Poetry for Pride Month
What Were They Thinking? United States v. Williams and Free Speech

Pride and Sports: An Interview with Pat Griffin

For Pride Month, Beacon Broadside invited Pat Griffin, director of It Takes A Team! Education Campaign for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Issues in Sport, to discuss the issue of homophobia in sports. Dr. Griffin is the author of Strong Women, Deep Closets: Lesbian and Homophobia in Sports and co-editor of Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice: A Sourcebook for Teachers and Trainers. The interview questions are from Helen Wheelock, a regular contributor to the Women's Hoops Blog and the Women's Basketball Coaching Association's magazine, Coaching Women's Basketball.

The WNBA is not the only professional women's league in the US, but it is the most visible. How proactive have the league as a whole and teams individually been in supporting their lesbian players and fan base?

My impression is that the league and individual teams have been privately supportive of individual lesbian players. They also have domestic partner benefits as part of the league contract with players.  Publicly, league officials have been what I would call cautiously supportive of individual players, but I have not seen the league take a strong stand against homophobia in basketball.   

Over the years the league and individual teams have become more active in marketing to the lesbian and gay community at events like Pride Days, but I believe that they are still nervous about being too openly supportive of lesbian fans. They struggle to support and acknowledge lesbians as an important and loyal part of their fan base because they are afraid of alienating heterosexual parents and their children and older heterosexual fans. Unfortunately, lesbian fans are not perceived as "family-oriented," even though lesbians bring their sons and daughters to the games, too. 

I was disappointed to read about the make-up and fashion workshop conducted for the WNBA rookie players this year as part of their orientation—particularly hearing league officials saying that the players are "women first," as if to be a real woman you have to wear make-up and Gucci stiletto heels. It reminded me that women athletes, or at least the people running the WNBA, are still defensive about the perceived "femininity" and heterosexuality of the players. Not all the players are fashion models or married to men. Everyone knows that. I think fans are becoming more comfortable with this diversity. I just hope the WNBA can catch up. 

It seems like female athletes and athletics have been the most visible leaders in the fight against homophobia. Where are the men and what are they doing?

Organizationally, I agree that women have taken the lead.  The Women's Sports Foundation initiated It Takes A Team! in 2000 and the National Center for Lesbian Rights initiated the Sports Project in 2002.  However, the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation are two other advocacy organizations that address homophobia in sport as well, and Outsports.com is a reliable news and information web site that focuses mainly on homophobia and gay men in sport. John Amaechi, the former NBA player who came out last year, is one of the most savvy and effective gay former athletes committed to speaking out about homophobia in sport, along with other gay former pros like Billy Bean (MLB) and Esera Tuaolo and Dave Kopay (NFL). 

Some people believe that having a big name male pro athlete-- the gay Jackie Robinson-- come out while he is still an active player will really change things. When WNBA star and Olympian gold-medalist Sheryl Swoopes' came out, so many commentators and bloggers, many who are gay men, seemed to discount the importance of her coming out. This is based on a sexist view that what men do carries more weight that what women do and the perception that many women athletes are lesbians.   

There is a misperception that lesbians in sport have it easier than gay men do. While there is probably more potential for violence against an openly gay male athlete, even from his own teammates in some situations, being a lesbian athlete still carries the risk of discrimination and harassment. Lesbian coaches and athletes in collegiate athletics in particular can be at risk. Negative recruiting based on sexual orientation as well as blatant discrimination is still alive and well in women's sports.  Former Penn State coach Rene Portland was not the only coach who had anti-lesbian policies. She's just the one who got caught.

What are the major steps forward you've seen at the college and university levels in combating homophobia, and what are the next steps that need to be taken?

The NCAA, under the leadership of executive director Myles Brand, has taken some important steps to educate member institutions about homophobia and to provide resources for individual schools, including workshops on "sexual orientation" issues and the CHAMPS Life Skills curriculum for student-athletes, which  includes the It Takes A Team! curriculum and resources. The NCAA is also one of It Takes A Team's endorsing organizations, and we jointly sponsored a very successful panel at the NCAA annual convention last January. So, I think the NCAA has demonstrated an increased commitment to challenging discrimination in athletics. 

I do several workshops on LGBT issues for athletic department staff and student-athletes every year, and I've noticed a change in the receptivity of coaches and athletes to this discussion. Coaches are much more interested in getting specific strategies--I don't have to convince them that this is a topic they need to address. They want to know what to do when an athlete comes out to them. How should they handle hotel room assignments when there is a gay member of the team? What is the best way to respond to anti-gay name-calling or comments on teams? What if teammates become involved in a relationship? This is progress and I've had some amazing conversations with coaches about topics like these. 

