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Activism, the black athlete and supporting LGBT equality

Ali’s legacy and why Kaepernick’s critics are wrong

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Kaepernick, gay news, Washington Blade

Why do we praise Muhammad Ali, yet criticize Colin Kaepernick? (Photo by Mike Morbeck; courtesy Flickr)

Why do so many African-American professional athletes today view Muhammad Ali as a hero, but fall short of even trying to live by the same code of ethics that made him a hero? Ali became a hero because he was never silent. He said things he knew would make people uncomfortable, even angry, but that he believed would help bring about awareness and change. Ali was, as a result, a controversial figure during his life. He angered countless people with his message and many people hated him.  It was only later that Ali was recognized for his impact on our country.

I remember that once as a boy I heard Ali call himself “pretty” on TV.  This was before Beyoncé made big booties sexy, before girls were pumping their lips full of fillers.  This was the 1970s. “Black” features were not considered pretty. I remember how powerful it was to see a man who looked like me categorize himself that way. I was nine years old, and I have never forgotten that moment. It was a small moment, but one that empowered me to feel good about myself. That is the power we possess as professional athletes: We have a platform to speak, and a way to give voice to so many voices that remain unheard. We have the ability, and I believe, the responsibility, to serve as a voice that will empower and engage others. But that platform, and the power it gives us, is an opportunity too many of us ignore.

When I started writing this piece, my intention was to draw attention to Black athletes who admire Ali for his activism, but remain silent as injustices continue to reveal the persistent inequity in this country. More specifically, I wanted to center that discussion on the fact that African-American heterosexual males have remained noticeably absent in the fight for equal rights for the LGBTQ community, being that we are all too familiar with what it feels like to be a disenfranchised and discriminated against minority. Before I finished the piece, however, I saw San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sit down for the national anthem — and I saw America stand up in protest. When asked why he didn’t stand, Kaepernick said he was “not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color.”

The way Kaepernick took a stand was exactly the type of activism I wanted to see among today’s Black athletes, but before I had time to applaud him, the media crucified him. Worse yet, it wasn’t just the mainstream media that was speaking out. Even fellow Black athletes were speaking out against him. It was bad enough that so many Black athletes were willing to be silent and let others stand up for our people, but now some were actually chastising him for standing up for us. Kaepernick wanted dialogue, but instead he got told that he had crossed a line. He wanted to spark conversation, but instead he was told to be quiet.  In fact, he was told to be grateful.

Ironically, one of the criticisms of Kaepernick came in the form of an argument that Kaepernick was not in a position to stand up for Black people because he was not Black. Forgetting about the fact that Kaepernick is in fact half Black, that position itself is nonsensical. If he were white, would it be wrong for him to stand up for Black people? Does that mean that white people cannot defend the rights of Blacks or other minority groups? That straight people cannot defend the rights of the LGBTQ community? Historically, no minority group has ever gained the equal rights they sought without the support of the majority.   

And it’s true that Kaepernick does not necessarily feel the impact of racism or injustice day to day he is not part of the disenfranchised Black community he is fighting to protect. The Civil Rights leaders of the 1950s, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, were standing up for their own rights along with the rights of the Black community King couldn’t sit at the front of the bus either. Kaepernick is educated, and has a multi-million dollar contract as a quarterback in the NFL. But in my mind that makes his action even more powerful, not less. His silent protest was not driven by self-interest. He chose to speak for those who don’t have a voice. As he put it, “This country stands for freedom, liberty, justice for all and it’s not happening for all right now.”  That was reason enough for him to take action, despite any repercussion he might face.  That is what makes him a leader.

So why are so few athletes willing to stand up — or, in Kaepernick’s case, sit down?  Many people do not realize that if a player has made it to the NFL, he has been playing since he was a child. From that time, he has been systematically trained to aspire to be in the NFL. Once a player makes it to the league, his impulse is, one, to fall in line, to do nothing that might jeopardize his team, a sacred brotherhood. Two, not to do anything to jeopardize his salary or endorsements. More than half of the players in the NFL come from poverty. For more than half the players in the league, football is the only way they see to take care of themselves and their families.

