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GAME CHANGERS: Local volleyball player bridging deaf/hearing league gap

Des Moines native moves from basketball to volleyball

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John Isaacson, gay news, Washington Blade
John Isaacson has played in several D.C.-area LGBT sports leagues. (Photo courtesy Isaacson)

The LGBT sports community in Washington has a rich history of creating welcoming and inclusive spaces where all types of athletes can embrace the rewards that come from participating in sports.

This week in the Blade’s Game Changers series, we meet a gay athlete from theD.C. Pride Volleyball Leaguewho is helping bridge the gap between the deaf and hearing communities.

Growing up in Des Moines, John Isaacson didn’t pick up sports until high school where he was a three-sport athlete in basketball, football and track. 

He ran track for four years at Gallaudet University and was a 400 meter and 400 meter hurdles specialist. Isaacson also ran cross country at Gallaudet for three years.

“I have always enjoyed running and being a hurdles specialist had parallels to what I experience in life,” Isaacson says. “I overcome barriers every day as a deaf person and combining my love of running with jumping hurdles was a great fit for me.”

Gallaudet University is the only higher education institution in the world in which all programs and services are specifically designed to accommodate deaf and hard of hearing students. Its enrollment is a mix of students from all over the world.

Isaacson served as captain of the track team for his final two years and points to the experience as a great opportunity to meet people from as far away as China.

“I really liked the team environment and meeting so many people with different life experiences,” Isaacson says. “I stayed in D.C. after graduating in 2017 because I love living in a stable deaf community.”

Isaacson was playing in social pick-up games with D.C. Pride Volleyball when he learned about their league which runs in the spring and fall. He wrapped up his fifth season at the end of 2019.

“Volleyball is a complete team effort and I love the strategies that are involved,” Isaacson says. “The sport has been a new thing for my mind and body, and it is great to be developing different skills.”

D.C. Pride Volleyball plays on the tournament circuit with the North American Gay Volleyball Association and Isaacson has competed locally as well as traveling to tournaments in Atlanta, Denver, New Orleans and New York City.

“My favorite position on the court is middle blocker,” Isaacson says. “I am a good jumper and I take a lot of pride in my blocks.”

Isaacson has also played with Stonewall Kickball and is now in his first season with D.C. Gay Basketball League. Playing gay team sports has helped him expand his social network.

“I wasn’t out in college — I would say I came out more internally,” Isaacson says. “The LGBT sports community has helped me grow as a person and has allowed me to be more myself. I am always seeing other players out and about in D.C.”

The D.C. Pride Volleyball League averages between three and six deaf players per season. Isaacson says everyone, even those without ASL skills, can be creative while communicating whether it be through gestures or texting in person.

Isaacson, who works at Access Interpreting as the scheduling coordinator, provided a well-attended one day ASL for Volleyball Seminar for the league players. Along with standard conversational exchanges, it included terms related to volleyball.

“I have always wanted to build a better bridge between the deaf and hearing communities,” Isaacson says. “It’s important for us to work together as a team to communicate more effectively.”

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British soccer player comes out

Jake Daniels is Blackpool FC forward

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Blackpool FC forward Jake Daniels/Blackpool FC UK

A 17-year-old professional soccer player has made history only the second person in the past 30 years to acknowledge their sexual orientation publicly in the sport in the U.K.

Blackpool FC forward Jake Daniels joins with Justinus Soni “Justin” Fashanu as the only two footballers to declare themselves openly out. Fashanu had come out in an exclusive with The Sun tabloid newspaper on Oct. 22, 1990, and later retired in 1997. He later passed away in London in May 1998.

Daniels made his announcement via a statement released by the team on its webpage:

“This season has been a fantastic one for me on the pitch. I’ve made my first-team debut, scored 30 goals for the youth team, signed my first professional contract and shared success with my teammates, going on a great run in the FA Youth Cup and lifting the Lancashire FA Pro-Youth Cup. 

But off the pitch I’ve been hiding the real me and who I really am. I’ve known my whole life that I’m gay, and I now feel that I’m ready to come out and be myself.

It’s a step into the unknown being one of the first footballers in this country to reveal my sexuality, but I’ve been inspired by Josh Cavallo, Matt Morton and athletes from other sports, like Tom Daley, to have the courage and determination to drive change.        

In reaching this point, I’ve had some of the best support and advice from my family, my club, my agent and Stonewall, who have all been incredibly pro-active in putting my interests and welfare first. I have also confided in my team-mates in the youth team here at Blackpool, and they too have embraced the news and supported my decision to open up and tell people.   

