Just 16 years old, Johnny Weir was already one of the world’s top international figure skaters. The sport was a lucrative business and Weir’s talent amassed attention from agencies worldwide.
“The first agency that approached me said, ‘We really want you, but you can’t be gay if we represent you,'” Weir says. “I hadn’t even come out to my mother.”
Sports marketing is a $70-plus billion industry and one in which gay athletes are still finding their footing with balancing their personal brand and their sexuality. But it wasn’t long ago that being out wasn’t widely accepted by the sports community or its stakeholders.
“When we won the World Cup in 1999, the networks were very curious about where I was running to celebrate,” says recent National Soccer Hall of Fame inductee Briana Scurry. “The cameras followed me. But when they realized it was to my girlfriend, they cut away.”
Presentation and representation of an athlete dictates the career. In most cases the majority of an athlete’s lifetime earnings and social impacts come by way of sponsorships and marketing opportunities so branding is the most important game many athletes will ever play. But it’s not simple. And for gay athletes, finding an identity that appeals to teammates, fans and sponsors alike is an even more complex facet of the business.
Though agencies and corporations weren’t always open to partnering with gay athletes, augmented acceptance has alleviated constraints on their opportunities within the industry. “Demographics have changed,” says Hudson Taylor, founder of Athlete Ally. “Younger generations are very accepting. Sponsors and agencies have seen both internal backing and increased support from consumers.”
Now, 18 years since Briana Scurry and Johnny Weir were penalized for their sexual orientation, it’s one of the key aspects considered when developing an athlete’s personal brand.
Dan Levy, a senior vice president with sports marketing firm Wasserman suggests, “People get excited when athletes come out, so players feel pressure to present their orientation publicly. It’s a piece of the puzzle; it’s a variable you have to take into consideration when trying to create opportunities.”
But there’s still no clear-cut approach to branding for the gay athlete. As restraints faded with mounting cultural approval, new challenges emerged. No longer fixated on the industry’s consent, gay athletes must consider the degree to which they represent and champion their sexual orientation through their branding.
“Abby [Wambach] felt really strongly that true progress was not having to come out and talk about it publicly,” says Levy.
Wambach, whose first public confirmation of her sexual orientation was her 2013 marriage, told the Associated Press, “I never felt like I was in a closet. I’ve never been asked a question about my relationship — rightfully so, because it shouldn’t matter.”
Laina Cohn, partner at Cohn Torgan Management and representative for Johnny Weir suggests that not every athlete is equipped to lead the charge. “Johnny wasn’t an activist, he was an athlete. His whole world was about getting on the ice and winning. He never stepped onto the ice because he was gay.”
Some athletes view their branding as a responsibility. Joanna Lohman, one of the National Women’s Soccer League’s most outspoken advocates, embraces the position. “I am admired for being out and proud. I realize how special it is to be viewed that way — it’s why I take advocating so seriously. It’s important for me to use the platform and brand that I have as a professional athlete to elevate the community.”
Similarly, Megan Rapinoe utilized her visibility and personal brand to represent the LGBT community after inking a healthy deal with Nike. “Megan was the first athlete I really dug in with on a coming out,” Levy says. “She felt really strongly after the World Cup that she wanted people to see that there are a lot of gay athletes out there.” Rapinoe in 2014 served as guest editor of the Washington Blade’s Sports Issue.
But it’s a different world for men, a view shared by many.
“There’s a lot of social pressure on the male side,” Lohman submits. “It’s not a very supportive environment. There are labels and stigmas associated with being a gay man in sports, so you just don’t see that represented very often. On the women’s side it’s much more accepted, if not assumed.”
Scurry says that hesitation on the part of male athletes stems from existing in a different culture. “For female athletes now, it doesn’t seem to hinder them. But with male athletes, it’s different. There are a lot of male athletes that have chosen not to come out until after their career was over.”
