Year in Review: Sports

Cyd-Ziegler

Cyd Ziegler

It’s the time of year when we show gratitude… and LGBT folks (and their allies) have a lot to be thankful for.

Not as much as if the presidential election had gone the other way, of course. From a gay point of view, a Vice President Pence is at least as scary as a President Trump. The men (or women, but don’t hold your breath) who could wind up on the Supreme Court may well roll back many of the hard-earned rights the LGBT community has gained over the past few decades. We are in uncharted waters, and the seas are likely to be very, very rough.

Fortunately, there is smoother sailing on the LGBT sports front. Over the past few years — especially during 2016 — gay issues and athletics have moved from a corner of the locker room out into the center of the arena. A tipping point was reached, then passed. Gay, lesbian and bisexual athletes and coaches are no longer seen as rarities, outliers or freaks. Allies are no longer afraid to speak up. Americans understand that we are indeed everywhere. “Gay sports” has moved from oxymoron to “ho-hum.”

So when we sit down to dinner this year, and say (Will and) grace, let’s give thanks to all the men, women, organizations and institutions that have helped get us where we are today.

For nearly 20 years, for example, Outsports has been the go-to website for LGBT sports news and commentary. Quietly, doggedly — but with spirit, humor and joy — Cyd Ziegler and Jim Buzinski have told stories about out competitors, coaches, referees and administrators. In the beginning, many of those tales were filled with fear and worry. Over time, they brimmed with hope. Now, they’re almost uniformly positive.

Each story is different. Yet taken together — this experience at a religious school, that one on a curling team; this one describing a welcoming lacrosse culture, that one ending with a hug from a formerly unenlightened homophobe — they offer a clear, comforting picture of a segment of society that has changed quickly and significantly. The mainstream media has not taken much notice of the shift, but Outsports has. In fact, Outsports has made those changes possible.

HudsonTaylor1Hot on Outsports’ heels, in terms of value to the LGBT sports world, is Athlete Ally. The brainchild of Hudson Taylor, the straight University of Maryland wrestler whose decision to put a Human Rights Campaign sticker on his headgear sparked first a backlash, then a movement, Athlete Ally has emerged as a potent educational and advocacy force.

The organization provides public awareness campaigns, programming, tools and resources. It’s mobilized an impressive list of “Ambassadors,” at over 80 colleges and including over 100 professional athletes. Through speaking engagements, op-ed columns and social media, Athlete Ally has moved the needle of public perception significantly. In doing so, it’s helped make LGBT people aware of the importance of allyship and intersectionality. We often say that sports teaches lessons of value far away from the playing fields. These can be some of the most important ones.

Sports teams and leagues themselves have hopped aboard the gay athletics train. Nearly every major league club now sponsors some variety of “LGBT Night.” Teams respond quickly to isolated incidents of unwarranted behavior, like homophobic chants or signs in the stands, and intemperate comments by players and coaches. Those are (thankfully) fewer and farther between these days. And while the motive may be partly financial — gay and lesbian fans buy tickets, too — it’s also indicative of societal shifts. Change once came slowly to the sports world. Now it mirrors the real world.

For 34 years, the Gay Games has promoted equality in and by sports. Calling itself “the world’s largest sports and culture festival open to all,” the Games (which legally cannot be called anything close to the “Gay Olympics”) are, well, like the Olympics but with broader participation, less commercialism and a ton more fabulousness. Every four years, the Gay Games makes a major statement about the value of diversity and inclusion. Want to be part of the next one? It’s in Paris in August 2018.

That’s a lot of things to be thankful for. But websites, non-profits, teams and organizations are not really what drive change.

The LGBT sports movement would not be where it is now without the courage and conviction of the countless men and women (and boys and girls) who have come out of the closet. By standing up — in their locker rooms, on their fields and in the sports pages — they have enabled countless more to be who they are. They’ve opened the eyes and hearts of their teammates, coaches and fans. They are the true story of gay athletics.

And for that, we are very, very thankful.

— Dan Woog

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

#EveryFan calms legendary rivalry to support gay inclusiveness

rivalrySeparated by only 11 miles — and both proudly sporting the color blue — Duke University and the University of North Carolina enjoy perhaps the most intense college athletic rivalry in the country.

“Enjoy” may be the wrong word. For decades, sports events, particularly basketball, have been marked by feverish fan behavior. Signs and chants insult, mock and degrade opposing players, coaches and spectators. Some of it is funny. Some is clever. Some is rude, crude… and occasionally homophobic.

So it came as a great surprise — historic, even — when students and athletes from the two schools came together to make a video on the eve of this year’s Blue Devil-Tar Heel men’s basketball clash. They smiled. They pumped up their own team. And they implored everyone to watch the upcoming contest in a “respectful, inclusive environment.” The idea, both sides agreed, was for people of “all identities and backgrounds” to feel safe and comfortable, while cheering their team on to victory.

“It’s the Carolina Way,” one blue-clad student said.

“It’s the Duke Difference,” another offered.

The video was not a random act of kindness. It was created by #EveryFan. The latest project of Athlete Ally, it’s one of the most intriguing developments on the sports landscape in years.

