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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Medicaid cuts will lead to an uptick in STIs
Move threatens progress to end HIV epidemic
We have come a long way from the days when HIV was an almost certain death sentence. But our work is far from over. The COVID-19 pandemic led to an uptick in rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV, and low-income communities, LGBTQ+ communities, and communities of color continue to be impacted at alarming and disproportionately high rates.
These communities are also more likely to be served by Medicaid. Medicaid is the largest source of insurance coverage for people living with HIV in the United States, covering an estimated 40 percent of nonelderly adults with HIV, and Medicaid accounted for 45 percent of all federal HIV spending in 2022. During September, Sexual Health Awareness Month, it is worth examining the crucial ways Medicaid works to keep people healthy — and what threatens our progress today.
In recent weeks, we have seen a troubling trend develop. Five million Americans have been removed from Medicaid rolls, and many millions more are on the verge of losing coverage as a result of the Medicaid enrollment cuts. This represents the single greatest threat to our progress toward ending the HIV epidemic in years.
During the pandemic, Medicaid enrollment grew by an estimated 20 million people, contributing to the uninsured rate dropping to the lowest level on record in early 2022. But, after a three-year period during which states provided continuous enrollment in exchange for enhanced federal funding, some states resumed dis-enrolling people from Medicaid on April 1. A recent KFF survey found that 17 million people could lose Medicaid coverage as a result of this process, referred to as the Medicaid “unwinding.”
Many states are not doing enough to ensure that Medicaid-eligible residents don’t lose their coverage. While some have been removed from the rolls because they are newly ineligible, procedural issues account for 74 percent of people losing coverage. An unacceptably high number of Florida, Texas, and Virginia residents who are still eligible for Medicaid are losing coverage because of procedural reasons, such as failing to confirm proof of income or household size.
Our goal should be to ensure that no one who qualifies for Medicaid loses their coverage. The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) gave states the option to use a 12-month grace period, along with other flexibilities, to prepare for the unwinding and make sure residents had what they needed to recertify. So why are some states so eager to remove their residents from Medicaid rolls?
New York, on the other hand, has made equity a cornerstone of recertification work and provides a template for what states can do to help their residents remain covered. The state maximizes the flexibilities offered by CMS and works directly with providers, health plans, and recipients to minimize procedural disenrollments and ensure that people retain health care coverage, either through Medicaid, the state’s health exchange, or private insurance. New York is among the nation’s top-performing states in terms of call center wait times, call drop rates, and average time it takes to make an eligibility determination, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. New York’s call center is also able to produce materials in 26 languages. In June 2023 alone, New York State certified renewals for more than 400,000 residents.
At Amida Care in New York, we know firsthand that gaps in care for people living with or placed at elevated risk of contracting HIV can be especially devastating. When people lose access to PrEP medication to prevent HIV, they are left vulnerable to contracting HIV, and when people living with HIV lose access to antiretroviral therapy, they risk becoming seriously ill and transmitting HIV to others. We support and guide our members through the recertification process with dedicated outreach efforts that include phone calls, mailings, text messages, and home visits to limit loss of coverage and interruptions in life-saving treatments.
We cannot begin to address health inequity or end the HIV epidemic without strengthening Medicaid. The recent moves by some states to strip their residents of Medicaid coverage will undermine the progress we’ve made.
Doug Wirth is president and CEO of Amida Care, a Medicaid Special Needs Health Plan for people affected by HIV.
Jann Wenner’s racist, sexist take on musicians isn’t surprising
New book ‘The Masters’ excludes Black, women pioneers
I enjoyed sharing my birthday with Bruce Springsteen, until I read the bigoted remarks made by his friend Jann Wenner in a recent New York Times interview.
Then I wasn’t so glad to have the same b-day as Bruce.
Springsteen didn’t make the comments. I’m a fan of his music. But, as I write this, Springsteen, as well as some of Wenner’s other friends, hasn’t spoken out against Wenner’s hurtful comments.
As the saying goes: Some gifts keep on giving. Wenner, who was removed from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation board after making sexist and racist remarks in a Sept. 15 interview with the Times, keeps on giving. But what’s he’s giving isn’t a gift. Not to Black people, women, music lovers, or queer folk.
Wenner’s one of us. He’s gay.
I’m fine with his sexuality, but you’d hope that Wenner, for decades a gatekeeper of music and culture, would be a source of queer pride. But, that’s not the case with Wenner, a co-founder of the Rock the Roll Hall of Fame.
The fallout from Wenner’s Times interview is a needed wake-up call for queers.
