February 20, 2014

Offical Review: Being Gay in Sports

The views expressed in this blog entry are the opinion and do not necessarily reflect or endorse the views of Foco Girls Gone Derby, the Women's Flat Track Derby Association or any other sports entity.

If you've If you've picked up a copy of the sports section lately, you might have accidentally confused it for the lifestyles or opinions section based on the large number of articles about "gays in sports."  Just a few articles I have read in the last week include: Being Gay at the Sochi Olympics, Michael Sam Comes Out As Gay: Missouri Football Star Could be 1st Openly Gay Player, America is Ready For Openly Gay Athletes, Poll Shows and my personal favorite: How to Behave Around Your Gay Teammate in the Locker Room.

Before I delve into this topic (see disclaimer above), I should be transparent about why I am writing this piece. I am a gay man who officiates in the sport of women's roller derby.  Does my role as an official make me an expert on LGBTQIA individuals involved in sports? Certainly not.  But as a gay man who is also a sports aficionado it feels completely appropriate to write about the recent buzz in both the LBGTQIA and sports communities.

As a young kid, I grew up with team sports.  I can remember at an early age being involved with the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO).  My mom would cart my brother and me, once a week to practice and to games on the weekends.  This was my first real exposure to team sports and although I can't tell you our win/loss record for each season I participated in with AYSO, I do acknowledge that the experience allowed me to feel like a member of a team and also afforded me the opportunity to eat a lot of delicious orange slices after each game!

My second foray into organized sports was recreational volleyball, which, at the time, was largely considered "feminine" and I was one of the two boys on the team.   While I loved being on the team and played for three seasons, it was the first time I wondered if my teammates, coach, or spectators speculated about my sexuality.  You see, I knew I was gay very early in life and although I didn't come out until I was fourteen, this was my first intersection with sports and my sexuality.  It was the first time I wondered if being gay meant I couldn't play sports or be on a team.

It wasn't until I went to high school, where all students were mandated to play team sports in lieu of physical education classes, when I actually panicked about being gay and on a sports team.  By that time in my life, I had come out to myself and my family, but wasn't out to my friends or classmates.  Having attended a boarding school where you live, eat, and sleep with your classmates, it's not an easy secret to keep and my "sparkling" personality didn't really help either.

My first season of high school sports, I was invited to play on the varsity soccer team.  Apparently my youth soccer experiences paid off in the skill department.  Our first several games of the season were home games, which meant I didn't have to travel to other schools, but more importantly, it meant I could go back to my dorm room after the game and shower in the privacy of my own room.  However, it was my first away game that I dreaded, for fear of having to shower with my other teammates before we boarded the bus back home.

Let me shed a little light here for a second; when I was in high school, I was more terrified of showering with my straight teammates than they likely ever were of showering with the presumed gay guy on the team (see sparkling personality reference above).  I had a lot of the same body image issues that lots of young people face when you're going through puberty.  The only times that I ever looked at someone in the locker room was more for comparisons' sake of  "Oh wow, my body doesn't look like that, " or "Am I supposed to have hair there?!?"  My cursory glances, and those glances of my teammates alike, at other's bodies were more about the growing body image issue that we have in America, which is a different topic for a different day.  I survived through two years of high school varsity sports (soccer, swimming and tennis) with my head down and always being the first in and out of the rampant heterosexual environment known as "the locker room."  I provide this backdrop as context of what it was like in the early 90's to be a young gay athlete.

When I joined Foco Girls Gone Derby in 2012, I was never required, nor did I feel compelled to disclose my sexual orientation.  I joined with the hope of becoming part of a team again and to engage in a sport that I felt passionate about.  What I appreciate most about the sport of derby is that it has a relatively open door policy and that you have the right to be who you are without judgement or retaliation.  While I cannot speak for all leagues involved in either WFTDA or its male counterpart, Men's Roller Derby Association (MRDA), thus far I have always been treated with respect and welcomed with open arms by players, coaches and fellow officials.

It is encouraging that the revelation of gay athletes is as celebrated as it is, but also disconcerting that in 2014 an athlete's coming out story is still national news.  While I'm excited that Michael Sam is now "out" and has prospects to be the first openly gay NFL player, and the international response to Russia's anti-gay propaganda laws, especially in light of the International Olympic Committees objections, at the end of the day, fans and athletes alike still care about one thing: sports.

For my fellow athletes: treat your LGBTQIA teammates the way you would treat any of your straight teammates.  Joke with them, interact with them both on and off the track, court, field, etc., help fight the heterocentric nature of the locker room, and while you're at it, challenge body image issues raised in the locker room, and most of all, don't make judgments of an athlete's ability simply because of their sexual orientation.

For fans who love sports, neither I, nor most athletes, need a standing ovation for being gay athletes.  Simply acknowledge gay team members as an athlete who's out there doing what they love while providing you entertainment and enjoyment.  Support athletes when they make great plays and prevent yourself from using hateful words like gay, queer, or fag for players who make bad plays or are on teams you cheer against.

Michael Sam's coming out may open the door to a new audience for the NFL, but it likely won't have any huge ramifications on existing fan bases.  I, like many others, will not cheer any less for the Denver Broncos, despite their blundering performance in Super Bowl XLVIII, in place of a team that drafts the first openly gay player.  I also don't expect a mass defection of fans from a team that chooses to draft Sam.  There have always been and will always be LGBTQIA athletes but it is first and foremost the responsibility as athletes, officials, and fans alike to display the highest levels of dignity, respect and sportsmanship to all, both on and off the field.

Whistle Blower

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