Expert panel debates the homophobia that confronts lesbians in sports

Portland State basketball coach Sherri Murrell

When you get Pat Griffin, Lisa Howe, Lauren Lappin, Sherri Murrell and Mechelle Voepel together to discuss the problems facing lesbians in sports, you know the subject will be addressed with honesty, great insight and clarity. The five were on the "Rainbow Ceiling" panel recently sponsored by the Association for Women in Sports Media.

Moderated by Stefanie Loh, the group discussed negative recruiting; players dating each other; the silence of female athletes in the gay marriage debate and hostile athletic administrations, among other issues. Below is a condensed transcript that is worth your while if you care about homophobia in sports.

By Stefanie Loh

It’s a subject that’s almost never brought up.

Not in the locker room, not in the media.

Coaches and players don’t discuss it, and journalists rarely mention it because, well, it’s kind of awkward.

“You start to get into a dialogue with somebody, you see the fear, you can see the walls go up, and you usually don’t continue it,” said Mechelle Voepel, who’s covered women’s basketball for ESPN.com since 1996. “The word ‘lesbian’ itself makes alarm bells go off. And so it’s difficult to have a real [conversational] interview with somebody about this topic.”

But there are lesbians in women’s sports. (No, we don’t talk about it) And yes, we know that’s a common assumption anyway.

That’s part of the problem.

“When you talk about women’s sports, the historical stigma is ‘if you’re a female athlete, you’re a lesbian’ and it holds women back from coming out,“ said Pat Griffin, project director of the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network’s “Changing the Game” initiative to promote a safer environment for kids of all sexual orientation in K-12 sports and physical education.

Homophobia has always been rampant in sports. Even today, as polls indicate that the general population is become more sympathetic to the gay rights movement, the number of publicly out female athletes could fill an elevator, and no professional male athlete in any of the four major sports (football, basketball, baseball and hockey) has ever come out during his career.

But gay and lesbian athletes also face a host of very different issues. The Association for Women in Sports Media hosted “The Rainbow Ceiling,” a panel featuring five out lesbians from several different avenues of the sports industry for an honest conversation about homosexuality in sports.

Here are some of the highlights.

(Note: Conversation has been edited and condensed by topic, click here for the full transcript.)

Panelists:

  • Pat Griffin -- project director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s “Changing the Game – an initiative to make K-12 sports and PE a safer and more inclusive environment for kids regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.”
  • Lisa Howe, former Belmont (Tenn.) University women’s soccer coach who lost her job after coming out to Belmont’s administrators, and now works as a motivational speaker.
  • Lauren Lappin, Olympic softball silver medalist, currently a catcher and infielder for the USSSA Pride in the National Pro Fastpitch League.
  • Sherri Murrell, Portland (Ore.) State women’s basketball coach, 2010-11 Big Sky Conference Coach of the year, the only openly gay coach in Division I women’s college basketball.
  • Mechelle Voepel, women’s basketball writer for ESPN.com.

Moderator:
Stefanie Loh, digital media editor, the Association for Women in Sports Media

Allies and outing:
The guys now have public straight allies who are sports celebrities [New York Rangers’ Sean Avery; the former New York Giant Michael Strahan]. Where’s that support for the women?

Loh: So, same-sex marriage was legalized in New York last Friday, and in the lead up to that, several male athletes came out in support of gay marriage, and some figures in sports like Phoenix Suns president Rick Welts also came out. But why is there not much movement on the women’s end?

Griffin: Sexism and homophobia make a very powerful mix. I’m grateful for the straight males and coaches who have come out recently – it’s huge to have them coming out as allies, the USA baseball teams, and everyone with the “It Gets Better” videos, it’s unprecedented what we’ve seen in the last several months. But they have a privilege as male athletes. When you talk about women’s sports, the historical stigma, “if you’re a female athlete, you’re a lesbian” and this holds women back from coming out. … When men do something, it’s perceived as more important because they get more ink than women’s sports.

Voepel: Less coverage for women’s sports. People might assume we’ve made lots of advancements, but the collapse of the newspaper industry really affected this. When newspapers cut back, people covering women’s beats were cut. It’s gotten less diverse in the past 3-4 years. Which really makes an issue with how women’s sports are covered. … These particular stories should go back to why they were a story [and whether] the person who came out was considered somebody that a lot of different people going to write about. If you’re an NBA executive, your perceived importance in the sports world is pretty large, and so I think that sort of dictates how many people are going to ask questions of other people about the response to it.