But the impulse and pressure to fall in line is what keeps so many players from standing up the way Kaepernick has — and keeps so many players silent when they could be voices of change. The unfortunate truth is that their fears are not unfounded. Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall, who has chosen to take a knee for the anthem in light of Kaepernick’s protest, has already lost two endorsements as a result of his actions. While too many of us still sit on the sidelines in the fight for justice, I am heartened that Kaepernick’s activism has begun to gain momentum: more athletes take a knee, raise their firsts, link arms in support of him and his message. Even 49ers owner Jed York came out in full support of Kaepernick. Despite sacrificing two endorsements, Marshall remains steadfast in his commitment to the protest, and the conversation he hopes it will inspire.

I would love to see this momentum continue to build and have more professional Black athletes stand up publically for the larger Black community.  But what I would also love to see is that activism stretch beyond the reach of our own people and begin to try to help yet another marginalized group, the LGBTQ community.

There is an unmistakable power balance in this country, and we all know who wields that power. That being said, within the other groups that comprise our nation, there does exist a hierarchy of power. That hierarchy is what gave Kaepernick the opportunity to stand up for his beliefs in a way that a lot of other Black men never could. It is also what allowed the entire football team and the entire student body at University of Missouri to stand up for Michael Sam, and allow him to live his life openly as a gay man (which, by the way allowed him to play the best season of his entire collegiate career). And, two years later allowed the Missouri football team to stand together as a team against the racial discrimination that was occurring on their campus and boycott playing a single game until they got a public apology from the president of the university. Regardless of our race, as athletes, we do in fact wield power. The power to raise our voices for change is in our hands, but I see so much silence.

The LGBTQ community is another minority community in our country that is still fighting to be truly equal under the laws of our nation. And while I am by no means saying that the Black fight for equality is over, what I am saying is that there are many Black people in this country, such as professional athletes, that do in fact have a tremendous platform with which they can show support for the LBGTQ community. We have power to not only help ourselves, but to help another group who seeks fairness and equity.

If more professional athletes stood up for the LGBTQ community the same way Muhammad Ali and Colin Kaepernick did and the way others are beginning to do, think of the impact and the power that would have on the LGBTQ community and their fight for equality. Think about what would happen if two of my favorite athletes Michael Jordan and LeBron James — went to Nike and said they wanted to film a PSA because they had a family member or close friend who is gay and wanted to publicly show their support. Because let’s face it, we all have at least one family member or close friend that is a part of the LGBTQ community. But instead we allow ourselves to be told by the corporations what we can and cannot do. Why can’t we realize that we have just as much if not more power than the students at University of Missouri?  If we stand together on the right side of history, then the power is ours. We need to be on the front line of history, not wait until it is cool to be in support of something that is not allowing friends and family members to feel safe and live their life to fullest.

In our community there is still a widespread fear that being an advocate for, or even just an ally of the LGBTQ community will call into question our own sexuality or masculinity as straight Black men. The base level of this fear is straight forward (albeit based on a false assumption) that supporting the LGBTQ community will lead people to think that we are gay or less of a man. As a result, many of us would rather say nothing than do something that would lead others to have that perception of us. There is also a financial fear associated with being a straight ally. That fear being that if people think that we are homosexual or an ally to the LGBTQ community, it will have a detrimental effect our brand, and in turn, our wallet.

I also want to address the argument that religious people cannot support the LGBTQ community due to the teachings of the Bible. First of all, I would like to remind all of my Black brothers and sisters that it was not too long ago that people used verses from the Bible to back up arguments to keep slavery legal. We, as African Americans cannot in good faith use the same teachings that were used to oppress us to suppress the rights of another group of people. Second, I would love someone to tell me when the laws in the Bible got ranked. In other words, what divine power came down and told us that the teachings that prohibit homosexuality are more important than the teachings that tell us to “love your neighbor as yourself?”   

