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The effective role of straight allies is as the supporters, not stars, of our movement

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Like offensive linemen, the role of straight allies is to create opportunities for LGBT people, not themselves

Feb 3, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; Scott Fujita on the sidelines before Super Bowl XLVII at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Feb 3, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; Scott Fujita on the sidelines before Super Bowl XLVII at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
USA TODAY Sports

It's been interesting to watch the reaction to You Can Play founder Patrick Burke's column earlier this month about straight allies (of which he is one) needing to step out of the spotlight of the LGBT sports movement. He didn't say they should leave the movement, just move into their proper role as supporters, not stars.

I've shared the same sentiment in some speaking engagements over the last month. Speaking at the Q Sports brunch in Portland a few weeks ago, half the room erupted into spontaneous applause. The other half of the audience seemed to miss my point, just as some seem to have missed the point Burke was making.

I'll clarify it here.

I don't know anyone who thinks straight allies aren't important parts of the movement toward ending anti-LGBT bias in sports. You can't get equality for any minority without the majority. Black people needed whites, women needed men. The gays need the straights.

But.

The question is, what role should straight people play in our movement? In what role are they most effective?

For some reason, many straight people have pushed to be the faces of our movement. Not all, but some. They've pushed for more media exposure, more big-time speaking engagements. They've pushed aside LGBT people in hopes of becoming famous, making a six-figure salary and claiming credit for shifting the dynamics in sports.

They've had our help. LGBT people have been quick to give straight allies awards, passing over actual LGBT athletes who have showed deeper courage and equal conviction. We've put them on the covers of our magazines and showered them with praise, often highlighting them instead of the very LGBT athletes who are true pioneers.

Yet, this is not the role of an ally. Can you imagine what it would have looked like to have white people as the faces of the Civil Rights movement in the Sixties? White people were there in Birmingham and Selma and the March on Washington. But they were true allies: They didn't seek to own the movement, they sought to help lift up the oppressed so they could help themselves.

I liken it to a football team. On the gridiron, everybody has a role. The quarterback throws, the wide receivers catch, the offensive line blocks. Everyone has to do his role and not try to do the job of someone else. When someone does try to fill another role - a quarterback who wants to run for first downs, or a running back who throws - short-term success can follow. But eventually, the magic of the Wildcat wears off, and RG3 gets knocked out of a big game. It happens every time.

There's been a growing unease within the LGBT sports movement over the role some straight allies have taken. A select few of these straight folks, like Athlete Ally's self-promoting Hudson Taylor, feel the need to be the franchise quarterback. They want to be the face of the movement, the ones who get all the credit when there's a big win. They make the movement more about them and their brand than about the very people the movement is built for.

That's not the proper - or effective - role of an ally. Melissa Harris-Perry laid out the guidelines for good allies on a segment of her popular MSNBC show earlier this year. A couple pieces jumped out at me when she listed six key criteria to being a true ally:

  • Do recognize that the shield of your privilege may blind you to the experience of others' injustice.
  • Don't see yourself as the Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves. Or Tom Cruise in The Last Samari. You are not the savior riding to the rescue on a white horse.

Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation, was one of the people on Harris-Perry's panel. Zirin is a true ally, someone whose role is to give a megaphone for the voices of LGBT people. Zirin sees himself as their support structure, that offensive lineman simply keeping the homophobic defense away from the movement's star players.

"The general rule of an offensive lineman is that if your name or number are mentioned by the broadcasters during a game, you're doing something wrong," Zirin told me. "You're integral to the team's success, but it's not your show. LGBT people need to be the quarterback and the running backs of their own movement. The quarterback's going to get too much credit when you win and too much blame when you lose. That's a lot of burden. And that's what the people fighting for their own emancipation have the right to experience."

Can you name a Denver Broncos offensive lineman in the late Nineties? Probably not. The group had an agreement to do no media interviews because it wasn't their role. They fined each other if a comment was leaked to the media. They even refused to introduce themselves on national television. They won two Super Bowls with the faces of the franchise - John Elway and Terrell Davis - and you have no idea who they are.

That is the role of a good ally.

