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Life after the ‘Chinese Sports Machine’

Champion swimmer Abi Liu finds rewarding new chapter as coach, wife

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Abi Liu, gay news, Washington Blade

Abi Liu (Washington Blade photo by Kevin Majoros)

For years, Abi Liu was out, but not out. In her role as the head coach of 150 age group swimmers at Peak Swimming in San Jose, Calif., she was and still is, working with youth. In addition to the swim team, she is also running two swim schools, Saratoga Star Aquatics and Milpitas Star Aquatics with 4,500 students weekly.

The kids always seemed to pick up on things, but she was guarded around the parents. In 2013, Liu was falling in love and when her future wife came to see her at work, she couldn’t hold back anymore.

“That moment was really the turning point,” says Liu. “When KR arrived at the pool, I ran out and we hugged and kissed. The parents saw it and just smiled.”

Still, with her career focused on youth swimmers, Liu hadn’t had much interaction with out adult athletes. That all changed in April when she was asked to coach 40 LGBT masters swimmers at a training camp in Fort Lauderdale hosted by Team New York Aquatics. She wasn’t sure what she was walking into, but found a pleasant surprise when she arrived.

“It was like I returned to the mother ship,” Liu says. “I found a like-minded community that felt like my home team. I was even cracking dirty jokes.”

Liu was raised in Wenzhou, China and started swimming at age eight. In 1989 at age 13, she captured a title at the Chinese Junior National Championships and was recruited to the Chinese National Team. She would spend the next eight years of her life inside of what is commonly referred to as the Chinese Sports Machine.

“My parents wanted me to stay home and finish school, but this was my dream come true,” says Liu. “Twenty family members came to see me off on the bus and there were a lot of tears.”

As a national team member, Liu lived in a dorm with other athletes in Beijing, ate in the dorm and wore a uniform with the Chinese national emblem. Her dorm mates included divers, ping pong players and weightlifters.

“It was a very controlled environment where you work, live and socialize with other athletes. The mental burnout had to be kept in check,” Liu says. “I would choose the same path if I had it to do over again. It was a great life experience.”

During her career, Liu was a Chinese national record holder in the 200-meter backstroke, two-time Chinese national champion, gold medalist at the FINA World Cup, silver medalist at the Asia Games and bronze medalist at the FINA World Championships.

Home visits with her family in Wenzhou were limited to 15 days per year and in her dorm, 60 athletes per floor shared one phone to call home. Her new family unit became her teammates.

As for being a gay athlete, Liu says that it was not discussed.

“Nobody talked about sexuality, but having no parental supervision allowed me to be free to do whatever I wanted,” says Liu. “It was a dorm after all.”

When she finished her swimming career with the national team, she was contacted by a sports reporter about colleges in the United States that were giving out full swimming scholarships. She was granted a green card for people with special abilities and began swimming for the University of Nevada, Reno in 1997.

Liu left collegiate swimming after two years and found a coaching position in the Bay Area. She returned to school at San Jose State University and earned a degree in Kinesiology and Biomechanics.

In 2010, a group of investors approached her to start a new swim school in the area. Liu agreed to the offer and negotiated to have a swim team added as well.

“All those years of swim training was a physical experience. What I learned at school was a scientific experience,” Liu says. “It gave me the ability to explain why, and to educate my swimmers with techniques and information that stays with them.”

Liu’s relationship with KR evolved to a point where it was time to come out to her parents who reside in both Vancouver and Wenzhou. The news didn’t go over well and there was no communication with them for more than two years.

Abi Liu and KR Liu were married on Aug. 8, 2015, in Maui and returned to the Bay Area for a celebration. One of Liu’s brothers attended the party and was surprised to see all the people there supporting the newlyweds. The news spread back to her family and her dad reached out and asked them to come to Vancouver.

In Chinese societies, there is a custom of handing out red envelopes on special occasions. The red color of the envelope symbolizes good luck and is a symbol to ward off evil spirits.