Howe: They’re unaware that there is homophobia in women’s sports. People think there isn’t a problem – they don’t know that there is.

Griffin: I would really love to see more heterosexual women speaking out publicly as allies in the ways that we’ve seen some of the straight male professional athletes speaking out lately. I’d love hear some reaction to that.

Murrell: The question I would ask [is] have we asked them? You know? I think maybe people just haven’t been asked, right [to speak out as allies]? Athletes and straight coaches, have they been asked to get their public opinion for them?

Voepel: Well I don’t know. It’s sort of a complex question there. … I sort of hate this analogy but we always use it in the newspaper industry, “man bites dog, versus dog bites man.” [Editor’s note: it’s noteworthy when you hear about a man biting a dog, but less so the other way around because it’s considered more common.]

When a lesbian comes out, a lot of times it’s like, “Oh yeah? Everybody in women’s sports is gay anyway, who cares? We don’t cover women’s sports anyway. We don’t care, they’re all gay.” I sound very cavalier, but I definitely sense that atmosphere in my business, and I’ve been in it a long time and that still is there.

When a man comes out, especially in a major professional sport, A) he’s considered more important because he’s a man in a major professional sport, and B) because it is perceived to be the “man bites dog” story.

So I think that’s a part of it that you haven’t seen as much commentary because these stories are considered sort of the coming out process in men’s sports, which is different that the coming out process in women’s sports.

Coming out stories:
Sherri Murrell and Lisa Howe share the reasons behind their decisions to out themselves in their professional lives.

Murrell: It’s kind of a long story, but after I’d resigned at Washington State, and basically my partner and I wanted to move back to Portland [but] there wasn’t any coaching [jobs], and it’s the first time I stepped away or didn’t have a job waiting for me or approached to me, and so it was a very interesting time, but I needed to leave Washington State. So we bought a house here in Portland, and there weren’t any west coast jobs that were appealing to me at the time so during that time, I had a lot of pondering and soul searching, and my partner and I basically said whatever job that I go into next, I’m going to be openly myself; and it’s not like I’m going to sit in with my administration and say, “Hey, I’m gay. I’m a lesbian.”

Basically it was gonna be that wherever I go, I need to make sure they understand that I have a wife and we are in the process of having kids. It’s kind of a question that gets asked when you’re around people all the time.

Portland State had an opening that I wasn’t even aware was going to happen and was just kind of fate, and so we had a house here, I take the job at Portland State, I’m from Portland, Ore., so it couldn’t have been a better situation. I never really approached my administration; my Athletic Director. – I’d talked to somebody within the administration as an Associate A.D. and said, “You know, I have a wife, and we’re going to have a family. Is this going to be okay?” And they said, “Oh gosh yeah.” And so the only time that I’d ever had an actual discussion with my athletic director was when I was asked to speak on The Training Rules DVD and that’s when I approached him and said, “This is going to be a lot more public than it is because it’s just kind of common knowledge here.”

And so he asked our president and talked to him about it, and my president was like two thumbs up. He said, “This is awesome. This reflects what Portland State is about – accepting of all people.” And so that’s how it started. I never really had a conversation with my players, it’s just been common knowledge and I think it’s just the process that everybody has so I have had nothing but a positive experience.

Howe decided to out herself when she and her partner realized that they were expecting a baby. She didn’t get quite the rousing endorsement that Murrell got from the Portland State administration, and initially lost her job as soccer coach. But the Belmont University community rallied around her, and her coming out served as a catalyst for the Christian university to add sexual orientation to its non-discrimination policy, the Nashville Metro Government extended its non-discrimination policy (which already included sexual orientation and gender identity) to its contractors, and the Tennessee State Legislature passed a law that prohibits city and county government from adopting non-discrimination policies that differ from federal law.

Howe: When I was asked ‘why do you want to tell your team?’ Well [the reason is] I’m tired of my team thinking that I’m ashamed of my relationship or I’m ashamed of my lifestyle. I’m not. … What’s ironic to my story is just how many churches, how many church leaders, how many spiritual leaders, reached out to me and my family and supported us and the kind gestures. There are definitely good Christians out there. I think at Belmont University, those students and faculty showed that they wanted to be an open and exclusive campus. It definitely exists.

