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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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Washington Football Team embraces Pride Night Out

‘Football is for everyone’

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The first-ever Pride Night OUT at the Washington Football Team is set for Thursday.

Team DC launched its ‘Night OUT’ series in 2005 as an LGBTQ community night with the Washington Nationals. 

Over the years, they added events with other local professional sports teams – DC United, Washington Mystics, Washington Capitals, Washington Wizards, Washington Kastles, Washington Spirit, Old Glory DC, Washington Prodigy and Citi Open.

On Thursday, Sept. 16, Team DC will host the first annual Pride Night OUT at the Washington Football Team marking their first partnership with the National Football League.

“We had tried reaching out in the past but eventually made the decision that we would not engage until the name was changed,” says Brent Minor, founder and executive director of Team DC. “We don’t want these community nights to just be a monetary transaction, we want to build bridges and encourage inclusion.”

This week’s game is the Washington Football Team’s Week 2 matchup against the New York Giants and will be televised on Thursday Night Football. 

Along with Pride Night OUT, it will also be a celebration of Latinx Heritage Month and Pro Football Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell, who was a pioneer and trailblazer for equality and civil rights during his years with the team as a player and executive.

Frontline workers from the LGBTQ community including Whitman-Walker Health, Food & Friends and medical providers will be recognized and there will be a performance by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington’s gospel ensemble of ‘Lift Every Voice.’

The new relationship with the Washington Football Team began when they reached out to Capital Pride and Team DC with a request for a cultural competency training for WFT staffers.

“We spoke with about 75 members of their staff, and it wasn’t just a window dressing exercise — people were engaged,” Minor says. “During the training, Night OUT came up, which led to a discussion on corporate perspective regarding the LGBTQ community.”

Another cultural competency training is expected to occur in the future and the Washington Football Team has pledged to have a yet to be determined role at Capital Pride in 2022.

In August 2020, former NFL player Jason Wright was hired by the Washington Football Team to become their team president, where he leads their business operations, financing, and marketing strategies. 

“We went through a leadership change when Jason Wright was hired and the direction of our outreach will be much broader than it was in the past,” says Joey Colby-Begovich, vice president of guest experience, operations for the Washington Football Team. “We want to be intentional in celebrating our communities beyond the traditional football fans and that includes people of color and marginalized communities. Football is for everyone.”

The DMV region is comprised of a broad spectrum of people who represent the changing demographics of our country. Establishing connections to communities where people from different backgrounds and sexual orientations can find commonality is important for any organization interested in social responsibility.

“We are hoping that we can cultivate a broader fan base that feels safe and comfortable in our space. That includes stronger and deeper relationships with our communities and opportunities in our employee base — we want to be involved in the discussion,” Colby-Begovich says. “The support that we shared for Carl Nassib coming out is an example of our direction. There is change happening.”

The excitement is palpable from the D.C. LGBTQ community as more than 100 tickets have already been sold for the inaugural Pride Night OUT at the Washington Football Team.

“I think back to the beginning when we first established a relationship with the Washington Nationals. Years later after the mass shooting at Pulse in Orlando, they reached out and asked, ‘What can we do,’” says Minor. “Establishing these relationships is important and who knows where this leads when you are embraced in a positive way? When you can break down a barrier between the LGBTQ community and the NFL, that’s rarefied air.”

Tickets for Pride Night OUT at the Washington Football Team can be found at teamdc.org.

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If a nation? ‘Team LGBTQ’ ranked 11th in medal tally at Tokyo Olympics

182 publicly out gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and nonbinary athletes were in Tokyo for the Summer Olympic Games

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Los Angeles Blade Graphic

TOKYO – Delayed by the coronavirus pandemic by one year and then held under tight restrictions including no spectators or cheering fans in the stands, the Tokyo Olympics drew to a close Sunday with one group of athletes, LGBTQ+ Olympian competitors, having made historic gains.

Affectionately labeled “Team LGBTQ” by OutSports magazine, at least 182 publicly out gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and nonbinary athletes were in Tokyo for the Summer Olympic Games, more than triple the number who participated at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympic Games, the magazine reported.

“In fact, if the LGBTQ Olympians competed as their own country — affectionately labeled “Team LGBTQ” by Outsports — they would rank 11thin the total medal count (right behind France and before Canada), with 32 team and individual medals: 11 gold, 12 silver and nine bronze,” reflected NBC Out.

