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ANN ARBOR –
The University of Michigan women’s basketball team won their first Big 10 game of the season against Penn State on Sunday at Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor. But for nearly 300 protesters – about one-sixth of the total attendees – the real victory was the rally against PSU’s anti-gay coach Rene Portland.
“We got people’s attention,” said Diane Nothaft, a protest organizer. “I think we sent a loud message that this issue isn’t going away.”
At halftime, many protesters, who sported lavender and purple shirts that said “Lavender Menace,” moved behind the PSU basket so that Portland couldn’t avoid them. Others sat behind the PSU bench or disbursed throughout crowd, according to Nothaft.
“The people (who) came to protest … don’t normally come to the U-M basketball games,” she said. “The fact that these people paid money just so they could protest Portland speaks volumes. I don’t think that can go ignored. Portland knew we were here. PSU knew we were here. Our local media knew we were here.”
Portland used to have a “no drinking, no drugs, no lesbians” policy, according to several former players. In 1991, when Penn State revised its nondiscrimination policy, Portland openly expressed her anti-gay views to the team.
No PSU players came forward until 2006, when former teammate Jennifer Harris accused Portland of dismissing her from the team because of her perceived sexual orientation. She filed a federal lawsuit against PSU and Portland. An PSU internal review found Portland created a “hostile, intimidating, and offensive environment” based in Harris’ perceived sexual orientation, according to the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
“It’s awful … that a college level coach or any coach should send the message to her players that it’s wrong for them to be homosexual and that it’s wrong for anyone to be homosexual,” protester Liz Fanta said. “She’s the kind of person that should be removed from the ranks of coaching.”
But instead of losing her job, Portland was fined $10,000 and ordered to attend diversity-training sessions. At Sunday’s protest, some fans chanted “Where’s Jen Harris?” to the tune of the U-M cheer.
“I think Portland’s reprimand was a slap in the face to Jennifer Harris, to every other person Portland ever discriminated against and to gays and lesbians everywhere,” Nothaft said.
Last season, several LGBT groups across the country organized silent protests when PSU came to play at their universities, noted Nothaft. Nothaft wanted to do the same locally.
“I felt like I needed to do my part to help,” she said. “Portland has been getting away with this kind of behavior for years because these kids have been too afraid to say anything and the PSU administration doesn’t offer them any support.”
At Sunday’s game, U-M students sold T-shirts, distributed lavender armbands and informed attendees of Portland’s behavior with small purple flyers. Fanta said the purpose of the protest was to embarrass the coach and to make the players aware that the LGBT community has their back.
“If there are any lesbian players on the PSU team that may be suffering, this (was) … a way to let them know they are supported,” Nothaft said.
By keeping Portland in the hot seat through frequent protests, Nothaft hopes others will realize her discriminatory practices.
“We were successful because we educated a lot of people … that didn’t know about Portland,” she said. “It was also nice to see that we have support outside of our community from total strangers.”