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Out and proud in Uganda

LGBT athletes find openness and obstacles in various sports

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Uganda Pride, gay news, Washington Blade
Uganda Pride, gay news, Washington Blade

From left are Apako Williams, Jay Mulucha and Mr. Pride 2015 at Uganda Pride. (Photo by Katie G. Nelson, used with permission)

Last year, the Washington Blade spotlighted United States lawyer Nate Freeman on his journey across Africa to raise awareness for LGBT rights through his Out in Africa Ride foundation.

Freeman is back in Africa to continue the work that was started on that ride. The obstacles for social change in the LGBT community in Africa are great, but Freeman has encountered a number of organizations fostering change on a grass-roots level.

Last year, he rode his bike from Cairo to Cape Town to meet with LGBT activists in 10 different countries. He now works in Kampala, Uganda for Human Rights Awareness and Promotions Forum, an organization that provides free legal aid services for LGBT people.

Those services include assisting LGBT people who have been arrested and training paralegals to represent LGBT people in their communities. Money raised from the Out in Africa Ride (outinafricaride.org) has funded a project to help LGBT non-profits comply with all the necessary legalities, such as registering the organization and instituting a proper board of directors.

Uganda criminalizes same-sex relationships and the environment for LGBT people there is difficult. A number of committed Ugandan activists are involved in important work to create a better environment for the future.

After Freeman settled into his work in Kamapala and began networking, he was pleasantly surprised to find a fledgling LGBT sports community in the area.

Organizations such as the Uganda Network for Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Persons, FEM Alliance, Freedom and Roam Uganda and Sexual Minorities Uganda all have members and staff who are LGBT athletes. So far, Freeman has encountered LGBT athletes in the sports of rugby, basketball, soccer and swimming.

Warry Ssenfuka, executive director of Freedom and Roam Uganda, is also captain of the national Uganda women’s rugby team. She is openly lesbian and says that while many remain in the closet for fear of discrimination, the rugby world has become a safer place for the LGBT community. Although Ssenfuka has been attacked verbally, she usually ends up as friends with those who have criticized her.

“Our efforts are all about benefitting the communities and sports offer a huge opportunity for camaraderie,” Freeman says. “Gaining acceptance for LGBT people requires a multi-pronged approach and it will focus on the arts, business and sports in addition to the legal and health issues that the communities face.”

Often times, it is just the “whisperings” of their sexual orientation or gender identities that set up the obstacles for the LGBT athletes and results in their teams being disbanded.

The soccer team has been shut down for a year though members are still playing pick-up and are looking to compete again. The Magic Stormers basketball team is now experiencing the same problems and the lack of sponsors has led to loss of court time, jerseys and good players.

Two members of the Magic Stormers, Apako Williams and Jay Mulucha, are trans men. Williams, executive director of the Uganda Network, and Mulucha, executive director of FEM Alliance, were victims of a hate crime several months ago perpetrated in a sports bar by fellow athletes.

Despite the attacks, Williams and Mulucha hope they can take a basketball team to compete in the 2018 Gay Games in Paris.

“If we come out and show that we are strong,” Mulucha says, “we can encourage even those people in the LGBT community who have lost it all to have hope.”

As a test case to pave the road to the Gay Games, Freeman is looking for an opportunity to send six swimmers to Edmonton, Canada for the International Gay & Lesbian Aquatics Championships in August.

He is being assisted by Williams and Mulucha, as well as by Diane Bakuraira, an administrator at Sexual Minorities Uganda who trained on the national Uganda swim team. Because she was gender non-conforming, she was never asked to compete in international competitions. For her, the world championships are an opportunity to increase visibility.

“The world has low perceptions of LGBT people and of Africans,” she says. “We want to show that we can compete.”

The idea for sending the swimmers is a long shot for two reasons: visas and funding.

LGBT Ugandans have had a difficult time getting visas to Canada in the past including a contingent of Ugandans who were invited to Toronto Pride in 2015. Freeman is hoping the Justin Trudeau government will be more open to granting visas and that the Ugandans can allay any fears about those who may seek asylum.

“’We have identified a team of swimmers who we believe pose an extremely low risk of seeking asylum,” Freeman says. “These swimmers are all employed and well-connected members of the community who want to remain in Uganda with their families to fight for greater equality.”

As for funding, Freeman has been in contact with a network of high-end donors in several U.S. cities who are interested in global LGBT issues. The problem facing the request for sports funding is that human rights organizations and health organizations are where donors usually offer their support.