I’ve hated lying my whole life and feeling the need to change to fit in. I want to be a role model myself by doing this.

There are people out there in the same space as me that may not feel comfortable revealing their sexuality. I just want to tell them that you don’t have to change who you are, or how you should be, just to fit in.

You being you, and being happy, is what matters most.

Jake”

The team itself also noted:

“Blackpool Football Club has worked closely with Stonewall and the relevant footballing organizations to support Jake and is incredibly proud that he has reached a stage where he is empowered to express himself both on-and-off the pitch.

It is vital that we all promote an environment where people feel comfortable to be themselves, and that football leads the way in removing any form of discrimination and prejudice.”

The largest LGBTQ advocacy organization in the UK, Stonewall tweeted:

Blackpool Football Club is a professional association football club based in seaside resort of Blackpool on the Irish Sea coast of England.

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Qatar police may seize Pride flags ‘to protect’ LGBTQ World Cup fans

Advocacy groups have criticized Qatari official’s comments

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Abdulaziz Abdullah Al Ansari speaking with the AP’s Rob Harris (Screenshot/CGTN Sports Scene)

A senior official in Qatar, the ultra-conservative Gulf nation where being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender is a crime, is warning World Cup fans who are LGBTQ to leave their rainbow flags at home. 

The Associated Press reported that contrary to promises from both World Cup organizers and FIFA, Major General Abdulaziz Abdullah Al Ansari warned that rainbow flags could be seized for fans’ own protection, to prevent them from being attacked for promoting LGBTQ rights. 

“I cannot guarantee the behavior of the whole people,” said Al Ansari, who is in charge of security at Qatar’s eight stadiums hosting the Nov. 21-Dec. 18 FIFA championship matches. “Here we cannot change the laws. You cannot change the religion for 28 days of World Cup.”

In a one-hour interview with the AP’s Rob Harris, Al Ansari offered a hypothetical example of what would happen to a fan who dared to wave the Pride flag. 

“If he raised the rainbow flag and I took it from him, it’s not because I really want to, really, take it, to really insult him, but to protect him,” said Al Ansari. “Because if it’s not me, somebody else around him might attack (him),” Al Ansari added. “And I will tell him: ‘Please, no need to really raise that flag at this point.’”

Al Ansari, who is also director of the Department of International Cooperation and chairman of the National Counterterrorism Committee at the Ministry of Interior, told the AP that LGBTQ couples will be welcomed and accepted. 

“Reserve the room together, sleep together — this is something that’s not in our concern,” he said. “We are here to manage the tournament. Let’s not go beyond, the individual personal things which might be happening between these people.”  

At one point, Al Ansari makes it clear that Qatar considers being LGBTQ a criminal act, and will not tolerate those who oppose its laws. 

“You want to demonstrate your view about the situation, demonstrate it in a society where it will be accepted,” Al Ansari said. “We realize that this man got the ticket, comes here to watch the game, not to demonstrate, a political (act) or something which is in his mind. Watch the game. That’s good. But don’t really come in and insult the whole society because of this.”

Reactions to Al Ansari’s comments to the AP were swift. 

“Often, so-called ‘protections’ are in fact smokescreens to cover up human rights violations,” Julia Ehrt of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association and Ronain Evain of Football Supporters Europe told the AP in a joint statement. “FIFA and Qatar must address these concerns immediately, and show the world there is a chance of carrying out a rights-respecting and safe tournament for LGBTIQ fans.”

Although FIFA President Gianni Infantino, on a visit to Doha last week, had claimed that “everyone will see that everyone is welcome here in Qatar, even if we speak about LGBTQ,” fan groups put out a statement contradicting Infantino: “We cannot, in good faith, tell our members, LGBT+ people, or allies that this is a #WorldCup for all.”

“The idea that the flag, which is now a recognized universal symbol of diversity and equality, will be removed from people to protect them will not be considered acceptable, and will be seen as a pretext,” said Piara Powar, executive director of The FARE network, which monitors soccer games for discrimination. “I have been to Qatar on numerous occasions and do not expect the local Qatari population or fans visiting for the World Cup to be attacked for wearing the rainbow flag. The bigger danger comes from state actions.”

2022 FIFA World Cup | LBGTQ people welcome but Rainbow Flag will be seized at Qatar 2022:

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Lia Thomas is NCAA’s first Transgender D-1 National Champion

Despite the change in trans participation policies by USA Swimming that would have disqualified her, NCAA ruled Thomas was qualified to swim

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Lia Thomas, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, swam faster than any other woman in the 500-yard freestyle competition Thursday in Atlanta and made history by doing so. Not just because she finished in 4:33:24, more than a second faster than her closest competitor, but because she is an out transgender woman.

