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Gay athletes talk religion and faith

Church teachings complicate coming out process for many

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religion, gay news, Washington Blade
religion, gay news, Washington Blade

Tanner Williams (Photo courtesy of Oklahoma University Athletics)

There have been a vast number of coming out stories told recently that share a common thread that it isn’t easy to accept your sexual identity when it is not considered “normal.”

The self-acceptance process is generally filled with shame, insecurities, fear and often depression. Homophobia is exactly what you don’t want to experience when you are dealing with finding your true self.

There are other identities that you are not born with, those that are chosen, that also come with homophobia. Religion and sports can be extremely homophobic environments that can add even more emotion to the inner struggle of growing up gay.

It seems like an impossible bridge to gap. Why not just walk away from the two you can choose to walk away from, religion and sports?

Meet three men who are gay, played sports and grew up with religion. All three of them say it is not religion that bridged the three struggles, but rather their individual faith.

When you speak to Josh Sanders, there is a sense of calm that emanates from him. He describes his relationship with religion as being vertical and horizontal and more of a personal journey.

“The vertical is the relationship between me and God and the horizontal is me and the eyes of other people,” says Sanders. “I should never look at myself through the eyes of others.”

religion, gay news, Washington Blade

Josh Sanders (Photo courtesy of Charyln)

Sanders grew up playing basketball and intended to walk onto the team at Virginia Wesleyan but ended up dropping out to address his inner struggles. He began coaching a local high school team and enrolled at James Madison University. His path led to him to work with various Christian sports ministries and he became the athletic director at a Christian sports camp. After surviving six months of conversion therapy, he came out to his employer only to be told he couldn’t return to the sports camp position that he had held for six years because of his sexuality.

“There is an exclusive tone to the intersection between religion and sexuality. It is the church versus the gay community,” Sanders says. “I don’t separate those two parts of myself. I can be both and there is nothing exclusive about that. If you can’t acknowledge that I can be both, then you are not seeing all of me.”

Sanders, who is living in the Virginia Beach area, has been getting involved again with sports as director of external engagement for GO! Athletes. He is also involved in its extension project, GO! Faith, which provides an inclusive space for young LGBT athletes, coaches and administrators of faith to come together for fellowship and encouragement.

“Biblical literalism is alive today but I think context is everything. It makes no sense to apply those writings to life today,” says Sanders. “The Bible leads the direction of my faith, but it is my own personal interpretation.”

Sanders attends a large evangelical church on occasion that is not LGBT friendly. He says he goes there because of the loving friendships he has made with some of its members.

“We [the LGBT community] are the ones that need to take the initiative to get people from the church to step outside their own experience and actually get to know us,” Sanders says. “Once that happens, there can be change.”

Tanner Williams was so shy as a kid that he was afraid to speak to people. He would wait outside after track practice in hopes of getting through a day without being called a fag. Because of his Southern Baptist upbringing in Ardmore, Okla., he spent a lot of time in those isolated moments wondering why he was gay.

In the sixth grade, his coach got him into pole vaulting and within two years, he won a national championship and followed that up with two state championships in high school.

“I was a really religious kid and I put all my trust in God and pole vaulting,” says Williams. “I had no friends and my time was spent praying and talking to God.”

During his freshman year at Oklahoma University, the mother of a girl he had been formerly promised to for marriage, began stalking Williams through a fake Twitter and Facebook account, threatening to out him, he says. A police report was filed and security was increased at the Big 12 Championships in Waco, Texas, where Williams was competing in the pole vault for the Sooners.

“I grew up with people telling me it’s a choice to be gay and I fell for it,” Williams says. “When things like harassment happen, it just reinforces the feeling that there is something wrong with you.”

Williams began coming out to friends two years ago at age 19 and is now only occasionally attending church. He says he feels sorry for members of organized religion who propagate homophobia because they pick and choose what they believe in the Bible.

“They don’t study the bible like I do and they don’t look at it like I do.” says Williams. “I study it and find the content for me, what God wants for me.”

Williams is coming up on his senior year at Oklahoma University and will be graduating with a degree in business management and nursing. Last year at age 20 he married his partner, Scott Williams and he is looking forward to what the future has to offer.

“I love competing but I am ready to move on,” Williams says. “I will be the only senior on the Sooners track team this year so I will be stepping forward as more of a leader. I guess that’s my management side coming out.”

When Akil Patterson was playing football for the University of Maryland, his mom was commuting from Frederick, Md., to get her master’s degree and used to pick her son up for church. He always felt he wasn’t being honest because the black church he attended was adamantly opposed to homosexuality. He sometimes brought his teammates along so he would feel more comfortable. It was during one of those rides to church that Patterson came out to his mom.

religion, gay news, Washington Blade

Akil Patterson pictured with Washington Blade guest editor Hudson Taylor. (Photo by Kevin Majoros)

“I was struggling during my coming out process and I turned to my faith,” says Patterson. “God doesn’t get you out of things; he just helps you get through them.”

After his football career ended, Patterson returned to the University of Maryland campus and became involved with coaching for their wrestling programs. The Terrapin Wrestling Club is also a regional Olympic training center for USA Wrestling and Patterson began competing in Greco-Roman wrestling.

