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Pro Athletes Take a Stand Against Homophobia in Sports

by Shaun Knittel
Contributor
Friday Jul 13, 2012
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It has happened to us all at one point or another. Whether in a high school locker room or at a company sports event another teammate or opponent, in an effort to demean a fellow player, calls them a "faggot." In other words, in the sports world, being gay equaled being a sissy for many years. It was accepted, joked about and fostered in youth, minor and major leagues around the world.

But the tide has changed. With more professional athletes coming out as LGBT and their straight allies advocating for their acceptance, the major leagues have become increasingly more tolerant. Homophobia in sports is on its way out.

Last week, U.S. Olympic soccer player Megan Rapinoe came out as lesbian in an official interview with Out Magazine. She told Out that she wasn’t hiding anything -- it’s just that no one ever asked her directly.

"I think they were trying to be respectful and that it’s my job to say ’I’m gay,’" Rapinoe said, adding, "Which I am. For the record: I’m gay."

Rapinoe, who’s been dating her girlfriend, an Australian soccer player, for three years, said she felt it was important to come out publicly.

"I feel like sports in general are still homophobic, in the sense that not a lot of people are out," she said while also admitting that for males, it is harder for them to come out and be accepted than women because, "in female sports, if you’re gay, most likely your team knows it pretty quickly."

"I feel everyone is really craving for people to come out," said the soccer midfielder, who is currently on the Seattle Sounders Women of the W-League. "People want -- they need -- to see that there are people like me playing soccer for the good ol’ U.S. of A."


Heterosexual Fans Lead the Charge Against Homophobia

Rapinoe brings up a good point. The "people" she refers to could very well be heterosexual sports fans. Pro athletes who don’t identify as LGBT are stepping up to lead the charge and have become vocal supporters of the acceptance of gay athletes in sports. Perhaps the most known straight supporter turned advocate is Ben Cohen, the David Beckham of rugby.

In 2011, instead of signing a three-year contract, he quit rugby to devote himself full-time to battling homophobia. He started the Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation to combat bullying, especially the bullying of children who might be LGBT. The British athlete, happily married to his wife, Abby, with twin 4-year-old daughters, has not only changed the way people view gays in sports, but also has asked others to do the same.

In a new campaign to help raise money and awareness around the issue of anti-bullying and homophobia in sports, his foundation will begin selling a line of athletic-style cotton underwear. The ads feature Cohen is the briefs in various sports and modeling poses. The rugby star says that he got the idea from an underwear ad campaign, Sloggi, a European brand he modeled for 10 years ago. As the images made the rounds on the Internet, gay men everywhere began to take notice. When photos of a shirtless Cohen followed, his gay fan base grew.

"I was flattered," he said, admitting that he was unaware of his gay admirers until he looked at his Facebook fan page and saw some 37,000 followers -- many of whom were gay men. Last week, Cohen’s fan page passed the 200,000 mark. "Any attention is nice," he said, "It’s good for your ego."

"For so long, masculine culture in this country was so afraid of homosexuality that anything that could be remotely tied to it was avoided at all costs," Cyd Zeigler, a co-founder of OutSports.com, a Web site devoted to news about gay athletes, as well as photos of shirtless athletes, told the New York Times about the growing acceptance of gay admirers by straight athletes.

Connor Barwin, a linebacker for the Houston Texans, told Zeigler in an interview posted on OutSports.com, that he had no problems having gay admirers. "I don’t mind at all if guys think I’m hot," he said. "It’s a compliment."

Recently, several straight sports figures joined Barwin to voice support for gay marriage, including Matt Cain, a pitcher for the San Francisco Giants and Mat Latos, a pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds.

For years, former National Basketball League player Doug Christie and his wife Jackie have remarried on their anniversary. This year, for their 17th wedding anniversary, the Christies wanted to show their support for same-sex marriage rights by holding the ceremony at the gay club Eleven, in West Hollywood.

"We are very fond supporters [of the LGBT community]. We absolutely love, adore and stand united with all people no matter what gender. It doesn’t matter if you’re gay or lesbian, whatever it is we love you and we want you to all be able to get married too, when you want to," Jackie Christie told the crowd.

Doug and Jackie Christie said they would keep fighting for LGBT equality for as long as it takes. The couple also posed for the NOH8 photo campaign last week.


Pro Athletes Still Reluctant to Come Out

Still, not all male athletes are comfortable with coming out as gay, particularly those in professional team sports. There have been a handful of pros that have publicly come out after retiring, but the fact remains that no player has done so while still on contract in the National Football League, Major League Baseball, National Hockey League or National Basketball Association.