30 different countries were represented by at least one publicly out LGBTQ+ athlete covering 34 sports, including the first trans Olympians, Team New Zealand’s weightlifter, Team USA’s Reserve BMX racer Chelsea Wolfe, and Team Canada’s Quinn, the 25-year-old, soccer player who goes by a single name and uses the pronouns “they” and “their.”

The most notable Olympic medal win was that of Canadian Women’s Soccer midfielder Quinn, who became the first openly transgender, non-binary athlete to win an Olympic gold medal in another trailblazing moment at the Tokyo Games for the marginalised LGBTQ+ community.

Photo via Instagram

In another Olympic triumph, 27-year-old British diver Tom Daley secured his first Olympic Gold medal alongside teammate Matty Lee winning the gold with a score of 471.81 in the men’s synchronized diving narrowly besting the defending champions, China’s Cao Yuan and Chen Aisen by just 1.23 points. For Daley it was his fourth career Olympic medal including a Bronze Medal won in the the Men’s 10m platform completion at Tokyo as well.

Outsports and NBC Out published the following list of medalists;

The gold medalists were Brazilian swimmer Ana Marcela Cunha for the 10-kilometer event; French martial artist Amandine Buchard for mixed team judo; Venezuelan track and field athlete Yulimar Rojas for the triple jump; Irish boxer Kellie Harrington; New Zealand rower Emma Twigg; U.S. women’s basketball team members Sue Bird, Chelsea Gray, Brittney Griner, Breanna Stewart and Diana Taurasi; American 3-on-3 basketball player Stefanie Dolson; Canadian women’s soccer team members Quinn, Kadeisha Buchanan, Erin McLeod, Kailen Sheridan and Stephanie Labbe; French handball players Amandine Leynaud and Alexandra Lacrabère; New Zealand rugby players Gayle Broughton, Ruby Tui, Kelly Brazier and Portia Woodman; and, of course, British diver Tom Daley, who finally took home the gold for synchronized diving at his fourth Games.

NBC Out’s Dan Avery noted that after she earned silver for the Philippines, featherweight boxer Nesthy Petecio told reporters, “I am proud to be part of the LGBTQ community,” according to the Philippine Daily Inquirer

“Let’s go, fight!” she added. “This fight is also for the LGBTQ community.”

“The presence and performance of these out athletes has been a huge story at these Games,” Outsports founder Cyd Zeigler told NBC Out in an email. “30% of all the out LGBTQ Olympians in Tokyo won a medal, which means they didn’t just show up, they also performed at a very high level.”

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Out British diver Tom Daley takes Bronze medal in men’s 10m platform

“I owe this medal to so many people. I’m standing on the podium but there are so many people behind the medal.”

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British Olympic Diver Tom Daley wins Bronze via Team Great Britain Twitter

KASAI RINKAI PARK, Tokyo- After tough competition in the Men’s 10m platform diving from China’s Cao Yuan who picked up the Gold Medal and his teammate Yang Jian cinching the number two spot with a Silver Medal, 27-year-old British diver Tom Daley secured a Bronze Medal win with a score of 548.25

This is the second Olympic Bronze Medal for the Plymouth, England native, in individual diving completion since he won bronze at the London Games in 2012. Daley and his teammate Daniel Goodfellow won a Bronze Medal in the 10m synchronised at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.

With this Bronze win, it will be his fourth overall career Olympic Games medal win after taking the Gold two weeks ago in the Tokyo games along with his British teammate diving partner Matty Lee. Daley and Lee winning the gold with a score of 471.81 in the men’s synchronized diving narrowly besting the defending champions, China’s Cao Yuan and Chen Aisen by just 1.23 points.

During a post event press conference Daley said; “I am so happy that this Olympics has gone the way it has. I feel like a different athlete, I feel like I’ve been through so many different things over the years.”

“At the end of May, I didn’t even know if I was going to make it to these Games. I tore my meniscus and had knee surgery, I always dreamed I’d be fit enough to come back and dive at these Olympics,” he continued adding, “If someone had told me I was going to win a gold and a bronze, I probably would have laughed in their face. I owe this medal to so many people. I’m standing on the podium but there are so many people behind the medal.”

Reflecting on his medal win the diver noted, “Once you’re in the final, that’s what I love. I love competition when it counts, there was great competition with the two Chinese divers, they pulled away when I missed it a little bit on the fourth dive,” the apparently thrilled Daley smiled and added, “I’m extremely happy to come away with another Olympic medal.”

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