We must begin to the dispel the ideas held by so many straight Black men that being an ally to the LGBTQ community will hurt them in some way. In order to do this, there are two major revelations to which these athletes must come. The first is that the stereotypes they grew up hearing are antiquated and untrue. We must all be a part of eliminating these stereotypes, and we can do that simply by letting our words and our actions defy them. The second is that becoming a straight ally for the LGBTQ community will actually broaden their brand and appeal.  The LGBTQ community accounts for more than $9 billion of buying power in this country. When Michael Sam came out as a gay man, his jersey shot straight to the No. 2 most purchased NFL jersey in the country. When Steve Jobs died, Tim Cook took over as CEO of Apple, and has subsequently come out as a gay man. We all still walk around with our iPhones tight in our clutches, but how many of us stop to think about the fact that the company that makes them — one of the most powerful companies in the country — is run by an openly gay man?

Muhammad Ali has, in the wake of his death, been mourned and celebrated in the media as an athlete who transcended sport and became an icon of activism and social justice. However, the same people who praise Ali for his activism and commitment to social justice can, almost in the same breath, condemn Colin Kaepernick for attempting to use his platform as an athlete to do the same. Ali paved the way for athletes like Kaepernick to speak out. If we celebrate Ali for creating the path, then how can we disapprove of athletes like Kaepernick for walking it?

It is time Black athletes realize our power and responsibility to bring change in America — and it is time for America to stop fearing what the change will look like. We must say and do the things that will spark conversation about important issues that we face because conversation is the first step toward resolution.

If we cannot speak about the issues, how can we hope to resolve them? More specifically, we, as heterosexual Black men with a voice need to get on the right side of history in the fight for LGBTQ equality. It is our responsibility to stand up for the underdog, the discriminated against, because we have been and still are discriminated against. We must stand up for communities other than our own just as we want others to stand up for us. We must be upstanders and not bystanders, we must stand up and use our voice for change, acknowledging that no group of human beings deserves to be treated as inferior.

We must applaud Kaeperrnick for his actions by acknowledging that great leaders have the strength and conviction to never mistake the easy choice for the right one. But applauding him is not enough. We must accept that once we identify a great leader such as him, we must have enough of our own strength and conviction to follow him.

Sean James is executive director of Sports & Entertainment for Hotaling Group Insurance Services and a former NFL player.

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Trans ban repeal anniversary meaningless without fed’l voter protection

We all deserve to have an equal voice in our government

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Give Out Day, gay news, Washington Blade
(Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

It has been a year since President Biden repealed the Trans Ban. Now, everyone who is qualified to serve their country in the armed forces is able to, openly and authentically. As transgender veterans ourselves, this is an action that we welcome and celebrate.

Since the ban was repealed, the Biden administration has taken initiative to expand Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits to transgender military members and veterans. In June, the secretary of VA, Dennis McDonough, announced a lift on a 20-year ban for gender confirmation surgeries, allowing the procedure to be covered under VA benefits. In September, nearing the 10th anniversary of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), the VA disseminated a plan that allows LGBT veterans with other-than-honorable discharges to receive VA benefits. Already in 2022, the VA has announced that trans and nonbinary veterans can update their offical health records with the correct gender identification. While there has been a lot of forward movement in military and veterans spaces for inclusivity, our country is still fighting for a fair and inclusive democracy.

Just as it’s important to recognize transgender veterans’ rights to be openly trans and to receive healthcare through the VA, it is also important to pursue a robust voting rights agenda to eliminate racialized or politicized restrictions on the constitutionally protected right to vote. Right now, it is critical to pass federal voting rights protections. With safeguards in place in our democracy, we can elect leaders that truly care about us. No matter someone’s gender identity, race, ethnicity, or disability status, we all deserve to have an equal voice in our government. As transgender veterans, we want to share our stories and the impact that the decisions made at the federal and state level have on us.

Lene Mees de Tricht (she/her)

I am a transgender US Navy and Coast Guard veteran. Since I left the military, many things have changed, and mostly for the better. Or rather, we’re currently trending positive. And we should on no account be satisfied with our progress; trans people still face a lot of discrimination and trans veterans still face compounding difficulties, but I would like to reflect on how far we’ve come.

