“Last year, we got flattened by wind,” said Parisi, who was disappointed that neither she nor anyone on her team were able to reach the summit due to those conditions and injuries. “I want to go back and have a little chat with Denali.” 

It certainly was challenging for Parisi, who hurt her hand so badly in last summer’s attempt, during Pride Month, that she requires surgery. She posted on Instagram back then, that she thought she had dislocated a finger in a rush to set up camp as they ascended to 14K feet, and it set off doubts that made her question continuing. Alone for two days, stranded for a total of six days in subzero temperatures by a vicious wind storm with gusts up to 60 mph, Parisi wrote that she “rested, journaled, meditated, shed a few tears,” and decided “Climbing isn’t about holding on, it’s about letting go.”

Good thing she did; It turns out Parisi did more than dislocate a finger. 

“There are a series of tendons that come down your pointer finger and around the base of your palm, called the volar plate, and that tendon got stuck in some climbing gear,” she said. “It looks like a dislocation. When it happened, I relocated it pretty quickly, but the pain was kind of unbearable for the next week or two. So, I finally went to the doctor last fall and they looked at it and they said, ‘It’s not going to get better. You tore up the ligaments and broken the volar plate.’ So, I have to have that reconstructed.”

That means she lived with that injury for four months and even climbed Vinson Massif without the benefit of her dominant right hand. Parisi credits her wife with finally convincing her to get it looked at.

“I just figured I was getting old, and it was sore, but she talked me into going to the doctor eventually,” said Parisi, uttering the words every spouse loves to see in print. “Yeah, she was right, like usual!”

Next up, Parisi said she will make a second attempt to conquer Mount Denali in Alaska. “That’s going to be next, sometime in summer of 2022.” And then next year: Mount Everest, the last of the seven summits, and at 29,050 feet, the tallest. 

“2023 is the 70th anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s expedition, and we want to be up there for the 70th anniversary,” she said. “I think it’s a little-known fact that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had a trans member on their team. And we want to tell her story.” That would be the story of Jan Morris, a journalist for The Times of London, who died in 2020.

Given her location, Parisi has been out of touch with news of the world as well as what’s been happening with her wife and their nine-year-old child in Colorado. She also missed both Christmas and New Year’s as well as her birthday. Well, almost missed, thanks to a surprise celebration organized by her fellow climbers and organizers back home, which she shared on Instagram

(Photo courtesy of Erin Parisi)

“My team and the @climbingsevensummits team surprised me by serving dessert bubbles 🥂 and cheesecake, and leading the entire camp in 2 rounds of “Happy Birthday.” I was completely embarrassed, but my mind was set at ease and I warmed to the idea that I might just fit with this crew climbing through New Year.”

Parisi really needed that boost; She was having doubts again. “Imposter syndrome is real, and after missing the Denali summit last May, I was confident I didn’t belong here,” she wrote on Instagram. That feeling stemmed from feeling as if she was “the only trans person” on the continent, not just last month, but ever. 

When she returned to civilization, the Los Angeles Blade caught her up on the latest controversies dogging the transgender population: hate directed at both UPenn swimmer Lia Thomas and Jeopardy! champion Amy Schneider, simply because they’re winning their respective competitions.  

“I don’t understand it, with the Jeopardy! champion, either, because, there’s no way to say she has any advantage, or that it’s unfair to anyone, or that she’s taken something from anyone else. I mean, there’s just no argument to disparage her by,” said Parisi. “It blows my mind how stubborn people are just recognizing somebody’s right to exist. Live and let live. And I’m hoping that 2022 somehow will be a better year.”

Parisi is active in promoting transgender rights, and the flag she carries on every expedition incorporates the trans pride flag designed by Monica Helms. “We really take pride in putting the pink, blue and white up there,” she said. “I climb these summits just to kind of remind myself and remind the world that you can be yourself and you can enjoy the things you enjoy. You don’t have to make a choice.”

Other than her lifelong love of mountain climbing, which she told TripAdvisor last summer began when she was climbing trees at age 6, Parisi said she finds joy in every part of living her authentic life. 

