Positive Thoughts

Positive Thoughts: Passing the Test

  • June 19, 2015 - 11:46am

Getting tested for HIV nowadays is a snap. In the era of over-the-counter rapid in-home testing, I’m befuddled why so many gay men, especially young guys, lack awareness of their HIV status.

I suppose part of the answer, at least for young guys, is plain old feelings of invincibility. All young and young-minded folks share in those feelings.

Perhaps, for some guys, not knowing gives them license to say they’re HIV negative, since for all they know they are. For others, perhaps not knowing insulates them from any potential pain of a positive result.

I could keep that list going, but the point is that countless reasons exist for not knowing. Many of those reasons may even seem reasonable. Well, I’m here to tell you that no reason you can come up with is a good one.

Maybe you’re just a procrastinator. No matter. I’m a world-class procrastinator myself. Procrastination isn’t a good reason. Being fine with getting tested in theory but delaying doing so in practice is only asking for trouble.

Knowing your HIV status is crucial. If you test negative, you have incentive to stay that way. If you test positive, you can start the process of staying healthy. Better to know now than to be blindsided later.

Although I’ve been living with HIV for more than two decades, I still remember what it’s like to get tested for the virus. The fear is understandable, but it shouldn’t stop you. Your health is paramount.

I passed my first HIV test with flying colors: Negative. At the time, I had just turned 21 and boy was I psyched. I was cleared for duty, so to speak, as well as legal to drink. Watch out world, here I come.

However, I was more careful this time around. Before that test, I hadn’t always adhered to the condom rule, although I knew the risks. Now that I was given this reprieve, I was determined not to squander it.

A year later, I failed my second HIV test: Positive. I found out the day after my 22nd birthday. My commanding officer in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve read my diagnosis from a script. Cold, but tactful.

I knew the positive result was correct, but denial took over. I retested twice before accepting the reality of my situation. At that moment, I started believing that I was going to die before I turned 30.

It was 1992. Effective HIV treatment wouldn’t arrive until 1996 and AIDS-related deaths were still increasing. The death of my boyfriend in 1994 only increased my fear that I wouldn’t live much longer.

Fast-forward over two decades. Turns out I’m still here and I plan on being here for a long time. Failing that HIV test wasn’t the end of the world, but I must admit that I still wish that I had passed it.

I’ve learned to live with HIV in my body, but the virus remains an unwelcome guest. If the cure for HIV was here tomorrow, I would quickly get in line. I have no romantic attachment to the virus.

I also have no attachment to any resentment about getting HIV. Despite my late boyfriend not telling me the truth about his being HIV positive, I agreed not to use condoms with him. We both shared in that decision.

I’m not alone. Much of why the epidemic continues can be explained by folks not knowing their status and transmitting HIV unintentionally, but also by couples who ditch condoms before they know for sure each is negative.

You could argue that my late boyfriend had a moral imperative to disclose his HIV status that was higher than my moral imperative to protect myself. Perhaps you could even be right. However, even after all this time, I still haven’t decided.

What I have decided, now having lived more than half of my life with HIV, is that I did the right thing for myself by forgiving him. I believe he never intended to transmit HIV, so forgiving him wasn’t too difficult for me.

The anger I felt toward him in the first few years after I seroconverted was soon trumped by the experience of now being in his shoes. Not pretty. Rejection was everywhere. The stigma was stifling. I now understood.

And I still understand. Little has changed when it comes to HIV stigma. Not only has the virus proven resistant to a cure, it also has resisted decades of attempts to eradicate the stigma surrounding it.

Strangely enough, I believe testing regularly for HIV would do wonders in stomping out stigma. If everyone did it, and did it often, folks would finally start feeling like it’s not so scary. Peer pressure at its best.



Fearless Jeff Sheng

  • June 1, 2015 - 8:45am

There are many ways for athletes to be fearless. They can stand at the plate with the bases, in the bottom of the ninth. They can attempt a difficult dive. Rocket down an icy ski jump. Or they can come out of the closet as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

It took Jeff Sheng many years to overcome his fears. But in the years since, he has made it his life’s work to honor the fearlessness of over 200 young men and women.

Growing up in Southern California, Sheng was a competitive tennis player. Yet fear overtook him as a high school senior. He was starting to come out as gay. Unable to reconcile his sexuality with his sport, he quit playing.

The next year, at Harvard University, he met a closeted water polo player. Sheng could not go to games as his boyfriend – that fear again – and after a few months the relationship ended.

By senior year, Sheng’s ex was out – and on the cover of Genre Magazine. “He was confident – an inspirational figure,” Sheng recalls. Having studied photography, he decided to focus his talents on gay college athletes. It seemed like a good way to honor their fearlessness.

In 2003, the universe of out sports figures was small. Friends of friends recommended subjects: a rugby player and squash player at Brown. A Harvard rower. A high school athlete, the first Sheng had ever heard of.

He photographed them after their workouts. They were sweaty and tired – but comfortable, and in their elements. The shots were powerful, and moving.

