Thursday, October 25, 2007

Activists Tackle Homophobia in Sports

As a life-long Red Sox fan, I completely understand the impact sports can have on people's lives. Red Sox Nation is rejoicing today after its beloved team clobbered the Colorado Rockies at Fenway last night. But the World Series perhaps provides the perfect context in which the movement for LGBT rights can begin to address underlying homophobia and other long-standing concerns within organized athletics.

It remains highly courageous for an LGBT athletes, especially those in the pros, to come out as sources repeatedly told me for my sports feature posted on EDGE yesterday. Sports remains a significant part of many people lives in the United States and across the world. Yet it remains abundantly clear LGBT people have, by and large, been excluded by these important institutions. This needs to change!

Former National Football League defensive lineman Esera Tuaolo fought many a battle during his nine years on the professional gridiron. But Mr. Aloha reached a personal crossroads in 2002 when he came out.

The father of two is now a regular guest at gay events across the country. He sang the national anthem at the Gay Games in Chicago last summer. Tuaolo attended the Human Rights Campaign’s annual Washington gala earlier this month. But he explained to lesbian New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and hundreds of gay football players from across the country who attended the Gay Superbowl 7 opening ceremonies in lower Manhattan on Oct. 5 that his activism is personal.

"For 33 years of my life I was in the closet," Tuaolo said. "Never in a hundred years... I thought I would be here with you today."

The LGBT movement has embraced Tuaolo and other former gay athletes in recent years as it devotes more time, resources and even staff to address homophobia and other LGBT issues in sports. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation became the latest organization to join this bandwagon with the launch of its sports initiative last month.

The media watchdog chose former Sports Out Loud editor Ted Rybka to lead the program. He told EDGE in a recent interview from his New York office that the initiative is an extension of GLAAD’s overall mission.

"When someone goes on television or in the newspaper and says some outrageous item... [GLAAD has] programs to get out into the community to ensure that the coverage is fair, accurate and inclusive," Rybka said. "The sports media program is going to do the same thing in the sports media world."

The program, which remains in its infancy, will facilitate meetings with reporters and editors who write within the estimated $200 billion per year sports industry. It will also sponsor panels, such as that which featured Tuaolo and out former NFL player Dave Kopay earlier this month in New York, and other programmatic events to discuss how homophobia and other issues impact LGBT athletes. Rybka quickly concluded GLAAD’s foray into sports simply makes sense.

"Every newspaper (or every news organization) has a sports desk," he said. "It’s so important LGBT athletes and fans... are included in those."

Sports Out Loud editor Buddy Early agreed. His Phoenix-based magazine recently published its third issue. Early praised GLAAD and other organizations for their increased focus on sports.

"The more we look at these issues the better," he said. "It can only help me as a gay man, a gay sports fan and as someone who works in gay media."

Helen Carroll, sports project director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, joined the San Francisco-based organization in 2001 after it launched its own sports initiative. A former National Collegiate Athletic Association athletic director, she was featured in the documentary "Out for Change: Addressing Homophobia in Women’s Sports." Carroll has conducted sensitivity trainings for the San Francisco 49ers and has attended workshops, conferences and Final Four tournaments across the country.

She maintained WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes’ coming out in 2005 shed new light on LGBT issues in sports. Carroll added NCLR’s lawsuit against former Penn State women’s basketball coach Rene Portland for alleged discrimination against a former player because she thought she was a lesbian provided an additional opportunity for national LGBT organizations to highlight these issues.

"That [case] ended up giving us two years of really being able to put a lot of media around what is this issue; what does it look like; what it is," Carroll said. "That story really captured the attention and interest of so many people around the [United States.]"

NCLR reached a confidential settlement with Portland. Cyd Zeigler, Jr., co-founder of, conceded homophobia within the locker room remains a serious problem which he hopes the LGBT movement can begin to address through a long-term strategy.

He argued GLAAD and other organizations’ sports efforts can also tackle stereotypes of LGBT athletes.

"A lot of people - gay or straight - who hear about gay sports want to hear about sex between players, the drag queen on the sides and the funny stuff," Zeigler said. "For gay people who play the sport it is about the sport. They want to win."

Tuaolo, Swoopes, former NBS star John Amaechi, former tennis stars Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova and former Olympic diver Greg Louganis are among the small but growing number of professional athletes who have come out in recent years after their retirement. There are no openly gay male athletes who currently play in the professional leagues, however, while homophobia in sports continues to make headlines.

Retired NBA point guard Tim Hardaway sparked widespread controversy earlier this year after he told a Miami sports talk show host that he hates gay people in response to a question about Amaechi’s coming out. The NFL fined then-Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Joey Porter $10,000 after he used an anti-gay slur against Cleveland Browns tight end Kellen Winslow, Jr., after a December 2006 game. And some LGBT activists criticized Swoopes for apparently downplaying her sexual orientation after she came out.

Zeigler concluded the fact gay sports issues remain largely news driven remains a challenge he hopes the movement can begin to tackle.

"When somebody comes out or when somebody says something stupid, people pay attention and then people stop paying attention when it dies down," he said. "The challenge is to get the issues front of mind for the people in power in sports all the time: permanently."

Carroll conceded it remains courageous for pro-athletes to come out. She argued, however, the growing number of LGBT athletes who currently play at the high school and collegiate level will have a positive impact in sports over the next five years.

Tuaolo remains equally as optimistic.

"It’s very important that I keep myself involved in this movement," he said. "It’s time for me to step up to the plate and make it easier for [gay athletes]."

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