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LGBTQ sports advocate Helen Carroll retires from NCLR

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Carroll will still focus on key initiatives.

Helen Carroll isn’t riding off into the sunset, just transitioning the focus of her work and downtime.
Annie Jenkel

Helen Carroll, the legendary coach, athletic director and advocate who has fought for LGBTQ equality in sports for much of the last 40 years, is retiring from the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

While Carroll will no longer head to an office to do her work, she will keep her hand in particular projects that most resonate with her.

“I feel like it's time tot do the next part of my life and be able to structure that myself,” Carroll told Outsports. “Everything I've done leading up to that gets me ready for this. By ‘this’ I mean continuing the work I've always loved, but more on my schedule.

“To be able to, in this part of my life, shift to spending time and being with people — friends and family — just reconnecting and developing those relationships in a deep, intimate way, that is what I really am looking forward to doing.”

Carroll has run the sports project for the National Center for Lesbian Rights for about 15 years. Previously Carroll was the head coach of the women’s basketball team at UNC-Asheville, where she won the NAIA national title in 1984, the only national championship in the school’s history. Carroll went on to become the athletic director at Mills College.

Yet it’s her work running NCLR’s sports project where she has had her most profound impact driving LGBTQ equality in sports. Under her leadership NCLR has fought numerous legal battles, often demonstrating homophobic or transphobic actions and winning settlements on behalf of LGBTQ athletes and coaches.

Helen Carroll (center), along with Sue Rankin and Pat Griffin, are often referred to as the “godmothers” of the LGBTQ sports movement.

While Carroll is leaving NCLR, she said she will still work on specific initiatives, like the Common Ground think tank that brings together people of religious faith to talk with LGBTQ people in sports.

Looking back on those 15 years, Carroll pointed to their landmark case against Penn State and women’s basketball coach Rene Portland as one of the most important moments of her career. Portland had a “no lesbians” policy for her team and targeted various individuals who either were, or were perceived to be, LGBT.

The case forced Portland to resign and set Penn State on a path of reconciling its athletic department policies with a fast-increasing acceptance of LGBTQ people. Portland never coached again.

Suddenly NCAA schools had been loudly and clearly warned: If you allow anti-LGBTQ policies on your teams, you will have to answer for them.

"I feel that had such an impact in student-athletes’ lives, including the 10 or 15 LGBTQ athletes that Rene had coached and who had such difficult times throughout their entire lives,” Carroll said. “It was so important that they were able to have closure and finally put that behind them even a decade later."

Carroll also pointed to her work with transgender athletes and coaches to help secure them an ability to compete and perform. Carroll has worked with countless trans people in sports, one of them — Athena Del Rosario at UC Santa Cruz — coincidentally sharing her story publicly for the first time just today.

"It’s been so rewarding meeting those athletes, helping those athletes navigate an unfriendly athletic world to a place where it's now more accepting. I have loved that work and I have loved those athletes, and I'm sure I'll continue to be friends with many of them."

Carroll also looks back at the countless inclusion policies she has help affect over the years. Across levels of sports — youth, high school, NCAA, national and international governing bodies — Carroll has had a loud voice in crafting LGBT-inclusion policies across the country and around the world.

“I used to think policies were just written words. But now I feel that policies protect and offer opportunity. And those are the things that stay there. A person makes an impact, but what's going to be there in 10 years, 20 years — policies stay around a long time. And I feel really good about that."

As well she should. Carroll, along with colleague and trailblazers Pat Griffin and Sue Rankin, has had her hand in LGBTQ conversations in sports for longer than almost anyone else. Her voice has been powerful, and we have all learned a lot from her.

Griffin wrote a tribute to Carroll on Facebook yesterday, Carroll’s final day in the NCLR office.

Pat, Helen and I organized the first Nike LGBT Sports Summit in 2012. I learned a ton from them both.

“I have worked with Helen for 25 years to make sports a safe and inclusive place for LGBTQ people,” Griffin wrote. “We have become trusted colleagues and dear friends who have supported each other, caused trouble together, laughed and cried together, raged and acted silly together, celebrated victories and mourned defeats. She always has my back and I have hers. There is no one I know who has given more to make the experiences of the next generation of LGBTQ athletes, coaches and administrators great.”

My personal experiences with her go back about 15 years, to the very first Outsports Reunion. She led a room full of men in a conversation about inclusion that opened the minds of many of us. She has a way of understanding how to talk with anyone to get a message across. Maybe it’s the Southern twang, but her manner is incredibly disarming. She’d feel comfortable throwing back a beer and talking football with one group in the afternoon, then sipping chardonnay and waxing poetic on the power of privilege with some professional golfers in the evening.

All the while Carroll has stayed true to one super powerful tenet, and one far too often overlooked in sports: The importance of participation. While fans and athletes and coaches so often focus on victory, Carroll’s victories have been when she simply opened the door for another athlete to participate as who they are.

While we know she’s not entirely leaving the movement, we will miss Carroll’s contributions on a more daily basis.

We hope you will all join us in thanking her for her four decades of contributions as she embarks on her life’s next chapter.

You can find Helen Carroll on Facebook. She is also on Twitter @HelenCarroll.