The first 20 or so subjects were almost all white, and lesbian, gay or bi. In 2005 Sheng began meeting athletes who called themselves ‘gender queer.” He knew he had to be more inclusive.

The next year, the Queer Alliance at the University of Florida – where he’d photographed a female softball player who filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination – invited him to show his photos. A mix-up prevented gallery space from being used. Sheng suggested a hallway nearby. Despite fears of vandalism, he mounted the exhibit. The final piece was text, explaining that every photo showed an LGBT athlete.

A high school debate meet was going on. The teenagers looked at the exhibit, then read the statement with shock. They seemed awed and impressed – not giggly or nasty.

“I realized I needed to put the photos in student centers and athletic buildings, where everyone could see them and have their assumptions challenged,” Sheng says. Around the country – at schools from Penn to USC – the reaction was always: “I didn’t know gay people looked like that!”

He kept working too. By 2010, he’d photographed 100 athletes.

Despite positive attention on college campuses, the project – called Fearless – did not receive mainstream attention. Sheng suspected it was because he was an Asian tennis player – not a white football star.

But now he was not fearful. He was angry. He redoubled his efforts.

“I could have stopped,” he says. “But I wanted to make this project so big, no one could ignore it.”

Now, no one can. Sheng has amassed 202 photos of LGBT college and high school athletes. They play every conceivable sport, and represent every type of self-identification. They look strong, proud, happy – and fearless.

They are also no longer solely photographs in a traveling exhibit. Three years ago, Sheng began work on a book. Fearless: Portraits of LGBT Student-Athletes will be published next month.

Sheng has taken the title literally. Sandwiched in between the stunning photos (with accompanying explanatory text) is the photographer’s own story. He’s taken 30 years of his life and shared it with readers. Sheng includes unpublished photos from his first relationship with the water polo player – and details about the two times he considered suicide.

A Kickstarter campaign raised $50,000 – half the amount needed to self-publish. (Mainstream publishers told Sheng there was no audience for his book.) The money covered a fantastic design team – a young gay male couple, and their female assistant. They came up with the idea of eight different covers – and eight spines, each a different color. When placed together in stores, they’ll form a rainbow flag.

Fearless is a gorgeous, 300-page full color book. The photos and layout symbolize “the very beautiful, diverse community I’ve grown into,” Sheng says. They include a number of trans athletes. As part of Sheng’s own journey, he no longer uses headings like “Boys Tennis” or “Women’s Crew.” Now it’s “Casey, Soccer, University of Wisconsin.” The message is simple, proud, fierce – and very fearless.

Fearless will be introduced at the Nike LGBT Sports Summit in Portland next month. On July 21, it will be featured at the WNBA Los Angeles Sparks’ “Pride Game” at the Staples Center. To order a copy, go to www.fearlessproject.org.

Hoosier Hullabaloo

  • April 18, 2015 - 8:56am

The words “NCAA” and “moral high ground” seldom share the same sentence. Yet that lofty peak is exactly where college sport’s most influential body found itself recently, on the flat terrain of Indiana.

The reason was political. The Hoosier State – “The Crossroads of America,” according to its official motto – had just passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Gov. Mike Pence wasted little time signing the bill, which would allow businesses and individuals to claim religion as a defense in discrimination lawsuits. Because sexual orientation is not protected under Indiana law, LGBT people could be refused services, or suffer other forms of mistreatment.

Indiana also happens to be the crossroads of many athletic events and organizations. The National Collegiate Athletic Association is headquartered there; so is the National Federation of State High School Associations. It’s the site of the annual Big Ten football championship game, through at least 2021. It’s home to NFL and NBA teams, as well as America’s most famous 500-mile automobile race.

Although sports and politics seldom mix, the sports world reacted quickly, and vehemently, to the governor’s signature.

In sports, timing is everything. Part of the reason for the nearly instant reaction is that just a few days after the legislation was passed, Indianapolis would host college basketball’s men’s Final Four tournament. The eyes of the nation would be fixed on a city in which, apparently, gay hoops fans – or players, coaches, staff members, sportswriters, and anyone else associated with the event – could now be denied service.

What’s more, the women’s Final Four is scheduled for the same city next year.

Mark Emmert – president of the NCAA, which has a $1-a-year lease in Indianapolis that runs through 2060 (!) – issued a statement almost immediately. He said his organization would examine how the law “might affect future events, as well as our workforce.”

Emmert added, “The NCAA national office and our members are deeply committed to providing an inclusive environment for all our events. We are especially concerned about how this legislation could affect our student-athletes and employees. We will work diligently to assure student-athletes competing in, and visitors attending, next week’s men’s Final Four in Indianapolis are not impacted negatively by this bill.”

Jim Buzinski had a front-row view of the Hoosier hullabaloo. The co-founder of OutSports, a website founded in 1999 that has become the go-to site for LGBT sports news and commentary, he was both surprised and impressed by the quick reaction of athletes and organizations.

