Wednesday, February 25, 2009

It’s Not Whether You’re Gay or Straight, It’s How You Play The Game

This is the title of a panel held at Penn on February 18th. The panel was sponsored by PATH (Penn Athletes and Allies Tackling Homophobia). PATH is a group of Penn Athletes who are committed to making athletics at Penn a safe sport environment for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. The group has also applied for funding from the campus Student Activities Council.

I met PATH co-chair, Anna Aagenes, a junior on the cross country team at Penn, in Denver at the Creating Change conference last month. I was excited to learn from her that PATH has grown and is thriving so much that they have applied for official recognition and funding on campus.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the actions of a new generation of athletes, like the members of PATH at Penn will be the driving force behind making athletics a safe environment for LGBT athletes. In most schools I work with, the athletes are way ahead of the coaches in terms of their comfort with LGBT teammates. Campus-based groups of student-athletes like PATH and national networks like Our Group are playing an integral role in making athletics a welcoming climate for all. Much like the Gay Straight Alliance movement in high schools across the USA, these student-athlete groups empower members to speak out about social justice issues in sport and educate their teammates and coaches about the importance of dispelling stereotypes and creating space for athletes of all sexual orientations and gender identities to bring all of who they are to the game.

I guess you could say Penn is on the right PATH.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Taking A Week Off

Just a note to let you know I am taking a week off and will not post another blog until the week of February 23. Think of me in a warm place with water. Thanks for checking in. Pat

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Lesbian Bogeywoman Strikes Again?

Brooke Heike, a former basketball player at Central Michigan State University, has filed a lawsuit against CMU coach Sue Guevara. According to this article Heike claims that Guevara benched her and then revoked her scholarship because she wore make up and because she was not a lesbian. Further, the lawsuit claims that Guevara tried to persuade Heike to give up her heterosexuality and become a lesbian. The suit also claims that, while Guevara was coach at the University of Michigan, certain unnamed players there reported that she invaded their personal lives “such as being upset because they wore make-up or tight clothing or otherwise acted in a feminine way." This article provides more detail.

OK, let me say at the outset that it is not acceptable for a coach, any coach, to discrimination against a player because of her sexual orientation or gender expression, whatever they are. It is no more acceptable for a lesbian coach to discriminate against a heterosexual player than it is for a straight coach to discriminate against a lesbian player. If Heike’s allegations are true, the coach was wrong. Let me also say I have no information about Coach Guevara’s sexual orientation.

But, at the risk of being accused of lesbian bias, I have to say that I find these allegations wildly improbable. Possible? Sure. Lesbian coaches are capable of unethical conduct just as heterosexual coaches are, but most lesbian coaches I know are very careful about their interactions with players to avoid any hint of impropriety that might blow their cover. They do not want to call attention to their sexual orientation because they are afraid they will be targeted by negative recruiting or some other kind of discrimination. It happens all the time.
For a closeted lesbian coach, accusations of this kind would be a complete nightmare. They raise the specter of the lesbian bogeywoman stereotype: hostile to feminine gender expression and fixated on recruiting young straight women to the lesbian “team.” It sounds like a 50’s lesbian pulp fiction novel: The evil coach/PE teacher/camp counselor/prison matron (take your pick) preying on the sweet young thing. It sounds like a cartoon or something written by anti-gay activists to scare parents with daughters who are athletes.

The worst part of this story is that, it doesn’t matter if the charges are true or not, lesbian coaches everywhere will be affected by them. When Anson Dorrance, the UNC women’s soccer coach, is accused of (and finally apologizes for) sexual harassment of his players, or when Todd McCorkle, the University of Georgia golf coach resigns after showing Paris Hilton sex tapes to his team, or when Tom Mutch, Boston College women’s ice hockey coach, is found texting sexually explicit messages to one of his players who he is having sex with we don’t shake our heads and generalize their bad behavior to all other male coaches of women’s teams. When women coaches are assumed to be lesbians, as in this case, and accused of comparable outrageous behavior, every lesbian coach and every woman coach perceived to be a lesbian suffers the consequences of the accusations.

