A few months ago, a reporter called me and said he wanted to talk about the LGBT sports movement for a piece he was doing. We established a convenient time, exchanged numbers, and hopped on a call. It turns out the piece was on Brittney Griner, an elite female basketball player who is a lesbian. We talked for a half hour or so- he was a really good guy, and had a lot of good questions. When we got to the end of the call, he asked if there was anything we hadn't talked about that I wanted to mention. "Well," I responded, "We should probably talk about the fact that two straight guys just spent thirty minutes talking about the issues lesbian athletes face."
You see, the dirty secret about the LGBT sports movement is that it's not an LGBT sports movement. In every significant area in which you would measure a foundation's impact in sports- fundraising donations, media presence, resource development, athletic connections- straight men, usually straight white men, are dominating the landscape. This is especially true in professional sports. If you turned on a tv, listened to a podcast, or read an interview about LGBT athletes in sports in the past two years, it is likely that you read a quote from Brendon Ayanbadejo, Patrick Burke, Chris Kluwe, Aaron McQuade (formerly of GLAAD), and/or Hudson Taylor (of Athlete Ally). All of us are straight. Other than Brendon, all of us are white.
When the NFL reached out to groups to handle LGBT training for their players, they called Athlete Ally, GLAAD, and You Can Play. When we met with NFL officials in New York to establish NFL policy on LGBT issues going forward, there was one gay person in the boardroom- former NFL player (and current You Can Play Executive Director) Wade Davis. The NFL commissioned the three groups, with the same representatives, to produce resources for NFL players. When the NHL had questions about LGBT issues, I was brought in to meet with players, instruct league officials, and develop resources. When the NBA commissioned a video on LGBT issues to be played at their rookie symposium, the video featured McQuade and Taylor. McQuade and I collaborated on the resources that were provided to MLB players. And I have become a vocal presence in discussions regarding the LGBT issues surrounding the Sochi Olympics.
Putting it in sports terms, the men's professional sports world has named Burke, McQuade, and Taylor the starters. Billy Bean, Jason Collins, David Testo, Robbie Rogers, Esera Tuaolo, Dave Kopay, Kwame Harris and John Amaechi have all been put on the second team. With a growing number of out athletes in every sport, there are LGBT athletes ready, willing, and able to speak on their own behalf. Why am I explaining what it must feel like to be a gay athlete when I am surrounded by dozens of gay athletes more than capable of sharing their own stories? Where are our gay voices, and why are we suffocating them?
Now, I must point out that in every single one of the instances listed above, I worked in close consultation with LGBT athletes, coaches, and administrators on every resource You Can Play created. Our resources are great, and written to connect with all athletes, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Our positions are well-researched and written. The work You Can Play does to change athletic culture is unmatched in the professional sports realm, and that work is done jointly by straight athletes and members the LGBT community. As a practical matter, a significant portion of what we do consists of creating and then sharing the voices of allies. It's in our motto, in fact: "Gay Athletes. Straight Allies. Teaming Up For Respect."
There was a time, even very recently, when we desperately needed strong, visible, vocal straight allies to take the lead on this issue and speak up. We still need them. The work of guys like Kluwe in the NFL, Tommy Wingels in the NHL, Kenneth Faried in the NBA, Chris Wondolowski in MLS, and Brandon McCarthy in MLB is vital to the past, present, and future success of the movement to ensure LGBT equality in sports. Straight people are still the majority group in the sports world, and every single person who speaks up in support of LGBT equality makes a positive impact on his or her team, sport, and culture. Those voices are necessary, and we will always work to share their stories of support. The role of an ally is to support the LGBT community- not to drive the movement ourselves. It's about finding the right balance.
I can't shake the feeling that we've gone too far. Allies have raised our profiles beyond what is necessary to help the LGBT community. It's been a big year for allies to get famous, grab a book deal, win awards, maybe pocket some speaker's fees for appearances. Resources that should be going to empower LGBT voices are instead going to enhance the visibility of straight people. We've created professional allies (or, as the history major in me would call them, mercenaries). We've created famous allies. Think of how absurd that concept is. I have a public presence because I treat gay people with respect.
Part of it is the fault of the allies. Part of it has been the unwillingness of the LGBT athletic community to stand up publicly and say, "Thank you for everything, but we've got this now." A major part of it is that the leagues, media, and major financial donors are still more comfortable working with straight white men. This is often true even when dealing with members of the LGBT community, who donate to or otherwise empower straight voices over LGBT athletes.
Why put Nevin Caple on TV when you can use a clean-cut, media savvy, straight white person like me? Why partner with a smaller LGBT-run sports organizations like Go! Athletes when McQuade is so much more natural in a corporate setting? Why book Angela Hucles to go on "Ellen" when Chris Kluwe is so entertaining? Think I'm exaggerating? I had a phone conversation with a major media outlet who politely informed me they would like to cover the coming out story of a professional athlete- provided he was "articulate" enough for their standards. You are welcome to have a voice in the LGBT sports movement- provided you fit a certain mold.
At You Can Play, we've always prided ourselves on doing real, substantial work. And we've always tried to do that by empowering LGBT athletes. Our speaking engagements are not the "Patrick Burke" show- they are panel discussions featuring LGBT athletes with a straight ally moderating the conversation. When I address professional teams an LGBT athlete always accompanies me to share his story- such as Boston College runner Jose Estevez, who has now addressed over 100 professional baseball players with his story. My co-founders, Brian Kitts and Glenn Witman, are intimately involved in every decision, every statement, every partnership. They are the heart and brains of You Can Play. But as long as I'm the "face" of You Can Play we will be perceived as an organization run by a straight ally. And as long as straight people continue to dominate the conversation in the LGBT Sports movement, the word "ally" has truly lost all meaning. Whether intentional or not, straight people have co-opted and abused this movement to a degree that I am utterly uncomfortable with.
With those thoughts in mind, last month I was honored to announce Wade Davis as Executive Director of You Can Play. I have been transitioning into the proper role of an ally- as support for a member of the LGBT community. Wade will still be able to rely on all of my sports knowledge, connections, and work ethic. Brian, Glenn, and I will still be assisting Wade in developing partnerships, creating resources, and working to really change locker room culture. My work will be done behind the scenes or in locker rooms, not in the media. Wade's ability to speak on the issues facing LGBT athletes and LGBT people of color may be unmatched. We are proudly putting a gay black man front and center to share his story with athletes, media, donors, and corporations. We firmly believe Wade's presence will dramatically increase our ability to connect with athletes, especially athletes of color. We can proudly say that the face of You Can Play will unquestionably be an LGBT athlete.
At the same time, we recognize that it may cost us some money, some partnerships, and some media opportunities. There are many people who, consciously or unconsciously, are more comfortable dealing with a straight white man then they are with a gay black man. Some of these people are important- they are sports executives, media members, even LGBT donors. We are willing to face those challenges when they arises. All of us at You Can Play are thrilled by the opportunity to work with Wade. And personally, I am eager to step aside and forego my public visibility on this issue. And I am eager to do so for one simple, vital reason. We have reached a point in the LGBT sports movement where a true ally has only one ethical move left to make: Get the hell out of the way.
You can follow Patrick Burke on Twitter.
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