“I wasn’t sure what to expect when we were heading to Vancouver,” says Liu. “When we arrived, my parents came out and started hugging us. My Grandma handed us a red envelope.”

These days, the Liu family is happily reattached and communicate on a regular basis. Abi Liu’s coaching career has soared and she is a two-time Pacific Swimming coach of the year.

She is also serving as an ambassador for USA Swimming’s LGBT Cultural Inclusion Group. The outreach program has evolved into diversity camps and Liu recently coached at a camp in Colorado Springs.

“I am so fortunate that my parents came around and that I have a loving wife,” Liu says. “I feel so much lighter and open now. Everything has lifted and I am 100% myself. I want others like me to know that they are never alone.”

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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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Bisexual former umpire sues Major League Baseball for sexual harassment

Brandon Cooper claims female colleague sexually harassed him

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Arizona Complex League game in 2023. (YouTube screenshot)

A fired former umpire is suing Major League Baseball, claiming he was sexually harassed by a female umpire and discriminated against because of his gender and his sexual orientation. 

Brandon Cooper worked in the minor league Arizona Complex League last year, and according to the lawsuit he filed Wednesday in federal court in Manhattan, he identifies as bisexual. 

“I wanted my umpiring and ability to speak for itself and not to be labeled as ‘Brandon Cooper the bisexual umpire,’” he told Outsports. “I didn’t want to be labeled as something. It has been a passion of mine to simply make it to the Major Leagues.”

But that didn’t happen. Instead of being promoted, he was fired. His suit names MLB and an affiliated entity, PDL Blue, Inc., and alleges he had endured a hostile work environment and wrongful termination and/or retaliation because of gender and sexual orientation under New York State and New York City law.

“Historically the MLB has had a homogenous roster of umpires working in both the minor and major leagues,” Cooper claims in his suit. “Specifically, to date there has never been a woman who has worked in a (regular) season game played in the majors, and most umpires are still Caucasian men. To try to fix its gender and racial diversity issue, defendants have implemented an illegal diversity quota requiring that women be promoted regardless of merit.”

Cooper claims former umpire Ed Rapuano, now an umpire evaluator, and Darren Spagnardi, an umpire development supervisor, told him in January 2023 that MLB had a hiring quota, requiring that at least two women be among 10 new hires.

According to the suit, Cooper was assigned to spring training last year and was notified by the senior manager of umpire administration, Dusty Dellinger, that even though he received a high rating in June from former big league umpire Jim Reynolds, now an umpire supervisor, that women and minority candidates had to be hired first. 

Cooper claims that upon learning Cooper was bisexual, fellow umpire Gina Quartararo insulted him and fellow umpire Kevin Bruno by using homophobic slurs and crude remarks. At that time, Quartararo and Cooper worked on the same umpiring crew and being evaluated for possible promotion to the big leagues.

This season, Quartararo is working as an umpire in the Florida State League, one of nine women who are working as minor league umpires.

Cooper said he notified Dellinger, but instead of taking action against Quartararo, he said MLB ordered Cooper to undergo sensitivity training. According to his lawsuit, he was also accused of violating the minor league anti-discrimination and harassment policy.

Cooper’s suit says he met with MLB Senior Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Billy Bean — who the Los Angeles Blade reported in December is battling cancer. 

The lawsuit says at that meeting, Bean told the umpire that Quartararo claimed she was the victim, as the only female umpire in the ACL. Cooper said he told Bean Quartararo regularly used homophobic slurs and at one point physically shoved him. He also claims that he has video evidence, texts and emails to prove his claim. 

But he said his complaints to Major League Baseball officials were ignored. His lawsuit said MLB passed him over for the playoffs and fired him in October. He said of the 26 umpires hired with Cooper, he was the only one let go.

Through a spokesperson, MLB declined to comment on pending litigation. Quartararo has also not publicly commented on the lawsuit.

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