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The intersection of sports policy and LGBTQ equality

A powerful force for transforming individuals and society

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homophobia in sports, sports policy, gay news, Washington Blade

Ashland Johnson (Photo courtesy of Johnson)

Sports have the power to captivate the fans and transform the athletes.  As a former Division I basketball player and lifelong athlete, I can personally attest to how sports can build character, encourage discipline, foster community, and teach individuals to work together toward a common goal.

And as a civil rights advocate, I see the power of sports — and especially team sports — to transform both individuals and society by bringing communities together. Sports provide us with a platform to promote our equality message on a broader scale.

We’ve come a long way.

Historically, sports was an arena that hewed to rigid societal gender roles, fueling a legacy of homophobia, transphobia and biphobia on and off the field. Until recent years, being an openly LGBTQ athlete came with great risk: it often meant risking your job, your spot on the team, commercial endorsements, and even your safety.

I spent most of my life playing competitive sports in the South. Like many other athletes, I had to spend most of my life closeted for fear of losing my team (family) and my scholarship, which was my livelihood.

However, in recent years, progress toward inclusion in sport has mirrored advances in other areas of society. In particular, the coming out of Brittney Griner, Jason Collins, and Robbie Rogers in 2013 signaled a game change — pro leagues and fans could no longer deny that LGBTQ people could both participate and excel in sports.

Increasingly, sports leagues are adopting and promoting LGBTQ-inclusive policies. For example, the NCAA recently created an LGBTQ-inclusve anti-discrimination policy in its bidding process in an attempt to be more LGBTQ-inclusive at the venues hosting NCAA-controlled tournaments. Further, sports bodies including the U.S. Soccer Federation, the National Women’s Hockey League, and the NCAA have created pathways for transgender inclusion in competition.

We’ve also seen greater repercussions for athletes who make anti-LGBTQ comments in MLS, MLB, NFL, and the NBA, where anti-LGBTQ comments can lead to hefty fines and/or loss of lucrative sponsorships.

These wins not only bolster LGBTQ participation in athletics, but also help us secure LGBTQ equality victories under the law. Leagues and teams with inclusive policies and practices tend to have more visible LGBTQ participation by players, coaches, administration, and fans. Increased visibility makes these sports entities more likely to take public positions on LGBTQ equality — positions that educate voters and potentially influence lawmakers.

Indeed, voices in the sports community have proven to be essential to LGBTQ rights battles in Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas in the last two legislative cycles. In Georgia, the NFL, the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, and the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons all released statements opposing a bill that would have allowed businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people. And recently in Texas, women athletes took to social media to speak out against Texas’ most recent anti-transgender bill.

Voices in the sports community will continue to be essential allies in protecting and promoting LGBTQ equality as we continue to face an onslaught of attacks at the state and federal level. And if we want to fully harness the power of sports to positively impact LGBTQ equality under the law, we must make sure that our sports institutions are built on a solid foundation of LGBTQ nondiscrimination.

Unfortunately, that is not yet the case. Most leagues, teams, and governing bodies still lack basic LGBTQ protections for players, coaches, and fans. For example, NCAA athletes can still lose their scholarships because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. And currently only some states have laws that protect transgender athletes from discrimination in high school athletics. The NWHL is the only professional U.S. league with a pathway for transgender athletes to compete. Increasing the inclusive policies in sports, and addressing the disparities they create, will help our ability to leverage our sports communities in our efforts to win equal rights.

So, as we look to make further inroads to change hearts and minds in parts of the country that are still reticent to accept LGBTQ people, sport can be as crucial and effective an avenue as our partnerships with businesses and faith communities. When we work to make sport more inclusive, we’re not just supporting individual players,  we’re fortifying an invaluable avenue for equality.

 

Ashland Johnson is a civil rights lawyer and sports inclusion advocate. She serves as director of public education and research for the Human Rights Campaign.

