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Serving up Charm

Baltimore volleyball league attracts diverse players

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Charm City Volleyball, gay news, Washington Blade

From left are Adam Bocek, Kent Hansen and Carl Svagerko. (Photos by Kevin Majoros)

It’s not uncommon for the players in sports teams to come from different walks of life. Their motivation to play and the path they take to get there are all part of the process of making a team. The different personalities on the team are what make it a community.

This week in the continuing Blade series on the players who make up the LGBT-based sports teams in the area, we take a look at three teammates, two gay and one straight, from Charm City Volleyball.

Charm City Volleyball hosts social play in downtown Baltimore on Wednesday nights and competitive play and scrimmages on Sundays in Elkridge, Md. On April 29-30, they will host the 32nd annual Charm City Invitational which already has 42 teams registered to play.

For 13 years, Adam Bocek drove back and forth, twice a week, from his hometown in Railroad, Pa., to Baltimore just to play with Charm City Volleyball.

“Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, there just wasn’t much to do if you were gay,” Bocek says. “I began meeting a lot of great guys in an atmosphere where I could be myself.”

As a youth, his primary sport was soccer and along the way he picked up baseball and volleyball. The volleyball continued in college and would be the impetus for his treks to Baltimore.

Bocek has traveled the country with his teammates playing in tournaments and picked up a silver medal with them at the 2014 Gay Games in Cleveland. Just last month he moved to Baltimore after landing a job as a recruiter for HIV research at Johns Hopkins.

“I look at this move as a rite of passage and my opportunity to be around the people who have supported me all along.” Bocek says. “I just love playing this sport and the community that comes along with it.”

After following some friends to move to Baltimore, Kent Hansen was at the Baltimore Pride parade in 2005 and saw Charm City Volleyball marching and hitting a ball around.

“I actually signed up to play that same day,” Hansen says. “One of the people I met on the team is now my husband.”

Hansen, who works as a recruiting manager for a government contracting firm, grew up in Bradner, Ohio and played multiple sports including cross country, track and field, basketball and wrestling. During college at Bowling Green State University he was a varsity cheerleader and also started playing club volleyball.

For six years, he has served as the tournament director of the Charm City Invitational and he is in his fourth year of serving on the national board of the North American Gay Volleyball Association.

He is also traveling the country with his teammates for volleyball tournaments along with traveling for tournaments with the Charm City Kings and Queens bowling league. Hansen and his husband Mike Snyder were also part of the silver medal-winning team at the 2014 Gay Games in Cleveland.

“I have met some amazing people and some of my best friends in the volleyball community,” Hansen says. “Every city we travel to we see so many people that we have known for years. I love the competition and the camaraderie.”

Carl Svagerko was happily playing his sports of football, basketball and baseball along with swimming on a summer team while growing up in Westerville, Ohio. That all changed when he joined his high school swim team because his sister needed a ride to the same practices. He fell in love with swimming and went on to win a state championship in high school and spent four years swimming for the University of Tennessee.

After moving to Baltimore to work as a structural engineer in 2014, Svagerko started playing beach volleyball at Rash Field in Baltimore Inner Harbor. He enjoyed it so much that he moved indoors to the Volleyball House. He eventually ended up on a Charm City Volleyball team as they were playing at the same facility.

“Volleyball was a new sport for me and it was filling the void of not swimming,” says Svagerko, who is straight. “I kind of just started showing up to play with them, then waded in and went full immersion.”

Svagerko has since played in his first association tournament which was hosted by the D.C. Capital Pride Volleyball League. In May, he will travel with his teammates to Columbus for the North American Gay Volleyball Association Championships XXXV.

“I was new to the area and new to the community and everyone with Charm City Volleyball was friendly, inclusive and offered me help with my volleyball form,” Svagerko says. “There is so much respect that I don’t see the sexual orientation. And you know what? They continually ask me to keep playing.”

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Africa

Kenya seeks to ban intersex athletes from lowering hormone levels to compete in sports

Country’s human rights body has put forth measure

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(Bigstock photo)

Kenya’s state-funded human rights body does not want intersex athletes in the country to lower their hormone levels as a requirement to compete in any sport.

The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights in a proposal to the National Assembly notes it will ensure non-discrimination and fairness for intersex people in sports.  

The proposal in the Intersex Persons Bill, 2024, is among numerous amendments to existing laws that seek to grant intersex people equal rights after the government in 2019 officially recognized them as a third sex.

