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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Monday, February 26, 2007

Time to Step Up to the Plate

The climate is improving for a gay pro athlete to come out

By Steve Charing

The creaky sound of the closet door opening in pro male sports has been heard too infrequently over the past three decades. It started with pro football player David Kopay in 1975. Then the first major league baseball player to come out, Glenn Burke, did so in 1982. Ten years later another gridiron athlete, Roy Simmons, came out on the Phil Donahue Show.

Keeping the alternating leagues in tact, baseballer Billy Bean stepped out of the closet in 1999, and football player Esera Tuaolo followed suit in 2002. Of course, there was an official—not an athlete—baseball umpire Dave Pallone, who had come out in 1990.

Just a few weeks ago a new sport joined the all-too-modest line-up of pro athletes’ coming out: pro basketball in the person of John Amaechi. The reverberations beyond the creaky closet door from Amaechi’s disclosure are still being heard.

These now "out" pro sports figures—in varying degrees of celebrity and proficiency—have two things in common: they all went public after they retired, and they all announced their sexuality in advance of selling a book.

When Esera Tuaolo came out I praised him for his candor but questioned the usefulness of a retired athlete’s coming out. I said then, and others have repeated the refrain, that it would take "Jackie Robinson-like courage" for an active male player to disclose that he is gay in the testosterone-dominated arena of professional sports.

Sheryl Swoopes, an active female basketball star and three-time Most Valuable Player recipient in the WNBA, came out in 2005, which was seen as brave. The environment was more favorable for her to come out given that a significant portion of the WNBA fan base is comprised of lesbians. And while Swoopes received tremendous support from her team and fans, many gay activists were miffed when she disclosed that her sexuality was a choice.

Locker room reaction
For a male athlete to come out, however, the landscape could be more daunting. The first thing that comes to the mind of a gay athlete is the reaction in the locker room, which in the macho world of professional sports, is not likely to be gay friendly. According to John Amaechi, there are other gay players in the NBA who are terrified to come out because of their teammates’ potential backlash. You know, the shower argument.

Some pro athletes from the NBA and NHL have stated that they would support their teammates because that’s what teammates do. "Anybody who knows me knows I'm a guy who loves his teammates and if anything ever comes up like that, I don't look at that," said Miami Heat star Dwayne Wade. "I look at what guys can do for you on the court. And in the locker room you have great relationships with guys. I don't have any negative views." This was a typical of response from those supportive pros who wanted to weigh in on the record.

A Sports Illustrated survey conducted last year provides more insight. When players from the four major professional sports leagues—MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL—were asked it they would support an openly gay teammate, more than half in the NFL said they would; three out of five approved of a gay teammate in the NBA and Major League Baseball; and a whopping four out of five were supportive in the NHL. This spike in the NHL’s acceptance is most likely attributable to the fact that most of the players are Canadians and Europeans who are more apt to lack the sexual hang-ups of Americans.

Nonetheless, former NBA player Tim Hardaway was repulsed at the thought of a gay teammate and stated during an interview that, among other reasons for not wanting a gay teammate, he hates gays. He later apologized for his comments. The big question is: who more represents the locker room mindset—Wade or Hardaway?

Teammate support may be there, but what’s missing, however, is how these guys would respond when an opponent comes out. Would he be taunted, shunned, harassed, or just left alone?

Fan response
The second consideration for a gay athlete who is contemplating coming out is the reaction of fans. That is a tough one to gauge and may depend on the team’s locale and its social consciousness. On the surface a gay athlete may be better off coming out in New York than in Dallas, but no matter if a state is red or blue, every state has a mix of homophobes and progressives, thus the color purple.

Yet a gay athlete who is a strong performer and/or is popular with the fans will have a better chance of mitigating any backlash. Indeed, studies have already indicated that fans appear to be OK with an openly gay player. According to an online survey by Witeck-Combs Communications and Harris Interactive conducted in 2002, two out of three fans said they would not change their opinions of favorite male or female professional athletes should they come out.

Consequently, four out of five said other fans would have a problem.

Over the past several years, there have been "gay night" events at several baseball parks recognizing the significance of the gay dollar and that being inclusive is good business. And just recently, there was a landmark Pride Night with the Atlanta Thrashers of the NHL.

Endorsement concerns
The third consideration is the potential loss of endorsements if a player comes out, especially when corporations are under extreme pressure from so-called morality groups. But when Sheryl Swoopes came out, Nike did not drop an existing endorsement deal, and she picked up another one as well.