One of the biggest changes I notice is among the athletes. Heterosexual athletes, women especially, are much more comfortable with openly gay and lesbian teammates. Many of these young people have friends who are gay or went to high schools where there was a Gay-Straight Alliance for students. I am speaking in broad generalities here and certainly this is not true for all heterosexual athletes, but I do think things are changing.   

It is also true that young LGBT athletes are coming out younger and more often and their parents are supporting them more. Many of these athletes expect fair treatment and acceptance, setting a different tone on a sports team from when an athlete feels shame or fear about being gay.   

I don't mean in any way to suggest that everything is just fine now. It is not. We have much work to do before all LGBT athletes and coaches can routinely expect fair and respectful treatment in athletics, but we are definitely making progress. The issues are on the table and we are having the conversations.

You recently held a panel at the Women's Basketball Coaches Association Conference about bridging the gap between Christian, lesbian, and lesbian Christian athletes. What challenges do gay athletes face when sports and religion intersect? How can coaches, even coaches at schools with policies that forbid homosexual conduct, support their gay and lesbian athletes?

One of the exciting things about the WBCA panel was the beginning of a dialogue. Some of our efforts at reaching common ground will be challenging because we do have some fundamental differences around the topic of homosexuality and the role of religion in athletics, but we all ended the session with deeper respect for each other and a commitment to continue the conversation. 

Coaches have a responsibility to create and maintain a religion-neutral environment on their teams, but some coaches invite or pressure athletes to attend chapel or Bible studies, to pray together or listen to Biblical quotes as part of their coaching. I think this is wrong, not only because it places lesbian and gay athletes at risk, but it also alienates anyone on the team who does not share the coach's particular faith. College and high school sports are not church leagues.   

I support every athlete's and coach's right to their personal religious or spiritual beliefs as well as their right to individually express that belief, but I think there is a little too much tolerance in athletics for mixing evangelical Christianity with athletics. I would hope that even in religious schools where homosexuality is specifically condemned that coaches and athletes would treat gay and lesbian teammates with respect.

Veteran WNBA star and Olympic gold medalist Sheryl Swoopes came out almost three years ago and, as far as the general WNBA fan can see, she's suffered no negative "repercussions." Is it surprising, given the progress that has been made combating homophobia, that more professional players -- in all sports -- haven't come out?

Yes and no. Yes, because I agree with you that Sheryl's coming out has been a really positive experience for her. I think the same is true for most athletes who decide to come out publicly. Never underestimate the pain and fear of hiding such an important part of who you are. It takes tremendous energy and self-surveillance to keep such an important secret. Even if there are some losses, the gain in self-integrity, honesty and relief at not needing to hold up that façade is life changing. 

I think the days when athletes like Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova suffered huge financial losses—losing corporate sponsorships—when they came out are gone. Many sponsors understand the marketing power of the gay and lesbian community and the ethical value of supporting diversity and social justice. Navratilova, Swoopes and Rosie Jones actually picked up endorsements because they are lesbians when Olivia, the lesbian travel and leisure group, signed them on as spokeswomen. 

On the other hand, it is not surprising to me that more lesbian and gay athletes haven't charged the closet door. Coming out publicly brings media attention to parts of an athlete's life they often prefer to keep private. Once enough athletes come out publicly, it won't be such a big deal and the pressure will be off the ones who do come out to be spokespeople or activists for gay rights. I think this is particularly true for gay male athletes. The sports media will make a huge whoop-dee-do when the first MLB, NFL, NBA, or NHL active player comes out, and it will take a special person to take on that role. 

I think change will come more organically. Rather than big announcements of a current athletes coming out, we will see more athletes coming up through the college ranks who already are out. They will come into the pros as out lesbians and gay men, and that will help to speed up the change in athletic culture. 

My goal is to put It Takes A Team! out of business. I work for the day when being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender in sport will be no big deal and LGBT athletes will not be targeted for discrimination or harassment. We certainly haven't reached that goal yet. There is lots of work to do, but we are definitely making progress.   

You might also be interested in Pat Griffin's blog  at www.ittakesateam.blogspot.com; the It Takes A Team Website; or OutSports.com. This post is part of our Pride Month coverage of LGBT issues.