Her honor came at the Women’s Swimming and Diving National Championships, and despite rules that require her to speak to the news media following her win, Thomas spoke only to ESPN and “declined” attending the mandatory news conference, according to a spokesperson.

As for her victory, there are people who are plenty mad about it. When ESPN interviewed the 22-year-old, live, following the event, and some in the crowd booed.

“I didn’t have a whole lot of expectations for this meet,” Thomas told ESPN, according to a transcript of the interview provided by out nonbinary journalist Katie Barnes. “I was just happy to be here, trying to race and compete as best as I could.”

The ESPN correspondent asked the Austin, Texas native about competing “under the spotlight.” 

“I try to ignore it as much as I can. I try to focus on my swimming, what I need to do to get ready for my races and just try to block out everything else,” Thomas said. She added: ”It means the world to be here, being with two of my best friends and teammates and to be able to compete.”

The interview ended, and some in the stands booed. Among the parents and supporters from across the country were demonstrators from an anti-transgender inclusion organization, Save Women’s Sports. 

Activists against transgender inclusion protest outside the McAuley Aquatics Center on March 17, 2022 (Photo by Dawn Ennis)

“It’s not right. It’s not fair,” Beth Stelzer, the group’s founder, told me amid a crowd of about 20 anti-trans protesters, waving signs and leading chants with a bullhorn outside the McAuley Aquatics Center on the campus of Georgia Tech.

“We are here to give these girls, parents, coaches, that are too afraid to speak up a voice, because women matter. We won’t say no. Save women’s sports!”

Beth Stelzer (Photo by Dawn Ennis)

Despite the change in transgender participation policies by USA Swimming that would have disqualified her, the NCAA ruled earlier this month that Thomas was qualified to swim. I asked Stelzer, who is an amateur powerlifter, about the fact that Thomas is competing fair and square, according to the NCAA.

“I think it’s cowardly,” said Stelzer. “I think that it has been driven by money and feelings, instead of doing what is right and what is right is protecting women.” 

According to one of the university officials keeping a close eye on the competing demonstrations, there were no altercations, no arrests, no injuries, and, he told me, he saw “no women in need of protecting.” He declined to give his name. 

Another official told me he needed to step in when one demonstrator “crossed the line.” More about that, after details of the meet. 

The 500 Free

Earlier in the day, Thomas led throughout her preliminary heat and extended her lead over Stanford’s Brooke Forde on the final lap to finish with her best time so far, 4 minutes, 33.82 seconds. Her previous best this year was 4:34.06. Stanford’s Brooke Forde finished second in the heat and sixth overall at 4:38.19. 

Then came the finals. Just after 6 p.m., Thomas and the field of eight swimmers were tightly packed for several laps, with Thomas trailing Olympic silver medalist Emma Weyant of the University of Virginia for much of the heat. Then in the final laps, Thomas pulled ahead and finished more than a full second ahead of Weyant.

No one, including Thomas, set any NCAA or pool records Thursday. 

There was some applause and cheers from spectators, but the largest outpouring came as Weyant touched the wall, a repeat of what happened in the prelims when the crowd waited for the second-place finisher before they cheered. 

The crowd fell quiet when Thomas was introduced at the beginning of the finals, then resumed cheering for the other swimmers. During the award ceremony that followed the crowd’s boos for Thomas, her competitors and spectators politely clapped for her.

Trans History

Thomas is not the first trans NCAA competitor in Division 1. Kye Allums earned that title in 2010. She isn’t even be the first trans NCAA swimmer: Schuyler Bailar notched that moment in history in 2015 as the first trans athlete to compete on a DI men’s team.

Bailar, a friend of Thomas, was at the championships Thursday, cheering her on, along with others waving trans Pride flags. Also, there is one other NCAA All-American of note: In 2019, Olympic hopeful CeCé Telfer became the first NCAA champion in DII track.

Forbes contributor & LA Blade Sports Editor Dawn Ennis with Schuyler Bailar
(Photo by Dawn Ennis)

Telfer’s achievement and the success of two Connecticut high school track stars sparked controversy across the country about trans girls and trans women competing with cisgender student-athletes. The Connecticut case wound up in federal court, and despite a judge tossing the suit, it’s now in the appeal phase. 

The swimming success of Thomas, who up until 2019 competed with Penn’s men’s team, has been seized by conservatives as a rallying cry to generate support for bans against trans student-athletes in 11 states and for other laws that discriminate against trans American youth, such as outlawing gender-affirming healthcare, and even Florida’s Don’t Say Gay bill. 