Biases against gay males have been integrated into the actual structure of sports perpetuating stereotypes and suppressing awareness. “Sport is a gendered space, an institution that teaches masculinity and femininity and it does so in a very binary way,” Taylor says. “That masculinity is often wrongly reinforced with homophobic language.”
But representatives like Cohn are optimistic. “I hope things change. I hope that by having stories told, by sharing experiences through television and social media the culture will eventually be different.”
Levy recognizes the shift in the acceptability of promoting gay athletes. “It mirrors our culture and what has changed. The progress we’ve made as a society is showing up in the world of sports. Maybe it’s at a different pace, but progress has been made.”
Briana Scurry sees a new landscape for the gay athlete’s public persona.
“There’s a huge difference in athlete presentation now,” she says. “One of the most memorable moments of the 2015 World Cup was Abby running to her partner after the final match. Nobody looked away. Eighteen years since the camera swung away from me, it stayed right on them. It’s a clear differentiator between how gay athletes could present their brands and themselves then and now.”
For Weir, presenting himself authentically was empowering.
“I could’ve signed with that first agency at 16 years old and completely whitewashed myself. But I would have been boring. I would have never had the career I’ve had. I stuck to my guns and we created this brand and my agency, they support me as a human being. … Being the absolute truest brand of myself has been the greatest career asset I’ve had.”
Formula One racing star wears LGBTQ Pride helmet at Qatar Grand Prix
“It’s down to whether you decide to educate yourself, hold the sport more accountable and make sure the sport is actually doing something”
DOHA, Qatar – Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team’s seven time Grand Prix champion driver Lewis Hamilton won in the inaugural run of the Qatar Grand Prix Formula One race Sunday.
That was not the only significant event that the 36-year-old race car driver participated in during his Qatar stay as prior to the race, Hamilton had shown support for the LGBTQ+ community during a practice session on Friday, wearing a a helmet featuring the Pride Progress Flag, a redesigned and more inclusive version of the traditional rainbow flag, and emblazoned with the words “We Stand Together.”
The flag features additional black and brown stripes to highlight the oppression of people of color, as well as pink and blue stripes for the trans flag and a purple circle on a yellow background, which is the intersex flag.
On his personal Twitter account the Formula One racer tweeted pictures of his helmet, which he wore at the end of Trans Awareness Week and this weekend which marks the International Transgender Day of Remembrance on Saturday.
We stand together. pic.twitter.com/F3hKZwVLyN— Lewis Hamilton (@LewisHamilton) November 19, 2021
Hamilton had received a knighthood from the British monarch Queen Elizabeth II in December a year ago for his human rights and advocacy work with his private charity, The Hamilton Commission, which the Stevenage, Hertfordshire, UK native set-up to simultaneously address the underrepresentation of Black people in UK motorsport, as well as the STEM sector.
The queen’s honors are awarded twice a year, in late December and in June, when the monarch’s birthday is observed. The awards acknowledge hundreds of people for services to community or British national life. Recipients are selected by committees of civil servants from nominations made by the government and the public.
In an interview with the Guardian, Hamilton said that he believes “sportspeople are duty bound to speak out on human rights matters in the countries they visit. With Qatar hosting its first Formula One Grand Prix this weekend and facing new allegations of worker exploitation and abuse in its preparations for next year’s football World Cup, Hamilton insisted he would hold the sport to account for the places it chooses to race.“
Prior to the debut of the Qatar Formula One race and with the 2022 FIFA World Cup matches slated for 2022 in Qatar, focus once more fell on human rights issues. The Guardian reported that workers within the state have claimed that reforms to the country’s restrictive kafala labour sponsorship system have been ineffective while human rights groups continue to highlight oppressive male guardianship policies as well as discriminatory laws against women and LGBTQ+ individuals.
“We’re aware there are issues in these places that we’re going to,” Hamilton told the Guardian. “But of course [Qatar] seems to be deemed as one of the worst in this part of the world. As sports go to these places, they are duty bound to raise awareness for these issues. These places need scrutiny. Equal rights is a serious issue.”
