Typically, I write dumb (and perhaps mildly amusing) pieces for this website, but I recently had the opportunity to conduct a non-dumb interview with the founder of Athlete Ally, Hudson Taylor. Athlete Ally is a nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating homophobia in sports. In this context, an “ally” is usually a heterosexual person who supports equal rights for LGBT people. Allies are also known as “non-assholes.”
On their website, Athlete Ally defines the term a little differently: “An Athlete Ally can be any person—regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity—who takes a stand against homophobia and transphobia in sports and brings the message of respect, inclusion and equality to their athletic community. Athlete Allies include competitive and recreational athletes as well as coaches, parents, teachers, league officials, sports fans, other sports participants, and advocates around the globe.”
If any of my questions sound ignorant, don’t get it twisted. I’m an ally, though I might still be an asshole for other reasons. These are questions that I thought would provoke a substantive discussion.
When did you start Athlete Ally?
Hudson Taylor: It started in 2010, but we got our 501(c) status in January 2011.
What prompted you to start the organization?
HT: I was a three-time All-American wrestler at the the University of Maryland, and I was a theater major, so I was kind of that rare breed of Division I athlete/theater kid. In theater, I had LGBT friends who were treated equally and respectfully. In sports, I had teammates who were using homophobic and sexist language pretty regularly. So I think being between those two worlds made me realize, hey, wait a second, we should be better than that. We don’t have to speak about people in this way.
The catalyst came for me my senior year at Maryland. I was ranked #1 in the country in my weight class, and I started the season with an LGBT equality sticker on my headgear to support my LGBT friends. In response to that sticker I got about 2,000 emails from closeted athletes who said, “I just read this article about you, I feel like I’m going to join the wrestling team, I’m not afraid to go in the locker room, I’m going to start speaking out.” That was really the beginning of like, wow, if a wrestler can get 2,000 emails for wearing a sticker, imagine if I had been a professional athlete, or a team, or a league. That was the beginning of me trying to educate and activate more people in sports to start speaking out.
Did you see a change in how your teammates acted or spoke after you started wearing the sticker?
HT: Yeah. I think it was gradual. Certainly, so much of the language of the locker room is pretty ingrained, so people more often than not do it without even thinking about it, so it was definitely still occurring, but two seconds afterwards they’d be like, “Oh, sorry. That’s not what I meant. What I meant to say was…” I think even that little kernel of acknowledgement was a big step in the right direction.
There are certain homophobic slurs that some people really want to hang on to as insults. Maybe you’ve never used them, but do you have alternative words you can use to insult people?
HT: I grew up in sports, so there was definitely a time period where I was using that language, was not aware of the impact of that language. Part of our challenge is that we need to reconcile the fact that the intent of our words is not the same as the impact of our words.
I think nine times out of ten, when an athlete uses homophobic language, they don’t intend for it to be hurtful or derogatory, but the impact is that we create a sports culture in which LGBT individuals don’t feel safe or comfortable coming out. In sports or any competitive environment, there’s always going to be some sort of social jousting that will occur. We’re trying to put each other down in a number of ways, but from my standpoint, I don’t think we ever need to use the identity of a group of people to form the basis of an insult. I can make fun of you in a number of different ways, I don’t need to use a group of people to make that point.
If you hear someone using those words now, do you point that out or say something?
HT: Yeah, 100 percent. So, this is one of our big challenges. We’ve been doing research with college athletic departments all over the country, and I’d say that one of the common trends is that 85-90 percent of athletes don’t know how to respond when someone uses that kind of language. There’s no comfortable common response to the use of homophobic or other types of derogatory, demeaning language. Typically, my recommendation is, instead of focusing on what is right or wrong, we need to redefine our dominant identity.
And so when I’m working with a team or anybody in sports, it’s “what are our core values?” As a coach—I coached wrestling at Columbia for a few years—and every season we’d have the guys come up with a mantra of the values we wanted to live by as a team. So one year it was, “Respect all, fear none.” The reason why I’m saying this is, when you can create alignment on a core value, a team, workplace, school, any community, the response is no longer about right or wrong, it’s about who we are as a people. In sports, if you have a clear consistent core value, when that language happens, you can be like, “Hey, respect all, fear none.” It’s understood that it’s not about right or wrong; it’s about who we are, and the values we are trying to live by.
It’s sort of been a common joke that I’ve heard about wrestlers acting “gay” to win matches. Is there more homophobia there? In wrestling, what’s the prevailing attitude towards gay wrestlers?
