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Common Ground connects LGBTQ NCAA athletes and people of faith

Pat Griffin, a pioneering LGBTQ athlete, coach and activist, has seen her perspective of conservative Christians shift.

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The Common Ground leadership team. Back row (L-R): Nevin Caple, Liz Darger, Pat Griffin, Skip Lord, Jess Duff, Gary Pine. Front row (L-R): Amy Wilson, Helen Carroll, Donna Noonan, Karen Morrison, Tanya Williams. Missing: Chris Mosier, Drew Martin, Clyde Doughty

Editor’s note: Common Ground is an initiative to build bridges through conversation between the LGBTQ community and people of faith in college athletics. It is spearheaded by the NCAA and various advocates and administrators across sports. Common Ground 4 is taking place this week at Brigham Young Univ. You can find more information at NCAA.org.

This is part of a series from Common Ground participants.

Seeking Common Ground is a multi-year collaborative project among lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer people and people of faith in college athletics. Our goals are two-fold:

  1. Establish relationships across our differences in sexual orientation, gender identity and faith
  2. Encourage athletic climates in which people of all sexual orientations, gender identities and religious beliefs can participate openly and respectfully.

I am a former coach and college athlete. I am a retired professor of social justice education. I am a lesbian. I have been involved in LGBTQ sports advocacy for almost 40 years.

I am not a religious person. In fact, prior to my involvement in Common Ground, I have viewed conservative religions and the people who subscribe to them as my enemy based on their vocal and sustained opposition to recognizing the legitimacy of same-sex relationships and trans-expansive identities. In my 1998 book, Strong Women, Deep Closets: Lesbians and Homophobia in Sport, I devoted an entire chapter to criticizing Christian sport ministries for their toxic effects on the lives of LGBTQ athletes and coaches.

How, you may ask, did someone like me get involved in Common Ground? How did someone like me come to care deeply about my relationships with the heterosexual conservative religious people I have come to know and respect as part of my involvement in Common Ground?

After all, nothing has changed about our deep fundamental differences. I am still an out and proud lesbian sports activist and educator, married to the woman I love. They still believe that same-sex sexuality, same-sex marriage and gender transitions are sins.

Frankly, I got sick of the fear and anger I experienced in myself and that I experienced coming from many conservative Christians, their schools and churches. I got tired of fighting with people I knew nothing about except their beliefs about LGBTQ people. I got tired of them knowing nothing about me except that, in their eyes, I am an unrepentant sinner. Each group barricaded behind our beliefs, fears and anger staring each other down across a widening divide. It all just started feeling like it was getting us nowhere.

I entered Common Ground wanting to be part of a project creating a college sports experience in which LGBTQ athletes, coaches and administrators are treated with respect and fairness, even when individual coaches or teammates believe they are sinners.

Even more challenging, I want this to happen in private faith-based schools in which religious beliefs about same-sex relationships and gender transitions are the basis for discriminatory school policies that treat lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer students like second-class citizens.

Starting conversations with conservative Christians

Early on in our conversations with conservative religious folks, I learned that I also need to be committed to making sure that athletes, coaches and administrators across a broad spectrum of religious beliefs (or non-belief) are also treated with respect and fairness. I am not suggesting that there is some kind of equivalence between the experiences of LGBTQ athletes and athletes of faith, in terms of discrimination, institutional support or access to legal protections. However, I do believe that all athletes, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or religious perspective, should be respected.

One of the things I have learned through my Common Ground experience is that hope for change must be based on mutual respect and trust across our differences. Though I completely reject conservative Christian beliefs about LGBTQ people, I need to respect their right to hold those beliefs.

People of faith in this conversation must acknowledge the humanity of those of us who are LGBTQ, and our right to respect and dignity. All of us must live with contradictions and ambiguities as we negotiate our journey together, listening to each other and speaking our truths.

In Common Ground we have adopted this ethic as we create resources for athletic departments, speak together on panels, share our reactions to “triggering” language from each other, unpack the meanings we attach to words like “love,” “dignity,” respect,” and “inclusion,” always working toward better understanding and ways to translate our conversations into action.

Though we address the experiences of LGBTQ students and students of faith in public and private secular schools, the most challenging question we face is this: Can private faith-based schools enact policy that is consistent with their religious beliefs about LGBTQ people, yet treats their LGBTQ students with love, respect and equity?

I know that many of my newly found conservative Christian friends are struggling with this question on their campuses. They are working within their religious communities for better understanding and change. They are leading conversations with colleagues in the Christian college and university sphere. They are listening to their LGBTQ students. They are wrestling with defining what a conservative Christian LGBTQ ally looks and acts like.

Understanding progress and frustration with LGBTQ inclusion efforts

I would be lying if I said I am not sometimes frustrated by, and feel hopeless about, the seemingly overwhelming obstacles to change: the divisive public political debate over “religious freedom” vs. “LGBTQ rights;” the fears of private faith-based schools about provoking criticism from their constituencies; the possible financial backlash if they move too quickly to change the gap between the rhetoric of love and tangible action I hear from some of my conservative Christian friends.

I feel deep pain for the LGBTQ students of faith on private faith-based campuses who are caught up in this complicated and slow process of change. I have gained a new appreciation for their struggles to reconcile their spiritual identities with their sexual or gender identities. They yearn to be welcomed as full and equal members of their school communities. They are amazingly brave in making themselves vulnerable as they advocate for themselves and the LGBTQ students who will follow them.

In the end, their voices are the most important, and I am happy that many private faith-based schools are listening to them more closely.

Our challenge is huge. Progress is slow and uneven. We have experienced set-backs. I get impatient. In the end, I choose to place my faith (pun intended) in the enduring power of relationships and the love and respect across our differences that I experience every time I am in conversation with my friends of faith.

Common Ground is an experiment that counters the hate, anger and fear that characterizes most conversations about religion and LGBTQ issues. Common Ground calls on all participants to reach toward each other and really see each other rather than pull away and turn our backs on the ways we might all be treated with respect and dignity despite our fundamental differences.

Change is not happening as quickly as I would like, but I choose to trust the process and continue to engage in it with hope, love and determination.

Pat Griffin is a former NCAA athlete and coach. For the last three decades she has been a leading activist and advocate for LGBTQ inclusion in sports.