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Neil Giuliano reflects on four years of sports work at GLAAD

From creating GLAAD's sports desk to educational work, Giuliano left a sports legacy

By Cyd Zeigler


I first met Neil Giuliano when he invited Outsports to co-sponsor his annual Fiesta Bowl party in 2002 as the Mayor of Tempe, Ariz. He was at the time one of the most powerful openly gay politicians in the world, and his home that weekend became a melting pot between the worlds of gays and sports.

When Giuliano became the president of GLAAD, the organization got a strong sports advocate who knew how to work with executives, editors and journalists in the sports world. With Sun Devils Stadium in Tempe, he had become very close to the Bidwell family, owners of the Arizona Cardinals. And with deep relationships at Arizona State University, he knew how the inside of college sports worked as well.

Giuliano is now about six months removed from his stint at GLAAD. I caught up with him to talk about his time with the organization, his sports initiatives, and how he sees the future for gay sports playing out.


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Outsports: When you first joined GLAAD, what were your objectives for sports initiatives?
Giuliano: The way I approached the job was, I know about the entertainment work that GLAAD does, but I know there’s still a lot of defamation in the religious communities and the sports world. So I always thought, if I could build the capacity of the media advocacy work of the organization, the areas we had to expand into were areas of more defamation. That’s where the change was still needed the most. So I always thought sports and religion were the two areas that needed attention. It took about a year and a half to raise more money so I could have the resources to advocate for this kind of a program. And quite frankly, it took a while to educate existing board members and bring on new board members who understood and shared the vision that it isn’t just media advocacy that should be GLAAD’s work, but to also be an anti-defamation voice for the LGBT community.

OS: You said it took a while to educate people. How difficult was it creating the sports desk and getting the funds to develop it?
Giuliano: Getting the funds was the result of raising more funds. I came into GLAAD and the budget was about $7.5M. When I left, it was $10M. That additional $2.5M or so was put to use for the religion, faith and values program, the sports program, improving the organization’s technical infrastructure, building capacity of our media fields strategy team. And that all takes a while. I was new and people often invest in the leadership of the organization and that person’s vision as much as the organization that’s been around forever. So it takes a while to build up that kind of capacity. But we were able to do it and those programs have survived.

OS: Was the process as fast as you expected or hoped? Coming from working in the government, you must have been used to it taking a while to get things done.
Giuliano: I came from government, but I also was a mayor; And when the mayor wants something, he can usually find a way to make it happen a lot faster than people realize. It happened at the pace I expected. Given all the other challenges and needs, I thought it happened at a pace that was appropriate.

OS: What were some of the sports initiatives you were most proud of?
Giuliano: I think the educational aspect, having someone full-time at GLAAD focusing on the sports world is a huge step, much like 20 years ago at GLAAD when you first had someone interacting with entertainment writers and journalists, so they began to know there was someone out there who could help them navigate the issues. Just having that is a significant step.

I think the opportunity we had a couple years ago to speak at the NCAA convention and have visibility at the convention for our work and for the sports desk was really terrific. And I think the work Ted [Rybka, GLAAD director of sports media] has done building the relationships with gay athletes and gay leagues that are out there, letting them know they have someone who can help them with their media and visibility. The feedback I’ve received from many of those people has been very positive.

It has a long way to still go, but it’s there and operating and, little by little, making a difference.

OS: One of the things we get asked every four years is, why is the Gay Games not on the front page of the sports page? Why do you think that is?
Giuliano: The mainstream media doesn’t see it as their job to promote something that the vast majority of the population may not have a direct interest in. With something like the Gay Games, that is for gay athletes and appeals primarily to a gay audience, the mainstream media wonders, “Why will my readers, a vast majority of whom aren’t in that demographic, want to read about that?” So we have to find other ways to convince them that their readers will find an interest in those stories. And that’s hard to do. It takes building relationships with reporters and finding compelling twists to the story. There shouldn’t be an article about the Gay Games just because there’s a bunch of guys and women playing sports.

OS: Were there sports initiatives at GLAAD you weren’t able to get off the ground?
Giuliano: I still think there’s great opportunity with some of our partnering organizations. For example, an ongoing column about LGBT issues in Sports Illustrated or ESPN The Magazine, or any of their Web sites. I think that will come, and I think the relationships are being built for that to happen. Those things don’t just happen overnight. It’s going to take executives in those organizations willing to take a risk and push the envelope a little bit with their readership. And the less unique it becomes, the easier it is for it to happen again.

I also think one of the things we need to do is reach out to straight allies. I’m still convinced there can be a national commission on homophobia in sports. It’s one of the things I talked about getting going while I was at GLAAD, and I didn’t stay there long enough to get it done. But a national commission on homophobia in sports with the NFL and Major League Baseball and the NHL and NBA and the NCAA all participating, taking a year or two studying what is the impact of the LGBT athlete on sports, and what is the impact on the LGBT athlete of homophobia in sports. I think, as more and more young athletes choose to live openly earlier in their lives and are successful on the field, these professional teams, and certainly the NCAA, are going to have to learn how to deal with athletes who live openly. This commission would be a safe place for that dialogue to start. Just the beginning of that dialogue would be a significant step. If there’s one thing I feel bad that I didn’t get started before I left the organization, it’s probably this because I think it has the most potential to bring about the biggest change.

OS: What do you see as the biggest shortcomings in the sports media reporting on gay issues?
Giuliano: It’s the still-present fear of even wanting to go there, and not knowing how to go there when they do have a story they feel compelled to tell. It’s just still too foreign for them because the dialogue has really yet to begin within their world.

OS: When you say there’s a present fear of wanting to go there, do you think it’s from the reporters, editors, publishers, or all of them?
Giuliano: They’re not in-tuned enough with where society is on LGBT issues to know their readers and fans aren’t going to be upset. But what we know is, the vast majority of the American public is more and more comfortable with their gay friends and co-workers and neighbors. And the sports world seems like it’s the last part of our broader culture that’s going to be willing to get with the program and allow those conversations to happen. I think it’s just an education thing. I’m actually optimistic. But I remember talking to a couple sports executives who are gay who feel they can’t even have the conversation right now about having a non-discrimination policy. It’s just so foreign for that topic to come up in that world that they don’t know how to begin to have that conversation. And that’s what we’re up against.

OS: What projects have you been pursuing since you left GLAAD?
Giuliano: I’m working on a couple books. There’s the memoir I’m working on, and then a personal, self-help, leadership-development book that I’m working on. And I may even have a project that’s kind of a gay-dating book that’s kind of tongue-in-cheek and funny. And then I’m looking at perhaps taking on a few clients, as I did a long time ago, and do some leadership and personal coaching.

OS: Is returning to politics in your future?
Giuliano: I’ve looked at it and talked to folks about it, and I’m always open to conversations about that. But it’s not on my front burner right now. There are lots of other ways I think I can make a contribution and also have a personal life and livelihood.

OS: Finally, do you think Kurt Warner’s going to retire?
Giuliano: I think he is. I think in the end his wife will have a great influence on him. And he’s had a phenomenal career. His kids are still young, he’s still young. I hope he stays, I hope he continues to play. But that’s being very selfish on my part. I just have the feeling he’ll retire.