He added: “If we are coming to these places, we need to be raising the profile of the situation. One person can only make a certain amount of small difference but collectively we can have a bigger impact. Do I wish that more sportsmen and women spoke out on these issues? Yes.
“It’s down to whether you decide to educate yourself and hold the sport more accountable and make sure the sport is actually doing something when they go to those places.”
CNN reported that British intersex activist and columnist Valentino Vecchietti finalized the version seen on Hamilton’s helmet, which includes the intersex flag. “It means everything,” Vecchietti told CNN. “I can’t express what an amazing, massive, massive thing Lewis Hamilton has done. And I feel emotional talking about it, because we are so hidden and stigmatized as a population.”
International Olympic Committee issues new “Framework On Fairness” for inclusion of Trans Athletes
The International Olympic Committee announced new guidance allowing “every person” to participate & abandons testosterone levels as criteria
LAUSANNE, Switzerland – Following the first Olympic Games in which transgender athletes not only competed but made history by winning a gold medal, the International Olympic Committee stunned the world of sport Tuesday by not revising the criteria focused on testosterone, as expected, but moving away from it altogether.
The IOC announced its new Framework on Fairness, Inclusion and Non-Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity and Sex Variations in a Zoom meeting hosted in Lausanne, Switzerland.
The leaders said they consulted with 250 athletes and “concerned stakeholders” including medical and legal experts over two years, and determined “every person has the right to practice sport without discrimination and in a way that respects their health, safety and dignity.” While stressing that competitive sports “relies on a level playing field,” the IOC tacitly acknowledged the complaints of trans-exclusionary cisgender women athletes by stating support for “the central role that eligibility criteria play in ensuring fairness, particularly in high-level organized sport in the women’s category.”
GLAAD heralded the announcement as making it clear that “no athlete has an inherent advantage over another due to their gender identity, sex variations, or appearance.”
“This is a victory for all athletes and fans, who know the power and potential of sports to bring people together and make us all stronger,” said Alex Schmider of GLAAD. “Sports are for everyone, and fairness in sports means inclusion, belonging and safety for all who want to participate, including transgender, intersex, and nonbinary athletes.”
What the IOC didn’t do was issue new criteria for testosterone levels and did not define who is or isn’t a woman, and for the first time in modern Olympic history, is walking away from its “one size fits all” guidance. It’ll be left up to each sport and governing body to determine who is eligible to compete. The IOC guidance is that the criteria should respect internationally recognized human rights, rely on robust scientific evidence as well as athlete consultation, and that “precautions be taken to avoid causing harm to the health and well-being of athletes.”
Although intended to guide elite athletes, the committee suggested all levels of sport, even recreational and grassroots sport, respect inclusion and non-discrimination policies.
Here are the 10 principles outlined by the IOC to to welcome all athletes at every level of participation, centered on the values of inclusion, prevention of harm and non-discrimination.
2. Prevention of Harm
5. No presumption of Advantage
6. Evidence-based Approach
7. Primacy of Health and Bodily Autonomy
8. Stakeholder-Centered Approach
9. Right to Privacy
10. Periodic Reviews
Athlete Ally was one of the agencies consulted by the IOC in determining this framework. “We hope to continue working closely with the IOC to ensure that the policies and practices governing sport actually include and represent the diversity of people playing sport,” said Anne Lieberman, Director of Policy and Programs at Athlete Ally.
“Far too often, sport policy does not reflect the lived experience of marginalized athletes, and that’s especially true when it comes to transgender athletes and athletes with sex variations,” said Quinn of Canada’s Olympic Soccer team and the world’s first trans nonbinary gold medalist. “This new IOC framework is groundbreaking in the way that it reflects what we know to be true — that athletes like me and my peers participate in sports without any inherent advantage, and that our humanity deserves to be respected.”
“I think that the IOC has made a powerful statement in favor of transgender inclusion, but I think that items 5 and 6 in their framework are problematic,” said Joanna Harper, the visiting fellow for transgender athletic performance at Loughborough University in the U.K. and a former IOC consultant.