There are many people who have fit that role. Scott Fujita comes to mind. The former NFL linebacker did not shy away from sharing his LGBT-inclusive perspective publicly at select moments and when the time was right. He attended the GLAAD Awards not to accept praise, but to show his support for the community. Yet he never grabbed the spotlight, always more interested in learning than being the hero. He asked questions, listened, educated himself and worked behind the scenes with the NFL Players Association - and in the locker room - to spread the message of inclusivity. Powerful stuff.

Another amazing ally is Nancy Hogshead-Makar. The former Olympic champion has opened up opportunities for women and LGBT people in sports for decades. An attorney, she is now fighting for non-discrimination policies for LGBT people in her hometown of Jacksonville.

There are countless other incredible straight allies. Tim Hershey at Nike. Connie Wardman at Compete Magazine. Jason Thompson at the United States Olympic Committee. Pat Hanlon at the New York Giants. John Branch at the New York Times. Stephanie Laffin of the It Gets Better Project. Journalist and radio host Bruce Silverman. Ben Cohen, who created an organization to fund LGBT groups. Former GLAAD staffer Aaron McQuade. And on and on and on. All of these people are there to lend support, lift up the community and open doors for LGBT people to walk through.

This debate over the role of straight allies isn't about these folks. It's about allies who put themselves forward as faces of the movement, knights riding in on white horses to save LGBT people from the clutches of homophobia. For this movement in particular, it reinforces the stereotype of weak people -- particularly gay men -- who aren't tough enough to fight for themselves and who need to be saved. That's deeply problematic.

It's also not the role of an ally. An ally spends his time lifting up the voices of the LGBT community, not his own. An ally finds opportunities for LGBT people to speak for themselves, he doesn't speak for them. When he gets asked to accept awards or speak to the media, he offers the opportunity to LGBT people, or at least shares it with them.

This isn't a conversation about credit, as one columnist for the Washington Blade seemed to say. It's about understanding and effectiveness.

Good allies understand that. They don't whitewash our movement, claiming that they are equally affected by homophobia and anti-LGBT laws that, for example, keep me from marrying my partner. They don't try to re-define the decades-old word "ally" so that LGBT athletes can fit under their banner. They don't say, as one high-profile ally recently did, that "there's no such thing as LGBT rights."

I've watched one high-profile organization -- the backward Athlete Ally -- use LGBT athletes to lift up straight people in our movement, not the other way around. It's as though they believe LGBT people sharing their stories don't change hearts and minds as effectively as straight people sharing theirs.

I think that's false.

Michael Irvin's perspectives on gay people didn't shift because of any straight allies. It was because he had a brother who was gay, and because he spent countless hours talking to me - on and off the radio - about being gay. He changed because he met my partner, Dan Pinar, and found in our relationship something special and genuine. Simply hearing the stories of gay people, and trying to understand his late brother, overrode four decades of doctrine from straight people telling him gay people were something less than equal.

Senator Rob Portman was a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage. For years, he had straight people telling him to vote against marriage equality. But all it took was one gay person in his home - his son - to change his mind and convince him to risk his political career. No straight person could have ever convinced him of it. No one. It took his son to come out as gay to change the heart and mind of Sen. Portman.

Dick Cheney - Darth Vader himself - supports same-sex marriage. Is it because of straight people telling him how important it is? No. It's because he saw the loving relationship his daughter had with her partner, and he now sees how they are raising his grandchildren. The most vilified American politician of the 21st Century supports LGBT rights not because of allies, but because of LGBT people coming out and being themselves.

I'd been talking with high school basketball coach Anthony Nicodemo for years. No matter what changes he saw in America, he was kept in the closet by the fear of what coming out would do to his coaching career. It wasn't until he attended the Nike LGBT Sports Summit last June that his fear went away.

"When you're closeted, I think it's seeing other people who are like you that puts you over the hump," Nicodemo told me. "It's meeting those other gay people and getting to know them and hearing their stories that inspired me to join the team."

Zirin gets it. When he was recently asked to speak on LGBT issues in sports, he accepted with only one condition: He demanded the inclusion of someone who is actually LGBT to speak with him. He teamed up with trans basketball player Kye Allums. Zirin makes sure an LGBT person is with him every time he speaks on our issues.