Until we can create a climate in athletics where lesbian coaches and athletes can come out and live openly, the lesbian bogeywoman will continue to cast a long shadow over women’s sports. Let us all hope these charges are as ridiculous as they sound. Unfortunately, Sue Guevara’s career may never be the same whether they are true or not. The accusation is all it takes. Meanwhile Anson Dorrance has just finished another year as the highly paid and successful coach of women’s soccer at UNC. (Thanks to Megan Andrews for calling my attention to this story)

Monday, February 9, 2009

That's Coach Sheryl Swoopes, Please

The Seattle Storm waived Sheryl Swoopes last week. It seems like a disrespectful way to end her time with the Storm, but I guess it shows that the WNBA is a business and that’s what happens in the sports business world, no matter how amazing your past accomplishments are.

However, this article caught my eye. It seems Sheryl has been doing some coaching on the side. She is a volunteer coach for a middle school girls’ basketball team. What I love about this article, besides the fact that it is so cool that Sheryl is interested in coaching and seems to have an unbelievable sense of humility, is that the Overlake School team, parents and athletic administration are darned happy to have Sheryl Swoopes coaching the team. Well, of course, you say. Why wouldn’t any team, boys or girls, be thrilled to have a three time WNBA MVP, three time Olympic Gold Medalist and NCAA Champion be their coach?

That is exactly the point. The article focuses on Sheryl Swoopes, the basketball star with one sentence noting that her partner, Alisa Scott, is helping her coach the team and raise her son. The completely matter-of-fact nature of the article is a model for how it should be. The reaction of the folks at Overlake School to having Sheryl Swoopes, an out lesbian, and her partner coaching middle school girls is a model for other schools about how to focus on what is important when hiring a coach. Does she have the basketball credentials? What kind of person is she? Will she be a good role model for our young people?

If only more high school and collegiate programs would follow the lead of the Overlake School Middle School Girls, their parents and the school athletic administrator, John Wiley. If they did, maybe more lesbian coaches would feel safe being more open about who they are.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Tough Guys Wanted: No Sequins Required

Skate Canada has a new ad campaign to promote men’s figure skating. The ad campaign is called “Tough” and focuses on how dangerous and “rough and tumble” figure skating is. A Skate Canada spokesperson promotes the “death defying” aspects of the sport by recalling an incident at a recent competition where a skater required 80 stitches when her face was sliced by her partner’s skate. Uh huh, maybe we should just change the name to Ultimate Skating that would change the image.

Skate Canada insists that this campaign has nothing to do with “masculinity” and is merely a “rebranding” of the sport to get away from its “genteel” image. Right, we all buy that.

There is nothing new or fresh about this campaign unless it is that it is a little wacky. Figure skating has always been a little embarrassed by the perception that the male figure skaters are gay. When skaters like Elvis Stojko win championships you can envision skating officials high fiving the success of an openly butch male skater. More “artistic” and “flamboyant” skaters like Johnny Weir, on the other hand, are tolerated with an uncomfortable, yet genteel forbearance.

The Skate Canada ad is merely the flip side of the gender coin. It is the same thing as the WNBA trying to sell its stars as just your average girly girl who just happens to be 6’4” and can crush a basketball back in your face. Remember, the make-up and hair styling sessions the WNBA held at rookie camp this year?

The Skate Canada ad is also confusing gender and sexuality. It assumes that an artistic sport that requires grace and style (in addition to strength and endurance) is for women and gay men. The Skate Canada ad campaign assumes that emphasizing the rough and tumble or tough aspects of the sport will “straighten up” the sport’s appeal. Tell former NFL lineman Esera Tuaolo that gay men can’t be tough. Tell Mikhail Baryshnikov straight men can’t be artistic.

This perception that women or men who do not express their gender in traditional ways are gay or that no gay men and lesbians enjoy traditional gender expression is so off base and soooo tired. Does a sport have to be sold as violent and dangerous to be appealing to men?

I think it is great that sports come in all varieties and call for a wide range of skills and sizes, none of which is connected to the gender or sexuality of the participants. The irony is that, by trying to sell figure skating as the NHL with music, they might lose the guys who like the artistic challenge of figure skating, whether they are gay or straight.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

ESPN “Fist Kiss” Ad Not Funny

First, check out this ESPN ad featuring Shaquille O’Neal.