“I find joy in the outdoors. I find joy in breathing the fresh air. I find joy in my nine-year-old child. I convinced myself I was unlovable, and now I have probably, not even probably, hands down, the most loving relationship that I’ve ever had in my life, post-transition. I find great joy in being loved and loving. I love cooking and just everything about life is better, when you’re yourself.” 

********************

Follow Parisi’s adventures on Instagram at @transending7 and learn more about her mission and how to support her nonprofit organization at transending7.org

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Referee resigns, calls for work stoppage over Trans swimmer

“Millen is now calling on officials to refuse to work races where transgender swimmers are to race against biological females”

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Cynthia Millen (left) and University of Penn senior Lia Thomas (right) (Los Angeles Blade montage)

COLORADO SPRINGS – A 30 year veteran referee who has officiated for USA Swimming quit in protest over the inclusion of 22-year-old University of Pennsylvania Transgender swimmer Lia Thomas in women’s swimming competitions.

In separate interviews with Fox News, its subsidiary right-wing anti-LGBTQ online sports outlet OutKick and the right-wing conservative newspaper The Washington Times, Cynthia Millen said that she felt compelled to quit as she was opposed to biological men competing against women.

In a December 17 letter to USA Swimming headquarters in Colorado Springs, Millen announced she was quitting in protest.

“I can’t do this, I can’t support this,” Millen said in her letter. “I told my fellow officials that I can no longer participate in a sport which allows biological men to compete against women,” Millen wrote adding, “Everything fair about swimming is being destroyed.”

On December 22, Millen appeared on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson stating that “bodies compete against bodies. Gender identities don’t swim.”

Thomas began competing with the women’s swim team as a transgender athlete after competing for three years on the men’s swim team and more than two-and-a-half years on hormone replacement therapy (HRT). She ranks first in the NCAA among women in the 200 and 500 freestyles this season and 6th in the 1650 free – a race she won by 38 seconds at the Zippy Invite according to the online publication SwimSwam.

In the interview with The Washington Times, Millen said that if she officiated at a meet that included Thomas, that she would rule Thomas ineligible to compete against female swimmers, according to the Times, even though Thomas has met the NCAA-established criteria to compete in women’s races.

“I don’t mean to be critical of Lia — whatever’s going on, Lia’s a child of God, a precious person — but bodies swim against bodies,” she said her letter that she shared with The Washington Times . “That’s a male body swimming against females. And that male body can never change. That male body will always be a male body.”

“If Lia came on my deck as a referee, I would pull the coach aside and say, ‘Lia can swim, but Lia can swim exhibition or a time trial. Lia cannot compete against those women because that’s not fair,’” Millen told The Washington Times.

Millen is now calling on officials to refuse to work races where transgender swimmers are to race against biological females, the paper reported.

USA swimming CEO Tim Hinchey said in a podcast with Brett Hawke last week that Thomas is not a member of USA Swimming, nor was she a participant at the U.S. Paralympic National Championships.

NCAA requires transgender athletes to undergo, for transgender women, a year of testosterone-suppression treatment. Thomas has fulfilled the requirement, and neither the NCAA nor USA Swimming has commented on her season. Thomas has only swum at meets as part NCAA’s Division I, but her times could help her qualify and compete at Olympic Trials, a USA Swimming meet, SwimSwam noted.

Millen’s resignation is just the latest in a growing chorus of anti-Trans critics outraged over Thomas being included on the roster and competing for the University of Pennsylvania women’s swim team.

At the beginning of the month, a member of the University of Pennsylvania Women’s swim team spoke to OutKick, and proceeded to anonymously attack Thomas.

The swimmer who said she feared for her ability to find employment after graduating from college for sharing her honest opinion about her Trans teammate, was given anonymity according to OutKick for that reason.

In the OutKick article the unnamed female swimmer alleges that most members of the team have expressed displeasure over the situation [Thomas on the team] to their coach, Mike Schnur.

“Pretty much everyone individually has spoken to our coaches about not liking this. Our coach [Mike Schnur] just really likes winning. He’s like most coaches. I think secretly everyone just knows it’s the wrong thing to do,” the female Penn swimmer said during a phone interview.

“When the whole team is together, we have to be like, ‘Oh my gosh, go Lia, that’s great, you’re amazing.’ It’s very fake,” she added.

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