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By Dan Woog
To John Amaechi’s long list of achievements – former NBA basketball player, gay activist, human rights advocate – add another: Order of the British Empire.
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has tabbed the hoopster-turned-social entrepreneur for the “honour,” bestowed Oct. 26 at Buckingham Palace. His selection has drawn kudos from disparate quarters. National Basketball Association commissioner David Stern called Amaechi “an inspiration to millions”; Director of Amnesty International UK Kate Allen cited his work “promoting a greater understanding of human rights in all sports.”
Amaechi certainly deserves the Order. But he’s not the only LGBT sports figure worthy of praise. The roster of gay sports figures – and their accomplishments – grows, seemingly by the day. Finally they’ve been compiled, all in one place.
It’s quite an impressive list.
Outsports – the go-to website for all things sporting and queer – has released “the 100 most important moments in gay sports history.” Reading what’s happened since 1969 is both educational and empowering.
(Full disclosure: I helped research the list. And, I am proud to say, publication of my book “Jocks: True Stories of America’s Gay Male Athletes,” makes the cut – barely – at No. 99.)
The “Top 100” includes some names that are very familiar, some that are lesser known, and a few obscurities. All have contributed to the current, explosive and largely positive state of LGBT sports.
The list begins at No. 100 with “University of Florida settles lawsuit with Andrea Zimbardi.” The 2004 case involved an honor student and softball captain, who was kicked off the team because of suspicions she was a lesbian. The settlement mandated the first-ever homophobia training for coaches and administrators at a major university.
Another important lawsuit occurred at Penn State, around the same time. Jen Harris was kicked off the basketball team by coach Rene Portland for – surprise! – being a lesbian. Portland was fined $10,000 by the university. She later resigned.
Other less-than-stellar gay sports moments include New York Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey declaring he would not want a gay teammate; gay soccer star Justin Fashanu committing suicide, and Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker spewing homophobic comments in a Sports Illustrated interview.
Most of the top 100 events, however, are positive. The San Francisco Giants were the first professional sports team to make an “It Gets Better” video, encouraging young teens. Other squads, in a variety of leagues, followed suit.
New York Rangers hockey player Sean Avery is an outspoken proponent of gay marriage. His activism played a role in this year’s vote by New York legislators to legalize same-sex nuptials.
Also in New York, “Take Me Out” – a play about a gay baseball player – made its mark on Broadway. Two significant things happened: It won a Tony Award for Best Play, and brought gay men who did NOT necessarily love theater, to the theater.
At the University of Pennsylvania, the formation of Penn’s Athletes and Allies Tackling Homphobia and Heterosexism (PATH) presaged the rise of similar groups on other college campuses.
Allies were also in the news when Hudson Taylor – a straight University of Maryland wrestler – wore a Human Rights Campaign sticker on his headgear. He went on to form Athlete Ally, a support group that works tirelessly to challenge homophobia and transphobia in sports.
Some of the events on Outsports’ list sound almost random. In 2010, the Stanley Cup – won earlier that year by the Chicago Blackhawks – had a position of honor at that city’s Gay Pride parade.
Others are truly distinctive, like the publication in 1974 of Patricia Nell Warren’s seminal novel “The Front Runner,” and the first-ever Gay Games in 1982.
But it is coming out that may be the most prevalent and important thread throughout Outsports’ list. Just as John Amaechi’s announcement shined a light on pro basketball, other men and women have had similar effects on their own teammates, coaches and fans.
Virtually every sport is represented: football (Esera Tuaolo, Roy Simmons), baseball (Billy Bean), hockey (Brendan Burke), swimming and diving (Mark Tewksbury), golf (Muffin Spencer-Devlin), wrestling, mountain biking, women’s boxing, dressage, bodybuilding – even cricket and hurling.
The top two stories on the list, in fact, involve coming out: tennis star Martina Navratilova in 1981, and former football player Dave Kopay five years earlier.
Some of the sports in which LGBT athletes have come out are major. Others are minor, even obscure. Still – even in 2011 – it takes courage for any athlete, in any event, to say those few words.
John Amaechi said them four years ago. He had no idea what would happen afterward. Would he be vilified? Shunned? Perhaps even physically assaulted?
None of that happened.
Instead, the Queen of England put a medal around his tall, gay neck.