“It wasn’t just the NCAA,” Buzinski said. “Charles Barkley spoke out too, on the eve of the biggest college (basketball) event.” The former NBA star – now an opinionated and controversial television analyst –forcefully declared that Indiana should no longer host any major sporting events.

The timing of the Final Four was an important “trigger” in the quick sports world reaction, Buzinski noted. That trigger was pulled a year earlier, when Arizona passed its own Religious Freedom Restoration Act. As it became clear that the National Football League might remove the state from consideration as a Super Bowl host (no idle threat; the NFL moved the game from Tempe to the Rose Bowl in 1993, because the state never established an official Martin Luther King holiday) Gov. Jan Brewer refused to sign the bill.

“It seemed pretty spontaneous,” Buzinski said of the opposition to Indiana’s legislation. “There were no LGBT sports groups saying, ‘We have to make this an issue.’ People pay attention when sports figures speak up. The media asked questions, and it took off from there.”

Individuals acted too. University of Southern California athletic director Pat Haden chose not to attend a college football playoff meeting in Indianapolis. “I am the proud father of a gay son,” he tweeted. “#EmbraceDiversity.”

After a disastrous appearance by Gov. Pence on a Sunday talk show, the Indiana legislature went from defense to offense. It passed a revised version of the law, which prohibits businesses from using it in court as a refusal to offer services based on sexual orientation. (However, sexual orientation is still not a protected category in Indiana law.)

“The Final Four was a line in the sand they didn’t want to cross,” Buzinski said. “They didn’t want people talking about it when the games began. The situation was getting untenable. Once the revised bill was signed, they were off the hook.”

The issue is quiet – for now. But it won’t go away. Without specific mention of sexual orientation in Indiana’s anti-discrimination statutes, LGBT people in the state still lack legal protection.

That means NCAA employees – plus anyone associated with the Indianapolis Colts, Indiana Pacers and Indy 500 – must remain wary of the “Crossroads of America.”

College Sports

The fight for rights for female coaches

  • April 4, 2015 - 8:40am

The story is current, but you can be forgiven for thinking it’s from 10 years ago. Or 50.

Shannon Miller was one of the most successful coaches in college athletics – any sport, both genders. She won five women’s ice hockey NCAA national championships at the University of Minnesota Duluth (and a medal with the Canadian Olympic team).

Just before New Year’s, though, she was fired. The reason? Her salary was too high.

Facing budget problems, the athletic direct and chancellor let her go. They axed her entire staff too. They did not, however, fire the men’s hockey coach – a man who was less successful than Miller, but earned more.

Interestingly, Miller – and all her assistant coaches – are lesbian or bisexual.

This is not the first curious dismissal of a female college coach in recent years. Last year, veteran University of Iowa field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum was fired, despite being cleared of charges that she had been verbally abusive. Griesbaum’s partner – a woman who was an athletic administrator at Iowa – was reassigned to other duties, soon after Griesbaum’s dismissal.

The year before, University of Texas woman’s track and field coach Bev Kearney was offered a choice – resign or be fired – for having a consensual sexual relationship with an athlete on her team.

These are just three of nearly a dozen gender-related incidents reported by Pat Griffin in a Huffington Post story called “College Athletics’ War on Women Coaches.” All occurred within the past decade. And all cause LGBT activists like Helen Carroll to wonder why male and female coaches are treated so differently, in so many ways.

UMD’s retention of the less successful, more costly men’s hockey staff is not an isolated incident. Carroll – the sports project director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights – notes that Iowa’s Griesbaum was held to a different standard than male coaches. “Guys say aggressive things all the time, without being fired,” Carroll says. “The consequences here were really severe. Can you imagine Jim Harbaugh being fired for something like that?”

At Texas, according to Griffin, Kearney’s sex and race discrimination lawsuit says that “male coaches who had sexual relationships with female students were either not disciplined or received lighter punishments and retained their jobs.”

“Sexism and homophobia are intertwined,” Carroll claims. “You can’t separate the two.”

And the twin forces of discrimination affect all women, regardless of their sexual orientation. “Every woman in sports faces stereotypes,” Carroll says. “There’s a certain standard of appearance that the people in charge want to put forth.

Almost always, of course, the people in charge are males. Carroll points with chagrin to the University of Tennessee. For decades, she says, that school had a superb women’s athletics program. Run by Joan Cronan – and separate from the men’s department – it achieved renown in a number of sports. Cronan battled for equality in pay, sponsorships and facilities with men’s athletics.

But when she retired in 2012, the men’s and women’s departments were merged. The combined athletic director – a male – dismissed a number of very experienced, successful women from positions in athletic training, sports information and health and wellness. He replaced them with men. Lawsuits are ongoing.

Taken together, Carroll says, the effects are devastating. Women are being eliminated from positions of leadership, and leadership tracks. Further, the consequences of being let go are different than for men. Males, Carroll says, are quickly hired for new jobs. The stigma against fired women – some of it related to perceptions (real or imagined) about sexual orientation – prevents them from finding new jobs in their profession.