But outside of the U.S., 18-year-old British diver Tom Daley has gone from bullying victim to Olympic sex symbol and medal favorite in the men’s 10-meter platform diving event at the London Games.

Daley told the British magazine Fabulous he was once mercilessly bullied as a younger teen. Now he graces the cover of magazines, has more than 250,000 Twitter followers and girl groupies, who scream wherever he appears.

Dr. Mary Brown, lecturer in psychology at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, told OutSports.com Daley, who has not come out as gay but is rumored to be, was bullied because bullies are just as likely to pick on a sporting hero as a timid child. In fact, there exist tons of examples and data that suggest young males, whether they are athletes or not, who are quiet, timid or smaller than their peers will often be bullied because the aggressor perceives them as being gay.

"There is a myth that only wimps are bullied," said Dr. Brown. "But the real-life evidence points to the opposite being the case."

Marcus Urban, the first openly gay soccer player in Europe, joined forces with AllOut.org, a global campaign dedicated to LGBT equality, to raise awareness of the anti-gay crackdown in Ukraine.

Last month in Ukraine, the Parliament was set to advance their version of a gay gag rule that would make it illegal to say the word "gay" in public. Leaders from six European Union countries refused to attend Euro 2012, a soccer tournament being held in Ukraine, in protest.

Urban live-tweeted the June 19 game between Ukraine and England for AllOut.org, which helped introduce the anti-gay crackdown to sports fans throughout Europe and the world. Last week, members of the Ukraine’s Parliament decided not to vote on the controversial law. Still, Urban says that homophobia exists within the ranks of pro soccer teams.

"I had to quit my career 20 years ago, because of the pressure to conform in professional football," he said in a June 20 statement for AllOut.org. "Even now, just a few days ago, an Italian forward playing at Euro 2012 said that he hopes there are no gay players on his team."

Urban said the player is a "typical example for how little football has advanced on this issue in the last two decades."

As a matter of fact, there were no openly gay players at the Euro 2012 tournament at all.

Coming out as a gay or lesbian professional athlete would have positive repercussions on the bullying of kids who are perceived to be LGBT, say some athletic coaches.

High school track coach Jacob Gardner praised straight pro athletes like college wrestling champ Hudson Taylor and former New York Giants running back Tiki Barber for speaking out against homophobia in sports, and told closeted athletes, "It’s a lot to ask, but coming out is the best thing you can do for kids."

"There are kids who look up to professional sports, and when they don’t see anyone who is out it’s hard for them to imagine themselves there," he said.


Nike LGBT Sports Summit Introduce LGBT-Inclusive Policy

Homophobic slurs and anti-gay hate speech are commonplace among many of the professional athletes who are role models for young people. Because many corporations hire athletes as spokespeople or sponsor a team, some have joined the fight to combat bullying and anti-LGBT bias in sports.

Last month, many of the nation’s top sports leaders joined Nike representatives at Nike World Headquarters for the first-ever Nike LGBT Sports Summit to put together a comprehensive action plan designed to redefine "Athletic Champion" and put an end to harassment and discrimination against LGBT athletes and coaches in kindergarten through high school, college, recreational sports and professional sports.

In the next year, the newly formed coalition will ask each of the major American professional sports leagues to engage and work with organizers to introduce inclusion in their league. The national youth and adult recreational leagues will receive an LGBT-inclusive model policy, said officials, and at least five leagues are expected to adopt such a policy. In addition, the coalition says two million young people will have heard a new, inclusive definition of "athletic champion," and their physical education teachers and coaches will have received inclusive training sources.

The National Center For Lesbian Rights, a national LGBT legal organization said the June 14-17 Nike LGBT Sports Summit took on not only bullying and homophobia in sports, but transphobia as well -- an issue rarely discussed in pro sports.

Outsports’ Zeigler began developing the summit last year after identifying a failure by LGBTQ sports advocates to work together toward a common goal. Zeigler then joined forces with National Center for Lesbian Rights Sports Project Director Helen Carroll and Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s Changing the Game Sports Director Pat Griffin. Zeigler approached Nike about hosting the event, and said they jumped at the chance.

"As athletes and coaches, we all understand the power of working as a team," said Zeigler. "This summit has given us the unique opportunity to identify our common goals and move forward as a united movement. Working together, we will dismantle bullying and anti-LGBTQ bias and discrimination in sports in the next four years."

The event concluded with summit participants joining the Nike contingency in the Portland Pride Parade in Oregon.


Shaun Knittel is an openly gay journalist and public affairs specialist living in Seattle. His work as a photographer, columnist, and reporter has appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout the Pacific Northwest. In addition to writing for EDGE, Knittel is the current Associate Editor for Seattle Gay News.

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