A Generation Gap:
The views that lesbian athletes and coaches have on coming out are evolving at a rate on par with the attitudes of the country
According to a recent Gallup poll, 70 percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 34 support gay marriage, compared to only 39 percent among those 55 and older. This generation gap is also present within the athletic community. Younger players and coaches tend to be more open to talking about sexuality while older coaches shy about from the subject.

Voepel: It’s almost like a younger generation versus an older generation, I think are trying to find this common ground about how do we go forward to not make this this unspoken thing that exists.

Griffin: It is definitely a generational shift where the younger athletes are much more comfortable, the straight athletes are much more comfortable having lesbian or gay teammates, and it’s the coaches who are more uncomfortable and sort of feel like they don’t know what to do, you know, ‘what do I do if I have a lesbian on my team’… And there’s a lot more discomfort with the coaches than there is with the athletes. I believe that the change on this topic is going to be more of an evolutionary change than a revolutionary change. …and it’s going to more about young athletes like Lauren coming out and being out for most of their professional career rather than an established athlete coming out and changing the landscape of sports.

Lappin: Yeah, I would absolutely agree with that. … We were at the 2008 Olympic Games when I decided to publicly come out and that was the first time I’d had a conversation with any of my coaches, I mean my whole team knew, my family, it was a big step for me. It was something that I really thought I needed to do, to use that platform to really share my [story] and to help other people. [But] even my teammates who were 5-6 years older than me [who] were lesbians had issues with it – they were the ones that were really talking me through the process, asking me questions, making sure that I was really sure about what I was doing. Whereas my straight teammates [who] were about my age were really encouraging me to do it.

So I think that that stigma is still there in that older generation, and like Pat or Mechelle said, even hearing the word lesbian has different tones for them than it does for me. And I know that even five, six or seven years difference is a huge gap between their approach to it and my approach. [I’m] not saying that I wasn’t scared when I was coming out and not saying that I wasn’t hesitant, but I think that my generation has grown up exposed to gay people on a different level and in a different tone in the media on a daily basis than even women in their mid-thirties now.

Similar but different:
Gay men and lesbian women on sports teams still have to deal with homophobia, but on different fronts.

Gay men are very rarely out to the teammates whom they share a locker room with. Our panelists indicate that women generally know if their teammates are lesbians, and there isn’t much objection. But there’s also not much discourse about it.

Lappin: The atmosphere has evolved in last 5-10 years. The Team USA program has evolved and the team in particular, the women on the team, have become more accepting regardless of background – racial, sexual, religious, etc. In the Pro-League we’re really creating lives for ourselves, with partners. It is very open and accepting. I’m very comfortable with my teammates, in my locker room. Partners are welcomed at games, etc. much safer environment.

Voepel: … I’m a lot of times guessing who I think might be a lesbian and who might not. As pathetic as that sounds, it’s still like that. Not because I need to have it for any personal interests but just sort of the perception you have when you’re dealing with the team. I sense that straight teammates are for the most part okay with it and support it. They may not go talk to a reporter about it; they may not call a press conference and say “I’m okay with it,” but they are okay with it in terms of their everyday dealing with their lesbian teammate.

Negative Recruiting:
It’s never fair to have your sexuality (whether real or perceived) used against you in the recruiting race. Unfortunately, it happens.

Loh: Sherri, you were quoted in an ESPN magazine article about how negative recruiting at the college level still does take place and there are coaches out there who use that against single female coaches [in that] they tell parents “Oh you know you don’t want to play for her because she’s a lesbian.” Does that still happen very regularly and how do you get around that problem?

Murrell: Well, first of all, I have never experienced anything negative that I’ve seen or heard. Maybe there are athletes that have chosen to take me off their list because of that but it’s not something that is known, and what I really am enjoying is the fact that we continue to have successful recruiting classes and we have been to the NCAA tournament so it hasn’t been affecting my ability to be successful. … But it is out there. I have had conversations with coaches as well as with players …, and they’ve talked about [when] they were in the homes of these coaches and they said, “You know we have more of a family atmosphere than so-and-so program“ and then they would continue to talk about what their family atmosphere is like; and it was very clear to them that that family atmosphere meant a straight coach with a wife and kids versus a coach that was gay or lesbian that wasn’t that way.