“Obviously I am advocating for all LGBT issues, but the law isn’t going to change here in the near future,” Freeman says. “A big push for all of the issues would result from economic assistance and more visibility of the athletes.”

He says the desire for visibility and openness is the same thing driving LGBT athlete all over the world.

“In some ways, this is the reclamation of their own body by saying they can still use it to play athletics,” says Freeman. “The government and society can’t dictate what they do with their own bodies.”

Uganda Pride, gay news, Washington Blade

Top (l-r) Nate Freeman and Apako Williams; bottom (l-r) Jay Mulucha and Diane Bakuraira (Photo courtesy Freeman)

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Sports

Brittney Griner and wife celebrate birth of their son

Cherelle Griner gave birth to healthy baby boy earlier this month

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Brittney Griner (Screen capture via Instagram)

It’s a boy for Brittney and Cherelle Griner. The Phoenix Mercury center revealed the news in interviews with CBS Sports and NBC News. 

“Every minute I feel like he’s popping into my head, said Griner. “Literally everything revolves around him. And I love it.”

The couple officially welcomed the baby boy on July 8. He weighs 7 pounds, 8 ounces.

“That’s my man. He is amazing,” Griner told CBS Sports. “They said as soon as you see them, everything that you thought mattered just goes out the window. That’s literally what happened.” 

Griner, 33, corrected the CBS News correspondent who said, “You’re about to be a mom!” She told her Cherelle, 33, had already delivered the baby and that she preferred to be called,“Pops.” 

Griner told NBC News correspondent Liz Kreutz they chose to name their newborn son, “Bash.” 

The WNBA star said she is Bash’s biggest fan and is constantly taking photos of him. “My whole phone has turned into him now,” Griner told CBS Sports.

The baby comes as Griner gets set to play in Saturday’s WNBA All-Star Game and then head to Paris with Team USA to compete for their 8th straight gold medal at the Summer Olympic Games. 

“It kind of sucks because I have to leave, but at the same time, he will understand,” said Griner. 

Her time in Paris will mark the first time since the basketball star was released from a Russian gulag, where she was held on drug charges for nearly 10 months in 2022.

“BG is locked in and ready to go,” Griner told NBC News on Friday. “I’m happy, I’m in a great place. I’m representing my country, the country that fought for me to come back. I’m gonna represent it well.”

Griner also spoke with NBC News about her hopes the U.S. can win the freedom of imprisoned Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was sentenced to 16 years in a Russian maximum security prison on Friday. 

“We have to get him back,” she said. 

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High hurdler Trey Cunningham comes out as gay

Florida State University alum grew up in Ala.

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Trey Cunningham (Photo courtesy of Cunningham's Instagram page)

He didn’t get to punch his ticket to the Olympics this summer but Trey Cunningham, 26, one of the world’s best high hurdlers, is in the news for a far more personal reason: He publicly came out as gay. 

“We say our goals out loud,” Cunningham told the New York Times Monday, explaining a technique he has relied upon in his training as an elite athlete. “If there’s something we want to achieve, we say it. Putting something in words makes it real.”

His sexuality isn’t exactly a secret. Cunningham came out to his parents and friends by phone five years ago at age 20. 

“It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done,” he told the Times, recalling that he found himself dripping with sweat as he waited for the ringing to end and for the calls to be connected. 

Cunningham revealed to the newspaper that he got the sense that at least some of his friends were not at all surprised by this news, and had been “waiting for me,” he said. “I was really lucky to have a group of people who did not care.”

He was in college then, starting to “explore the idea” of his sexual attraction. 

“It took me awhile to know it felt right,” he said. 

His high school years in Winfield, Ala., were a time for friends and fun, dreaming of playing pro basketball with the Boston Celtics before discovering he enjoyed “flinging myself at solid objects at high speed,” he said. It was not a place conducive to dating other boys. 

Cunningham recalled his hometown as “rural, quite conservative, quite religious: The sort of place where you did not want to be the gay kid at school,” he told the paper. “So, I had certain expectations of what my life would look like, and it took me a little while to get my head around it, looking different to that.”

So, it was not a surprise that his parents gave him some “pushback” — in his words — when he called them with the news five years ago. 

“They had certain expectations for their little boy, for what his life would be like, and that’s OK,” he told the Times. “I gave them a 5-year grace period. I had to take my time. They could take theirs, too.” 

Cunningham drew a parallel between his own process and theirs. “What was true for me was also true for my parents,” said the world-class sprinter. 

