If you have ever played sports, you know there's nothing worse than the sting of being kept on the sidelines when all you want to do is play the game. I came out as bisexual when I was 16, but I stayed closeted to my team and contemplated quitting sports altogether. In the end, I decided that it would be too painful to watch my friends run across the finish line while I sat in the bleachers. Before going to college I decided that whom I dated shouldn't mean that I had to quit a sport I loved so much.
Last Saturday in New York City I attended a meeting for the GLSEN Sports Project, where our Advisory Group discussed a "game plan" to reach L, G, B and T athletes in K-12 education. That same night just down the street GLAAD held its annual Media Awards, featuring two professional athletes and straight allies, Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo.
The fact that two professional athletes were featured speakers at a GLAAD event is a symbol of progress for our sports equality movement. At the same time, the lack of L,G,B or T, athletes being celebrated at events like this reflects how far we still have to go in the LGBT sports movement.
Although the LGBT sports equality movement progressed tremendously in recent years, most of the current media focus on straight-male allies as the MVPs in this movement. Don't get me wrong, I love our straight allies. Many of the people leading the fight against homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in sports are my good friends. These are "stand-up" guys who make a difference for athletes all across the country. By speaking out as allies, they have changed the hearts and minds of many professional, college and high school athletes and have given the message "it's cool to be an ally."
But we can't ignore a truth about the LGBT sports movement: Many of the people who get the most attention, and are perceived as the heavy-hitters in our movement, are athletes who do not identify as L, G, B or T.
Imagine if the champions of the African-American civil rights movement were mostly white men and white women. Think about how the women's equality movement would appear if men were dominating the conversation. While allies are crucial to any civil rights movement, allies are not substitutes for having L, G, B and T athletes on the playing field.
For many of us LGBT athlete-activists, some days it feels as though we are sitting on the sideline of our own movement. When you aren't asked to participate in a movement intended to benefit you, it can feel like the game is going on without you playing.
The responsibility to promote LGBT athlete voices, however, does not rest solely on allies: we need to look at the institutions, organizations, and media sources that fail to spotlight L, G, B, and T voices.
For instance, when we only bring allies to speak at a high school or college (not the LGBT athletes themselves) we miss an opportunity to reach those LGBT athletes who have questions specific to their experiences coming out. The student athletes may wonder: Is it safe to be out on my team? Do I quit my team? Should I come to my family or coaches but not to my team? Should I pretend to be straight? Where and who can I turn to for support in the coming-out process? What will my coach say?
No matter how many times a straight friend may tell you "it's OK to come out," it's more powerful to hear "it's OK to come out, because I did, and I understand what you are going through...."
Much of the advocacy work that we do at GO! Athletes (Generation Out) focuses on empowering LGBT athletes to "stay in the game" and find peer support through other LGBT athletes. Through sharing our experiences and resources with these students, we hope that our stories will support those who are struggling with the same hurdles we had coming out to our teams.
GO! Athletes and other LGBT sports advocacy organizations are working hard to make sports a respectful and inclusive place for LGBT athletes, but our efforts are often overshadowed by the focus on our straight allies and their accomplishments.
After a few hours of looking down at the GLAAD party from floors above, I snuck inside to meet a friend from Philadelphia who was at the event on behalf of his business. He introduced me to another female runner attending the event. As we talked about both being LGBT athletes, she confided in me about a student she knew who was struggling to come out as trans and was told he couldn't play on his high school team as a boy. I immediately wanted to hug her and find a way to let this student-athlete know about the many other LGBT athletes who understood exactly where he was coming from.
Taking LGBT athletes off the sidelines must be a team effort by our allies, fellow LGBT athletes, the media, and all other key players in our equality movement. Despite their importance to our cause, straight allies and professional athletes cannot be the only visible champions of the LGBT sports movement. We cannot "wait for a Superman" to save us from homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in sports; We need to remind our fellow LGBT athletes of the power of our stories to inspire and empower change in sports.
If we truly want to create safe spaces and prevent bullying, we need to teach young athletes not only how to be allies but also how to be proudly out as L, G, B, and T athletes. Our team and this movement for equality in sports have already come far, but like any winning team, we always will strive to become better. Increasing the visibility of LGBT athlete-activists will make us more effective and more inclusive as a sports equality movement.