I served from 2002-2012, when I was discharged for being transgender. I was unprepared to be very suddenly cast into the civilian world, and I’ve spent the intervening decade trying to recover financially, emotionally, and mentally. I had to do things I’m not proud of to survive, and I’ve been dealing with the trauma of that while also trying to find a job with no marketable skills (an intelligence analyst’s most valuable asset is their clearance, and without it, you have very little to offer) in a society that felt like they were free to hate. The previous administration’s reversal of the incremental gains of the Obama administration set back transgender rights in service of empowering a small demographic of hateful people who would prefer we have no voice and no presence in their military or their society.

So while the VA’s decision to repeal the ban on gender confirmation surgery and recognize veterans as transgender is objectively an improvement, it’s also not enough. As a society, I think we acknowledge the hardships and difficulties of transgender people broadly, and the unique challenges that being a transgender veteran can impose. And I think we as a people acknowledge that being transgender is not the only axis of discrimination and hardship facing Americans even today. Trans veterans stand with our fellow Americans of color in recognizing the ongoing threats to democracy present in our society.

Albi Brunzell (they/them)

I am a nonbinary US Navy veteran who served from 2002-2005 during DADT. I was discharged before it was overturned, so I was never given the right to serve openly as a nonbinary sailor. I served as a straight female because if I didn’t, my country deemed me less worthy to fight for freedom and democracy – something that still sounds absurd to me. Liberty and Justice for all is still not a reality for so many Americans, myself included. Without equal rights, we will never have true liberty or democracy in America. The overturning of DADT made huge steps for the LGB community while transgender rights were still on the line. Up until last year, Trans service members were stuck in a political limbo, and thankfully President Biden ended that.

In the same way, we have made some progress on voting rights in the last few years. States like Michigan have leaders like Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, who set out to improve access to ballots for veterans after her husband had issues receiving his ballot while deployed overseas.. Our country needs to pass a federal voting rights bill. It’s unconstitutional for millions of Americans to not have equal access to their ballots. Democracy only works when everyone participates.

Esti Lamonaca (they/them)

I am a trans nonbinary US Army 2014 to 2020, OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom) combat veteran. I served during Trump’s Trans Ban implementation. While I had to hide my authentic self, I continued to fulfill the responsibilities of my oath. My gender identity never meant I was unfit to serve. The Commander-in-Chief at the time endangered me in the very country I was risking my life to protect. Trump’s ban has a lasting transphobic footprint within the US military. In combat zones, gender does not matter; what matters is if you can do the job you volunteered to do.

The Biden administration repeal of the Trans Ban humanized the trans community in a space we once were considered a “burden.” Now we need protected human rights as part of our entire democracy. Our democracy isn’t for one group of people, it is for all people. Every single human being deserves to be able to participate in democracy, especially in casting their vote, and it is up to our elected officials to ensure that this is possible.

There’s nothing more patriotic than participating in democracy while being under attack by your own country, whether that is serving your country while hiding your authentic self or battling voter suppression to cast your ballot. You may not know why someone needs access to vote by mail, early vote, or who may even be scared to vote because of voter intimidation, just like you may not know someone’s gender identity who is in full combat gear deployed beside you. While something may not directly affect you, it doesn’t mean someone you love or know isn’t affected. Not everything or everyone is what they appear to be, but that doesn’t mean they should be treated less than.

Even with all of the forward movement, there is still a lot of work needed to ensure true democracy is achieved. As transgender veterans, we know what it looks like to watch democracy crumble, we know what it looks like to be restricted of our rights, and we will not be silent as the attacks on our democracy persist. We swore an oath to protect our democracy, and that oath didn’t expire. Our nation’s leaders have to represent all of us, otherwise our democracy will collapse. It is imperative that federal anti-discriminatory legislation is passed to protect all people, especially when it comes to participating in our democracy.