“These are experienced, strong coaches,” Carroll says. “They’re not novices. But once they’re gone, they never coach or work in athletics again.”

It happens, she reiterates, because of “sexism in sports. Look at the leaders. It’s guy athletic directors making decisions, lots of times backed by their college presidents. It’s all because men’s athletics bring in the big money. I’d like to think this doesn’t happen in 2015. But it does.”

There are signs of progress. The Women’s Basketball Coaches Association has set up strong support systems. Nevin Caple just launched Coaches Corner (www.mycoachescorner.org), an online networking platform and comprehensive resource center for coaches and athletic administrators – male and female – at all levels of women’s and girls’ sports.

Will men find the site, and utilize it? They should. Right now they hold positions of power – and thus seem to hold the key to women’s sports.

But Carroll is not pinning all her hopes on men.

“I’m optimistic, because there’s a group of strong young women coming up,” she says. “They’re interested in athletics. They’re coaches, and members of the LGBT Sports Coalition. They’re willing to fight.”
And – so long as they’re all not fired – they’ll fight for women in sports for decades to come.

Eric Barthold helps boys ‘man up’

  • March 2, 2015 - 1:07pm

As a junior at Colby College, Eric Barthold took an education class called “Boys to Men.” When a senior writing her thesis about sexual assaults on the Maine campus spoke to the class, Barthold felt uncomfortable. A soccer player and ski racer in high school, he realized that much of that discussion involved the role of male athletes.

He co-founded a club called Male Athletes Against Violence. Soon renamed Mules Against Violence – in honor of Colby’s mascot – the group had two goals: to raise awareness of sexual assault on campus, and change the stereotypes of male athletes. MAV members did unexpected-for-jocks things, like partnering with the gay-straight alliance, and joining the quilting club to sew in the student center.

A “Take Back the Night” anti-sexual violence event – typically attended by 30 people – drew 200, when MAV invited representatives of every sports team to attend.

After graduating in 2012, Barthold taught English, and coached soccer and ski racing. He also interned for 11 months with Grassroot Soccer, an international organization that uses soccer to educate communities to stop the spread of HIV.

As he worked with young men, Barthold realized that Colby’s program could spread beyond his small New England school. He developed a program he could take to male sports teams. He called it “Man Up and Open Up.”

“Man Up” sessions are hour-long conversations that center on American society’s idea of what it means to be a “real man.” Barthold helps middle and high school boys understand the power of language, and the homophobia and sexism that pervades the subject of masculinity. He gets teenagers talking about an often-taboo subject: “What does it mean to be a guy?”

A key component of the workshop is a “Man Box.” Barthold draws out the many stereotypes of masculinity. Inside the box are words like “cool, confident, stoic, tall, responsible.” Outside are “wimp, soft, flamboyant, girly, gay.” That leads to a discussion of the pressures boys feel to act a certain way – and the anxiety that accompanies those pressures. “Boys never realize they’re under those pressures,” Barthold notes. “Being able to see them, and name them, is really important.”

Next, Barthold asks how boys can continue to live “inside” that box – but also outside it. The rest of the session follows from there.

Berthold asks why the stereotypes outside the “Man Box” are characterized as “weak” or “feminine” by the boys. Challenges to masculinity – “Don’t be a pussy,” “Are you a fag?” – arise at nearly every workshop.

Barthold tries to help boys understand that they can exist both inside and outside the box. He’ll ask if someone can be two things at once – for example, gay and tough. To prove his point, he talks about a friend from Colby who is a national champion sprinter. “When I hear someone say ‘that’s so gay,’ he’s the person I think of!” Barthold says.

“It’s important to break through the cloud of anxiety that separates the ‘Man Box’ from the outside,” he adds. “Most boys haven’t thought of things that way. But if these conversations help boys see that they can be responsible, sensitive and caring – and still be ‘masculine’ – they’ll feel more free to live their lives not just inside one small box.”

Through his “Man Up” workshops, Barthold has connected with a broad group of people who are talking about masculinity in American society. He realizes that attitudes in the Northeast – where he has done the bulk of his work – may not be the same as the rest of the nation. But that’s all the more reason to keep working.

Feedback has been excellent. A high school dean of students says Barthold’s ability “to get to the core of the issue, dissect gender stereotypes and behaviors, use humor and storytelling, and talk openly and honestly about issues facing the male population today, is unmatched.” A physical education teacher suggested the program be standard curriculum for middle and high school boys.

But the most important praise comes from boys themselves. “Trying to fit into the stereotypical ‘man box’ is not something we should try to fit into,” said a student at Carrabasset Mountain Academy. “The media tries to play up that kind of man.”

“I liked how Eric was so open to our ideas,” added a student at Burke Mountain Academy. “I also liked how he showed us how much pressure we exert on ourselves, and how we can help each other as a community to relieve some of this pressure.”