While some see a risk, others see a windfall. "From a marketing perspective, if you're a player who happens to be gay and you want to be incredibly rich, then you should come out, because it would be the best thing that ever happened to you from a marketing and an endorsement perspective," said the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. "You would be an absolute hero to more Americans than you can ever possibly be as an athlete, and that'll put money in your pocket. On the flip side, if you're the idiot who condemns somebody because they're gay, then you're going to be ostracized, you're going to be picketed and you're going to ruin whatever marketing endorsements you have."

The times, they are a-changin’
The world has evolved dramatically since the day Jackie Robinson endured taunts and death threats from fans and ostracism by teammates and opponents alike. The country wasn’t ready for integration during Robinson’s gallant breaking of the color barrier 60 years ago. Attitude towards gay acceptance is improving albeit slowly. Cultural exposure to gays and lesbians, including more positive portrayals of gays in television and movies, and political debates that push for equality, have contributed to the positive trends.

But the best evidence of a more accepting sports world occurred following Tim Hardaway’s homophobic remarks. Swiftly and unequivocally, NBA Commissioner David Stern rebuked Hardaway and cancelled Hardaway’s representing the NBA during the all-star weekend, and he lost an endorsement, too. Moreover, the Continental Basketball Association terminated Hardaway’s role with the league. These actions sent a powerful message that homophobia—not homosexuality—is a taboo.

Coming out in the world of sports may be a struggle. But the outcome is likely to be successful given that times are changing and intolerance will not be tolerated.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Seek Support Group

Letter published inUSA Today--2/15/2007

Steve Charing, media relations, PFLAG-Howard County - Clarksville, Md.

USA TODAY's cover story "Gay teens coming out earlier to peers and family" presented an accurate overview of the issues surrounding gay and lesbian teens' acknowledgement of their sexual orientation at an earlier age than previous generations did.

But while several key support groups were identified, one of the leading gay and lesbian support groups for parents and gay individuals was omitted: PFLAG, or Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (News, Feb. 8).

This venerable organization has been a valuable source of support to families for more than three decades. PFLAG's goal is to keep families together, and with the help of parents who have experienced their child's coming out, PFLAG members offer guidance and support to other parents in a similar situation. Many chapters provide support to the teens as well.

The article discusses how problematic it could be for teens and their parents in rural areas. PFLAG has grown to more than 500 chapters nationwide, and its reach extends into all areas of the country.

Parents who are trying to come to terms with their child's sexual orientation would be well advised to visit www.pflag.org to locate a chapter in their area. Nobody should feel that they are alone.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Lobby Day Draws Statewide Activists, Politicans

LGBT, allies push for transgender equality; oppose marriage amendment

By Steve Charing

ANNAPOLIS—A couple of hundred lgbt activists from all over the state braved the brisk, misty air to attend Equality Maryland’s 4th annual Lobby Day on February 12. The crowd, while significantly smaller than at previous Lobby Day rallies at Lawyers Mall, was enthusiastic and vociferous and represented a broad segment of Maryland’s lgbt community and its allies.

"We want to show the legislature that we have wide and diverse support for lgbt equality," Sara Ryan, Equality Maryland’s field organizer told Baltimore OUTloud. "We have here gay and straight people, people of faith, non-religious people, union, non-union, all kinds of people."

Gita Deane and Lisa Polyak, two of the original plaintiffs in the Deane and Polyak v. Conaway lawsuit, emceed the rally. The lawsuit is challenging Maryland’s 1973 marriage law that restricts the definition of marriage to be one man and woman and is currently under deliberation by the Maryland Court of Appeals.

Dr. Dana Beyer, a transgendered person who unsuccessfully ran for the House of Delegates, set the tone by arguing for transgender equality. She offered examples of how transgendered individuals are discriminated against; how she—a physician—could lose her job; and how the transgendered are often victims of violence and hate. One of Equality Maryland’s main legislative initiatives this General Assembly will be to add transgendered individuals to the state’s anti-discrimination law.

Delegate Victor Ramirez, a Prince Georges Democrat further fired up the crowd. "[Marriage equality] is a critical issue for all of us, not just some," he exhorted. "This will define us as a state." Del. Ramirez, a strong advocate for immigration rights added, "To those who bring us issues to divide us—shame on you!" He plans to champion a pro-marriage bill in the House of Delegates.