What’s missing from all that legislation is actual scientific evidence that would support the cause of groups like Save Women’s Sports. Despite dire warnings, CeCé Telfer didn’t destroy women’s sports in 2019. Laurel Hubbard didn’t destroy women’s sports at the Olympics last summer. And so far, Lia Thomas hasn’t destroyed women’s sports in 2022. 

Journalist Julie Compton interviewed researcher Joanna Harper about the science for NBC News.

“The question isn’t ‘Do trans women have advantages?’ Because yes, that is so obviously true,” said Harper, a medical physicist and the author of “Sporting Gender: The History, Science, and Stories of Transgender and Intersex Athletes. Harper added that it is normal for athletes to have certain advantages and that any advantages trans women have are not necessarily unfair. “But can trans women and cis women compete against one another in meaningful competition? That’s the important question. That’s the interesting question. And that’s a question that we don’t have a 100 percent firm answer yet.”

“It’s a truism of trans athletes that we can compete in women’s sports as long as we don’t win,” said Harper, who herself is trans. “If we win, then it’s problematic. And, of course, how can you compete if you’re not allowed to win?”

The Other Trans Swimmer

Iszac Henig is the only swimmer for Yale at these championships, and is also the only man. He is a transgender man, who, in order to continue competing in women’s swimming with his Bulldogs teammates, opted to delay one part of his medical transition: He postponed the administration of the gender-affirming hormone testosterone. He did have top surgery, however.

Iszac Henig/Instagram

On Thursday evening, Henig finished 16th in the 50-free race, earning All-American Honorable Mention. He will compete Friday and Saturday in the the 100-butterfly and 100-free. In Saturday’s meet, he will be competing head to head against Thomas, the first time two transgender student-athletes have appeared in the same championship event. 

Despite Henig being a man, Stelzer misidentified him in our interview when I asked if she was also opposed to him competing. 

“If a woman who identifies as being a man wants to swim with the women, I’m all for it ,as long as they’re not taking any testosterone or other performance enhancing substances,” she said. “There might be a little bit of an issue with the mastectomy, because that could possibly streamline, so a little bit of an advantage there, some might say. But I have no issue with a woman swimming in women’s sports. And when it comes down to it, that’s a woman’s body there.” 

Although Henig was not available for comment, a small but vocal group from Yale University traveled to Atlanta for the meet, and cheered him on. They told me they were beyond excited for him, and they explained that like Henig, they are not granting media interviews, but wanted it known how proud they are of him.

Dueling Protests Outside

Far from the pool, the protesters chanting “Even when we’re swimmin’ we’re standing up for women!” were separated from an equally loud group of about 20 pro-transgender inclusion demonstrators, chanting just as loud. 

“Hey hey, ho, ho! Transphobes have got to go!” and “Say it loud, say it clear! Trans athletes are welcome here!” they shouted.

Demonstrators supporting transgender student-athletes across the street from the McAuley Aquatics Center in Atlanta, Ga. on March 17, 2022. (Photo by Dawn Ennis)

Some of those in that group were themselves trans and nonbinary. As they spoke to reporters, one of the Save Women’s Sports activists crossed the street to record the counter-protest, getting within inches of some of the demonstrators’ faces with her camera. This was when one of the officials watching the dueling protests and maintaining order stepped between her and the demonstrators, at one point directing her to back off. Her name is Kat, and she’s from New York.

Save Women Sports activist Kat records video of trans rights demonstrators across the street from the McAuley Aquatics Center in Atlanta, Ga. on March 17, 2022. (Photo by Dawn Ennis)

“I used to support transgender rights,” Kat told me, and later she disclosed that she used to identify as nonbinary and has trans friends and family members. “But then I learned about the government changing the laws to erase the difference between sex and gender and endangering biological women.” 

Kat is referring to President Biden’s executive order, signed on the day he was inaugurated. It actually says: 

“Every person should be treated with respect and dignity and should be able to live without fear, no matter who they are or whom they love. Children should be able to learn without worrying about whether they will be denied access to the restroom, the locker room, or school sports.”

It also says both Title VII and Title IX related to discrimination should include protections on the basis of gender identity. It doesn’t erase sex. It expands the scope of protections from discrimination. 

Another Save Women Sports activist worked the crowd, handing out trinkets with their logo to those few spectators willing to take them. For the most part, they were later found littering the stands under seats and outside McAuley. 

When the TV camera crews, reporters and photographers from the national news outlets packed up their gear and left, so did the protesters.

*************************

Editor’s Note: The preceding article was a media share between Forbes.com & the Los Angeles Blade.

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