Recently retired from sports, Patterson still attends church and says that everything a person needs is in the Bible and subject to one’s own interpretation. He likes going to church because of the sense of camaraderie and fellowship and is attending a more affirming church now.

“When that black pastor says that being gay is wrong, everyone starts screaming and it creates a wolf pack mentality,” Patterson says. “If the pastors would stop talking about it, people in the black community would follow. They will defend you and look out for you, but they don’t want to hear about that part of you.”

Patterson said that organized religion is directed at a certain type of people, those who are not secure in their faith.

“Those people are not rooted and don’t understand how the book is translated. Too many of them think that faith is what you learned in church,” Patterson says. “The church is religion but faith is beyond that. I am a man of faith.”

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Put this out gay trailblazer’s supportive coach in your bracket

‘Coach Willard’s awesome,’ says Derrick Gordon of Maryland’s Kevin Willard

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Kevin Willard is not just a seasoned coach, but a strong LGBTQ ally. (Screen capture via Inside the Hall YouTube)

When the 8th seeded Maryland Terrapins faced off against No. 1 Alabama in the second round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championships last weekend, it wasn’t just the players on the hardwood who were working hard for the win. Nate Oats coached the Crimson Tide to a 73-51 victory less than an hour from their home court. And on the other side was Kevin Willard, who is not just a seasoned coach, but a strong LGBTQ ally. 

Willard was Derrick Gordon’s coach at Seton Hall when he transferred from UMass in 2015, a year after he came out as the first out gay Division I Men’s basketball player in the NCAA. 

Gordon has credited Willard with creating a comfortable environment, after he “bumped heads” with former UMass coach Derek Kellogg during his two seasons with the Minutemen. In contrast, he said he instantly connected with Willard, and told his teammates and Willard following his final season at Seton Hall that he wished he had another year of eligibility remaining. He’s said he considered Willard the best coach he’d ever played for.

“He just made it comfortable for me,” Gordon told Glenn Clark Radio in an interview broadcast on March 22, 2022. “He said, ‘You know what, we’re more focused on who you are as a person and a basketball player and what you bring to the team.’ He voiced that over and over again. When I went on my visit, I just felt even more comfortable, met a couple of the guys. They made me feel right at home as well, so it was kind of like an easy decision. Coach Willard’s awesome. He’s an amazing guy.”

If you don’t believe Gordon, ask the West Virginia Mountaineers, who lost to the Terrapins in the first round 67-65. Maryland’s win “took the paint off the floor at Legacy Arena” in Birmingham, Ala., as Brendan Quinn wrote in The Athletic. He described Willard’s style of coaching this way:

“Willard paced the sideline, as he does. The man is intense. Doesn’t suffer fools. Serious stuff. No BS. Black eyes screwed deep in a bald head, no pupils. He regards things sideways, incredulous toward anyone who doesn’t come correct. It’s his whole thing. If Guy Ritchie cast a college basketball coach, it’d be Willard.” 

Gordon told Glenn Clark Radio that he particularly recalled the kind of support Willard gave him in one practice early in his Seton Hall career, according to Press Box Online.

“I remember a particular situation that happened in practice — came down the court and I was wide open and I didn’t shoot it,” Gordon said in the 2022 interview. “[Willard] stopped practice and he said, ‘You’re not at [UMass] anymore. I trust you. I believe in you. Shoot the ball.’ Ever since then, my confidence was through the roof, especially dealing with I had to deal with when I was at UMass with that coach to playing under Coach Willard and him telling me that specifically, he just let me play my game.”

Last July, Gordon posted on Instagram that after playing a few seasons in Europe for Cyprus and Germany, “I decided to end my career as a professional athlete.”

Gordon is now 31, and he told his followers he is working on a book about his life “on and off the court,” in hopes he might “help gay young people, student athletes in particular and others who are struggling to pursue careers in professional sports or any career paths they chose without fear or shame.” 

Since Christmas, he’s been sharing posts that include photos with his boyfriend, actor Scott Backman of Los Angeles, including one from last week, captioned: “Every time we’re together, it’s like falling in love all over again.”

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Brittney Griner to return to WNBA

Russia released Phoenix Mercury star in December in prisoner swap

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Brittney Griner upon her release from Russian custody on Dec. 8, 2022. She has signed a one-year contract with the WNBA. (Screen capture via Russian State Media)

For the first time since 2021, Brittney Griner will be back on the hardwood for the Phoenix Mercury when the WNBA season kicks off in May. But it won’t be at home. Her first game is on the road, facing the Los Angeles Sparks. 

Griner, who regained her freedom in December 2022 in a prisoner swap between Russia and the United States, signed a one year contract on Saturday worth $165,100, according to ESPN

The 32-year-old missed the entire 2022 season following her arrest in Moscow one year ago. Russian authorities said she broke their law by packing vape canisters with cabbabis oil in her luggage. In August, Griner was sentenced to nine years in a penal colony for drug smuggling, and that sentence was upheld upon appeal in October

“Following a sham trial and the unjust sentencing of Brittney Griner, Moscow is transferring her from a prison in Moscow to a remote penal colony,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken back in November. “It is another injustice layered on her ongoing unjust and wrongful detention.” 

