StraightTalk On Athletes, the Media & Bullying
Discussing the inroads made in politics, media, athletics and the corporate arena, luminaries from across the LGBTQ experience met under one roof in New York City for the third annual StraightTalk Conference on October 12-14. Under the aegis of the professional social network dot429.com and held at the Tribeca Grand Hotel in Manhattan, "Living the American Dream: Open and Free" gauged progress and identified challenges amid an election year where gay marriage and other equality initiatives are being used as political rallying points.
"This is an exciting time in the LGBT community," said dot429 CEO Richard Klein. "Never before have we had the opportunities and impact that we now have, and I want to explore this changing environment."
Among the speakers for the three-day event were star LGBTQ advocate Zach Wahls; author David Mixner; Neil Giuliano, president of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation; CEO of American Eagle Outfitters Robert Hanson; Brian Sims, Democratic nominee for the 182nd District of the Pennsylvania House; out football player Wade Davis; Athlete Ally Founder Hudson Taylor; author Laura Albert; Beth Kohm of PFLAG; singer Kimberley Locke; LPAC spokeswoman Sarah Schmidt; and out actor James Duke Mason.
Gays in Professional Sports - Negotiating the Media
"Any Day Now," starring Alan Cumming and depicting a gay couple trying to adopt a mentally challenged boy in the 1970s, was screened, and a networking reception hosted by three-time U.S. National Figure Skating Champion Johnny Weir allowed speakers and attendees to connect.
Having played for the Tennessee Titans, Washington Redskins, Seattle Seahawks and NFL Europe, Davis brought a first-person insight into professional sports. Taylor, a 2010 All-American wrestler and now Division I college wrestling coach at Columbia University represented university athletics.
With out CNN and ESPN commentator LZ Granderson moderating, Davis and Taylor were quick to say that while gays and lesbians are now visible in positions ranging from political to scientific, American athletics, particularly in the "Big Three" -- basketball, baseball, and football -- remains terra hostilis.
A perfect storm of circumstances, including the insular nature of teams, the potential for disruption of a team’s social cohesiveness, paranoia on both sides of the closet door, keeps many gay athletes closeted. But it is Davis’ opinion that homophobia, external and internal, in sports ultimately stems from the narrow idea of how masculinity and femininity are defined and perceived. The image of the butch male sports star is just the most recent incarnation of the "manly man," and any application of grace or artistry immediately arouses suspicion.
Taylor recounts how, because of how much of the body a Lycra wresting singlet exposes and the close nature of wrestling, he was often accused of being gay. Women are affected similarly; a firestorm was set off in the tennis world when Martina Hingis described fellow player and out lesbian Amélie Mauresmo as "half a man," exemplifying that all genders are subject to censor by straying, or are perceived to stray, out of traditional norms.
While gays have made their presence known in some areas of sport and individual teams embrace the "You Can Play" campaign, Davis noted players that come out tend to do so under a set of strict criteria: Only after retirement (Billy Bean, Esera Tuaolo); only after retirement never having reached the level of popularity as Michael Jordan or Derek Jeter ("I sucked!" Davis said, in a remarkable show of candor); or only if they are in a less-publicized sport, such as figure skating and, with Orlando Cruz coming out, boxing.
But it is in these outlying sports that Davis, Taylor, and Granderson see the opportunity for protean leaps forward, particularly in the "little brother" to the Big Three, hockey. The more out players the public sees outside the Big Three, the more accepted the idea will be within them.
"These players," Davis observed, "they’re coming from Canada, from Europe -- places where gay marriage is law. They’re not going back."
Panel Address Bullying Epidemic
The October 14 Anti-Bully Project symposium of StraightTalk took place just days after David Hernandez Barros, 16, and Amanda Todd, 15, took their own lives. Hernandez, a gay teen was bullied physically and digitally, and Todd, a straight girl, was the victim of an online blackmail campaign that has since attracted the attention of cyber-vigilante group Anonymous, which identified the bully as a Canadian Facebook employee. In what is a bitter irony, both teens had support groups at hand, and in the case of Todd, law enforcement, but still saw suicide as the only viable option.
Causes of bullying and appropriate responses were the main focus; moderated by justice reporter Steph Watts, actor Mason (son of Go-Go’s singer Belinda Carlisle) was joined by Emily Blazon, author of "Sticks and Stones: Bullying and How to Solve It"; bi-racial singer and "American Idol" contestant Kimberly Locke, "The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things" author Laura Albert and Marcus Lovingood, founder of the Pride PAC super PAC.
Also on the panel were civic leaders Corey Johnson, Chairman of Manhattan Community Board 4; Alfonzo David, Deputy Civil Rights Director for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo; and Jamal Lewis, creator of anti-bully curricula.
While being gay, or the perception of being so, is often what bullies use as pouncing points, bullying cuts an indiscriminate swath through America’s youth, gay and straight.
"I was getting it from both sides," Locke recalled. "From my black grandparents, and then from my white grandparents. I didn’t know what to do." Locke would go on to parlay her fame into successful entrepreneurialism and also activism by collaborating with One Heartland, a non-profit assisting children impacted by HIV/AIDS.
Poignantly, an audience member told how her daughter is a current victim of bullying and exemplified the shortcomings schools, teachers, parents, and authorities have in dealing with the problem: Lack of corroborating evidence, its unpredictable occurrence, vague and inconsistent legal definitions of bullying, lax enforcement, apathy to the phenomenon and trying to convince the bully that bullying has ramifications.
"The school can’t do anything without witnesses," she said, voicing the frustration many parents, victims, and even the panelists reach after hitting repeated legal and bureaucratic dead-ends, even when the bullying is obvious. David was quick to offer his assistance, and after the panel, the woman and her daughter were seen getting an impromptu self-defense lesson by one of the other attendees.
"Where are the parents?" proved a common complaint, and their role was a focus, but a larger problem was the ignorance of the multitude of options victims now have. Several notable advances - the passage of anti-harassment bills and cyberbullying laws, the It Gets Better campaign, the increased visibility and intercession of Divisions of Student Affairs in schools and Departments of Education nationwide - were highlighted, with Johnson, David and Kohm of PFLAG offering resources and telephone numbers at the reception after the talk.
The StraightTalk audience was stocked with as many LGBTQ leaders and allies as were the panels. Maria Lynn, president of film distributor Wolfe Releasing, former editor-in-chief of Genre magazine and reporter William Kapfer, Merryn Johns, editor-in-chief of Curve magazine, and MTV emeritus Downtown Julie Brown were in attendance.
"I’m here for my friend," Brown said, taking the position of several allies. "It’s important."