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UCLA coach Kirk Walker on life after coming out

‘Your team is a family, and I needed to be true to my family’

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Kirk Walker, gay news, Washington Blade

Kirk Walker came out in 2005 while coaching for Oregon State.

Kirk Walker officially became the ‘gay’ Division I softball coach back in 2005 when he came out to his team at Oregon State. The press coverage followed with headlines that declared he was the first publicly out coach in the NCAA. Despite courageously sharing his story, Walker wasn’t completely comfortable with the new title.

“I didn’t want to be labeled the gay coach,” he admits. “But then I said that’s fine. I realized it needed to be said, that we needed to have some visibility. I decided to stop fighting it.”

Like his life, Walker’s role is one that keeps evolving. It has been shaped by the sports environment he works in, the confidence he continues to gain from the process of coming out and his morals. When he finally embraced who he was, he found it directly conflicted with his personal coaching philosophy. That was his motivating factor for coming out.

“I had been feeling for years like I was sending the wrong message,” says Walker, who has been an assistant coach at UCLA since returning in 2012. “As a coach you tell your athletes to have integrity and to be authentic. How could I ask that of them when I wasn’t setting that example? Your team is a family, and I needed to be true to my family. That was his motivating factor for coming out.”

Walker’s experience resonated with many, and after sharing his story, his inbox was flooded. When Rick Welts, a longtime NBA executive, decided to come out, Walker reached out to show his support. The response he got from Welts still inspires him to this day.

“I got an email from him that said, ‘I carried your story around with me before I decided to tell mine.’” He applauds the significance of sharing. “Your story can affect somebody.”

That small interaction was a big factor in leading Walker to enter the advocacy stage of his life, and he has been loaning his support to several LGBT sports initiatives for years. Nationally he has been involved since 2012 with the Nike LGBT Sports Coalition, speaking at the annual summit held in Portland, Ore.

“I have a great passion for LGBT advocacy,” says Walker, whose demeanor is both measured and charged with purpose. “There’s so much more to be done around education, bullying and diversity in sports. I hope to be able to do this full time when I retire from coaching. I look forward to any opportunity to be involved.”

Walker’s diversity and inclusion vision includes work with his foundation. Equality Coaching Alliance and the LGBT Sports Coalition both provide confidential support and counseling to hundreds of athletes. While the younger generation can benefit from more visible role models, something Walker did not have, he thinks their views on coming out or why they stay closeted are very different from in the past.

“They don’t really see coming out as being all that imperative and don’t even like labeling themselves as gay or straight,” he says. “There are many in this generation that are comfortable existing as they are, without making statements.”

Counseling and connecting high school, college and professional LGBT athletes is a major part of the advocacy work that Walker does. And he has seen throughout the years, that building a network of support creates an environment where athletes can see they are not alone, and can feel strong enough to choose to come out or not.

But Walker acknowledges there are fears around the process, and feels that the same pressures exist today.

“The perception that sports is inherently homophobic still keeps many coaches, athletes, and individuals from coming out,” he says. “You never have to come out when you are straight, it is assumed. Even in an accepting environment your sexuality will always be assumed straight because it is a huge majority of how society identifies itself.”

In his view, one of the most impactful detriments to not coming out is the amount of time and effort put into trying to be someone else.

“Every second that an athlete or a coach spends on pretending is wasted energy,” says Walker. He lived that lie for years, he says and it was exhausting. “Why does it matter whether you come out or not? Because it frees you up and allows you to focus on competing and being an athlete. It lets them uncap their athletic potential. What coach wouldn’t want that? What athlete wouldn’t?”

Promoting diversity, building awareness and helping create opportunities for LGBT athletes around the country fills up Walker’s days as much as devising strategies for his softball players. Along with the spotlight, he welcomes the titles.

“The stories we’ve seen in the last six or seven years have been powerful,” Walker says. “I think it will continue to be the headline of the story for a while. But it doesn’t have the same gravitas as before. We have to move on, to where it becomes the second part of the story. I think we will get there.”

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Sports

Washington Mystics to hold annual Pride game

Team to play Dallas Wings on Saturday

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Washington Mystics will be having their upcoming Pride game on Saturday against the Dallas Wings.

The Mystics Pride game is one of the team’s theme nights they host every year, with Pride night being a recurring event. The team faced off against the Phoenix Mercury last June. Brittney Griner, who Russia released from a penal colony in December 2022 after a court convicted her of importing illegal drugs after customs officials at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage, attended the game. 