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Maura Healey for governor of Massachusetts

The best candidate to lead residents into the future

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Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Maura Healey is the clear choice for governor of Massachusetts. As a woman and a lesbian, she understands what it means to face discrimination and has used her life experiences, turning them into a successful career fighting for the rights of all the people of Massachusetts.  

Maura is a graduate of Harvard with a degree in government and has her Juris Doctor from Northeastern University School of Law. What some in Massachusetts may know is after graduation from Harvard, and before getting her law degree, Maura spent two years playing as a starting point guard for a professional basketball team in Austria. She truly is an amazing woman.

Maura went to work for the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office. She became chief of the Civil Rights Division where she successfully led the state’s challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act. During her time as a lawyer with the office she also served as the chief of the Public Protection and Advocacy Bureau and chief of the Business and Labor Bureau fighting for consumers, workers, environmental protections and more. So, clearly Maura was always a leader. In 2014, she ran and won her race for attorney general, becoming the first openly gay state AG in the nation. She has served with distinction in that role for the past seven years managing an office of more than 600 employees. Her record is one of standing up for all the people of Massachusetts.

Maura is now running for governor and the people of her state have the opportunity to elect an experienced, tested, smart, savvy woman to lead them. Maura understands government and has a vision for the future that she is sharing with the people of Massachusetts. That vision is simple — to improve the lives of all the people. Maura is a respected and strong leader and will fight to make her vision a reality. 

Maura understands the issue of climate change and recently released her agenda on the subject at maurahealey.com/climate, which indicates she fully understands progress on this issue will make a difference for all as people work together to save the planet. Her agenda includes making great strides on renewable energy, including wind and solar. She believes done properly this can bring tens of thousands of jobs to the state. She knows Massachusetts can remain a leader in new technology development, and a leader in ensuring environmental justice. 

Maura understands how Massachusetts can use the once-in-a-lifetime funds from the federal infrastructure program President Biden got through Congress to make progress on a host of issues facing the state. 

She talks about guaranteeing quality healthcare for all; equal justice and economic justice; women’s rights; quality education; and giving every person in Massachusetts a fair shot at success. She believes each person deserves to live in a safe community and has fought for reforms to end the spate of violence in our nation. 

Maura is talking to the people of Massachusetts as she travels the state about the need for more affordable housing, ending homelessness, and her commitment to making Massachusetts the place where all women will be assured of equal access to quality health care. When elected governor, she will ensure the state remains committed to a woman having control of her own body and healthcare decisions. She will make the state a welcoming place for those women who live in other states that may not be doing the same.

She speaks of making Massachusetts a leader in providing affordable child care and is committed to transforming Massachusetts’s early education and care system. She has released her proposals and support for the Common Start legislation, which would make child care free for the state’s lowest-income families, limit child care costs for most families to no more than 7 percent of their income, and significantly increase pay for early educators to address the workforce crisis in the early education field. These are just some of the proposals Maura has to fulfill her vision for a better future for all the people of Massachusetts. 

It is clear Maura Healey is the best candidate to lead Massachusetts into the future. I urge everyone to join her campaign and help elect Maura Healey governor.

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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Politicians should stop using children as political punching bags

Let us hold leaders accountable for their vicious self-centeredness

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (Screen capture via YouTube)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s recent signing of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill was a body blow to the LGBTQ+ community — particularly for those of us who trust in our schools to provide a safe and welcoming space for our children.

But it was what the governor’s press secretary, Christina Pushaw, tweeted earlier in March that made my heart leap into my throat. “If you’re against the Anti-Grooming bill, you are probably a groomer.”

As the former executive director of GLSEN, I know a dog whistle when I hear it. And I also know that politicians who have ambitions of running for higher office, like DeSantis, choose their words extremely carefully.

DeSantis is deliberately activating a cultural fear tactic to scare schools and educators away from providing LGBTQ+ children and their families with potentially life-saving support. And unfortunately he is far from alone in going down this dangerous path of spouting hate for political leverage.

Throughout the historic Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Ketanji Brown Jackson, we saw Sens. Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, and others bring the specter of child indoctrination into the national discussion in the context of race. In doing so, they were following the lead of Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist-journalist known for creating an all-purpose header for all things controversial out of the label “critical race theory” (CRT).