According to the bill that would amend Kenya’s Sports Act of 2013, this will require the Sports and Youth Affairs Ministry’s Cabinet secretary and the National Council for Intersex Persons, which the measure would create, to develop measures that ensure fairness for sporting intersex people when enacted.            

“The measures shall not require a person to alter their biological hormonal composition as a condition to participating in any sporting activity or program,” reads the bill. 

Although the measures would apply nationally, they would contradict the World Athletics Council’s 2018 regulations that similarly bar female transgender athletes from participating in international competitions, such as the Olympic Games. Intersex Kenyan athletes have to abide by these rules at the global level.       

The World Athletics through the regulations noted trans women who naturally have higher levels of testosterone compared to ordinary women have to undergo medication or surgery to lower their testosterone levels as a condition before competing in races of between 400 meters and a mile. Kenya’s National Olympic Committee supports these rules.

Some top female trans athletes barred from competing in the Olympic events from the World Athletics regulations due to their high natural testosterone levels include Margaret Wambui of Kenya, Caster Semenya of South Africa, Aminatou Seyni of Niger and and Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi.

The trans athletes opposed the World Athletics regulations with Semenya challenging them in court, but lost the case, even though the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2019 criticized the rules. UNHCR cautioned sports bodies not to “force, coerce or otherwise pressure women and girl athletes into undergoing unnecessary, humiliating and harmful medical procedures.” 

Kenya National Commission on Human Rights Deputy Director Veronica Mwangi, who spoke with the Washington Blade about the bill’s controversial proposal, said Kenya, which is the only African country to recognize intersex people as a third sex, has started the conversation with a “bigger picture” for the international sporting bodies to create an alternative competition for them to exploit their talents without reducing their hormonal levels or interfering with their biological characteristics as the condition before competing.      

“As KNCHR, we are very clear that we cannot afford to continue discriminating and marginalizing persons who are born as intersex, but rather we can promote conversations of inclusivity where the Semenya of South Africa, an equivalent of Semenya in Uganda and an equivalent in the U.S. or Kenya can have a special sporting event like the Paralympics for persons living with disabilities,” Mwangi said. 

She also questioned the fairness of World Athletics and other international sporting bodies in demanding “the Semenyas or talented intersex persons” to undergo hormonal therapy which then affects the athletes’ well-being after interfering with their biological anatomy.   

“These governing sporting bodies should not come back to us that it is the intersex persons to carry the blame,” Mwangi said. “It is not the responsibility of the intersex (person) but they are duty-bearers and should think of mechanisms to grow their talents and not find an easy way out of demanding to change who they are.” 

Mwangi disclosed the proposal is driven by KNCHR’s special task force report that found most intersex school children are talented and perform well in sports. 

Kenya’s Intersex Persons Implementation Coordination Committee is already identifying talented intersex people, including those in schools, to support their growth in sports. Kenya’s 2019 Census found there are 1,524 intersex people in the country.

Other amendments to the Intersex Persons Bill include an employment provision that would cap an intersex person’s monthly income tax at 25 percent of wages, compared to other Kenyans whose maximum taxable income stands at 35 percent, depending on one’s monthly total earnings.  

“Capping the income tax or wages for intersex persons at 25 percent is a tax consideration in the form of an affirmative action to uplift them in economic development and it is similar to that of persons living with disability who are tax exempted as marginalized groups,” Mwangi said.

The bill further seeks to amend the Health Act for any parent with an intersex child born at home to report the birth at the nearest government administration office or risk a fine of not more than $1,000 or a six-month prison term, or both, after being found guilty of concealing an intersex child’s identity.

The proposed law, moreover, seeks to create the National Council for Intersex Persons, whose mandates would include the creation of initiatives and programs to prevent discrimination against intersex people, creating a database for all intersex people and accrediting the group for employment purposes.  

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NFL player’s misogynistic, homophobic comments spark outrage

Harrison Butker gave Benedictine College commencement address on Saturday

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Harrison Butker (Benedictine College YouTube screenshot)

Addressing a friendly audience at a private, Catholic liberal arts college, three-time Super Bowl champion Harrison Butker spoke from his heart about his faith and revealed his personal beliefs as a cisgender man about women and the LGBTQ community. 