Unlike the NBA, where there are currently no openly LGBTQ players, there are multiple WNBA players who are out. Mystics players Emily Englster, Brittney Sykes, and Stefanie Dolson are all queer.

The Mystics on June 1 acknowledged Pride Month in a post to its X account.

“Celebrating Pride this month and every month,” reads the message.

The game is on Saturday at 3 p.m. at the Entertainment and Sports Arena (1100 Oak Drive, S.E.). Fans can purchase special Pride tickets that come with exclusive Mystics Pride-themed jerseys. 

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Sports

Lia Thomas breaks silence after losing case to compete in Olympics, other elite women’s sports

Riley Gaines calls ruling a ‘victory’

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Lia Thomas (YouTube screen capture)

Transgender All-American swimming champion Lia Thomas will not be allowed to compete at the Olympics in Paris this summer, or any elite women’s competition, after a worldwide ban on trans women athletes was upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. And for the first time since granting an interview to ESPN in May 2022, Thomas is speaking out, as is her fiercest critic, Riley Gaines

The University of Pennsylvania graduate commented on this week’s ruling in a statement issued through her attorney, saying that the decision should serve as a “call to action for trans women athletes.”

“The CAS decision is deeply disappointing,” Thomas said. “Blanket bans preventing trans women from competing are discriminatory and deprive us of valuable athletic opportunities that are central to our identities. The CAS decision should be seen as a call to action to all trans women athletes to continue to fight for our dignity and human rights.”

On Wednesday, three CAS judges dismissed the athlete’s request for arbitration with World Aquatics, the governing body for swimming organizations around the world, claiming rules regarding transgender competitors introduced two years ago were discriminatory.

Three months after Thomas became the first out trans Division I NCAA champion in March 2022, World Aquatics voted to prohibit trans women who had been through male puberty from competing in elite meets for cisgender women. Only trans women who had completed their medical transition by the age of 12 were allowed to compete with cisgender women. The organization introduced an “open category” in its 50-meter and 100-meter races across all strokes, which would allow athletes whose gender identity differs from the sex they were presumed to be at birth to compete with anyone else. But they would no longer be allowed to compete with other women who were not trans. 

In asking CAS to overturn the ruling last year, Thomas argued that the guidelines were discriminatory, “invalid and unlawful,” as the Los Angeles Blade reported. But the judges dismissed her claim, stating she had no standing and is not eligible to compete in elite competitions through World Aquatics or USA Swimming “for the time being,” so the policy does not apply to her.

“She is currently only entitled to compete in USA Swimming events that do not qualify as ‘Elite Events,'” according to the judges. “The panel concludes that she lacks standing to challenge the policy and the operational requirements in the framework of the present proceeding,” said the court in its ruling.

The judges said USA Swimming had no authority “to modify such scope of application” of the world governing body’s rules.

World Aquatics said it welcomed the CAS decision in a case “we believe is a major step forward in our efforts to protect women’s sport.” 

Even had the court ruled in her favor, Thomas is not named on the preliminary entry list for the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, which begin this weekend in Indianapolis ahead of the start of the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris next month.

To failed swimmer turned vocal anti-trans inclusion activist and Gaines, that is “great news.” “Great news! Lia Thomas won’t be able to compete in women’s category at the Olympics or any other elite competition. He has just lost his legal battle in Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling,” Gaines posted on her social media Wednesday, misgendering Thomas. “This is a victory for women and girls everywhere.”

But Gaines did not stop there. A few hours later, she shared an article about the ruling from the right-wing tabloid, the New York Post, and threw down a challenge to the NCAA: “Now the @ncaa needs to strip him of every award, title, and record he stole from a deserving female athlete.” 

Other conservative anti-trans media such as the Daily Mail and other outlets also hailed the decision. But above the fray, one voice has consistently stood out in support of Thomas: Her friend, Schuyler Bailar, who became the first trans athlete to compete on a NCAA Division I men’s team when he swam for Harvard. He called the CAS ruling, “devastating.” 

“This is not inclusion. This is textbook discrimination,” Bailar said in a post on Instagram. “And it is a result of the vicious, disgusting, anti-trans and misogynistic rhetoric that has infected this country and the world. Rhetoric that is not based in science but rather in hatred, fueled by power hungry people who do not care truly about women or women’s sports. I’m not sure what is next in this moment — but history will not look back favorably on this decision.” 

The Blade has reached out to Thomas through her representative for comment and did not receive a response as of press time. 

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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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