Cyd Ziegler

The first Nike LGBT Sports Summit four years ago was a modest affair. Twenty-five men and women — coaches, professors and activists — spent two days in Portland, Ore., assessing the gay sports landscape and figuring out how to cast a wider net.

Over the next two years, the event grew. One hundred people gathered, for three days each year up from two. Big goals were set, bold plans envisioned, to make the sports world more open and accepting for LGBT athletes and coaches.

This year’s Nike LGBT Sports Summit — which took place early last month — was the biggest and best, participants agree. And the reason is that the focus became more narrow.

“We finally got it,” says LGBT Sports Coalition co-chair Cyd Ziegler, founders of the gay sports website “Our outcome changed from grand projects to trying to figure out what attendees can do in their own local communities. We ended up with 100 different things” — one for each person in Portland — “and I think everyone left with a real sense of community and purpose.”

This year’s Nike LGBT Sports Summit, sponsored by the Oregon-based footwear, apparel and equipment giant, was the most diverse yet. Last year’s summit included a few college-age athletes, so this time around a concerted effort was made to invite younger participants. Approximately half of the 125 attendees were 17 to 24 years old.

“They bring so much energy. It was palpable,” Ziegler notes.

They inspired the “veterans” — who watched with wonder as some of the young athletes participated in their first Gay Pride event ever. (The final day of the summit traditionally ends at Portland Pride.)

The LGBT Sports Summit was also a chance for teenage and college athletes to meet others like themselves. One of the most powerful parts of the weekend for Ziegler began Friday night, at Nike’s party. A young African-American football player described what happened when he came out. There was abuse from his family and team — but also incredible support, from people he did not expect.

The next morning, Ziegler invited the young man up to tell his story to everyone. On the final day, all 125 attendees gathered together, linked arms, and gave a “group hug” to the football player. It was a small, but very powerful moment — for the individuals, and the entire movement.

Others shared personal moments, too. A distance runner from Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho is a Jehovah’s Witness. He described his own very recent coming out process, and the effect it has had on others.

Trans athletes added their own perspectives. Nearly a dozen attendees identified as trans or gender-fluid. Trans man Isaiah Wilson, 20, attends the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. A former high school athlete who now coaches youth basketball, he appreciated sharing “space and air time” with athletes who are making a difference.

One of his favorite workshops centered around the inclusion of trans students in athletics. “I know a number of trans people who either aren’t coming out or aren’t transitioning because they think they will be completely barred for playing sports,” Wilson says. “This weekend reminded me that athletics keep so many LGBT individuals alive and going. Athletes inspire people — and that’s exactly what the attendees of the summit do too.”

This year’s summit featured more breakout sessions than ever, but also large group discussions. “It’s not easy with 125 people,” Ziegler acknowledges. “But people really did listen to each other, and learn.” Topics included the importance of inclusion, anti-bullying strategies, the responsibilities of social media, taking care of oneself after coming out, how to lead training sessions for coaches and how to create trans-inclusive policies.

At the end, each attendee came up with an action plan to bring to his or her community. The plans range from organizing panels on college campuses and creating videos to show at professional conferences, to influencing policies in athletic conferences (especially around trans issues) and creating support networks and safe spaces on campuses for LGBT athletes and coaches.

“Big grand plans are hard to make happen,” Ziegler admits. “This year, we had one big plan: to create an army that can head out across the country and influence local communities. It’s very empowering to feel that you as an individual can make an impact wherever you live.”

The final Pride Parade pulsed with energy. “There was an overwhelming sense of community,” Ziegler says. “No one felt alone. The people who already were active in the community found new people to help. And everyone who was at the summit now has a network of people they can count on.”

In a sense, this year’s LGBT Sports Summit marks a turning point for the entire gay sports movement. The torch has been passed to a new generation. Veteran leaders like Ziegler and his LGBT Sports Coalition co-chair Kathleen Hatch are eager for this new crop of now-empowered athletes and coaches to assume leadership roles.

—  Dan Woog