Times are changing quickly, Berthold says. More and more boys are aware of gay athletes, and each month another male sports figure comes out. But every time he draws a “Man Box,” the same words appear inside the box – and out. So Eric Berthold will continue to “Man Up.”

Anthony Nicodemo

Coming out & kicking butt

  • February 7, 2015 - 3:33pm

Anthony Nicodemo figured out he was gay in his early 20s. But it was not until he’d been coaching basketball for 18 years – and had just finished his fourth as head coach at Saunders High School in Yonkers, N.Y. – that he felt ready to come out of the closet.

And when he did, he roared out with all the intensity and power of a full-court press.

The catalyst for Nicodemo’s announcement was the first-ever Nike Sports Summit in Portland, Ore. Held in June 2013 – less than two months after NBA player Jason Collins came out – the event brought together dozens of LGBT activists and athletes.

“I sat surrounded by these people, and realized I was tired of hiding where I was, and who I was with,” Nicodemo recalls. “All that worrying was exhausting.”

His one fear was that someone would say he could no longer coach. He knew Saunders was poised to do great things, and he loved his job.

But that did not stop him. On the plane home from Oregon, he knew he was ready.

Nicodemo made a list of people to tell: his athletic director, principal and a local reporter who was also a good friend.

The key was, of course, his players. They were starting their summer workouts. The coach called a meeting with them, administrators and a couple of parents.

He told them he’d been lying about something for a long time. Now, he said, he needed to tell the truth.

The initial reaction was shock, Nicodemo remembers. But very quickly, the players stepped up. “Who cares?” one said. The parents added their support.

Only one slightly negative note was struck. One newspaper story wondered how he would handle epithets, making it seem that they were inevitable. Administrators were asked what “safeguards” would be put in place. But that was as “bad” as it got.

As word spread, his colleagues – opposing coaches – reacted with support too. When he returned to school in the fall, he was met with dozens of thank-you cards and letters from across the country.

Then things really got fun.

Blue Devil players have met their coach’s gay friends, including LGBT activists.

Nike sent a set of “Be True” shirts. On their own, the team decided to wear them while warming up before a game. Nicodemo let Saunders administrators know ahead of time, in case there would be a problem. There wasn’t.

Players have not been afraid to broach LGBT subjects with their coach. Recently, he says with satisfaction, the subject of trans people came up. “The kids really wanted to know more,” he says. “We had a very thought-provoking discussion.”

Nicodemo has a high profile in Yonkers – New York state’s fourth largest city. He’s joined the municipal government’s LGBT advisory board. During Pride festivities, a rainbow flag was raised over the city. At Saunders, a Gay-Straight Alliance was formed, with the coach as advisor.

His coming out sparked awareness and discussion beyond Yonkers, too. As director of the Lower Hudson Basketball Coaches Association, Nicodemo organized a workshop on LGBT issues. Two players from every team in the region heard panelists and participated in small-group seminars. This fall, athletes from all fall sports teams came together for a similar, larger event.

As one of the area’s top teams, Saunders is in demand for out-of-state tournaments. Last year, the Blue Devils traveled to Kentucky. Nicodemo was unsure of the reception he’d receive – or whether his players would be taunted for having a gay coach. He heard nothing, nor did anyone else on the team.

Last year – his first as an out coach – the Blue Devils finished third in the city. This year, right before Christmas, they won the city championship.

“Because we’re good, people can’t say much,” Nicodemo notes. 

Personally, the decision to come out has been a game-changer for him. Nicodemo has met a nationwide network of LGBT basketball coaches and players, and many others working to raise awareness and acceptance of LGBT sports, who have become close friends. He’s traveled nationally, giving speeches and inspiring others to come out.

“It’s a real domino effect,” he says. “People realize ‘I can do this,’ they do it, and then others follow.”

More and more college and high school athletes are coming out – even some in middle school. Whenever he hears of one, Nicodemo reaches out to the young man or woman. “It’s inspiring to see,” he says. “They inspire me.”

Right now, Saunders is in the middle of its season. Nicodemo’s focus is less on LGBT activism, and more on Xs and Os.

“We’re tough,” he says. “And what a statement that makes: A team with a gay coach is winning games.”

