Straight Allies to LGBT Community in Sports

In recent weeks we have witnessed what feels like a mass coming out of straight male athletes speaking publicly in support of gay marriage, against anti-LGBT bullying and name-calling, and against homophobia in sport. It has been an amazing news cycle unprecedented in my memory and that is a long time, trust me.

NBA former star, Charles Barkley; current NBA players Grant Hill, Jared Dudley and Steve Nash have all spoken out.

NHL player Sean Avery has spoken out. Add to this group, recently retired UK Rugby player, Ben Cohen and former NCAA wrestling All-American and now college wrestling coach, Hudson Taylor, and you have quite an array of straight male athletes who are taking a public stance against anti-LGBT discrimination and prejudice in and out of sports.

I’m not even counting the straight male athletes who have spoken up prior to the last couple of months, like Brian and Patrick Burke, Scott Fujita and Brendon Ayanbadejo. Members of the San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox are making” It Gets Better” videos.

Ben Cohen and Hudson Taylor, in particular are dedicating themselves to addressing LGBT discrimination and bullying in sport. Each has started his own organization to combat anti-gay bullying and name-calling. Cohen’s foundation, Stand Up, and Taylor’s Athlete Ally have received a lot of media attention from the mainstream sports press and the gay press recently.

Ben Cohen is currently on what he calls an “Acceptance Tour” of the United States talking about his foundation, speaking out against bullying and raising money for selected LGBT organizations. Hudson Taylor is speaking at colleges around the USA asking athletes to sign the Athlete Ally pledge to commit themselves to speak up against anti-LGBT name-calling and homophobia. Both men have been embraced by LGBT organizations and are adored by legends of gay men who are as attracted to their athletic good looks as they are to their affirming message.

These straight male athletes are role models for younger straight male athletes who are hearing a different message than the one too often delivered in sports: “Gay men are not tolerated or welcomed in sports and anti-gay slurs are an accepted part of male sports culture and being called “gay” in sport is the ultimate insult.” After all, no active member of the big four men’s professional sports in the USA has come out as a gay man and we only have to look back two months to read about three high profile incidents of professional athletes or coaches using anti-gay slurs to express their anger at officials or fans. All were fined or suspended, which is progress, but you have to assume that the way the words rolled so easily off their tongues that, in private, it is still ok to call someone an anti-gay slur.

So what’s not to love about all this sudden media attention on straight male athlete allies? Don’t all successful social change movements include allies who stand shoulder to shoulder with people who are targeted by oppression? The answer, of course, is yes. So what is it that is making me a little uneasy about how some of this sudden bounty of support is unfolding.

Part of my unease comes from my perception that this seems to be all about men. Maybe this is ok in this moment. Maybe I should just celebrate the outspoken support of these straight male athletes since we certainly have had a deep silence about homophobia in men’s sports for too long. Maybe I should just be happy that the silence is being broken in men’s sports and that we suddenly have some straight men who are playing a leadership role in breaking it. Maybe, but I am concerned about the inclusivity of the message I am hearing in media coverage of Ben and Hudson and all of the other amazing happenings over the last month or so.

I’m concerned that, in all of the media flurry of attention, homophobia in women’s sports is getting lost in the shuffle. Moreover I wonder if women athletes and coaches are less likely to identify with Ben and Hudson or with some of the other male professional athletes or their messages if it feels like women’s experiences in sport are being ignored. I don’t assume someone is talking about my experience when they use the word “gay.” The message needs to be explicitly inclusive of women and I am not hearing that.

Sports is a male dominated institution and women athletes are still, despite enormous progress, perceived as inferior trespassers by many male fans, athletes and sports administrators. How ironic would it be if homophobia in women’s sports is marginalized within our own LGBT advocacy organizations and media and by the straight male athletes who are speaking up about homophobia in sport. I want our advocates to be mindful of how we perpetuate sexism in the ways we challenge homophobia by making the G count more than the lbt.

Sports media is all about men’s sports so it follows that a discussion about homophobia in sport will probably get framed as about men’s sports. A radio commentator this week said that no professional athlete in the US has ever come out publicly while they were still actively playing. I wanted to say, wait a minute, you mean no MALE professional athlete has come out while still actively playing. The exclusion might not have been intentional, but the assumption that this conversation is about men’s sports is always there just beneath the surface. We cannot let homophobia in women’s sport be an afterthought in this amazing public conversation about homophobia in sport.

Discrimination against lesbian athletes or any women who is perceived to be lesbian is alive and well in women’s sports. The lesbian label is still used as a way to keep women athletes and coaches in line and in the closet. It’s not like we have come anywhere close to winning the war against homophobia in women’s sports so we can just move on and now turn our attention to men’s sports.

It is also troubling to me that I do not hear many voices of straight women athlete allies in this conversation. Where are the women’s professional sports teams making It Gets Better videos? Where are the individual straight women athletes of any sport who will speak out against anti-LGBT bullying and name-calling in schools and for marriage equality? I think the silence from straight women athletes on these topics is a testament to the pervasive effects of sexism and homophobia in women’s sports and to the marginalization of women’s sports in general. I think women athletes believe they have more at risk in speaking up against homophobia in sport. As long as the lesbian label can still be used to silence and intimidate any women athlete, it will be more difficult for lesbian, bi or straight women to speak up publicly against homophobia. Speaking up as a straight ally is a privilege that is mediated by the effects of sexism in sport. Nonetheless, we need more straight women athlete allies to make public their private commitment to inclusion and respect in sport and in schools. We need some women to stand shoulder to shoulder with the straight male athlete allies who are speaking up. I am calling out straight women athletes on this. We need your voices in this public conversation.