Senator Gwendolyn Britt, another Democrat from Prince Georges County was next by relating the struggle for lgbt equality to that of the civil rights movement. She was a major activist against segregation, having been jailed for her protests.

According to a statement from Equality Maryland, "if the high court in Maryland does not unequivocally rule to end discrimination in civil marriage, [Sen. Britt] will sponsor and shepherd a marriage equality bill in the Maryland Senate."

"I fought against segregation, and I’m equality compelled to speak out for your equal rights in Maryland and in the U.S.," she said to the cheering crowd. "For civil marriage, the time is now."

Other speakers included Fred Mason, Executive Director, Metro DC AFL-CIO with son, Fred Mason III and his son's husband, Philip Lovett. Pro-gay equality supporters in the legislature were sighted at the event, including Sen. Rich Madaleno (D-Montgomery County), the highest elected openly gay person in the state and Del. Elizabeth Bobo (D-Columbia).

A few in the crowd complained that neither Governor O’Malley nor Lt. Governor Brown was present at the rally, which would have signaled a new pro-gay rights climate in Annapolis. However, Equality Maryland’s Sara Ryan confirmed to OUTloud that they had not been invited.
During and after the rally, groups of lgbt folks, supporters, friends and families proceeded to visit with their district delegates and senators. They pressed for an end to transgender discrimination, promoted domestic partner benefits for state employees and other initiatives to ease some financial burdens on Maryland’s lgbt citizens. In addition, they sought to avert yet another attempt by both houses in the General Assembly to amend the state’s constitution that would permanently confine marriage to one man and one woman.

People presented their personal stories to legislators, which always seems to be the most effective strategy. One transgendered person told a receptive delegate of being homeless because she was transgendered. Another teenager said he had hugged his brother who attended the same school and the other kids taunted them with anti-gay jeers.

And in a touching moment, a young married woman explained to a senator how she was raised by her biological father and his male partner since she had been very young and brought in family photographs to show how stable and beneficial her upbringing was.

Some seemed moved by these and other stories; others, such as Gail Bates (R-Howard County) was reported to have said she is "never going to change her mind."

Lobby Day is an important event and may be critical this year. A decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals on the marriage lawsuit is imminent and has the potential for driving the political agenda during this and future General Assembly sessions. Bills that will enshrine discrimination into the state’s constitution have been filed and will be considered by lawmakers.

Despite the clear need to advance pro-lgbt causes, the crowd turnout was disappointing. Many more signed up with Equality Maryland than showed up, which could be explained by the chilly weather and looming forecast. One observer quipped, "I would have been happier if all the gays who attended ‘Wicked’ showed up today. It would have been some rally!"

Even if you did not attend, you can still express your views to your legislators. Visit www.equalitymaryland.org to find out how.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Homophobia Knows No Race

By Steve Charing

Senior Political Analyst

The recent brouhaha stemming from Grey’s Anatomy star Isaiah Washington’s calling fellow co-star T.R. Knight a "faggot" (or the media’s dubbing it as "F-word") during an on-set confrontation spawned criticism over the protests. Several African-American columnists and pundits are questioning the virulent reaction by the lgbt community and some of its organizations by suggesting that the race of Mr. Washington was a primary motivator in the backlash.

They offer that the hostile reaction among gays towards Mr. Washington represents a prevailing perception that African-Americans are more homophobic than whites and, therefore, his use of the "F-Word" is somewhat expected. Implied here is that that the protests by whites within the lgbt community would be less intense if the "F-word" user were white and the calls for his firing would not be so evident.

I disagree.

The unfortunate use of the "F-word" is deplorable whether the individual who said it was black, white Asian, Latino or whatever. The same goes for the target of the insult.

I would be equally outraged, as I am sure most in the lgbt community and its allies would be, no matter what the ethnic background of the person who delivered the slur was or who the recipient of the offense might be. The protests would have been similarly justified had white co-star Patrick Dempsey called T.R. Knight a "faggot."

Homophobia knows no race.

To be sure, there is considerable homophobia among African-Americans. But for every black preacher who condemns homosexuality there are many more white ministers and other religious leaders doing the same. Moreover, there is widespread homophobia among the Latino and Asian communities, not to mention among white socially conservative folks. Consequently, no one particular race or ethnic group corners the market on homophobia or is exempt from it. Perhaps blacks conceal it less, therefore, contributing to the perception.