Voepel: When you talk about negative recruiting, it’s a crime that the victims don’t want to speak out, but it’s a little hard to define exactly what you’re talking about because it’s become insidiously subtle. I think the code words are there… Coaches aren’t going to come into somebody’s house and say “We don’t have any lesbians on our team.” They’re going to use other code words or exchange a glance with the parents, maybe a father in particular, It’s going to be more subtle, and yet it’s more difficult to police because you’re not talking about something quite as obvious, and that’s going to be harder to eradicate. …

[The reporters] who were working on that story, contacted me really early on and said, “Can you help us? You’ve been in the women’s basketball world a long time. Help us find some people who can talk on the record.”

A lot of people wanted to talk off the record including a lot of coaches who said I’m really glad you’re going to write this story because I think there’s still a lot of negative recruiting going on but I don’t want to talk to you on the record about it.

I kind of refer to this phenomenon as the crime whose victims don’t want to report that they were the victims of it. They don’t want to talk about hey this happened to me because then they’re outing themselves.

And there was one coach in particular that is no longer a coach and has come as close to coming out to me as she can but can’t quite still say the word but it’s sort of understood. She doesn’t coach anymore but she was really interested in me helping these guys do this story. And I said, “Well, OK, why don’t you talk about it? Give me some examples of things that happened to you.” And she’s like, “Well, you know, my grandmother’s still alive and you know, she doesn’t quite know, and you know, I want to do some television/broadcasting work.”

And I thought, “For crying out loud. You’re still doing this to yourself. You feel like you want the story to be written, you want us to do it but you don’t want to be the one that talks about it.” Now that coach is over 50 years old, so while part of me is frustrated, part of my heart kind of breaks for her because she’s in her own jail on this thing and she can’t break out of it.

And again, that goes back to a generational thing – Pat’s written extensively about that. Sometimes oppressed people oppress themselves because it’s almost a learned helplessness. They don’t know anything different from growing up and from getting into the profession and then they can’t change their ways, as they get older. Some can and some haven’t really been able to.

Griffin: Once you internalize that terror of being identified as a lesbian for the older generation, I think it’s very difficult to overcome it. You shouldn’t underestimate how disabling that terror can be unfortunately. It is disabling and I really think that living in the closet is such a hard way to live your life. But I think it’s true that for certain number of women in older generations that the idea of opening that closet door and stepping out – I love Mechelle’s analogy of the door being opened but athletes still being back in the closet, but for some women in athletics, particularly coaches and administrators, walking through that door is just beyond what they can consider possible.

Murrell: Pat, I agree with you. I want to be known as a successful basketball coach who happens to be a great mother and a great wife and so sometimes it’s hard to always have to hear the tag of “the only out lesbian coach” but at the same time, I want my experience to be heard and to be welcomed across the board … it’s a terrifying experience to actually make that plunge, but at the same time it has been the most rewarding and amazing experience. And the thing that I have felt is that we also underestimate people. I have had the best support from 80-year-old boosters; I’ve had amazing support – and in support it’s that they’ve just accepted me with open arms but it’s not like we talk about it. My players on the team, my parents, and so forth, it’s just they accept me for who I am. And I hope – I hope – that the younger generation will take a look at that and say, “Wow. This can be done.”

Working on the positives: How can we work to foster a more positive, welcoming team environment for women of all sexual orientations?

Murrell: I don’t think I’ve ever coached a team or played on a team that doesn’t have lesbians. And I coached at BYU, and there were lesbians on that team. You can’t avoid it. It’s out there. …I haven’t had known experiences that players say, ‘No, I will not go to Portland State because she’s gay but it’s definitely more so in the fathers and also more so in the club coaches. But you can’t avoid it. I respond by saying that we have atheists on our team. We also have Mormons and Christians. And we have African Americans on our team. We all need to come together, really what sports is all about is being together as a team for a common goal, and we are going to come from all different backgrounds.

