Fear in the Locker Room: School Sports, Homophobia and Transphobia

6 years ago

Rick Welts, president and chief executive of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, has just come out as gay. It was a significant and risky move in an industry that is not known for its tolerance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. (LA Laker star Kobe Bryant recently paid a $100,000 fine for calling a referee a "faggot.") And as Megan Hueter has written here at BlogHer, women’s collegiate basketball suffers similar problems. Homophobia and transphobia in sports are not confined to the professional and collegiate levels, however.

For examples, we need look no further than an article last week from the Middletown Press, discussing the struggles—and triumphs—of gay and lesbian high school athletes in Middletown, Connecticut. And the 2009 National School Climate Survey, conducted by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), found that 35.7 percent of LGBT middle and high school students avoided locker rooms because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable there, making locker rooms the most feared places for LGBT students in the schools.

Whether they are athletes or not, LGBT students—or those perceived to be—are at a high risk of being bullied and harassed at school, Nearly nine out of ten LGBT middle and high school students said they experienced harassment at school in the past year, according to the 2009 GLSEN study. Nearly a third of LGBT students surveyed said they skipped at least one day of school in the previous month because of concerns for their own safety.

But law and policy experts Stuart Biegel and Sheila James Kuehl, who wrote the paper "Safe at School" for the Williams Institute, a national think tank at UCLA Law School, say that analyses of LGBT issues often overlook "just how substantial the influence of organized sports can be on the lives of students," and how central sports can be to school culture.

They note that even at the K-12 level, "the culture of sports often marginalizes gay and gender-non-conforming youth by perpetuating homophobia and transphobia."

Biegel and Kuehl make three key policy recommendations to help reduce homophobia and transphobia in school sports:

  • Involve key members of campus athletic programs in LGBT-related initiatives.
  • Make it clear that homophobic comments and actions by coaches and student athletes are completely unacceptable.
  • Encourage student athletes to participate in targeted programs such as initiatives addressing bullying and hate violence, as well as gay-straight alliances, safe zones, and wellness programs.

They also suggest that schools ask openly LGBT athletes, former athletes, and coaches to help with professional development and orientation programs for athletes. Additionally, schools should engage "the larger sports community, including student families, after-school sports programs such as little leagues and soccer leagues, local college and professional athletic programs, and others."

Several new initiatives are attempting to address many of these same points. GLSEN in March 2011 launched Changing the Game: The GLSEN Sports Project, "to assist K-12 schools in creating and maintaining an athletic and physical education climate that is based on the core principles of respect, safety and equal access for all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression." Their Web site has numerous resources for athletes, parents, coaches, and school officials, as well as inspirational videos and more.

And Hudson Taylor, a straight, three-time NCAA Division I All-American wrester, now a Division I wrestling coach at Columbia University, has launched Athlete Ally, an initiative encouraging people to sign an online pledge to reduce homophobia in sports. He is seeking high school and college students to be "Athlete Ally Ambassadors" to promote the pledge and participate in future Athlete Ally initiatives.

Hudson also offers a weekly "Ally’s Playbook" video with suggestions for how non-LGBT athletes can help reduce homophobia.

The Sports Project at the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) has been around for longer than either of the above initiatives—10 years now—and is a powerhouse of advocacy and education. It also offers legal assistance for LGBT athletes and coaches.

NCLR had worked in close partnership with the It Takes a Team initiative of the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF) to address LGBT issues, and while WSF unfortunately shut down the initiative last year, its great resources—including curriculum guides, case studies, action plans, assessments, and policy guidelines—live on at the WSF Web site. And It Takes a Team director Pat Griffin now heads the GLSEN Sports Project.

All great resources—but ultimately, creating change on the playing field will be a matter of personal connections, of coaches, referees, parents, and athletes speaking out when they hear anti-LGBT slurs, see anti-LGBT bullying, or encounter any athlete being marginalized for sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. Like sports itself, success here is only partly about the equipment and resources, and mostly about the dedication of the players.

Yes, taking action against homophobia and transphobia can sometimes be challenging—but if there’s one thing sports can teach us, it is how to face a challenge.

You got game?

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