And he is world-class, even if he’ll be watching the Summer Games instead of competing in them. As the Times reported, Cunningham is ranked 11th in the world. In 2022, he won the silver medal in high hurdles at the world championships in Eugene, Ore., and last month he placed ninth in the 110-meter hurdles at the U.S. Olympic trials. 

“If you do well in the U.S. trials, you know you have a good shot at a medal,” he said.

Following his disappointing finish in what he described as a “stacked field” of competitors, he is coming out as gay in an interview with a journalist now because everyone who he feels needs to know has known for some time, he said. Also, he recognizes that being out is still rare. 

“There are lots of people who are in this weird space,” said Cunningham. “They’re not out. But it is kind of understood.”

What he hopes is that both sports and the wider world will someday get to a place where “people do not have to ‘come out,” he said, where people can “just get on with being them.”

In addition to being an elite athlete, Cunningham has a Master of Science degree from Florida State University, a deal with Adidas and — with his scruffy square jaw and pouty lips — he is a sought-after Ford model.

He said in the interview that he realized coming out comes with practical and potentially financial considerations: Competing in countries where being gay is a crime, like Qatar. Although he doesn’t think hiding his sexuality inhibited his performance or that some great weight is now lifted, he believes being public about it has value.

There are times, Cunningham said, when it pays to say something out loud, to make things real. This is that time. 

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Transgender nonbinary runner Nikki Hiltz makes Team USA

‘Woke up an Olympian’

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(Screenshot)

They ran like the wind, broke the tape at the finish line, and clutched their chest with the broadest smile on their face. Then Nikki Hiltz collapsed to the track, having set a new record in the 1,500-meter race at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials and earned a spot on Team USA. 

As the realization sank in that they would be representing the U.S. in Paris as an out transgender nonbinary athlete, what the Paris-bound Olympian did next was to scribble a message of LGBTQ representation on the last day of Pride Month, writing with a red marker upon the glass of the camera that records each athlete’s signature on a whiteboard: 

“I ❤️ the gays,” they wrote, and above it, they signed their first name. 

Hiltz, 29, finished the race on Sunday at the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field in first-place with a final time of 3:55:33, breaking third-place finisher Elle St. Pierre’s 2021 record of 3:58:03. 

Hiltz credited St. Pierre, the top-finishing American and third-place finisher in the women’s 1,500 at the Tokyo Olympics, with motivated them and the other competitors to race faster. With a first lap time of 61 seconds, St. Pierre led the race for the majority of its duration. St. Pierre and Emily Mackay, who placed second, also both earned spots in the Paris Olympics.

“If someone would have told me this morning that 3:56 doesn’t make the team, I don’t want to know that. I’m just in the race to run it and race it and that’s what I did,” Hiltz said after the race. The Santa Cruz native who came out in 2021 as trans nonbinary told NBC Sports that the accomplishment is “bigger than just me.”

“I wanted to run this for my community,” Hiltz said, “All of the LGBT folks, yeah, you guys brought me home that last hundred. I could just feel the love and support.” 

On Monday, Hiltz reflected on the race and how they became an Olympian in a post on Instagram.

“Woke up an Olympian. 🥹 Yesterday afternoon in Eugene Oregon a childhood dream of mine came true. I’m not sure when this will fully sink in … All I know is today I’m waking up just so grateful for my people, overwhelmed by all the love and support, and filled with joy that I get to race people I deeply love and respect around a track for a living. 🙏”

Hiltz also shared a photo with their girlfriend, runner Emma Gee, and captioned it: “Remember in Inside Out 2 when Joy says “maybe this is what happens when you grow up … you feel less joy”? Yeah I actually have no idea what she’s talking about. 🎈🌈🤠🦅🥐🇫🇷”

They shared photos in their new Team USA garb, too. 

While they will be the first out trans nonbinary member of the U.S. track and field team, Hiltz will not be the first nonbinary Olympian. That honor goes to Quinn, who played soccer for Canada in Tokyo and holds the record as the only nonbinary athlete to have won a gold medal. So far. 

Many of the posts by Hiltz, Team USA and others have been trolled by bigots and ignoramuses who have mistaken them for a trans woman who was presumed to be male at birth and transitioned genders. Right-wing outlets and anti-trans activist Riley Gaines have commented on their victory and questioned their gender identity and decision to compete against cisgender women. 

But in the spirit of the late Marsha P. Johnson, who famously said the “P” stood for “pay no mind” to the haters, Hiltz shared a photo of a handwritten motivational note to themself, which ends: “I saw a quote online the other week that said, ‘respect everybody, fear nobody,’ and that’s exactly how I’m going to approach this final. I can do this.” 

And they did. 

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