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Rene Portland resigns, lesbian athletes rejoice

Rene Portland, the Penn State women’s basketball coach, turned in her letter of resignation yesterday evening. Advocates for social justice in sport and women’s basketball fans everywhere are celebrating.

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(This story was published in 2007).

Rene Portland, the Penn State women’s basketball coach, turned in her letter of resignation yesterday evening. Advocates for social justice in sport and women’s basketball fans everywhere are celebrating a huge victory in on-going efforts to assure that lesbians and gay men can participate in sport without fear of harassment or discrimination.

First, a little background, Portland coached the Lady Lions for 27 years. For most of that time, rumors and innuendo have swirled around her "no lesbians on my team" policy. She was quoted in a 1986 Chicago Sun-Times article saying of lesbianism, "I will not have it on my team." In 1991, references to her policy surfaced again in a Philadelphia Inquirer article. Portland was never formally challenged on these alleged policies until 2005 when Jen Harris, a former Lady Lion, filed a lawsuit claiming that Portland harassed and discriminated against her because Portland perceived Harris to be a lesbian.

Penn State conducted an internal investigation in response to the lawsuit finding that Portland had created a "hostile, offensive and intimidating" climate on her team in apparent violation of Penn State’s own non-discrimination policy. Unfortunately, the university merely gave her a small fine and required her to attend diversity training. Last month Penn State and the National Center for Lesbian Rights announced that a confidential settlement had been agreed to. It appeared at that time that Portland would continue to coach the Lady Lions.

Portland’s resignation coming so soon after the settlement announcement and just as the basketball season is winding down is the best news I could imagine to finally end this sad saga. The allegations against Portland would have tainted Penn State women’s basketball as long as she was on the bench. This way Penn State has the opportunity to make a fresh start with a new coach, along with some education about the consequences of tolerating discrimination and harassment in the athletic department.

The fall-out from the lawsuit and Portland’s resignation sends a huge message to other schools about the consequences of ignoring, condoning or perpetrating anti-lesbian and gay discrimination. Penn State has endured two years of bad publicity over the allegations against Portland. Other former athletes and athletic staff have also stepped forward to support Harris’ accusations, making Portland’s denials less and less credible and Penn State’s support for her more of a challenge. The combined effects of this bad publicity and the financial costs of defending itself against Harris’ charges, in addition to the presumed financial settlement to Harris, have sullied the good name of a major university.

I have always hoped that, regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, other universities would learn from Penn State’s experience that it is no longer tolerable to condone or plead ignorance of discrimination against lesbian and gay people in athletics. Now that Portland has resigned, the message to other coaches is equally powerful: Discriminate at the risk of losing your job.

To lesbian and gay athletes and coaches in the future who are targeted by homophobia, the message is clear: This is a new day in athletics. What once was accepted, is no longer. Finally, for all of the lesbian athletes who have played at Penn State under the reign of Rene Portland, for all those women who have suffered and endured discrimination in silence, for all those women who lost the opportunity to play the sport they love because of a coach’s prejudice, justice might be delayed, but it is served. Woo hoo!

Pat Griffin, Director of It Takes A Team! Education Campaign for LGBT Issues in Sport, Author of "Strong Women, Deep Closets: Lesbians and Homophobia in Sport."