Sunday, June 30, 2013

Taking Homophobia to the Mat: Sports and the Fight for Equality

Almost two years ago, I wrote an article about homophobia in sports and the efforts to end it once and for all that was to be published in a special edition of Metro News across Canada. In the end it did not get published (the editors decided to replace it with future-oriented articles about genetically modified athletes and pills as a food source). 

This past week was Pride Week in Toronto and it got me thinking about this article once again. I also thought about the old saying, better late than never, and decided to post it. Some of the content in the article is a little out of date, but the message is still very significant. There have been many great steps in this area of society since I wrote the article, but I still think it is a relevant piece and, even more so than that, an important one for many people to read. Hope you like it!

Taking Homophobia to the Mat: Sports and the Fight for Equality

North Americans might be speaking a new language in 20 years.

A language that fills locker rooms and arenas with openness, respect and equality.

A language spoken between athletes that doesn’t include homophobic slurs or hurtful slang.

At least that’s what former collegiate wrestler and football player R.J. Jenkins says.

Jenkins, now a PhD candidate and student advisor at Harvard, has often seen the homophobic side of mainstream sports rear its ugly head.  

“I think homophobic language is as prevalent in the change room as ever and this language breeds a culture where people think they can talk like that because it won’t affect anyone.”

But Jenkins also sees the power words can have when athletes join together to fight ignorance.

“What we need are straight advocates who don’t tolerate homophobic language and for whom that kind of language is as offensive as it would be if that person was gay or lesbian,” says Jenkins.

For Mark Tewksbury, a former Canadian Olympian and swimming gold medalist, competing in a homophobic culture was a major struggle.

“I didn’t speak about it, I was very closeted and not just in swimming, but in my entire life,” says Tewksbury.

“I think whenever you have to keep secrets and have your life really rigidly protected in some ways it really hinders performance.”

Being able to talk about it, though, may have changed his career.

After coming out to a coach in the last year of his career, Tewksbury had one of the best 12 months as an athlete.

“It’s hard to quantify, but in that year I finally came out to a coach and was able to get past that and had a spectacular improvement.”

Almost 20 years after his retirement, Tewksbury is starting to see sports becoming more open about the issue of homosexuality in sports.

He points to former Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke and openly gay rugby player Gareth Thomas as people who have made people in, and out, of the sporting world stop ignoring the issue of homophobia in sports and start talking about ways to end it, with their support of gay rights.
Hudson Taylor is one person who is working hard to make sure all athletes are comfortable with their sexual orientation.

As a coach of Columbia University’s wrestling team, Taylor is working hard to help his athletes take homophobia, as well as their opponents, to the mat.

“Whether it’s in the locker room, on the mat or elsewhere we’re going to be conscious about what we say to others and that’s going to allow us to be comfortable being ourselves and compete at a high level,” says Taylor.

Taylor also founded Athlete Ally, an organization that calls on athletes of all sexual orientations to take a stand and fight against homophobia in sports.

Jenkins and Taylor are not alone in their fight.

The North American Outgames brought thousands of people of all sexual orientations to Vancouver in the summer of 2011 to participate in a week-long event promoting inclusiveness in sport.

“[The games] are about breaking down barriers in professional sport,” says event chair John Boychuk.

It seems like a national movement towards inclusiveness is already being led by Canada’s national sport; hockey.

Hayley Wickenheiser, the captain of the Canadian women’s hockey team and Olympic gold medalist, says locker room talk is not about differences, but about what her and her teammates share; the dream of winning it all for their country.

“For us it’s a non-issue, we don’t talk about it. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black, white, yellow, green, gay or straight,” says Wickenheiser, “we’re all people, we all have a common goal and that is to win for Canada.”

Youth must pass this message of inclusiveness on to the next generation, says Boychuk.

“It’s the youth who are going to be a big part in the message of change that is a wave traveling not just around Canada or North America, but around the world.”

And for Boychuk, this wave will eventually flush away the discrimination and homophobia in sport, sooner rather than later.

“As more professional athletes start to come out in the next 10 or 20 years people will start realize that these are our mothers, our fathers, our brothers, our sisters, our aunts and uncles and cousins,” says Boychuk.

“People will see that this is a normal lifestyle and this is when barriers will begin to fall.” 

No comments:

Post a Comment