By Dan Woog
Howard Cosell once called sports “the toy department of human life.” So why would an LGBT legal organization – one whose mission is challenging barriers in areas like marriage, the military and the workplace – worry about toys like softball, and toy chests like gym class?
Because sports is “a social institution writ large – one from which LGBT people are still largely excluded.” That’s the view of Ben Klein, and he should know. He’s an attorney with Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defender – a Boston-based legal rights organization dedicated to ending discrimination based on sexual orientation, HIV status, and gender identity and expression.
Klein works with litigation assistant Jamal Brown on GLAD’s Homophobia in Sports project. Now in its initial, fact-finding phase, the project hopes to use the courts to bring about equal rights for gay people – just as it’s done in areas such as AIDS law, immigration and education.
“GLAD works to ensure equal access to a variety of institutions,” Klein says. “But with the exception of the National Council for Lesbian Rights, sports has not been given the attention it needs. It’s the one area in which it’s still largely acceptable to engage in anti-gay epithets and harassment.”
For the last 20 years, Klein says, LGBT organizations – his and others – have focused on “basic rights” like housing and relationships. Sports “didn’t rise to the top of the priority list,” he admits. “We weren’t even thinking about them.”
Now they are.
“Athletes are being forced out of sports, or kicked off teams, for being gay,” Brown says. “And coaches are being fired, or prevented from being hired, because of their sexuality or gender identity.”
Taking a lawyerly approach, GLAD realized it needed to assess the situation before rushing to court. Last fall, the organization developed a survey aimed at athletes, coaches, sports-related employees and casual recreation users. The goal was to understand their experiences – positive and negative – in athletics.
The most common finding, according to Klein, was “the prevalence of homophobic slurs.” Whether malicious or merely careless, the comments made in locker rooms and on playing fields make LGBT people uncomfortable, wary of coming out – even causing them to leave teams.
But is an unwelcoming environment actually illegal?
“If there is a clear-cut situation in an educational setting – in a state with an anti-discrimination law that includes sexual orientation – we could bring a case,” Klein replies.
In a state without a gay-rights statute, a case could be filed charging sexual harassment – provided the comments or actions were sexual in nature.
In the case of a coach, charges could be brought under “hostile environment” workplace laws.
Of course, none of this is a slam dunk.
“It’s hard to find people who are willing to sue, and have a legitimate case,” Klein says. “We can’t just snap our fingers and find the right case.”
To bring a harassment claim, someone must report it – for example, pervasive slurs or bullying – to someone in a school or workplace. Then, school officials or employers have to ignore it.
Such reporting is rare, Klein says. “People don’t feel comfortable talking about it; they don’t know who to report it to, or they don’t think it will be addressed even if they do say something.”
Part of GLAD’s mission, Klein says, is to educate LGBT people, school officials and employers that they must create an environment in which anti-gay harassment can be reported – and publicize a process for doing so. Lawsuits are a last resort.
The surveys have not yet reached a broad spectrum of gays and lesbians. “It’s hard to find people having the most significant problems,” Klein says. “They may be less connected to groups we’re targeting, or they feel isolated because of what’s happened to them.” (Anyone wishing to fill out the survey can find it at www.glad.org/sports.)
Klein calls sports one of homophobia’s final frontiers. “In our efforts to address various areas of society, the LGBT rights movement in general has paid scant attention to athletics. Some of that may come from a bit of ambivalence in our country about the world of sports.”
Some comes from ignorance. “I came out in 1979,” Klein says. “I didn’t think gay people were athletes. But we can’t address barriers in society without talking about sports.”
Despite varying levels of knowledge about – and interest in – sports, GLAD staffers have embraced Klein and Brown’s efforts. “People here are really excited,” says Klein. “They understand the principles behind this.”
Brown brings special cachet to the cause. A track star at Ivy League Dartmouth College, Klein calls him “our resident athlete. He has invaluable insights into the sports world. Me – I’m just an aging recreational athlete.”
But one with a law degree – and a passion for equal rights, wherever injustice lurks.