‘Big News’ on the LGBT sports front

  • January 5, 2015 - 10:36am

Back in the day – “the day” being, say, 2012 – an athlete coming out as gay or lesbian was Big News.
In 2014, you had to do something really outstanding to make headlines. You had to be a National Basketball Association player, like Jason Collins – and then you had to sign a contract with a big-city team like the Brooklyn Nets. And your #98 jersey (worn to commemorate the year Matthew Shepard was killed) had to become the bestselling sports shirt in the country. Not just for basketball, but any sport.
You had to be a college football player like Michael Sam. Not just any football player, mind you, but one who was a consensus All-American, and your league’s Defensive Player of the Year. Then you needed to endure the media circus known as the NFL draft. And when you were drafted, you had to kiss your boyfriend, as cameras clicked and whirred.
You had to be a Major League Soccer player like Robbie Rogers. And because MLS is off many sports fans’ radars, you had to do something like play in your league’s championship game. And help win it.
You must have done those things because, in 2014, it was not just enough to come out as an openly gay athlete. Dozens of men and women did it. They were college football and basketball players, swimmers, baseball players, volleyball players and shot putters. They were Olympic speed skaters, lugers, rowers and gymnasts.
They were non-competitors too, but working in the sports world nonetheless. Coaches declared their sexuality publicly. So did pro teams’ front-office executives, and college teams’ sports information officials.
Major League Baseball umpire Dale Scott came out too. A year or two ago, that would have been big Stop the Presses News. Now it was so unremarkable that – after he mentioned his partner in a Referee Magazine article – it went unnoticed by everyone for a couple of months.
This long-awaited-but-still-unexpected state of affairs – an outpouring of openness across a broad swath of the sports universe – has created a gigantic ripple effect. Straight teammates have reacted with a range of emotions. Some give virtual high-fives, tweeting messages of support. College and pro teams have produced “You Can Play” videos, conveying the message that if you can dunk, dribble, pitch, row, run, dive, or do any other type of athletic activity, just go right ahead and do it – sexual orientation be damned.
Other teammates have reacted with who-cares shrugs. That’s appropriate too.
The ripple effect has reached down to high schools, and beyond. An entire generation of boys and girls are growing up knowing that they will have – may already have, in fact – LGBT teammates and coaches. It’s the same as realizing they’ll meet people of different colors and religions. Sports teaches many life lessons, and this is just one more.
The lesson is more profound for young LGBT athletes. They are joining the big, wide, only slightly dysfunctional sports world on their own terms, not even realizing that just a few years ago they would have faced formidable barriers to entry. This does not mean that thousands of gay boys and lesbians are suddenly signing up as out, proud Little Leaguers. Many of them have not yet figured out who they are. But they are playing their games in a rapidly changing environment. And as they concentrate more on batting and passing and shooting and whatever, they’ll spend less time on hiding.
Though, as with the rest of society, change comes more slowly in the transgender arena than others, the field is shifting for trans athletes too. But if a trans-inclusive vote earlier this month by Minnesota’s high school sports governing body is any indication – and why shouldn’t it be? – the “T” in LGBT sports is becoming more than just an afterthought.
So if in the year ahead you have to do something truly outstanding to make LGBT headlines in the sports world, what do you do?
Fortunately, there remain a few frontiers to conquer. You can be a professional sports franchise owner who hires the first openly gay head coach. You can be an ABC, CBS, NBC or ESPN TV announcer who announces, on air, that you are so proud of out athletes because you yourself are gay.
Or you can still be that elusive, still-unidentified-but-we-know-you’re-“out”-there man: a professional superstar, at the top of his game. You can be the guy to say – holding aloft the Super Bowl, World Series or NBA championship trophy – “I’m here. I’m queer. I’m going to Disney World.”
Even in 2015, that’s guaranteed to be Big News.

MLB’s ‘Ambassador for Inclusion’ hits a grand slam

  • December 20, 2014 - 8:30am

During his entire baseball career, Billy Bean says he lived in a “tiny, dark closet.”
In 1995 he walked away from the sport he loved. He felt he could no longer hide his sexuality. But he also believed he could not be out as a professional athlete.
Bean went on to successful careers in radio, television, restaurants and real estate.
Then last year – while he was attending the Nike-sponsored LGBT Sports Coalition meeting in Portland – Major League Baseball came calling. A high-ranking official admitted, “This phone call probably comes 15 years too late.”
A month later, MLB made it official: Bean was named its first Ambassador for Inclusion.
Underlying its importance, the announcement came on a big stage: during the annual All-Star game in Minneapolis.
Bean’s new job highlights Major League Baseball’s evolution on LGBT issues, and its confidence in that path. A year ago, the organization formulated a policy prohibiting players from harassing and discriminating against others based on sexual orientation. Now they’ve named an openly gay former player to a league-wide position and given him wide latitude to figure out exactly what his job entails.
The first thing Bean did was put together an “all-star team” of experts. Representatives from GLAAD, Athlete Ally, You Can Play, PFLAG and other groups made themselves available to help educate players.
But as a former player himself, Bean knows that the demands on athletes’ time are great. So he’s reaching out further, to each MLB team and to their fans as well.
He’s doing it like the singles hitter he was. Bean is not going for a dramatic home run; he’s spraying hits around the field.
During the World Series, for instance, he met with San Francisco Giants CEO Larry Baer. In the midst of so many distractions – “the whole world was watching the team,” Bean notes – the executive listened, and told Bean how important his work was.
Then, Bean traveled to Phoenix for the annual meeting of all 30 MLB general managers. Later this winter he will be part of the Rookie Career Development Program, educating professional baseball’s youngest athletes about LGBT issues.
He’s opening up dialogues with every team. Each has its unique culture. Teams like the Giants, Los Angeles Dodgers, Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago Cubs have created inclusive environments, and done outreach to LGBT fans. Many other teams, though “don’t discuss the subject much,” Bean says. “My job is to bring positive attention to it.”
These days, people are willing to listen. “That’s the greatness of baseball,” says Bean. “They understand it’s not fair for one (gay) player to shoulder the burden of this new frontier. It’s important for an organization to understand that these issues impact and involve everyone.”
Bean was not hired to work with the one or two MLB players who may be in the process of deciding whether to come out. His job is to help the sport understand that there are gay players, executives, broadcasters and fans – in varying stages of “outness” – and to embrace everyone in the wide baseball community.
Baseball has come a long ways from 1995, the year Bean retired. “If things were like this when I was playing, my life would’ve been very different,” he says.
He points with pride to the New York Yankees. One of his first initiatives this summer was to take general manager Brian Cashman and assistant GM Jean Afterman to the Hetrick-Martin Institute – the nation’s largest social services agency for at-risk LGBT youth. The executives showed off their 2009 championship rings, then encouraged the teenagers to be true to themselves and follow their passions – wherever those might lead.
“That’s the power of baseball,” Bean says. “It can be very exciting and inspiring. Our job now is to even the playing field, so that everyone feels they can participate.”
A few months ago, at the LGBT Sports Coalition meeting in Portland, Bean met four college baseball players. Thrilled at the chance to talk with a former Major Leaguer, they described their fulfilled, exciting lives as gay athletes today.
“Ten years ago,” Bean says, “if you met people like that they’d be in dire circumstances. But the arc of the conversation has changed. I feel really grateful to be part of it.”
MLB commissioner Bud Selig acknowledged the past when he introduced Bean to the media. “I wish our game had someone in place” to whom Bean could have turned as a player, Selig says. “A friend, listener, a source of support.”
Billy Bean is doing exactly that today – not just for players, but coaches, managers, executives and fans as well. As a player he was not a home run hitter, but as “Ambassador for Inclusion” he’s definitely a grand slam.