Too often, we give ourselves a pass. We believe that because we live with homophobia, bi-erasure and transphobia, we know the score. That we’re not sexist, racist, ageist, ableist – we’re free of prejudice. Paragons of virtue.
Wenner, with his demeaning comments, is, I hope, getting us (especially, we who are Boomers) to look in the mirror. To check ourselves (as we examine our dogs for ticks) for our own prejudices, and for our virtue-signaling.
The controversy around Wenner began when he sat for the interview with David Marchese of the Times on Sept. 15 to promote his new book “The Masters,” released by Little Brown and Company on Sept. 26.
“The Masters” is a compilation of seven interviews that Wenner conducted with acclaimed musicians who are (or were before their death) his friends: Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend, Jerry Garcia, Bono, and Springsteen. All of the interviewees are white, male and Boomers.
“That there are no women or Black musicians in this collection is obvious,” Wenner writes, according to Kirkus Reviews, in “The Masters.” “This is reflective of the prejudices and practices of the times.”
It’s hard to describe how bigoted and absurd this is. As many have noted, rock ‘n’ roll was invented by Black people.
You have to wonder what Wenner was thinking. Had he never heard of Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin? Stevie Wonder? Joni Mitchell? Madonna?
Though too much racism and sexism exist today, the culture has gotten somewhat better. Attitudes have evolved. We’ve become more aware of our biases.
Unfortunately, this isn’t so for Wenner. Marchese asked Wenner why every musician he talked with in “The Masters” is white and male. “Insofar as the women,” Wenner responded, “just none of them were as articulate enough on this intellectual level.”
When pressed by Marchese, who wondered how he could say Joni Mitchell wasn’t “articulate enough,” Wenner said, “Joni was not a philosopher of rock ‘n’ roll.”
“I mean, they just didn’t articulate at that level,” Wenner said of Black musicians.
Reading the interview, I wondered if he’d read Rolling Stone, the magazine he edited for decades. Had he missed the covers with Melissa Etheridge, Joplin, and Tina Turner (to name a few of the women and Black artists featured on the magazine’s cover)?
Sadly, Wenner’s condescending, racist and sexist take on Black and women musicians isn’t surprising. Often, people with power (rich white men) believe they’re smarter, more talented, and more entitled to be cultural gatekeepers than those from marginalized groups. They’re convinced they’re more talented and “articulate” than those who don’t have power.
Forget “The Masters.” Check out Etheridge’s new memoir “Talking to My Angels.” That’s a good read.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.
O’Shae Sibley’s murder is an attack on LGBTQ people and their expression, as both rise
More than 350 anti-LGBTQ attacks reported between June 2022 and July 2023
BY HENRY HICKS IV | What do the banning of a children’s picture book about two male penguins, white supremacist stand-offs outside of weekend brunches and a killing during impromptu dancing at a gas station have in common? Plenty. Each impinges on the escalating trend of attacks on LGBTQ+ people and their right to free expression.
On the evening of July 29, O’Shae Sibley pulled into a Brooklyn gas station parking lot with his friends to fill up their gas tank. As they waited for the tank to fill, the group spilled from the car and used the moment to move joyfully in the hot summer night, cranking the car radio’s volume and dancing together. Sibley, a gay man, was also a skilled professional dancer and choreographer. He displayed his talents this night, voguing to the sounds of Beyoncé, an artist that Sibley and his friends were fans of. By coincidence, the artist was performing just a few miles away that night, with professional voguers joining her on stage.
Vogueing, a dance style born out of the traditionally queer ballroom scene, is known for its electrifying dips, drops and duckwalks. The style has been prominently featured in the Golden Globe-winning television show “Pose” — and, more recently, on stage in Beyoncé’s all-consuming Renaissance World Tour. The energy of the ballroom scene has spirited communities across the country, as Beyoncé’s tour has touched down city-by-city, and Sibley and his friends were not exempt to this reach. He was, in fact, eager to participate in his artistry as someone known for his role as a dancer, choreographer, and active member of New York’s ballroom community.
As he and his friends vogued to Beyoncé in the parking lot, moves that Sibley was adept in as an artist himself, they grabbed the attention of hostile onlookers. As captured on surveillance footage, Sibley was first berated with homophobic slurs — Sibley’s vogue performance seeming to signal his sexuality to his attacker. Shortly following the verbal assault, things turned violent. Sibley was stabbed and murdered in a tragic hate crime, fueled by homophobia and triggered by Sibley’s open expression as a dancer and artist.