Second, you need to know that ESPN received a lot of flak for the ad from GLAAD and others and has already pulled the ad and apologized for it. Outsports, ever the contrarians on these matters, did not see the ad as homophobic. I do not get this take on it at all. The entire basis for the joke is the perception that a “fist kiss” between two men is disgusting.

When I first read about this ad I was not going to write about it. I am so sick and tired of these homophobic sports related advertisements aimed at men. It is beyond me how anyone can say there is no homophobic intent in this ad. Shaq is completely disgusted by the “fist kiss” and physically moves away from Mike Breen. Could there be any other basis for the “humor” in this ad besides the gay connotation of a fist kiss between two men? I suspect we will now have a rash of male athletes saying “no homo” following every fist bump celebration during a game. Call me oversensitive. Tell me I don’t have a sense of humor. Bull Twang.

Ads like these, in addition to being offensive to gay people, are also insulting to all men. Do advertising firms and the makers of the products they try to sell to men really have such an adolescent perception of them? These ads are really stupid. That is one of my main objections to them. The other is I am appalled by the casual message of disgust and hate they promote. For Pete’s sake, if it isn’t demeaning images of women, it’s demeaning images of gay men. Is that all they think straight men respond to?

Don’t even get me started on how dangerous these ads are for adolescent boys whether black or white (or girls for that matter) who see Shaq as a role model or who are still trying to figure out who they are and what they believe. When the GLSEN School Climate survey tells us how hostile schools still are toward LGBT youth, there is no way I can see how anyone with any social consciousness can look at ads like this and laugh. Then there is the whole racial angle. Shaq plays right into the stereotype that Black male athletes are homophobic.

I’m disappointed in Shaq. He has always talked like an ally, expressing acceptance or at least tolerance for the possibility of having gay teammates. I don’t see how he could be an ally and consent to participate in this ad.

Thank you, ESPN, for pulling the ad and apologizing for it. The next time someone comes up with a stupid, homophobic ad idea like this one, kill it before you embarrass yourself again.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Creating Change in Athletics

I just returned from Denver and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Creating Change Conference (They’ve been calling the conference this since way before President Obama made change a buzz word). Helen Carroll from the NCLR Sports Project and I presented a session at the conference on LGBT issues in athletics. I am pretty sure we were the only session at the conference focused on sports. We had a group of 30-35 participants in our session. Most were folks who work in collegiate settings, many as Campus LGBT Center Directors. We also had some high school folks as well as community activists and educators.

Helen and I gave our take on the “state of athletics” with regard to LGBT issues highlighting some of the areas of progress and areas where we see particular challenges. We also described several ways in which the Sports Project and It Takes A Team collaborate in addressing LGBT issues in athletics. We were fortunate to have Jeff Sheng of the Fearless Campus Tour in attendance. We invited Jeff to talk about his amazing photography exhibit of LGBT athletes which he is going to publish as a book. Sean Smith of Our Group, the student-athlete LGBT and allies group, was also there and he provided the group with information about Our Group.

A few of the LGBT Center Directors who were there informed the group about efforts on their campuses that they are initiating to address LGBT issues in athletics. I am especially happy to hear about these efforts and hope that It Takes A Team can support more LGBT Centers to develop programming specifically for athletics. To that end, I gave away 50 It Takes A Team DVDs and a bunch of ITAT posters and safe space stickers at the session. My only stipulation was that the DVDs have to end up in the hands of folks who will use it – PFLAG parents, GLSEN local chapters, school counselors, LGBT Centers, and so on. No DVDs gathering dust on someone’s shelf, please.

One of my goals is to eliminate the divide between athletics and the LGBT Center at so many schools. I often hear people talk about how few student-athletes come to the LGBT Center and how some LGBT Center directors find it challenging to find allies in athletics who will support programming on LGBT issues.

The folks who are doing this work on campus who attended the session had some great ideas and examples of successful programming that they shared with the group. In the coming months, I’m planning to invite some of these folks to talk about what they do in interviews we’ll post on the It Takes A Team web site. Maybe their stories will inspire other non-athletic staff to do more work with athletics.

It takes a team (I know this is hokey, but what the hey) made up of lots of people from lots of different places to make sport a welcoming place for LGBT people. Thanks to all the folks who are doing just that and here’s an invitation to others to think about how you could work with an athletic department in a school where you work or in a school in your community. If you are interested, contact me. We’ll talk.