This began to take shape last year with the intentional mischaracterization of schools implementing diversity, equity and inclusion programs as attempts to indoctrinate our kids with divisive leftist ideals. Starting with Hawley’s attacks on Judge Jackson, they upped the ante by accusing schools of “grooming” children to be anti-racist — this time drawing from the QAnon playbook.

Radical politicians push legislation like the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, or vile rhetoric like the insinuations about Judge Jackson, in order to further their agenda of dismantling our children’s access to a good, truly multicultural public education by sowing confusion and distrust, as was openly stated by Rufo at a speaking event at Hillsdale College earlier in April. All the while, they create a deeply dangerous environment for some of our most vulnerable children.

And their timing could not be more dire. This deluge of bad policymaking and shrill rhetoric is happening at the exact moment when we are experiencing a national mental health crisis among our youth. Nearly four out of 10 teens reported feeling “persistently sad or hopeless,” according to CDC data — a 40 percent increase from pre-pandemic levels.

Black and LGBTQ+ students in particular are more likely than their peers to have attempted suicide, and when politicians use them as political chips to be played, it compounds those risks. Never mind the fact that schools’ efforts to undo racism and anti-LGBTQ+ bias and violence is itself an investment in these children’s survival. Black adolescents experience multiple instances of racial discrimination every day, one study found, with real consequences for their mental health. Schools need to play an active role in rectifying that.

In my 20 years at GLSEN, I wrote far too many condolence letters to parents who lost a child to suicide. Some politicians see no harm in shaming and stigmatizing vulnerable children.

We’ve seen lately this onrush of harmful, self-centered behavior from those in a position of public trust. But on the other end of the spectrum, is Spencer Cox: the Republican governor of Utah who recently issued a brilliant letter explaining his veto of an anti-trans sports bill passed by the state legislature.

Vetoing the bill, which would have banned trans girls from participating in women’s sports in public schools, was surely a politically unpopular move in a deep-red state. But after thoughtfully considering the issues, reviewing key research, and weighing the competing needs of stakeholders, Cox took a stand in defense of some of Utah’s most vulnerable children.

For all those who rise to the calling of public service, there’s a choice to be made. Gov. Cox made the choice to safeguard the most vulnerable youth in his state despite the political implications. I sincerely hope that in this critical moment, more of our country’s leaders will follow his example.

And should it take more than their own consciences to do so, let us all hold leaders accountable for the impact of their cynical/vicious/immoral self-centeredness on all of our children.

Eliza Byard is a senior adviser to the Campaign for Our Shared Future, a leading global expert on LGBTQ+ issues in K-12 education and youth development, and served as executive director of GLSEN from 2008-2021. 

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Where does wrongful detention of Brittney Griner go from here?

She will inevitably be labeled a hostage

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Brittney Griner

It seems like years rather than weeks ago that American political prisoner, Trevor Reed, was released from Russia in a prisoner swap. It also seems like years since an American citizen, basketball superstar Brittney Griner, was taken into custody in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport for allegedly having hashish oil in her possession. 

We now know what many of us believed all along – that Brittney Griner was, in the far too late proclamation by the U.S. government, “wrongfully detained.” In diplomacy-speak, wrongfully detained is synonymous with politically detained, which is super close to what will soon enough inevitably happen – calling Brittney Griner a hostage. 

Since the beginning of Griner’s detention, I have done dozens of print, radio, TV, and related interviews, and I have a pretty clear view of how and why we got here. 

As I wrote around six weeks ago, if we read between the lines of what’s being said in traditional and social media, we can extract three key reasons why the Griner situation isn’t getting the attention that it should be and would be if it was a different athlete.

The first reason is that Brittney Griner is not a terribly high-profile athlete.

This is patently untrue. As I have been commenting from the minute we learned that she was taken into custody by the Russians, Griner was absolutely the highest-profile American athlete that Russia could have taken into custody as they were preparing for their brutal invasion of Ukraine. 