In his 20-minute commencement address at Benedictine College on Saturday, the Kansas City Chiefs kicker said LGBTQ Pride Month events are an example of biblical “deadly sins,” denounced “dangerous gender ideologies” and the “diabolical lies told to women,” declared a woman’s most important title is “homemaker,” and offered his take on abortion, in vitro fertilization and surrogacy, as well as President Joe Biden. 

Butker, 28, criticized Biden’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and questioned his devotion to Roman Catholicism, calling him “delusional.” Speaking directly to the men in the audience, the athlete advised them to “be unapologetic in your masculinity,” and to “fight against the cultural emasculation of men.”

The pro football player announced that God had given him a platform to speak and that, “I have no other choice but to embrace it,” he said. 

Those in attendance laughed in support of Butker when he mocked Pride Month as he cited a recent article by the Associated Press, headlined: “‘A step back in time’: America’s Catholic Church sees an immense shift toward the old ways.” The article detailed the institution’s shift “toward the old ways” and highlighted Benedictine’s rules that “seem like precepts of a bygone age,” which include “volunteering for 3 a.m. prayers” and “pornography, premarital sex, and sunbathing in swimsuits being forbidden.”

“I am certain the reporters at the AP could not have imagined that their attempt to rebuke and embarrass places and people like those here at Benedictine wouldn’t be met with anger but instead met with excitement and pride,” said Butker. “Not the deadly sins sort of Pride that has an entire month dedicated to it, but the true God-centered pride that is cooperating with the Holy Ghost to glorify him.” Butker went on to say that only by surrendering one’s self to Christ will anyone find happiness. 

“Harrison Butker gave a speech in his personal capacity,” the NFL’s senior vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer Jonathan Beane said in a statement addressing his comments. “His views are not those of the NFL as an organization. The NFL is steadfast in our commitment to inclusion, which only makes our league stronger.”

Sarah Kate Ellis, president of GLAAD, called Butker’s speech “inaccurate, ill-informed, and woefully out of step with Americans about Pride, LGBTQ people, and women.”

“Those with expansive platforms, especially athletes, should use their voices to uplift and expand understand and acceptance in the world,” she said in a statement. “Instead, Butker’s remarks undermine experiences not of his own and reveal him to be one who goes against his own team’s commitment to the Kansas City community, and the NFL’s standards for respect, inclusion and diversity across the league.”

Butker called on religious leaders “to stay in their lane and lead,” and told women their place was in the kitchen and the maternity ward.  

“I’m beyond blessed with the many talents God has given me, but it cannot be overstated that all of my success is made possible because a girl I met in band class back in middle school would convert to the faith, become my wife, and embrace one of the most important titles of all: Homemaker,” said Butker, and his words were met with thunderous applause. 

“It is you, the women, who have had the most diabolic lies told to you. Some of you may go on to lead successful careers in the world but I would venture to guess that the majority of you are most excited about your marriage and the children you will bring into this world,” Butker said.

The Chiefs did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but someone who handles social media for Kansas City posted on X that Butker doesn’t even live in Kansas City but in a suburb 30 miles outside city limits, in a now-deleted tweet. 

Someone then posted an apology using that account:

And Kansas City’s mayor himself apologized, also on X, saying “A message appeared earlier this evening from a city public account. The message was clearly inappropriate for a public account,” he posted. “The city has correctly apologized for the error, will review account access, and ensure nothing like it is shared in the future from public channels.”

Butker’s comments earned him comparisons to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” both in his words and in how his beard appeared similar to one of the Hulu series’ characters. 

You can watch Butker’s commencement address in full here: 

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Brittney Griner considered suicide in Russian prison

WNBA star sat down with Robin Roberts

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ABC News ‘Good Morning America’ anchor Robin Roberts interviews WNBA star Brittney Griner for a primetime special. (Photo courtesy of ABC News)

CONTENT WARNING: The following story discusses suicide ideation.

Her first few weeks behind bars in a Russian prison took a terrible toll on Brittney Griner, the lesbian WNBA star who is breaking her silence on the 10 months she was held on drug-related charges. 

“I wanted to take my life more than once in the first weeks,” Griner told ABC’s Robin Roberts in a primetime interview Wednesday. “I felt like leaving here so badly.”

The two-time Olympic gold medalist and nine-time WNBA All-Star, who plays for the Phoenix Mercury, said she ultimately decided against suicide, partly because she feared Russian authorities would not release her body to her wife, Cherelle Griner. 