Athlete Ally is a nonprofit that provides public awareness campaigns, educational programming, and tools and resources to foster inclusive sports communities. With more than 80 college chapters, and utilizing more than 150 professional athletes as supporters, the organization fights homophobia and transphobia in the sports world by focusing on the concept and importance of “allyship.”

HudsonTaylor1

Hudson Taylor

But, says founder and director Hudson Taylor — an All-American wrestler at the University of Maryland, who famously wore a Human Rights Campaign sticker on his headgear in solidarity with the LGBT community — he and his Athlete Ally colleagues realized that while sports figures can help raise awareness of gay sports issues, fan conduct is an enormous issue too.

And one that is often overlooked. Last year, a study reported that 83 percent of Americans believe an openly gay person would not feel safe at a sporting event.

Between homophobic chants, offensive banners and “kiss cams” that mock same-sex couples, stadiums and arenas around the world can be very hostile environments.

“These are places of public accommodation,” Taylor says firmly. “Fans who worry about what they’ll hear, what people think about the person they’re sitting with — or what restroom to use — can’t enjoy basic rights that fans everywhere don’t even think about.”

The result: #EveryFan. The campaign — involving social media, videos like the Duke-UNC one and more — will encourage positive fan behavior, for the comfort of all.

One concrete element is an #EveryFan pledge. It reads: “As a sports fan, I believe that every fan must have an equally positive experience. I pledge to treat other fans with dignity and respect. Every fan should be treated fairly and equally, inside the stadium and under the law. I support equality for every fan. It’s good for sports. And it’s the right thing to do.”

In addition, #EveryFan is working with the NCAA to amend the Code of Conduct, which is often announced before college games. It contains no specific mention or prohibition of provocative language based on sexual orientation or gender expression. An “LGBT-inclusive” code would add teeth to a somewhat vague document.

Taylor sees a role for #EveryFan at high schools too. And it’s not just to call attention to homophobic spectators. Twice in Iowa recently, basketball fans at predominantly white high schools taunted Latino teams with chants of “Trump!” and “Build the wall!”

Yet colleges and high schools are not the only focus of #EveryFan. Taylor says that although more professional teams are adding “LGBT Pride” nights to their promotional schedule, many still do not. And the ones that do limit it to once per season.

#EveryFan encourages teams to film PSAs to show on their Jumbotrons, creating a season-long dialogue around appropriate fan conduct.

#EveryFan is not the PC Police. However, Taylor notes, “there should be standards of decency. Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs and attitudes. But if their behavior negatively impacts people, we have a responsibility to speak up. Stadiums are a privilege, not a right. Athletes prepare all their lives. To honor them, it’s incumbent to treat everyone — athletes and fans — with dignity and respect.”

The Atlanta Hawks have been early #EveryFan adopters. “Their fan culture is forward-thinking,” Taylor says. After a same-sex marriage proposal during an NBA game, the team proudly tweeted it for the world to see.

The world is changing rapidly – thanks in part to #EveryFan. Don’t believe it? Just ask basketball fans at Duke  and UNC..

 To see the Duke-UNC video, search YouTube for “Duke & UNC Everyfan.”

— Dan Woog

 

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

FC Dallas’ Chris Seitz among 1st MLS players to join Athlete Ally

Seitz1DL

FC Dallas goaltender Chris Seitz has become one of the first three Major League Soccer players to join Athlete Ally — a national organization dedicated to ending homophobia in sports.

Seitz has signed the group’s pledge along with the Los Angeles Galaxy’s A.J. DeLaGarza and Omar Gonzalez, Athlete Ally announced.

In 2012, Seitz was named Major League Soccer’s Humanitarian of the Year after he cut his season short to become a bone marrow donor. Seitz, who will turn 26 on Tuesday, was the first player taken in the 2007 MLS SuperDraft.

“As an athlete, I’ve learned first hand what leadership means and seen how small actions can make a huge difference,” Seitz told Athlete Ally. “By joining Athlete Ally, I hope my voice will reach gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth and remind them that they are welcomed and respected in sports.”

Hudson Taylor, executive director of Athlete Ally, said: “As our first professional soccer players to join Athlete Ally, and following the brave choice of fellow pro soccer player Robbie Rogers to come out, A.J., [Omar] and Chris’ voices as allies supporting LGBT teammates and fans are so important. Their commitment demonstrates how MLS is a leader among professional sports leagues in the LGBT rights movement.”

—  John Wright

Cowboys legend Michael Irvin talks with Out magazine about gay brother, being an LGBT ally

Former Dallas Cowboy Michael Irvin tells all to Out magazine in their sports issue profiling athletes who are also allies to the LGBT community. Cyd Zeigler provides an insightful look at Irvin as he came to learn that his brother was gay and the effect it had on his life and career. Irvin, being the huge persona that he is, is surprisingly poignant and reflective about his brother who passed in 2006, as well as about standing up for LGBT equality.

The issue also includes athletes Ben Cohen, Hudson Taylor, Mike Chabala and Nick Youngquest.

—  Rich Lopez