The State of Trans Athletes

  • November 20, 2014 - 5:15pm

The full-page ad on the back of the Sunday Minneapolis Star Tribune sports section was meant to attract attention. It certainly did.

“A male wants to shower beside your 14-year-old daughter,” the ominous black type read. “Are YOU ok with that?”

The ad was purchased by the Minnesota Child Protection League. It appeared days before the Minnesota State High School League – the governing body for interscholastic athletics – was to vote on a policy regarding inclusion of transgender student-athletes.

A draft of the policy would provide recommendations and guidelines for administrators, athletic directors and coaches at member schools to follow. It would not be a mandate. The draft noted that “fundamental fairness, as well as most local, state and federal rules and regulations, requires schools to provide a transgender student with equal opportunities to participate in athletics.”

If a student, and the student’s parents or guardian, submitted a letter requesting participation on a sports team, the guidelines recommend that school officials use the gender identity shown on school registration documents – along with information from the student’s medical personnel regarding hormonal treatment, sexual reassignment surgery and counseling – to determine the student’s gender. The MSHSL policy also provides for an appeals process.

The draft suggests that schools devise a plan to address eligibility and accommodations for transgender students; that correct names and pronouns be used according to a student’s self-identification; that “reasonable and appropriate restroom and locker rooms” be accessible for students; that teachers, counselors, coaches, administrators, parents, students and others be educated about transgender sensitivity, and that students be permitted to dress according to their gender identity.

Minnesota is not the first state to address trans issues in interscholastic sports. Trans*Athlete – an online resource – lists policies for nearly two dozen states, including several in the Midwest. Many include language similar to that proposed by the MSHSL. However, Virginia, Georgia and North Carolina require students to participate based on their birth certificate gender (which can, of course, be legally changed).

Pat Griffin – a former coach and pioneering researcher in the area of sexuality and sports – has written about trans inclusion for the National Federation of State High School Associations (the umbrella organization for interscholastic sports). She identifies several major concerns, usually related to MTF athletes on girls teams.

However, she says, trans girls are not boys. “Their consistent and affirmed gender identity as girls is as deep-seated as the gender identity of non-transgender girls,” Griffin writes. They do not “dominate” girls teams.

She adds that “taller, bigger, stronger athletes compete against shorter, smaller, less strong athletes every day in girls and boys sports.” There is no research, she says, supporting the contention that trans girls create a competitive imbalance.

Griffiin suggests that high schools be proactive, developing a policy before a transgender student wants to try out for a team. She offers resources for formulating effective, fair policies, and urges that privacy protections be built in.

That’s what the Minnesota State High School League did. But the full-page ad crystallized a deep-seated fear of some: that the locker room would become a place of depravity if trans athletes are allowed to participate in high school sports.

For two days recently, dozens of Minnesotans addressed the MSHSL. Some cited the ad in their comments. Others said that teenagers “choose” their sexual identity.