Lappin: I think that that starts with the coaches, but also creating a culture of open mindedness and acceptance within your program from top down from administration down to the coaches and teaching that to young student athletes, so that when kids come on campus, you are saying exactly what you just said, we have atheists, we have Mormons, we might have gay girls and straight girls. We come from a very diverse background, and celebrating each other from our differences because that is what it’s all about.

Griffin: I think one of the important things is to make where you stand clear, and I don’t think that has to be done in a certain ceremony way. If there is a comment made, a negative comment made, or someone uses name calling, or makes some type of a stereotypical comment, just say something, ‘Hey, you know, that’s not cool. We don’t do that on this team.’ I think speaking up in that way is really important because it’s how you set the tone. … Sometimes that peer leadership is the most important way to sort of let younger players know what’s expected on a team, in terms of treating everyone on the team with respect, regardless of differences. … I always am so thrilled when I see heterosexual athletes or coaches respond to those kind of things in a way that isn’t defensive, and can say look, ‘We have a lot of diversity on our team. We are proud of it. The key to our team is that we treat each other with respect.’ To me, that’s the bottom line.

Murrell: Just the simple saying that, ‘Oh well, if coach Murrell is gay, she’s gonna recruit gay players and it’s gonna be a gay team and if my daughter goes on that team, there are gonna be gay, is just so off base.’ Number one, I go to work. I check my politics at the door. I basically am doing my job to be successful as a coach and to have an influence on my kids’ life. If I had a whole team of lesbians and we won the National Championship, so be it. If I don’t have a team full of lesbians and we win a championship, so be it. My job is to be a good coach. Girls don’t come on my team and automatically become gay.

Be Honest About the Unavoidable:
So, what’s the best way to deal with the issue of teammates dating each other?

Voepel: I do think it still has a lot to do with homophobes and sexism, but even people who say, ‘Hey I’m totally OK with gay people on teams” [admit] it’s a real problem when teammates are in a relationship together because it can create distractions from the entire team if they break up mid season. It affects the chemistry and dynamics of the whole team. And I think there is a reality to deal with, which is that you do have those circumstances. There can’t be a program in the country that hasn’t had teammates who were in a relationship that break up during the season.

The homophobia prevents people from dealing with this issue the way you deal with any other conflicts on a team. I think you just have to say, ‘Hey, this is a potential thing that can happen, just like people having problems relating to coaches or having problems being separated from their parents, having grade issues. Any of those issues are things that young people can deal with, and I think if there’s an open atmosphere where everyone can sort of talk about the reality of their lives, you can remedy those situations. You’re not going to prevent them.

You’re teammates are gonna fall in love, and they are gonna get in relationships and they are gonna break up. It’s gonna happen, but how the atmosphere allows for people to heal from those situations and affect the team dynamic less.

Murrell: “You are spot on because here I am a lesbian coach, and very out. The girls on our team know that I do not like anything that is divisive and that is potential to be a divider on our team, and we talk about it in the beginning of the year when I go over the rules. I say, you know, relationships among teammates, although love is love, that I cannot force them to not fall in love, but I don’t encourage it because that is a divisive factor, and again, the number one thing is we need to come together as a team and they have potential problems.”

Griffin: And I would even say because I talk to coaches who try institute a rule that we will not have relationships among players on this team. To me, that’s asking for trouble because what that does is drive everything underground, and then of course some teammates are gonna find out, and then they’re keeping secrets and it creates such a horrible situation for your team and it’s all built on the basis of homophobia. I think what Sherri said about handling this in an open way [is great], talking about this, broadening this out, talking about how do you deal with any relationship issues on teams?

Even if it’s not partners. How do you deal with two women on the field hockey team who are both involved with the quarterback of the football team, and that creates problems. This comes under the heading of how do you negotiate relationships on teams when you’re spending time with each other and you operate as a second family. How do you do that in a way that supports everyone and is respectful to everyone?

Obstacles:
Unforgiving administrative circles

Voepel: I don’t want to paint anybody with a broad brush, but athletic administration is so predominantly heterosexual male that I think that’s been a barrier, and I know it has been at certain universities that I’ve covered in terms of the women who are starting to be ready to be out but don’t feel like they would get the support of their administration.

I went to the University of Missouri, and the University of Missouri hired a coach, Robin Pingeton, who in her press conference made a big BIG deal about how everyone on her staff was married with children and what a big family atmosphere it was.