Members of Congress claim they support veterans every opportunity they get, but they do not support all of us when they are voting against some of our rights. It is vital that the federal government pass federal voting legislation. It is crucial to provide an equal voice in our democracy to all members of society, not just a select group. It is essential that democratic progress never reverses course again, and as veterans we will continue to fulfill our oaths and fight for progress to guarantee liberty and justice is truly for all.

Lene (she/her) is a US Navy and US Coast Guard veteran from Iowa. She served for 10 years in support of counterterrorist, counternarcotics, and humanitarian aid/disaster relief operations. She is the Veterans Organizing Institute Program Associate at the grassroots veterans organization Common Defense.

Albi (they/them) short for Amanda Le’Anne Brunzell, is a US Navy veteran from Grand Rapids, Mich. They are the first non-binary person to openly run for federal office in the United States. Currently, they are pursuing a dual degree in International Relations and Public Policy with a focus on National Security. They are an active member of Common Defense.

Esti Lamonaca (they/them) is a US Army combat veteran from New York City. They served in Afghanistan as part of a Special Forces Joint Task Force team component of NATO. They currently are the National Membership Manager of the grassroots veterans organization, Common Defense.

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Words create worlds, so what kind of world do we want to live in?

Free speech comes with incredible responsibility

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It seems that each new day brings a fresh debate around speech and the weight of impact that speech holds. Back in October hundreds of Netflix employees staged a walkout protesting their company’s controversial Dave Chappelle stand-up special. At issue were a number of jokes aimed at the transgender community. The protest happened in response to Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos’ defense of the special, saying that “content doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm.” This statement could not be further from the truth. Not only do words carry impact and directly translate to real-world harm, words form our conception of the world and oftentimes what is seen as truth. The language we use and condone shapes how everything around us is perceived, which is why there is great responsibility in considering the words we use before we put them out into the world. 

We think about this every day at Reading Partners, an organization that places community volunteers in Title I elementary schools to support students in mastering reading skills. Because many of our volunteers do not share racial identity or a similar lived experience of the students we partner with, it is incredibly important to us that they understand that their role is to empower students who need a little extra support rather than coming to “help” or “save” them. The white-savior narrative has historically run rampant in spaces looking to mobilize volunteers for a cause and it is our responsibility to dismantle this narrative. This dismantling starts with the language we use and the stories we share about the communities we have the great privilege to partner with. Given that structural racism and oppression have created the current conditions facing under-resourced students, it is incumbent upon us that we recognize our role within the community and understand that we are here to act as a partner with students and their families whom have already created plans to address gaps in learning.

Because of the impact words yield, it is essential to carefully consider language choice, especially if it could affect marginalized and oppressed groups. Even those who have good intent, like journalists and public figures, often use outdated language and phrases that stigmatize communities or frame them through an othering lens. Some common examples of misguided language often used include phrases like “low-income students,” and “learning loss.” Both of these phrases place responsibility on students for the situation they are in despite the fact that students do not receive income, or have intentionally chosen to miss out on learning opportunities particularly with the disruptions that COVID-19 created. This type of framing has a direct corollary on how these students might be treated by teachers, administrators, and tutors, as well as how they are viewed by leaders, politicians and other people who hold power. It is therefore important that we use terms that accurately describe the situation, which may need to include political or historical context—so instead of “low-income students” we say, “historically under-resourced communities,” while a more accurate substitute for “learning loss” is actually “unfinished learning.” While these are subtle shifts in language, it completely reframes the situation, elucidating who shares responsibility for the current state of things and who does not.

It is also of note that the positive or negative connotations inherent in the language we use are hugely important to how we see those who may have different lived experiences than our own. At Reading Partners, we know that our students are not in fact “struggling” or “suffering from a lack of” something. We highlight our students as they are: “working hard,” “enduring,” “skill builders,” etc. despite growing up in a world where they have been denied access to high-quality literacy education. 