Burke gets it too. Whenever he's asked to speak to professional sports leagues or teams, he always insists on bringing LGBT people with him. When the Toronto Blue Jays called, he brought out gay runner Jose Estevez to relate to Hispanic players. When the San Jose Quakes wanted him, he brought gay lacrosse goalie Andrew Goldstein. When he speaks to high schools and colleges, he always does so as part of the Invisible Athlete Forum, where he acts as the moderator for LGBT athletes to talk about their own experiences. It's hard to think of a more appropriate role for a straight ally than helping LGBT people share their stories in front of an audience.

Straight allies are integral to our movement. When they know their role and do the work, they can be game-changers. Without the majority, we can't shift the culture. But we need those allies to serve their role of support, not the role of the LGBT athletes they aim to help.

So what's the solution? It's pretty simple.

If you're a member of the media and want comment on LGBT issues in sports, reach out to someone who is LGBT. It was mind-boggling to watch an episode of Meet The Press over the summer; They talked about same-sex marriage with a panel that was less than half LGBT. When they discussed race issues a month later, every panelist was black. Don't ask straight allies to speak on our behalf - Go to the source. We'll give you some great stuff.

If you're a high school, college, pro sports league or corporation looking to bring someone in to talk about LGBT issues in sports - reach out to someone who is LGBT. Our stories can offer more insight and shift perspective faster and more effectively. If you're worried whether your members can relate to an LGBT person, fear not: If Irvin, Portman and Cheney can relate, your folks can too.

And if you're a straight ally who is asked to speak to the media or is hired to give a presentation on LGBT issues in sports - reach out to someone who is LGBT. Your service to our community is incredible, and we need your support in this fight. Thank you for being there for us! But it's time for you to shift your role to one of support. We have so many incredible quarterbacks ready to change the face of America - They just need you to block for them. Anything else has become self-serving and counter-productive.

If you need help identifying someone you might bring in, here's just a partial list of over 100 LGBT athletes, coaches and administrators who have powerful stories to share. In many cases they're either part of the teams at GO! Athletes, Campus Pride or You Can Play. If you can't find a connection there, I'm happy to help you get in touch with them whenever and wherever you need them. And if you're an LGBT athlete, contact me and I'll add you to the team...