In mourning, and in defiant protest in the days following, the New York City queer community hosted a memorial at the site of his murder where they honored his memory through performance, with a vibrant and resistant ball.
“You won’t break my soul. / You won’t break my soul, no, no. / I’m telling everybody,” Beyoncé sings defiantly in her single, “Break My Soul.”
The murder of O’Shae Sibley was devastating — and a signal of a disturbing trend. Increasing violence toward LGBTQ+ people, and attempts to quash their personal and artistic expression, are on the rise in the United States. Advocacy organizations such as GLAAD and the Anti-Defamation League have reported surges in harassment, vandalism and physical violence against LGBTQ+ people — with 356 instances being reported between June 2022 and April 2023. Transgender people, as well as drag performers, have been targeted at notably high rates. The Human Rights Campaign reported 34 murders of trans people — mostly trans women of color — in 2022 (HRC emphasizes that the actual number is likely higher, as most attacks go unreported, or are reported inaccurately.)
Drag shows across the country have faced threats and intimidation from armed protesters, including the far-right extremist group, the Proud Boys. Gay bars have been targeted by armed assailants, such as the tragic massacre thatoccurred at Club Q in Colorado Springs, Colo., last November. Hospitals providing gender-affirming care to transgender youth have been targeted with bomb threats. On Aug. 18, a California store owner was shot and killed for displaying a Pride flag. Harassment, threats of violence, and hate crimes against the LGBTQ+ community have steadily risen in recent years. It is clear that this bigotry has been emboldened and its first goal is to silence the free expression of LGBTQ+ people, through violence if necessary.
The exponential increase in physical violence against LGBTQ+ people over the last few years cannot be divorced from the recent legislative environment that has grown ever-more hostile to LGBTQ+ expression. Bills categorizing drag shows as obscenity, book bans targeting LGBTQ+ authors and stories about queer identities in schools and public libraries, as well as other legislative attacks are part of this trend against the LGBTQ+ community. The attacks, both physical and through laws and bans, risk enabling a culture that normalizes repression of queer voices and increases the risk of violence aimed, in part, at suppressing expression of LGBTQ+ people, even when individuals are simply voguing to Beyoncé in public.
Starting in 2021, we’ve seen a historic surge in book bans around the country, targeting LGBTQ+ voices and stories at a disproportionately high rate. PEN America has reported that among the top eleven books targeted by bans in the first half of the 2022-2023 school year, four focused on LGBTQ+ narratives. These challenges, paired with the historic number of bills targeting LGBTQ+ people in state legislatures across the United States — with at least 566 bills ensnaring the broader LGBTQ+ community, according to the Trans Legislation Tracker — contribute to the normalization of repressing personal and artistic expression of queer people. As these policy attacks continue to advance, violence against the LGBTQ+ community has surged.
And while O’Shae Sibley’s murder occurred in New York, a state that has passed no anti-LGBTQ+ bills in the most recent legislative session, his brutal killing shows just how pervasive the impact of anti-LGBTQ+ legislative attacks on free expression in other states are, shaping a culture that spills across borders and impacting LGBTQ+ people throughout the country. Even states perceived to be supportive to the LGBTQ+ community, such as New York, are not immune to the cultural reach of anti-LGBTQ+ repression and intimidation: the home and office of Erik Bottcher, a gay city councilmember in New York City, was vandalized last December after he voiced support for Drag Story Hour, and more recently, a rainbow Pride flag at a Manhattan restaurant was intentionally lit on fire.
Political threats to LGBTQ+ expression, whether it be through restricting and chilling on-stage performance or making it virtually impossible to even acknowledge the existence of LGBTQ+ people in Florida and other states’ schools, have and will continue to put LGBTQ+ people at risk everywhere, chilling their ability to express themselves and potentially even sending them back into the closet, which, at its core, is a form of self-censorship.
A culture of free expression, where people can speak, write — or dance — free from fear of violence, is essential to a thriving democracy. LGBTQ+ people deserve to equally enjoy this right — through creative performance, gender expression, or displays of joy. The ongoing trend of legislative attacks on drag, attempts to label LGBTQ+ stories as “obscene,” and the accompanying trend of violent assaults on LGBTQ+ people are attacks on free expression and must be condemned as such.
Henry Hicks IV is the coordinator for PEN America’s U.S. Free Expression program. PEN America is committed to defending against attacks on LGBTQ+ free expression.
Shutdown averted with bipartisan bill over objections of far-right House caucus
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Medicaid cuts will lead to an uptick in STIs
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