“On average, transgender women are taller, bigger and stronger than cisgender women and these are advantages in many sports,” Harper told the Los Angeles Blade. “It is also unreasonable to ask sporting federations to have robust, peer-reviewed research prior to placing any restrictions on transgender athletes in elite sports. Such research is years or maybe decades away from completion. I do think that recreational sports should allow unrestricted inclusion of trans athletes.”
As San Francisco-based trans journalist Ina Fried noted in Axios, the IOC said that sex testing, genital inspections and other medical procedures to determine gender put all athletes at risk of harm and abuse, not just trans, intersex and nonbinary athletes. But the bottom line, Fried wrote, is that this new framework isn’t legally binding on any sports governing bodies, which now have carte blanche to write their own rules for eligibility.
Proud to be a Fury
New film a touching tribute to the history of women’s rugby
The last time that the Blade checked in with DC Furies player Liz Linstrom, she mentioned that she would always contribute to the club even if injuries sidelined her ability to play.
That statement proved to be prophetic as Linstrom experienced her third ACL tear while in the beginnings of filming a documentary about the Furies.
Linstrom had created a short documentary on women’s rugby and femininity as an undergraduate student at William & Mary and the itch was still there to produce more creative work.
Even though she was working three jobs and playing with the Furies, she felt she had enough work flexibility to pitch a documentary to the club in the fall of 2019.
The original idea was a past, present, and future look at women’s rugby in the United States through the lens of the players.
Established in 1978, the Furies quickly developed into a highly competitive club, and they are currently competing in the Mid-Atlantic Rugby Union and the Capital Geographic Union, with both Division 1 and Division 3 teams.
In March of 2020, the Furies were ramping up to host their 40th annual Ruggerfest tournament, one of the largest all-women’s rugby tournaments in the United States with brackets including high school, college, social, and competitive clubs.
Then the unexpected happened.
“COVID hit, the tournament was cancelled, and filming of the documentary came to an abrupt stop,” says Linstrom. “The story shifted to the resilience of women and club sports in a way that professional and semi-professional sports teams can’t relate.”
The resulting film, “Furious,” is a touching tribute to the history of women’s rugby, women’s rights, the Furies, tradition, family, and maneuvering through COVID.
Four gay women are central figures in the film with one being married and another nonbinary. The players share what women’s rugby was like in the 1970s.
“The beginnings of women’s rugby in the United States coincided with Title IX in 1972. As a sport in its early beginnings, teams couldn’t afford to push people away. If you wanted to hit someone, you were on the team,” Linstrom says. “By the 1990s, the women’s rugby community was advocating for LGBTQ rights and the Furies had Candace Gingrich as a long-time player. Eighty percent of the team were lesbians.”
Other aspects of women’s rugby that are brought to light are the camaraderie, commitment, sense of family, and the queer elements of the community.
One Fury player breaks her nose 20 minutes into a match, shoves a tampon up her nose, and goes back in as a blood substitution. Another player breaks her wrist and carpools five hours the next day to North Carolina to support her team during a game.
Toward the end of the film, Linstrom addresses the impact of COVID on a club team such as the Furies. Some are concerned about coming back to play and wonder whether the excitement will still be there. Others think about trying to replace the players who are leaving the D.C. area.
“Nothing will keep us from getting together. We are not pro athletes, but the highest levels of women’s rugby in the United States is still club teams,” says Linstrom. “The legacy of the club is very important to all of us. Every time we step onto the pitch, we are standing on the shoulders of the players who came before us. They are our founding bricks.”
“Furious” premiered online in September for family, friends, and Furies players with viewership in 15 states. Linstrom funded the project as producer and director along with a grant from Arlington Cultural Affairs. The film will now be submitted to festivals to reach a larger audience.
Linstrom has moved on from her three part-time jobs and is now working full-time as a video editor at a production studio in Alexandria along with coaching rugby at American University.
The Furies were able to play sevens rugby over the summer and had the first game of their fall fifteens season on Sept. 25.
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