LGBT people who came out publicly in 2016

LGBT people who came out publicly in 2015

Drury College diver Jesse Allard (Missouri)
Univ. of Pennsylvania runner Anna Aagenes (New York)
High school coach Stephen Alexander (Rhode Island)*
George Washington Univ. basketball player Kye Allums (New York)*
NBA player John Amaechi (England)
Rutgers rower Nicholas Angelides (England)
MLB player Billy Bean (Los Angeles)
High school soccer player Max Boda (Oregon)
High school wrestling coach Roger Brigham (San Francisco)
Boston Herald sports columnist Steve Buckley (Boston)
Sports writer Jim Buzinski (Los Angeles)
Fairleigh Dickinson basketball player Nevin Caple (New Jersey)
National champion basketball coach Helen Carroll (San Francisco)
Georgetown student and track athlete Craig Cassey (Washington DC)
Yale rugby player Katie Chockley (Connecticut)
NBA player Jason Collins (Los Angeles)
Smith College hockey player Nora Cothren (Philadelphia)
Bucknell runner Sean Coyne (Chicago)
Purdue swimmer Ryan Dafforn (Indiana)
High school swimmer Jack Davis (Colorado)
Winthrop soccer player Tori Davis (South Carolina)
NFL player Wade Davis (New York)
University of Arizona swimmer Jon Denton-Schneider (Tucson)
Cornell soccer player Atticus DeProspo (New York)
University of Missouri diver Greg Destephen (Dallas)
University of New Hampshire basketball player Jenelle DeVits (New York)
Olympic gymnast Josh Dixon (Colorado)
High school tennis champion Mikey Drougas (Virginia)
Brown swimmer Meghan Earley (Rhode Island)
College track & field athlete Jose Estevez (Massachusetts)
College hockey player David Farber (New York)
Upenn track & field athlete Paul Farber (Philadelphia)
Texas A&M swimmer Amini Fonua (New York)
Professional MMA fighter Fallon Fox (Chicago)*
Bucknell runner Matt Forys (New York)
Middle Tennessee State football player Alan Gendreau (Orlando)
Rutgers rower Andrew Germek (Los Angeles)
Olympic track & field hopeful Keelin Godsey (Massachusetts)*
Professional lacrosse goalie Andrew Goldstein (Los Angeles)
Denison swimmer Brian Goldthorpe (Washington DC)
ESPN and CNN writer LZ Granderson (Chicago)
University of Richmond football player Kevin Grayson (Virginia)
High school track coach Brenner Green (Las Vegas)
Lesbian sports pioneer Pat Griffin (Massachusetts)
WNBA player Brittney Griner (Phoenix)
NYU volleyball player Jay Hayes (San Francisco)
Univ. of California rower Heather Hargreaves (San Francisco)
High school hockey player Scott Heggert (Ottawa)
Colby College squash player Madeline Hunsicker (Minneapolis)
Youth soccer player Jazz (Florida)*
Furman University basketball player Ashland Johnson (Washington DC)
Drexel soccer player Matt Jolles (Philadelphia)
ESPN baseball writer Christina Kahrl (Chicago)*
High school track athlete Lypheng Kim (Philadelphia)
You Can Play founder Brian Kitts (Colorado)
College hockey player Nick Kleidon (Minnesota)
Bucknell soccer player Jesse Klug (Pennsylvania)
Stanford basketball player Toni Kokenis (Bay Area)
NFL running back Dave Kopay (Los Angeles)
University of Texas swimmer Matt Korman (Austin)
Pro soccer player Joanna Lohman (Washington DC)
UPenn tennis player Jason Magnes (Philadelphia)
Old Dominion University swimmer David McFarland (Los Angeles)
College lacrosse captain Andrew McIntosh (New York)
Benedictine College basketball player Jallen Messersmith (Kansas)
Grand Valley State track & field athlete Joe Miller (Michigan)
Princeton hockey coach Lee Mirasolo (New Jersey)
Triathlete Chris Mosier (New York)*
UCLA athletic administrator Wendy Motch (Los Angeles)
USC swimmer Sean Mulroy (Los Angeles)
Portland State basketball coach Sherri Murrell (Oregon)
High school basketball coach Anthony Nicodemo (New York)
Professional bowler Scott Norton (Southern California)
Univ. of Southern Maine baseball player James Nutter (Maine)
NHL franchise attorney Pete Olsen (Columbus, Ohio)
USTA development coordinator Seth Pamperin (Philadelphia)
University of Maryland wrestler Akil Patterson (Maryland)
Vassar rower Nick Perry (Salt Lake City)
UNC swimmer Warren Perry (New York)
Swarthmore Softball player Rose Pitkin (Philadelphia)
TCU football player Vince Pryor (Chicago)
Princeton water polo player Alex Rafter (New Jersey)
Penn State softball coach Sue Rankin (Pennsylvania)
College basketball player Miah Register (New York/New Jersey)
Cal Poly track & field athlete Saieed Rihan (Southern California)
MLS player Robbie Rogers (Los Angeles)
High school basketball player Josh Sanders (Jacksonville)
Hillsdale College basketball player Derek Schell (Michigan)
Photographer and tennis player Jeff Sheng (Stanford)
Bloomsberg Univ. football captain Brian Sims (Philadelphia)
Rutgers swimmer and coach Sean Smith (New Jersey)
St. Olaf College lacrosse player Eric Stafford (Minnesota)
Amherst hockey player and writer Avery Stone (Massachusetts)
Univ. of Michigan rowing coach Charley Sullivan (Michigan)
Pro soccer player David Testo (Montreal)
Professional Ultimate player Elliot Trotter (Seattle)
NFL player Esera Tuaolo (Minneapolis)
UCLA softball coach Kirk Walker (Los Angeles)
High school football player Leo Washington (Florida)
Occidental College swimmer Spencer Whalen (Maryland)
Wheelchair basketball coach Steph Wheeler (Indiana)
Hockey player Glenn Witman (Denver)
High school soccer coach Dan Woog (Connecticut)
Penn track & field athlete Eliana Yankalev (Philadelphia)

*Denotes trans speaker

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