By Dan Woog
Once upon a time, there was no such thing as LGBT sports. No one imagined gay men could be athletes. Besides, weren’t all female athletes lesbians? Or so the stereotypes went.
Then came Dave Kopay, Greg Louganis. The growth of women’s sports. With a rush, LGBT sports roared out of the locker room.
The next step was to gather LGBT athletes together. Outsports created a superb online community. In real time there were running clubs, gay sports teams, even entire leagues.
All of that happened organically. But, as with all growing movements, formal organizations emerge to advocate, educate and show a cohesive face to the world.
Up they sprang: the You Can Play Project. Changing the Game. Brache the Silence. Athlete Ally.
Several years ago, Outsports founder Cyd Zeigler wanted to unify all the groups and individuals working in the LGBT sports space. With longtime activists Pat Griffin and Helen Carroll, they organized a summit meeting. Nike offered space and sponsorship dollars.
The first meeting was wildly successful. A diverse group brought enormous energy and great ideas to Portland. They concluded a weekend filled with discussions and social events by marching in the city’s gay pride parade.
“The whole idea was collaboration,” Griffin recalls. “Instead of competing head to head for funding and publicity, we wanted to pull individuals and organizations together.” Nike was happy for the help; they needed a way to allocate their funding. The LGBT Sports Coalition would be it.
The new group’s emphasis on collaboration was important. All projects submitted through them for Nike funding had to involve more than one group. One of the most important efforts was Common Ground, bringing together LGBT sports educators and administrators with members of the faith community.
Other groups tackled transgender issues through state high school athletic associations. Campus Pride took the lead in working with historically black colleges and universities.
Annual Coalition meetings in Portland were energizing, exciting and fun. Relationships between member organizations and individuals grew. Young attendees found inspiration. Mentorships formed.
However, the LGBT Sports Coalition lacked 501(c)(3) status. Money was funneled through the Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation. Nike pushed for the Coalition to have its own standalone non-profit status.
At the same time, Nike was going through an internal review of its funding processes, channeling some resources elsewhere.
There were other tensions at the LGBT Sports Foundation (the Coalitions’ new name). One involved the role of straight allies in LGBT sports. There were raw discussions regarding the role of Athlete Ally, with Coalition members taking both sides of the debate.
Another division emerged around the issue of diversity. Voices asked for greater numbers – and power – for people of color, women and transgender people. Leaders invited members of those groups to join.
Some white men applauded the move. Some felt attacked. An ugly split ensued.
“Treating intersectionality as part of a coalition is how to get things done,” Griffin says. “I understand that other people might have a very different view.”
Yet another fissure appeared. Some Foundation members believed that the most effective way to achieve change is for all LGBT people in sports to come out. Others felt that – while coming out is important – it could not be the only approach.
“I think we need advocacy, education and policy change,” Griffin says. She prefers a holistic approach involving straight coaches and administrators, including seminars, policy manuals and other efforts.
Several members left the LGBT Sports Foundation. Griffin and Jeff Sheng – creator of the “Fearless” photographic project, and a leading voice for intersectionality – shored up the organization. They spent months getting 501(c)(3) status.
Now the Foundation is at a turning point. “We’re still very committed to this,” Griffin says. “But we want someone else to step up and take over.”
So far, no one has. “I understand it’s hard,” says the author and University of Massachusetts professor emerita of social justice “People have jobs and lives. They’re committed to other advocacy groups.”
What does all this say about the current state of the LGBT sports movement?
“It’s strong, in the sense that members of the Coalition do amazing work, in organizations like the NCAA and National Center for Lesbian Rights. They’re just doing it outside the Coalition,” Griffin says. “But it’s sad because we could do so much more if we got our act together. All we need is someone to take charge.”
Every movement has growing pains. The LGBT sports movement is still growing. It encompasses many viewpoints, and with visibility comes diversity.
“We’re all still passionate,” Griffin notes. “We may have our philosophical differences, but we all still work for what we believe in.”
She ends the interview. It’s time for her and Chris Mosier – trans athlete and Foundation member – to lead another workshop.
By Dan Woog