It is a fallacy that words cannot do harm. Language has served to dehumanize and subjugate people for as long as it has existed and it is often those in power who have the loudest voice. We as people, institutions, corporations, media, and otherwise must think through what we say and how it might impact others. Let’s be clear—this is not about censorship or ‘cancelling’ anyone. Language changes all of the time and it can be hard to keep up with. We are simply making the appeal that those in power, and with platforms, continue learning from and listening to those who have been harmed for centuries by systemic injustice. Free speech is a privilege, and with that privilege, there is incredible responsibility to utilize language that truly aligns with and demonstrates the user’s values.

Shukurat Adamoh-Faniyan is executive director of Reading Partners DC, a nonprofit that for more than 20 years has helped empower local students to succeed in reading and in life by engaging community volunteers to provide one-on-one tutoring. If you’re interested in learning more and becoming a volunteer visit readingpartners.org/volunteer-washington-dc.

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Why are gays so terrible at intergenerational friendships?

D.C. should create buddy program for elders

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Let me just start with a question. How many friends outside of your generation do you have? I mean honest-to-god friends. In my friend group, as large and fungible as that can be in the District and in the age of social media, it’s sort of me and a few other Gen Xers, and then just loads of Millennials. They do look to me to pass down some knowledge, but it’s mainly to do with the ins and outs of mortgages and things like that. 

But is it me? Or are gays just really, really terrible at having intergenerational friends? It’s striking. I’ve recently developed a friendship with — let’s call him — Bill. He’s almost 80. Maybe it’s the historian in me, but I just love the stories. But more on that later. For now, to ask another question, just why are gays bad at having friends removed from their respective generations? 

On social media this week I posted an obituary from a Houston paper dating from 1978. It was obviously from a gay man. You can tell from the coded language, “long time resident of this city despite stays on the West Coast.” And if that didn’t give it away, it ended with this rather heartbreaking language, “his parents requested that his friends not attend the memorial services!” Bill told me these sorts of obituaries — terribly vague but also cruelly pointed — were quite common in the dark days of AIDS. And this is succinctly why I think gays are so bad at having intergenerational friends, we’ve simply lost an entire generation of elders. And what was exactly lost with that generation is far more than can be enumerated in this column. 

Back to Bill’s stories for a second. There is a real value in oral histories, the telling and passing down of shared experiences make our culture certainly more valuable and rich, at the very least far more interesting. And again, this is nothing new, as cultures across the globe seek to capture personal stories and first-hand viewpoints of history unfolding. But it’s not just the story itself that’s important. It’s also the perspective and opinions. These remain nuanced between generations. Again, that’s really not saying anything new. But these varied opinions and outlooks, if not shared and debated risk isolating gay men into rigid and unchanging views crafted in echo chambers. 

Also, gays place a large premium on youth. And this, again, is nothing new, nor particularly gay. We just like what we like. But as Bill told me, he’s rather annoyed that any interest he expresses in a younger man is automatically filed under lecherous behavior. Let me just deal with this right here: We all, no matter the age, display to varying degrees lecherous behavior. Just get us a little dehydrated, a little tipsy, and throw us on the sand of Poodle Beach and watch the unwanted flirting unfold. So. But still we have to do better than mistaking anyone displaying interested in us as a simple sexual advance. That seems rather juvenile.  

With contact between our generations low, we are in danger of passing down a culture to future queer Americans that might seem a little lopsided and even a bit, well, shallow. But what’s to be done? I’ve commented in past columns on how we’re failing older LGBTQ Americans, especially in the District. To remedy this, we should use what I call the Chicago model and what is being done at the Center on Halsted, the city’s LGBTQ community center. The Center offers numerous programs geared to the city’s LGBTQ senior population. But one that sticks out is a sort of a buddy program, pairing seniors, even those in care facilities, with younger friends. This would certainly help us here in the District better care for our LGBTQ seniors, and would also of course help with the bridging of our considerable generational divide. So perhaps we could reproduce this here in the District. 

For now, I’ll continue to buddy up and enjoy my time with Bill. 

Brock Thompson is a D.C.-based writer. He contributes regularly to the Blade.

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