And I, to her face, said, “Robin, you know what this is code for.” And she denied [it] as if she’s never heard of any of this before. I don’t believe her. I believe what she was saying in her press conference was, “I’m a straight heterosexual person and everybody on my staff is a straight, heterosexual person.” And the administration sat there and applauded and talked about how wonderful she was. This is the university I graduated from, and I know that all that charade that was going on the day she was introduced was about we have this straight program now. And that’s now. That’s not like thirty years ago that that was happening. So administration has a big part to play in this that they do not reach out to their coaches and say – as Lisa said, it might be words on a paper – but you can look in somebody’s eyes and you know they’re not going to support you.

And I think coaches are – you know, that adds to the fear, along with their own internalized fear, the fact that they don’t feel like somebody is going to have their back and that in fact, they’re going to lose their job one way or another because of this.

Griffin: That’s an excellent point, Mechelle. I think that policy development – many schools don’t even have policies or even if a school as a whole has a policy, it’s as if when you walk through the doors into the athletic department, the policy doesn’t exist anymore or it gets overlooked. I think a lot of administrators overlook not only abuses when we’re talking about GLBT coaches and athletes but broader abuses in athletics that we tolerate with coaches that we would never tolerate from a professor in the classroom. I think this is a huge area where we need to focus energies – getting administrators, holding administrators accountable for enforcing the policies that they should have and creating a climate where coaches and athletes can play without being discriminated against so we have more places like Portland State.

Progress:
Where do we go from here?

Voepel: What Sherri is doing, and both she and Lisa, and probably neither one of them necessarily are doing this to be role models – hey we’re out we’re moms – but by the same token, they are huge role models because they are people who show the normalcy. As much that we would think, ‘Do we have to keep proving this?’ We almost do.

The “family atmosphere” doesn’t have to be a heterosexual-type experience to model her own life after. I just think that can’t be overstated, how crucial that could be to a 17, 18, 19-year-old girl to see a happily married or in a relationship woman who is fine with her sexuality and is in an adult open relationship, not in something secretive, private, that seems shameful because when she sees that, that’s what she applies to her own feelings, and that’s really what we’re talking about with people not coming out, is shame.

This idea that it’s something I need to be ashamed of, being a lesbian is an accusation And we have to take that connotation out of the word, away from homosexuality in general. Or gay, those words aren’t accusations. They are just terms to describe people.”

Murrell: Mechelle, you articulated that so well, and I appreciate those words. I would have to say that one of my straight players’ straight mom came up to me after we won the championship and went on to the NCAA, and she came up to me and said, ‘I bet you anything, they will not show like they do with the male or the female straight coaches, they won’t show your partner and children on the TV as they always do in those “feel good” stories of the family being there.’ But she looked me in the eye and said, “I just want you to know thank you for being a role model for my daughter.” … She said, “You are being truthful. You are being yourself, and isn’t that all you want when you look for a coach? To have my daughter be coached by someone that preaches integrity, and preaches ‘be a good citizen’.” That came from a family that is very straight.

Voepel: As an outside observer from my entire career about women’s athletics, I find [this] to be one of the catch 22 issues … women’s athletics I think, at times, there’s a fatigue that we’re always having to discuss sexuality and different issues like this, and yet by the same token it’s still a closeted world. It’s a very difficult thing to navigate between the comfort level of straight women who say, ‘I’m always perceived as a lesbian and that bothers me’, and the comfort level of the lesbian who still feels invisible. … That probably, to a degree, is an aggravator for straight women in women’s sports, and so the dialogue kind of has to go on between the straight women and the lesbian women that we’re not enemies here. We are all in this together. We are all perceived in ways that sometimes are harmful.”

Griffin: I think that is a really important point. I think that heterosexual women athletes who respond in that defensive way, when people talk about a homophobia in sport or lesbians in sport, need to understand that they have a huge stake in addressing this issue because it’s not just lesbian athletes and coaches who are targeted by homophobia in sport.

The lesbian label is used in a really effective way to silence all women in sport, to make all women feel if not shamed, at least self conscious about their athleticism and their interest in competition and challenging the idea that women shouldn’t be athletes. Heterosexual women have a stake in helping to challenge those notions.

Stephanie Walsh and Christine Newby helped to transcribe a large portion of this interview.)

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