By Ken Reed
The Huffington Post
August 4, 2014

The past year or so has been a good one for LGBT athletes and their quest for acceptance, fairness, justice, and equal opportunity in sports.

Robbie Rogers became the first active openly gay athlete in a North American professional team sport when he signed a contract with the Los Angeles Galaxy of the MLS. Jason Collins became the first active openly gay player in the NBA with a powerful piece in Sports Illustrated. Michael Sam became the first active openly gay player with an NFL team when the St. Louis Rams drafted him. WNBA star Brittney Griner, Nike’s first openly gay athlete, published a book about her life on and off the court and the peace she’s found from being true to herself.

Despite this progress, a lot more is needed.

LGBT athletes still face an uphill battle when it comes to acceptance and equal opportunity in sports. Consider that nearly 30 percent of LGBT athletes report being harassed or attacked for sexual orientation or gender expression while participating on a sports team, according to the 2011 Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network’s 2011 National School Climate Survey.

The situation isn’t any better when it comes to college athletics. The 2012 Campus Pride LGBQT National College Athlete Report revealed that 39 percent of LGBQ athletes have felt harassed because of their sexual identity.

Given these statistics, it’s no wonder that most LGBT athletes still don’t feel comfortable revealing their true identities to coaches and fellow athletes.

Progressive change is hard – and usually slow.

That certainly has been the case for LGBT athletes through the years.

LGBT athletes have been — and continue to be — discriminated against or marginalized in many ways. Coaches sometimes demand that LGBT athletes keep their identities hidden or try to encourage the athlete to work on changing their sexual orientation. Some teammates try to ostracize LGBT athletes through name-calling, rumor-spreading, or encouraging others to avoid contact with them. In some cases, LGBT athletes are physically threatened or have their property vandalized. Some coaches don’t allow LGBT athletes on their teams or give them unfair playing time. The list goes on.

Legally, this issue has all kinds of civil rights ramifications. Morally, it has all kinds of Golden Rule implications.

Two advocacy organizations doing a great job working for acceptance, equal opportunity, and human rights for LGBT athletes are Athlete Ally and You Can Play.

According to Athlete Ally’s website, an Athlete Ally is:

“any person – regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity – who takes a stand against homophobia and transphobia in sports and brings the message of respect, inclusion and equality to their athletic community. Athlete Allies include competitive and recreational athletes as well as coaches, parents, teachers, league officials, sports fans, other sports participants and advocates.”

Thousands of people have signed the following Athlete Ally pledge:

I pledge to lead my athletic community to respect and welcome all persons, regardless of their perceived or actual sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

Beginning right now, I will do my part to promote the best of athletics by making all players feel respected on and off the field.

LGBT-based human rights initiatives on the playing field and in locker rooms will make a lot of folks in SportsWorld uncomfortable. They won’t want anything to do with LGBT equal opportunity policies.

Writer Jeb Lund put it brilliantly when discussing the mindset of these people and why it’s not worth spending a lot of energy worrying about their uneasiness.

“[T]he big problem of recoiling from change, to spare the people who enjoy things as they are from feeling anxious, is that it privileges people frightened of the future over people with legitimate reason to be frightened over the present. It nurtures and protects ignorance and/or unfamiliarity as something vulnerable and worth preserving, rather than challenging those attitudes and nurturing groups at real risk of violence, social stigma and political impotence. It infantilizes us and lets us believe that hiding under the covers in the dark rather than reaching for the light is the reasonable corrective for a belief in monsters. It takes pains to keep those who enjoy the status quo from enduring any, and in exchange it tells people already marginalized by or ostracized from parts of society that it is for their own good to remain out in the cold.”

Moving toward a SportsWorld of equality is unfortunately a slow, painful process. Not everyone wants to go along for the ride. They have to be pushed and pulled, kicking and screaming. Making people face what makes them uncomfortable is part of the process; part of the march to equality on our playing fields and in our locker rooms.

Ultimately, societal progress in any area requires a collective effort.

“This can’t just be about groups like You Can Play doing the heavy lifting,” says Brian Kitts, co-founder of You Can Play, an organization formed to work toward equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation. “It has to be a partnership between organizations like ours, professional leagues, professional teams, fans, and gay and straight athletes. And the list goes on from there. This is going to take the same effort as other civil rights causes have in the past, including race and gender issues.”

All of us who care about social justice and equal opportunity need to engage in this battle — whenever we can and wherever we’re at.

Ken Reed is Sports Policy Director for League of Fans.

Follow Ken Reed on Twitter.


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