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Highly publicized suicides in recent years are grim reminders of the pervasive risks LGBT teenagers face every day of their lives. Swamped by feelings of isolation and condemnation, not knowing whom to turn to or even what to say if they found someone to talk with, many live a cold and vulnerable life, desperate with the uncertainty of whether it indeed will ever get better.
Those feelings of "Am I the only one?" can be especially powerful for young LGBT athletes. Professional role models in elite sports are few and far between, not the subject of the stories they read in sports sections on a daily basis. They see flamboyant displays in annual Pride parades, they are exposed to caricatures in sitcoms, and they read about the comings and goings of gay celebrities from the world of cinema and music, but the only time they encounter a mention of gays in sports may be when the gym teacher calls for a game of "Smear the Queer."
Paradoxically, while gay-centric recreational and competitive sports have blossomed over the past three decades in most of the Western world, adolescent sports remain a lonely and hostile environment for the vast majority of young queer athletes.
But things are indeed getting better. Here and there, young athletes are reaching each other through blogs (check out www.bradrobertben.wordpress.com, a blog created by two high school soccer players and a runner); the "Fearless Campus Tour" brought photos of out college athletes to high school and college campuses and the 2010 Winter Olympics (see www.fearlesscampustour.org); and several advocacy groups are out there trying to make the world safer for the new generation.
Pat Griffin, a longtime LGBT sports activist who is now heading up the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network's Sports Project, one of the newest initiatives to counter homophobia in youth sports, told the Bay Area Reporter that lack of visibility in top-level sports contributes to a sense of isolation for younger athletes, subconsciously feeding the myth that queers can't cut it or be accepted by "real" athletes.
"They don't have that many role models in the pros or college ranks," Griffin said. "What we're hoping to do is to make this issue more visible – make life for LGBT young athletes more open and respectful."
Previously Griffin had been in charge of the Women's Sports Foundation's "It Takes a Team" education project. Last summer she made a proposal to GLSEN for the sports project.
"I came on board in October and have been working on pulling this together," Griffin said. "The purpose is to extend the GLSEN mission making schools safe for students, taking it into an athletic context."
Griffin said the organization is compiling and reviewing resources. "Our primary target groups are coaches, athletes, and parents of athletes," she said. "Those are the people we want to influence the most. We're trying to create resources that are accessible and practical. The next challenge is getting the word out. I'm involved in engaging coaches and athletic directors."
She said she hopes to launch a "Team Respect" challenge next school year.
"In essence, we're hoping individual teams will take the respect challenge," Griffin explained. "It's about treating each other with respect and taking a stand against bullying. We'll invite them to take that challenge. We'll have T-shirts or baseball caps with a logo and some kind of cool slogan like, 'Respect: Are You Bringing It?'"
Proactive alliances with athletes who identify as straight are seen as a crucial building block, and one of the most visible allies to step forward has been Hudson Taylor, a heterosexual three-time All-American wrestler for the University of Maryland, who wore a Human Rights Campaign logo on his singlet during competition. Now an assistant coach at Columbia, he created a http://whydoyoufight.org blog to publicize personal LGBT sports stories, and more recently has created the Athlete Ally Pledge at www.athleteally.com.
"I have such big dreams for the pledge," Taylor told the B.A.R. "My hope is to create a database of safe athletic spaces across the country. I think it would be a really amazing resource for young LGBT athletes. If enough people in the athletic community take the pledge, we can start to really define for ourselves a new standard of athletic integrity. This can then help influence NCAA policies to take a more hands-on approach to creating a safe and respectful athletic environment.
"The truth is, I didn't have any close gay or transgender friends and I didn't start out as an ally. For a long time I sat complacently in locker room after locker room as I heard my teammates and people I considered my friends use derogatory and homophobic language."
Then Taylor decided enough was enough.
"When I finally decided to start speaking out I was largely focused on trying to create a respectful athletic environment for everyone," he said. "I saw myself as more of a feminist than a gay-rights activist. It wasn't until I started receiving hundreds of e-mails from young LGBT athletes that I truly understood how void the athletic community was of straight LGBT allies. In many ways, those e-mails were the genesis of my 'activism.' Whydoyoufight.org was my first stab at trying to make a real proactive difference. My hope was to encourage members of the LGBT community and their allies to tell the world why they fight for equality. If enough non-allies were to see their stories and reasons for fighting, maybe they would come a little closer to being an ally themselves. As time progressed, I realized that my blog wasn't really addressing or helping to mitigate the homophobia in athletics. The Athlete Ally Pledge was my solution to that problem."
Taylor sees the issues facing lesbian and gay athletes as different sides of the coin toss.
"For male athletes, we have to address the stereotypes behind masculinity, homosexuality, and athletic success," he said. "Young male athletes have been taught that homosexuality is feminine and that to be a successful athlete you must strive to be masculine and thereby heterosexual. We need to teach our young male athletes that being gay and masculine are not mutually exclusive and that athletic success is determined by your actions on the field, not your attractions off the field. For women, we have to address the stereotypes behind femininity, homosexuality, and athletic success. Many young female athletes equate being a lesbian with masculinity. In this way, because athletic success is seen as an aspect of masculinity, many successful female athletes are assumed to be lesbians. This creates a team culture that unnecessarily keeps some female athletes closeted. Just as in men's sports, to overcome this we are going to have to redefine the pervasive stereotypes that allow homophobia to continue to occur."
So far, more than 1,200 people have signed Taylor's pledge.
"If every athlete in this country took a stand against homophobia and ant-LGBT bullying," Taylor said, "I truly believe that we would no longer have to tell LGBT teens that it gets better. Instead, athletes could actually make it better."
Next week: The B.A.R. talks with a local gay high school athlete and team captain.