But other speakers urged approval of the policy. One parent said, “When my son was transitioning I had fears, but they were all based on my past. Kids don’t care. That’s not the case anymore….What you are looking at passing here will give him the support he needs.”
Trans student-athlete Zeam Porter said, “My love for basketball last year made me believe I could handle being on the wrong team. That was wrong. Constantly being misgendered and called the wrong name took away my soul.”

According to Helen Carroll, sports project director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, fewer than 10 students a year request accommodations based on gender identity. In fact, she said, because they fear bullying or are self-conscious about their body, many trans teenagers do not participate in interscholastic athletics at all.

Those who do may feel threatened. They are not the predators suggested by the MCPL ad.

“You’re not a boy showering next to a girl,” said the mother of a trans youth. “A transgender girl is a girl. There’s a difference between your parts and your gender….To be misgendered as a boy when you are actually a trans girl is incredibly offensive.”

There is this reality too: Very few high school athletes shower at school anyway these days.

But the debate will continue. Earlier this month, the Minnesota State High School League punted. Pleading the need for more time to study the issue, the organization delayed a vote until Dec. 4.

J.P. Licari: From skates to strikes

  • November 20, 2014 - 5:00pm

J.P. Licari laced up his first pair of figure skates at age 6. He loved the movement, the ice, the competition – everything about the sport. He rose as high as number four in the U.S. rankings. In 1984, he missed qualifying for the Olympic team by just one point.

But unless you’re an Olympic star, it’s tough to make money as a figure skater. When his father got sick, Licari realized he could no longer ask his parents to support him. He turned pro, with Disney on Ice.

The Connecticut native spent nearly 12 years as a principal skater. He toured the United States, and during eight months in Japan helped open Tokyo Disneyland. He traveled to Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand and throughout Europe.

But after falling 10-and-a-half feet onto his tailbone, Licari had to leave the show.

He had been out of the closet for years. But, he says – despite the stereotype – many gay men in elite figure skating remain closeted. The Brian Boitanos and Johnny Weirs are few and far between. 

That, Licari says, is why the Gay Games are so great. “You can be yourself. You can do whatever you want. There’s every sport you can think of – even ballroom dancing.”

After leaving Disney, Licari competed in the 1994 Gay Games. He skated to music dedicated to his partner, recently diagnosed as HIV-positive. A hush fell over the crowd. When his routine ended, they went wild.

He won the men’s competition at Level 4, the second highest. (Matthew Hall – one of the first out athletes ever – captured Level 5.)

“To do all that in front of a packed arena was a bit scary at first,” Licari admits. But it was special, because his parents were part of that audience. It was their first time ever at “that type of event.”

After his routine, Licari found his father, mother and partner. He gave his father the winner’s bouquet of roses. His dad threw his arms around Licari and said, “I’m so proud of you.” 

Licari had never officially come out to his parents. But they knew – they’d visited him and his partner at their Sacramento home. The couple was among the first 25 to register as domestic partners, when that became legal in California.

“It was so comforting to have my parents there in New York,” Licari says. “A lot of parents are not there for their kids. Mine were front and center.” 

Back in California, Licari joined the Imperial Court. He ran for grand duke and promised to organize an AIDS on Ice fundraiser. Licari pulled in favors from many skaters he knew. They rehearsed for a month, put on four shows and raised $30,000. That was the start of a year-long charity drive for children with HIV.

Licari moved to Tampa, where he skated at Busch Gardens for three years. Then it was on to Disney World, where he spent the next decade. “They have a very big gay clientele,” he notes. On Gay Day, he turned the corner during a Main Street parade and saw “hundreds and hundreds” of same-sex couples.

After his father died, Licari returned to Connecticut. He participated in his second Gay Games in 2006 – as a bowler.

“You can’t skate forever,” he says. He made it to the medal round in Chicago, where he lost by one pin.

A gay bowling league had filled a void, after he gave up skating. Competitive bowling is even harder and more stressful than skating, he says, because the events last longer. 

The Chicago Gay Games were great fun. They’re a place to “meet old friends, make new ones, and see people from all around the world.”

He skipped the 2010 Gay Games in Cologne. But last month, Licari was back in action, in Cleveland.

The opening ceremony – in the same arena used by the NBA’s Cavaliers – was “amazing.” Thousands of athletes strode in, Olympic-style, and were announced by state and country. Greg Louganis, Lance Bass and the Pointer Sisters performed.

Continuing his close calls, Licari failed to qualify for the singles cutoff by one pin. He finished seventh. He was 20th in doubles, and seventh in team event.

“I missed the 1984 Olympic team,” he says, 30 years later. “So now this is my thing. Everyone is so warm and welcoming. Every restaurant, every shop had a rainbow flag in the window. When the mayor spoke, he talked about what a thrill and an honor it is for Cleveland to host this.”

Licari was also impressed with little things: an 80-year-old man running for AIDS awareness. LGBT athletes in wheelchairs. A restaurant conversation with straight Clevelanders who told him how much they enjoyed the Gay Games.

“If you haven’t been to a Gay Games, you need to experience it,” he says, emphatically.

Which is why, four years from now, he’ll be heading to Paris.