While Cherelle and the White House worked to gain her release, Brittney reflected on what she admitted was the “mistake” that landed her in Russian detention. 

“I could just visualize everything I worked so hard for just crumbling and going away,” Griner told Roberts, who is co-anchor at “Good Morning America” and is herself a lesbian and former college basketball player.

Griner, 33, was arrested on Feb. 17, 2022, at Sheremetyevo International Airport in Khimki, a suburb of Moscow. Authorities said they found vape cartridges in her luggage containing cannabis oil, which is illegal in the country.

Griner told Roberts that was the result of a “mental lapse” on her part — packing the cannabis oil cartridges in her luggage, Griner said that she had overslept on the morning she was leaving for Russia to play during the WNBA’s off-season, which is how many of the league’s vastly underpaid players earn a living, compared to NBA players. 

So, she packed while she was “in panic mode,” Griner said. 

“My packing at that moment was just throwing all my stuff in there and zipping it up and saying, ‘OK, I’m ready,’” she told Roberts.

After landing in Russia, Griner realized that she had those two cannabis oil cartridges in her luggage as Russian security officers inspected her bag at the airport. She recalled the moment as a sinking feeling. 

“I’m just like, ‘Oh, my God.’ Like, ‘How did I — how did I make this mistake?’” Griner said. “I could just visualize everything I worked so hard for just crumbling and going away.”

Russian authorities immediately arrested Griner, but her trial would not take place for five months. She described the horrible conditions of her imprisonment during that delay, saying that she didn’t always have toilet paper and that the toothpaste they gave her had expired about 15 years ago.

“That toothpaste was expired,” she said. “We used to put it on the black mold to kill the mold on the walls.”

“The mattress had a huge blood stain on it, and they give you these thin two sheets,” she added. “So you’re basically laying on bars.”

On July 7, 2022, Griner pleaded guilty at her trial to drug charges, admitting that she had the vape cartridges containing cannabis oil but stating she put them in her luggage unintentionally. She testified that she had packed the cartridges by accident, and had “no intention” to break Russian law.

Roberts pressed Griner on this point: “You know there are those who say, ‘Come on. How did you not know that you had cartridges in your luggage?’”

“It’s just so easy to have a mental lapse,” Griner replied. “Granted, my mental lapse was on a more grand scale. But it doesn’t take away from how that can happen,” she explained.

Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison on Aug. 4, 2022, and in October 2022, a judge denied the appeal filed by Griner’s attorneys.

The sentence landed Griner in a penal colony in the Russian region of Mordovia.

“It’s a work camp. You go there to work,” said Griner. “There’s no rest.” Her job was cutting fabric for Russian military uniforms.

“What were the conditions like there?” Roberts asked.

“Really cold,” Griner said. So cold that her health was impacted and she decided to chop off her long dreadlocks.

“What was that like losing that part of you, too?” Roberts asked Griner.

“Honestly, it just had to happen. We had spiders above my bed — making nests,” she said. “My dreads started to freeze,” she added. “They would just stay wet and cold and I was getting sick. You’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do to survive.”

Her arrest came around the same time as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, further increasing tensions between Russia and the U.S. But as the Los Angeles Blade reported on Dec, 8, 2022, Russia agreed to release Griner in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

However, before winning her freedom, Griner revealed authorities forced her to write a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“They made me write this letter. It was in Russian,” she said. “I had to ask for forgiveness and thanks from their so-called great leader. I didn’t want to do it, but at the same time I wanted to come home.”

Griner said her heart sank upon boarding the plane to freedom and finding that Paul Whelan, another American the White House said was “wrongfully detained,” wasn’t leaving Russia with her.

“I walked on and didn’t see him, maybe he’s next. Maybe they will bring him next,” she said. “They closed the door, and I was like, are you serious? You’re not going to let this man come home now.”

Griner recounts on the experience in “Coming Home,” a memoir set to be released on May 7. 

988 is the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline and is available 24/7 via phone, text or chat to everyone of all ages, orientations and identities. If you are a transgender, nonbinary, or gender-nonconforming person considering suicide, Trans Lifeline can be reached at 877-565-8860. LGBTQ+ youth (ages 24 and younger) can reach the Trevor Project Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386. You can still also contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 24 hours a day, and it’s available to people of all ages and identities.

Additional resources:

If you are in a life-threatening situation, please dial 911.

If you are in crisis, please dial 988 or contact Rainbow Youth Project directly at +1 (317) 643-4888

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