Then there is the “hunk factor.” In one article Ben and Hudson were called “swoon-worthy.” Ben Cohen’s tour is sponsored by gay men’s rugby teams in each of the cities he is visiting. His popular “Beer with Ben” events take place in gay men’s bars and are attended by, surprise, a lot of gay men. I guess it should be no surprise that in many pictures Ben is shirtless with accompanying text commenting on his “hotness.” Shirtless guys with perfect physiques in sexy poses predominate in a lot of gay men’s media so I guess I should not be surprised that Ben Cohen is featured this way too.

However, I wonder if the propensity for gay media to focus on a straight ally’s sex appeal diminishes the power and reach of his message and how seriously it will be taken beyond the gay male community. Also, I wonder about how appropriate it is focus on beefcake when the primary goal for these campaigns is to stop young people from being bullied. Anti-bullying messages delivered with beer and hot bodies probably will not make it into the schools. Call me a prude if you like, but I have plenty of company among educators and parents in schools.

I also have some concerns about how the term “ally” is used and what it means to the people who call themselves allies. This term has a long history in social justice movements. The definition of ally that has always made the most sense to me is: A member of privileged social groups (males, whites or heterosexuals, for example), who speaks out to end discrimination and oppression toward members of social groups targeted by discrimination and oppression (females, people of color or LGBT people, for example).

However, more is required of allies than speaking out against anti-GBLT bullying or name-calling, though this is an essential part of being one. As we move forward into this new world of celebrating and working with straight allies in sport, I have some thoughts I hope our straight allies, bless them all, will take to heart.

1. Allies need to understand and be mindful of the privilege they have as they speak out. There is a disturbing benevolence that reinforces inequality when well-intentioned allies do not understand that they too are part of the oppression equation, whether they like it or not. They benefit by being heterosexual in a heterosexist world. Allies need to understand how their privilege is part of what enables them to speak out and be heard. Challenging homophobia is a great way to use privilege, but it is privilege nonetheless. It isn’t as if they are speaking from some place outside the system of oppression they want to challenge. Failure to understand their own privilege and participation in a system of oppression seriously diminishes the effectiveness of their message and can ultimately result in disempowering the groups that allies claim to speaking in support of. I cringed a little when I heard that Ben Cohen’s travel in the USA is called the “Acceptance Tour.” Acceptance implies inequality. It is certainly better than calling it something like the “Tolerance Tour,” but “acceptance” implies that some people have the power to confer “acceptance” on others. It implies having the privilege to confer acceptance. Like many LGBT people I really don’t care about acceptance or tolerance from heterosexual people. I want equality. I want respect. Those are concepts that challenge privilege rather than reinforce it. I want to know that my straight allies understand this difference. I don’t want my allies to “help” me by conferring acceptance. I want them to stand beside me in this campaign because they believe it makes a better world for all of us.

2. Being an ally requires a commitment to on-going work on self-awareness in relationship to the complicated dynamics of oppression. It isn’t just about calling for an end to anti-LGBT bullying and name-calling. Being an ally means understanding how intersecting issues of race, gender, sexuality, sex, class and other social justice issues affect the message and the messenger. It diminishes both when, for example, women are left out or people of color are ignored. I want allies to use the words “lesbian,” “bisexual” and “transgender.” I want them to understand the differences in our identities and experience. Allies need to demonstrate a commitment to learning and speaking out about how anti-LGBT oppression affects all factions of the LGBT community, not just the gay one.

3. Allies need to work alongside of LGBT people and organizations, not out in front of them. Straight allies need to understand the importance of not speaking for LGBT people or deciding what they think is best for LGBT people or usurping the roles and voices of LGBT organizations and people who have been actively advocating for LGBT rights and against bullying long before it became “cool” to be an ally. Allies play an important role in challenging LGBT oppression and discrimination, but that role must be played in collaboration with LGBT organizations and people. To do otherwise is an exercise in unacknowledged privilege and misguided benevolence that disempowers LGBT advocacy organizations and advocates.

I realize that writing this blog may lead some folks to see me as ungrateful for the incredible work that straight allies in sport are doing. I do appreciate their efforts and see the active participation of straight allies as extremely important in making sport and schools more respectful and inclusive places for LGBT people. I am a huge fan and friend of Hudson’s and, though I have not met Ben, I am thankful to have him on our team standing up against bullying. As we appreciate the efforts of our straight allies, we also need to challenge them to examine their privileged position as men, as heterosexuals, as white people to make sure that they are delivering an inclusive message of empowerment that is based on an understanding of the complicated power dynamics of being an ally.

I just want this media moment we are enjoying to translate into tangible and lasting change in men’s and women’s sports and beyond. I want our allies to understand the importance of them doing their homework so they can most effectively work with us to make it so.


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