After months of negotiations and protests led by her wife, Cherelle, and advocacy groups including the National LGBTQ Task Force, the WNBA star was exchanged in the United Arab Emirates for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. He had served 10 years of a 25-year sentence for conspiring to sell weapons to a terrorist group. Russia balked at the Biden administration’s request to secure the release of businessman and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who is still serving a 16-year prison sentence in Russia for spying.

As ESPN reported, Griner will be playing her 10th season since first being drafted by the Mercury in 2013. Her last year on the court was one of the best of her career, in which she averaged 20.5 points, 1.9 blocks, 2.7 assists, and career-highs with 9.5 rebounds per game, 2.4 offensive rebounds and a .846 free throw percentage.

The Mercury open their 2023 season against the Sparks at the Crypto.com Arena on May 19. The team’s first home game is May 21 when Phoenix hosts the Chicago Sky.

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New York Rangers forgo Pride jerseys and stick tape for team Pride night

NYC Pride organizers responded to omission

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Out Broadway star and actor Michael James Scott prepares to sing the National Anthem at the opening of the NY Rangers Pride Night 2023. (Photo Credit: The New York Rangers/NHL)

New York LGBTQ Rangers fans were disappointed after the National Hockey League team forwent wearing the team’s special warm-up jerseys and using Pride stick tape during the team’s 7th annual Pride Night Friday.

The Rangers had promoted Friday night’s Madison Square Garden home game against Vegas Golden Knights, saying players “will be showing their support by donning pride-themed warm-up jerseys and tape in solidarity with those who continue to advocate for inclusivity.”  But ultimately the team wore their “Liberty Head” jerseys in warmups instead.

After the game, a 4-1 win over the Vegas Golden Knights, the Rangers released a statement: “Our organization respects the LGBTQ+ community and we are proud to bring attention to important local community organizations as part of another great Pride Night. In keeping with our organization’s core values, we support everyone’s individual right to respectfully express their beliefs.”

In an emailed statement to the Washington Blade Sunday Dan Dimant, media director for NYC Pride | Heritage of Pride, Inc. said:

“In recent years, numerous National Hockey League (NHL) franchises including the New York Rangers have introduced a series of ‘Pride Nights’ to engage the LGBTQ+ community. NYC Pride has been honored to take part in these celebrations, including as recently as last night at Madison Square Garden.

NYC Pride was not made aware in advance of our participation in last night’s ceremonial puck drop that Pride jerseys and rainbow tape would not be worn as advertised. We understand and appreciate that this has been a major disappointment to the LGBTQ+ community in New York and beyond. We are communicating these concerns with NY Rangers and NHL leadership as we continue to discuss the ways these organizations can work toward inclusion.

NYC Pride has a duty to both support our partners and hold them accountable. We are committed to continuing our relationships with the NY Rangers and the NHL and maintaining substantive dialogue with them about meaningful allyship with the LGBTQ+ community.”

ESPN reported that the team’s annual Pride Night was celebrated throughout the game in other ways. Fans were given a pride-themed fanny pack as a giveaway. The exterior and interior lights at Madison Square Garden were illuminated in rainbow colors. The Rangers also made a charitable donation to the Ali Forney Center on Pride Night, the largest agency dedicated to LGBTQ homeless youths in the country.

ESPN noted that Andre Thomas, co-chair of NYC Pride and Heritage of Pride, participated in the ceremonial puck drop.
(Photo Credit: The New York Rangers/NHL)

The Rangers’ Pride Night was held 10 days after Ivan Provorov, the alternate captain for the National Hockey League’s Philadelphia Flyers, opted out of participating in the team’s Pride Night charity event before the game Tuesday, claiming a religious exemption based on his Russian Orthodox faith.

Provorov, 26, was the only member of the Flyers to not take part in the pre-game exercise on the ice. A video tweeted by the team’s official account shows the rest of the players wore special Pride Night-themed black jerseys with the traditional Flyers logo on the front and rainbow-colored names and numbers on the back; many of the players practiced using hockey sticks wrapped in rainbow-colored tape known as Pride tape. Both the sticks and the jerseys were auctioned off after the game with the Anaheim Ducks, to raise money for local LGBTQ charities. 

The defenseman, who was born in Russia, told reporters after their victory, “I respect everybody and respect everybody’s choices,” adding that he declined to take part in the warmup “to stay true to myself and my religion.” 

After Provorov opted out of participating in the Flyer’s Pride Night charity event the NHL put out a statement that said players can decide which team and league initiatives to support.

“Hockey is for Everyone is the umbrella initiative under which the league encourages Clubs to celebrate the diversity that exists in their respective markets, and to work to achieve more welcoming and inclusive environments for all fans,” the league said. “Clubs decide whom to celebrate, when and how — with League counsel and support. Players are free to decide which initiatives to support, and we continue to encourage their voices and perspectives on social and cultural issues.”

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