The only other high-profile athletes playing in Russia or transiting through at that time were the very few American players in Russia’s top hockey league, the KHL. None are superstars in their sport, as Griner is.

The second argument for why Griner isn’t getting the attention she should be is that she is LGBTQ.

I have argued that this is a reasonably good hypothesis. It just seems that a straight athlete would be getting a lot more attention and public sympathy than Griner has, in part, yet not in full, because of her sexual orientation. That’s a remarkably harsh position to have to take in 2022, yet it’s clear that Griner doesn’t fit the mold of what many Americans see as that all-American athlete. That one’s sexual or gender orientation should drive the American public’s level of sympathy for one of their own top athletes is a shame, but here we are.

The third and most commonly cited reason for Brittany Griner getting less attention than another athlete in a similar situation is that she’s Black. 

This argument holds little weight with me. Yes, it makes sense that in comparison to a high-profile white athlete, some people are simply going to care less about a Black athlete. Again, that’s a harsh analysis, yet not unaligned with many things going on in the nation today.

But I think this is a reductive argument that crumbles under the weight of the analogy that I usually use during TV and radio broadcasts about the Griner case – and that is, what if this was Kyrie Irving?

I like to use Kyrie Irving as an analogy because he is a highly controversial Black athlete. Obviously, NBA players don’t have to have second jobs in places like Russia, Turkey, and China, to make ends meet, as the WNBA women do. But just imagine that Kyrie Irving was traveling alone through Moscow airport. If Irving had been taken into custody by the Russians, I can guarantee that this would be front-page news not just in the sports section but on the front page of all significant papers practically every day. That simply hasn’t been the case with Brittney Griner.

Every day, I am asked where this goes from here. With Griner’s May 19 hearing delayed “one month” (though at the time of writing, no date has been set), I remained convinced of two things: that this goes to a worse place than we are now and that it progresses painfully slowly. 

As to the first point, to maximize leverage over the United States, it’s likely that Griner will end up somewhere like a Russian labor camp before she ever steps back into the United States. While Russia does not follow the Rule of Law, it would be neither legally nor politically expedient to just hold Griner in a Moscow jail or prison indefinitely. They need to make her situation worse to turn up the urgency of the case for the American government.

But this indeed won’t happen overnight. As I’ve also been saying all along, the next hearing date will also be delayed, OR we will learn through a TASS Russian media release that Griner was tried, found guilty of all charges, and sentenced (see labor camp, above).

As to what each of us can do, my advice remains the same: Keep talking about it. Make this Brittney as viral as Britney Spears was a year ago. Just as Britney Spears’ freedom from her conservatorship was turbo-charged by the #FreeBritney hashtag, let’s #FreeBrittney now.

This is significantly less trite than it sounds. There is no indication that the American government doesn’t want you to forget about Brittney Griner. As former hostage Jason Rezaian discussed on an excellent recent Washington Post podcast, he always “calls BS” on those parties, saying we should keep detentions such as Griner’s out of the public spotlight. He advocates being as loud as we can be on this, which is why I keep doing interviews on this issue as much as possible.

Ultimately, Brittney Griner will be a political prisoner until the United States and Russia can decide, in crass basketball terms, on a fair player trade. On Friday, we learned that the two sides might actually be in discussions now for a trade involving Griner for notorious convicted arms trafficker Viktor Bout, aka the “Merchant of Death.”

Unless this can re-enter and remain in the public spotlight, along with any pressure on the government, Britney Griner will not get the treatment she deserves as one of the greatest basketball players of her generation. That the massive disparity between how NBA and WNBA players are compensated laid the foundation for her to be in this position is the harsh reality these leagues face today. Yet it pales compared to the uncertain reality Griner faces today in a Moscow jail.

A Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer, Aron Solomon, JD, is the chief legal analyst for Today’s Esquire. He has taught entrepreneurship at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania, and was elected to Fastcase 50, recognizing the top 50 legal innovators in the world.

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