Track and Field runner Joanna Harper loves the rush competition brings her.
Her years on the field have taught her all about discipline, competition and hard work. However, her hard work hasn’t just been about pushing her physicality to the limit because Harper is not only an athlete but also a transgender woman.
Harper, along with other trans athletes, has faced opposition from others in her sport because she is trans. She transitioned later in life, in 2004, and was competing with other adults. These adults, she says, had a mindset against transgender athletes competing in sports that would be hard to change even if they were trained on the issue.
“There are some deeply held prejudices against transgender women,” Harper says. “Training isn’t necessarily going to change those prejudices.”
Former NCAA wrestler Hudson Taylor is trying to remake attitudes toward LGBT athletes in sports with his non-profit organization, Athlete Ally. The organization educates athletic communities on LGBT issues in sports and builds public awareness through its professional athlete ambassadors who work to advocate for the message. Taylor and other campus ambassadors travel to elementary schools, middle schools, high schools and colleges all over the country to educate on LGBT issues in sports.
Athlete Ally’s mission is aimed specifically at younger people with ambassadors giving talks to students as young as kindergarten. He says prejudices are taught at a young age and become ingrained in sports culture.
“If we’re looking at the solution in sports, the only way that we’re going to break the cycle is if we start at the very beginning,” Taylor says. “I think by educating athletes and coaches early we can hopefully be proactive and prevent some of the socialized homophobia that is a by-product of sport at an early age.”
Taylor, who served as guest editor of this special Blade sports edition, admits that explaining LGBT equality to young children is a different message than it would be talking to a college sports team. But he says the core of the message is still the same.
“There is an underlying principal of treat others as you want to be treated and don’t use hurtful demeaning language,” Taylor says. “It’s an important lesson not only for a kindergartener but even for a professional athlete.”
Taylor says that more often than not, Athlete Ally is the first LGBT sensitivity training a person has received. He says people are coming out at younger ages than ever before. LGBT people are coming out more frequently in high school and before instead of in adulthood. Taylor says that means more people have a personal connection to someone being LGBT. Despite that, athletic departments and LGBT centers on campus do not work together in the way they should, he says.
Taylor says that disconnect between athletic departments and LGBT centers is one of the reasons sports are still behind in LGBT equality.
Being both out and on a sports team is more common at a younger age than it ever has been before. Two 2015 Team D.C. Scholarship winners, Kyra McClary and Sam Song, are both out and say they haven’t encountered any issues over their sexual identity. Song is a swimmer who graduated from Poolesville High School and just completed his first year at St. Lawrence University. He says that when he came out to his team, it wasn’t a big deal.
“They were cool with it,” Song says. “It was no cause for huge panic or anything. They said, ‘That’s totally cool. It doesn’t affect the fact that you are part of the team and that what you do is important.’”
McClary says she had a similar experience.
“I think they’d all guessed,” McClary says. “We go to a really liberal school. Everyone is just like you, so no one really cares.”
McClary and Song also say their schools did not offer LGBT sensitivity training for athletes and coaches.
Still, Song thinks that having an LGBT sensitivity training course for coaches and athletes in schools would still be beneficial because of how sports culture is structured, especially when it comes to homophobic language.
“Homophobic comments are tossed around the locker room often,” Song says. “If people were at least exposed to this and were told to take it seriously and to be aware of the connotations of derogatory homophobic language, then they would be aware of what the word actually means and its not something meant to be taken lightly. It’s not meant to be used to describe an LGBT person as weak.”
Location may also have a lot to do with the need for LGBT sensitivity training in sports. McClary says she doesn’t see a real need for it in her situation because she has no plans to move to a conservative area.
“I’m planning to live in the North, “McClary says. “If I were going to live in Mississippi or something, then I would be worried.”
Athlete Ally has worked with schools in the South but Taylor says working with conservative southern schools has been more difficult.
“There are more obstacles to entry,” Taylor says. “I spent a week speaking at high schools and middle schools in Florida and a bunch of schools required every one of the kids to have their parents sign off on having me come and speak. Schools are making it a lot harder for kids to receive this message.”
It’s a message Taylor thinks is the starting point to healing other problems and fears in the country. He says that athletics have such an admired status in schools that it’s a great place to start the conversation of tolerance for not only LGBT equality but also moving toward ending sexism, racism and ableism as well.
“You go to any high school and middle school in the country and the hallways are not lined with academic trophies but athletic trophies,” Taylor says. “If we can educate our athletic population on how to be better citizens and people, how to be kind to one another, I think the ripple effect will be profound.”
Children learning these lessons and taking it with them as they grow older is a goal that Harper can get behind.
“Realistically anytime somebody is different, they’re going to stand out and they’re going to be picked on by other kids,” Harper says. “But the younger one can start with sensitivity training, the better life will be.”