Finding Allies in Athletics

There’s an instinct among many of us, no matter what issue we’re dealing with, to dismiss elements of our society that we deem to be “part of the problem” as never being able to be “part of the solution.” We sometimes think that whatever problem we seek to solve will be solved if the elements we’re working against would somehow magically cease to exist, or at least lose their influence.

When noted sportswriter, author and Boston Herald columnist Steve Buckley came out, I wrote, “Anyone who’s ever set foot inside a locker room at any level, for any reason, has heard enough anti-gay invective to last a lifetime.” And it’s not just men who are athletes who are surrounded by this environment. In fact, sometimes it seems like the more successful a woman is as an athlete, the more likely she’ll be subjected to anti-lesbian (or anti-transgender) slurs by opponents or rivals.

For decades, the world of athletics has been seen as part of the problem by those of us dedicated to fighting anti-LGBT hate. It’s time to see it as part of the solution.

You don't have to look very far to see how influential athletes are in our society.  Turn on the television, go on the Internet, open up a newspaper or magazine; sports figures are everywhere. They're selling us products, being heralded or derided for their performance, and being examples to young people - sometimes with good results, sometimes not-so-good.  On a professional level, athletes exist in a vast sea of other entertainers and other celebrities.

But boil our culture down into the closed ecosystem of a school environment, and athletes have a much easier road to the top of the food chain. And from that position, they can wield massive influence and truly work to shape positive experiences for vast numbers of young people.

Hudson Taylor understands this.

On one hand, the recent Maryland graduate was one of the best collegiate wrestlers in the country. A three-time All American who is one of the top pinners in NCAA history, he was called "the most exciting wrestler in the world" by Sports Illustrated and is now a wrestling coach at Columbia.

On the other, he was a theater student who created his own major, "Interactive Performance Art," which combined art, theater, American Studies and philosophy. And he's a magician who carries a deck of cards with him at all times. (When GLAAD President Jarrett Barrios and I met him last month, our card was the three of clubs. Hudson found it immediately.)

In his college years, Hudson Taylor attracted nationwide media attention by wearing a Human Rights Campaign sticker on his headgear during one of his team’s wrestling matches. In fact, Taylor was never afraid to challenge his teammates if they used offensive, anti-gay language, and he used his influence as team captain to encourage an attitude of acceptance. Now, Taylor (in addition to being a wrestling coach at Columbia University) maintains a blog for people to share their stories of equality and started AthleteAlly.com,  a website that serves as a resource for athletes and others looking to combat anti-LGBT language and behavior in the sports world. All visitors to the website are presented with a pledge to be a leader in educating others in the athletic community about LGBT equality.

I pledge to lead my athletic community toward respecting and welcoming all persons, regardless of their perceived or actual sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. Beginning right now, I will do my part to promote the best of athletics by making all players feel respected on and off the field.

The pledge has already garnered over 1,400 signatures. 

Think back to your own school years. A positive example set by a team or its players would resonate throughout the student body and add to a more welcoming environment for all students. An example set by a star athlete could easily have as much influence as any edict handed down from school officials.  Anybody who’s ever sat through an after school special knows about the dangerous power of peer pressure. Hudson is recognizing the positive impact that peer pressure can have.

And peer pressure doesn’t stop once you leave high school. Sure, its grip on our decision-making abilities loosens quite a bit, but it’s there. Especially when you’ve got a tight-knit group like, oh … say, a professional sports team.

This is where Steve Buckley comes in. I applauded him for coming out last month, but neither he nor we could have predicted just how positively his coming out would be received in the sports world. Here he is (courtesy of OutSports) on ESPN’s Outside The Lines speaking with host Bob Ley and out former NFL player Esera Tuaolo about the future of gay people in sports.

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For those unfamiliar with the world of sports, here are some of the names Buck mentioned who sent him messages of support; Dustin Pedroia is the Boston Red Sox’ second baseman, and a former Rookie of the Year and American League MVP. Kevin Youkilis is the Sox’ third baseman, and a former Hank Aaron award winner (frequently mentioned in the book Moneyball). Terry Francona is the Red Sox manager. Bobby Orr, an NHL Hall of Famer, is one of the greatest hockey players who ever lived.

He also mentions New England Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft – and tells a very funny anecdote about his first meeting with Kraft after having come out- in this conversation he had with the Good Men Project.

“If the locker room is open to the media from 10:15 to 11:00, that means at 11:00 they clear people out of there. You’re not supposed to be there.

So on one particular day at like four minutes to 11:00, I walked toward the far end of the locker room. As it’s coming up on 11:00, [Patriots Owner] Robert [Kraft] saw me and came walking in. And I’ve known Robert for 20 years. He said, “Steve, how are you? I read the piece. It’s great.” We were just making idle chitchat.

Now I’m aware that it’s 11:00 and the locker room is supposed to be closed to media—and so now it’s 11:01. It’s 11:02. … So finally I took it upon myself, and Robert was saying, “Is everything OK? Is everything going great?” I said, “Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.” And I said to him, “But I can’t be in here anymore.” And he says, “Who told you that? You come in here.” I said, “No, no, no, no. You misunderstood. I can’t be in here now it’s 11:00. It’s closed to the media.”

He thought that I was saying, like, I can’t come in here anymore. I’ve been told “You are not allowed here anymore.” And Robert was all up in arms and ready to champion my cause. That was one of the funnier moments during this whole thing. And it was so sweet for Robert to want to stick up for me. That was really cool.” – Steve Buckley

You have to think the Red Sox, the Patriots, and … well, virtually every hockey player in the world will now feel even just a little bit more inclined to be more welcoming of gay people in the locker room. And that they’ll think of Buck, whom they like and respect, when they hear another player using an anti-gay slur. Rather than tiptoeing around the sports landscape and wishing it wasn’t there, both Hudson Taylor and Steve Buckley are blazing a trail right through it.

Already there are signs that the sports world is moving in a more inclusive direction. Last week, CNN ran a story on transgender golfers Lana Lawless and Mianne Bagger, raising awareness of the discrimination they’ve faced while trying to make a living playing the sport they love.

And this week, ESPN profiled college basketball superstar Kenneth Faried, who may be a first-round pick in the next NBA draft, and whose mother is a lesbian who is suffering from lupus, but is powering through the disease with the help of her wife.

"And when they got married, that showed me what commitment is all about, that there are people out there that can commit, even though for them it really has been the worst of times. I look at them, what they've been through and I think, 'Wow. That's amazing.' They're amazing to me." – Kenneth Faried

People like Hudson Taylor, Steve Buckley, Lana Lawless, Mianne Bagger and Kenneth Faried are showing us that it’s time we all look to the world of sports as part of the solution.

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