Not that Latinos and Asians haven’t been discriminated against, but many in the lgbt community feel more disappointed at African-Americans for their homophobia. The main reason is that black preachers use the same Bible that white racists waved against blacks to justify segregation, discrimination and violence. They sermonize from the same pulpits where they previously once stood to condemn past racial injustices, presenting a double standard.

These preachers are aware of the pain and suffering that discrimination brings, and gays believe that African-Americans should be more compassionate as a result of their own tragic experiences. Plus, gays and lesbians had been traditional allies during the peak of the civil rights movement, a fact that fuels more disappointment.

But these writers who speculated there was a more concerted outcry from whites in the gay community over Isaiah Washington’s comments simply because of his race leads me to the world of sports to reject that theory.

The late Reggie White, an African-American professional football star, was a first-rate homophobe. On a number of occasions he made blistering comments about gays. For example, he once said, "I'm offended that homosexuals will say that homosexuals deserve rights." He also accused the U.S. of going away from God by allowing homosexuality to "run rampant" and compared gays to liars and cheaters and those who are malicious. Get the picture? But any protests were relatively tepid.

An uproar did occur when former baseball pitcher John Rocker, a white Southerner, railed against gays and foreigners during an anti-minority, stereotype-laced diatribe while being interviewed for a sports magazine. For his comments, Rocker was vilified for many weeks. The furor forced the Atlanta Braves organization to discredit his comments and pressured Rocker to recant. But his apology was aimed at his racist remarks, not the homophobic part.

He was ostracized in virtually every ballpark the following season and eventually, aided by injuries, ended his once promising career. Rocker will always be defined and remembered by his rant about the eclectic assortment of passengers, including "some queer with AIDS," on New York’s No. 7 subway train.

A correspondingly potent backlash was launched against New York Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey, a white man, for anti-gay comments on the Howard Stern Show and later apologized under pressure.

While Reggie White went on and on publicly for an extended period of time—years, not minutes, as in Rocker’s or Shockey’s case—about how sinful gays are, not so much as a peep was heard from the lgbt community or its African-American components, much less the NFL. Although he did receive rebukes from GLAAD and the media, he was never forced—only requested—to apologize for his anti-gay venom. Yet Rocker and Shockey were broadly condemned for their brief but hurtful tirades.

Therefore, I disagree with those who opined that the reaction against Isaiah Washington was motivated by his race. Reggie White, a black man, more or less received a pass for his ongoing anti-gay comments and was elected to the Hall of Fame. John Rocker, a white man, was shamed out of baseball (and rightly so), and Jeremy Shockey had to eat his words.

Hate is hate, and it must be eradicated. So should racism and homophobia regardless of the source. Isaiah Washington deserved the hostile reaction he received. It was not about race; it was about homophobia. People should be called out for using anti-gay slurs regardless of their race. Nobody should get a free pass when making homophobic comments.

Homophobia knows no race.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Democrat Bumper Stickers

I didn't come up with these, but they are great. I'm not sure why some numbers are missing:

1) (On an infant's shirt) Already Smarter than Bush.
2) 1/20/09: End of an Error
3) That's OK, I Wasn't Using My Civil Liberties Anyway
4) Let's Fix Democracy in This Country First
5) If You Want a Nation Ruled By Religion, Move to Iran
6) Bush. Like a Rock. Only Dumber.
7) You Can't Be Pro-War and Pro-Life At the Same Time
8) If You Can Read This, You're Not Our President
9) Of Course It Hurts: You're Getting Screwed by an Elephant
10) Hey, Bush Supporters: Embarrassed Yet?
11) George Bush: Creating the Terrorists Our kids Will Have to Fight
12) Impeachment: It's Not Just for Blowjobs Anymore
14) America : One Nation, Under Surveillance
15) They Call Him "W" So He Can Spell It
16) Which God Do You Kill For?
17) Cheney/Satan '08
18) Jail to the Chief
19) Who Would Jesus Torture?
20) No, Seriously, Why Did We Invade?
21) Bush: God's Way of Proving Intelligent Design is Full Of Crap
22) Bad president! No Banana.
23) We Need a President Who's Fluent In At Least One Language
24) We're Making Enemies Faster Than We Can Kill Them
26) Rich Man's War, Poor Man's Blood
27) Is It Vietnam Yet?
28) Bush Doesn't Care About White People, Either
29) Where Are We Going? And Why Are We in This Hand-basket?
30) You Elected Him. You Deserve Him.
32) Impeach Cheney First
34) When Bush Took Office, Gas Was $1.46
35) The Republican Party: Our Bridge to the 11th Century