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Issues Surrounding Homophobia, Transgenderphobia in Sports Heard by Assembly Panel

Advocates from Go Athletes, an LGBT sports coalition, walk the streets of San Francisco in protest of Russia's LGBT law.
Advocates from Go Athletes, an LGBT sports coalition, walk the streets of San Francisco in protest of Russia's LGBT law.  | Photo: Steve Rhodes/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Over the past few years, professional athletes like Jason Collins, Robbie Rogers, and Brittney Griner have garnered a wave of support after making the decision to publicly "come out." But despite recent strides and legislation, homophobia and transgenderphobia are still very much prevalent in the world of sports.

Last week, Assemblymember Ian Calderon hosted an informational committee hearing to address discrimination that exists against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender athletes in sports culture. The discussion was held to examine protections and programs needed to overcome biases and discrimination against LGBT athletes on the K-12, collegiate recreational, and professional levels.

"This issue is very important. Fighting discrimination is the most important thing legislators can do," Calderon said, addressing the committee. "Helping members of the LGBT community to obtain equal treatment under the law is one such chance to make a positive change."

The general takeaway of the hearing was that discrimination against LGBT athletes continues to be a struggle, but the implementation and passage of bills like AB 1266 have helped protect the rights of LGBT athletes by allowing full participation in sex-segregated school programs and activities.

In the future, the committee hopes to explore the issue of implementing diversity training during freshman orientation for students attending California colleges and universities. The training would include instruction on the acceptance of different religions, cultures, and sexual orientations.

Coming Out in Sports

Rick Welts, one of the first major NBA executives of the Golden State Warriors to publicly come out as gay, addressed the committee by sharing his own personal experiences of coming out. "My journey came three years ago," he said. "I had made the decision to take the step of publicly acknowledging the fact that I am gay."

Many athletes choose to come out well after retirement, but now, it's something that is embraced by marketers and large companies who are willing to encourage an athlete's decision to publicly come out without the fear of losing an endorsement, Welts explained.

"I had the opportunity to visit the senior management team at Nike, and basically they were saying, 'if you know of any athlete who is ready to take this step, please get us in contact,'" he added. "For creative marketers, the smarter ones are seeing an opportunity... I'm not afraid of the business aspect of this. Smart marketers will tap into this."

Psychological Impact and Strain on Athletes

Empirical research on the impact of homophobia on athletic performance is difficult to find, said Kristin Hancock, a psychologist from JFK University who also attended the hearing. But psychological analyses show that LGBT are often targets of discrimination as a result of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender non-conformity, she explained.

Reported suicide rates are two to seven times higher in high school students who identify as LGBT, compared to hereosexual students, according to Hancock.

To tackle these issues, Hancock proposed more psychological services, and having the government step in and take a more active role to promote the visibility of LGBT athletes while safeguarding the rights of the LGBT community.

Anti-discrimination Policies in Higher Education

Today, many universities have proposed and implemented anti-discrimination policies highlighting sexual orientation and gender identity.

Wendy B. Motch, associate director of program operations at UCLA Recreation, has been working with various national organizations with the hopes of ending homophobia and transgenderphobia in sports.

In an email exchange with KCET, Motch said UCLA's Intercollegiate Athletics and UCLA Recreation have recently launched Athlete Allies, a collaborative program that aims to promote inclusion, equality, and respect towards LGBT athletes.

It's part of a pledge to stand up to bullying, homophobia, and discrimination, said Motch. "In trainings, we focus on the use of language -- most people use terms like 'gay' or 'fag' as a put down, not realizing the impact that has on an LGBT person."

The NCAA, the official national organization that represents of thousands of college and university-level athletes, is already taking steps to address homophobia and transgenderphobia, Motch said.

In 2011, the NCAA adopted a policy for transgender athletes that would allow them to continue to participate in gender-specific sports following proper documentation of hormone treatment for at least a year.

On the other hand, the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association, or NIRSA, which monitors recreational intramural fitness classes and non-varsity sports programs, is moving toward a less-stringent policy that will allow individuals to self-identify as a transgender male or female.

And that's where Motch sees a big challenge: the need for consistent LGBT guidelines that are inclusive of all athletes, as well as the implementation of the "least possible restrictive requirements."

Motch believes that the Assembly should work to play a role in encouraging consistency in college sports, while also incorporating new ways to address these issues earlier in a students' sports careers, such as in city parks, little leagues, and other recreation leagues. "Focus on education for all entities," she said.

High School and College Athletes

To conclude the committee hearing, two athletes provided their testimonies examining their experiences coming out: Pat Cordova-Goff, a transgender athlete who was able to compete in softball for Azusa High School after the passage of AB 1266, as well as Toni Kokenis, a former guard for Stanford University Women's Basketball.

During her first year of high school, Goff joined the baseball team. But she was met with opposition.

"Not only did I have my teammates and peers bullying me, but I had the coaches not even trying to help me out. If anything, they were feeding the flat out discrimination toward me," Goff said.

After that encounter, Goff quit and remained silent until she heard about the passage of AB 1266. She then tried out for varsity softball.

"When this passed, it was affirming that there is a chance I will be happy in my life, at least in high school," she said. "That was the moment I was just like 'life is good, things are happening.' I was not only proud of my representatives in California, but that finally I felt I was being protected under the law."

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