HT: I’m always reluctant to make overgeneralizations about any sports culture, but what I would say, from my standpoint, is that I do think there is a correlation between homophobic behavior or comments and the contact nature of the sport. So when we look at the landscape of [out athletes], more often than not, those athletes are in non-contact sports, because when there is a physical intimacy involved in a sport, it’s an added complexity…so wrestling is chief among those.
Growing up as a young wrestler, I got asked two questions: “What is that leotard thing you’re wearing,” and, “Are you grabbing one another?” As a young boy, the knee-jerk reaction is to assert straightness, to assert your masculinity, and oftentimes the way one does that is by retorting with a homophobic or sexist slur. So, I think that in wrestling and in other contact sports, that is a part of the culture that is a structural challenge that [persists] on our path toward LGBT equality.
Is homophobia less of a problem in women’s sports? Are they more inclusive?
HT: Sport is one of the few institutions that is segregated by gender, so you have boys over here and girls over here. It teaches boys how to become men, girls how to become women, and over the top of all that is this culture of masculinity on both sides. What ends up happening is, the way you make fun of a male athlete is associating him with femininity and the way you make fun of a female athlete is associating her with masculinity.
I think in women’s sports, that lesbian stereotype gets thrown around a lot. I think male athletes are assumed to be straight and more female athletes are assumed to be lesbian. In some respects, that may make it easier for a lesbian athlete to come out, but it also poses a lot of big challenges. In women’s athletics, there is “negative recruiting,” which is when a coaching staff will say, “You don’t want to go to that program because there are lesbians there.” They don’t say that as overtly today, but I think there are lots of ways in which homophobia is still quite prevalent in men’s sports as well as in women’s sports.
It seems to be a locker-room thing for a lot of people. That people might not want to be naked in the locker room with a gay person, or they have to right to know who is gay. What do you think about that?
HT: There always has been and there always will be gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender athletes in sports. So whether or not you know of an athlete is LGBT is purely a matter of your perception of the situation. If you’ve been involved with sports for more than a minute, then you’ve been on a team with a LGBT athlete. So then…is being uneducated or uncomfortable enough of a justification for having a culture where LGBT athletes don’t feel comfortable being themselves? My belief is that is not the case. The only thing that changes, whether an athlete is out or closeted, is your perception of the situation. They’re [the same] person; they’re still your friend, your teammate, and someone who is trying to compete and accomplish the same goals as you are.
What have been some of the biggest challenges spreading your message?
HT: Geography is always a challenge. I’ve been very fortunate to work with a lot of different athletic communities, but I would say there is still a trend where we are primarily working on the coasts, and there are a lot of communities in this country that are not talking about LGBT issues in sports. We’re still in an era of firsts, so some departments might not think they have LGBT athletes. If nobody is out, then there is plausible deniability on behalf of the coaches and the athletic directors. Part of our challenge is making the case in those communities that this is important, that this something that we need to be talking about, that you have LGBT athletes, and if they are not comfortable coming out, then we are failing them as coaches and mentors. So geography continues to be a big struggle for us, not only here in the US, but also when we look at sport globally. There are 76 countries where you can be fined, arrested, or put to death for being part of the LGBT community.
What have been some of your big success stories?
HT: In and around the Olympics, we did a big campaign called “Principle Six,” which [was founded on] the sixth Principle of Olympism: discrimination of any kind is incompatible with the Olympic movement. We got a lot of athletes on board in support of that. As a result, the IOC amended the language of Principle Six to explicitly include sexual orientation. IOC President Bach said that all future countries wishing to host the games must abide by Principle Six, meaning that if a country has anti-LGBT laws, that’s going to be taken into consideration as to whether or not they are awarded the Olympic Games.
That question was brought up because there are two cities bidding for the 2022 Olympics—Almaty, Kazakhstan and Beijing, China—and last February, Kazakhstan passed an anti-gay propaganda bill in their senate. So we were heading toward another instance in which we were going to have LGBT athletes from around the world competing in the Olympic Games in a country where you could be fined or arrested for being LGBT. So we organized an open letter to President Bach saying, hey, if Kazakhstan wants to host these Games, they have to abide by Principle Six. President Bach wrote back and said, yes, that’s true. Three days later Kazakhstan killed that legislation. So that’s a very specific example where athletes used their cultural capital to speak out and a country seeking to host the Olympic Games really responded to it accordingly.
At the Final Four last year, there was a big conversation around RFRA, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. A lot of laws being pushed now in states and cities across this country look to limit protection of LGBT individuals. We brought Greg Louganis to Indiana; he met with Governor Pence, and got to talk to him about how this law was discriminatory. As a result, they were given an opportunity to amend the law and change the language in a way that respected and protected the LGBT community there.
What are you doing to reach to the sports fans and address the homophobia that happens at games in the stands?
HT: That’s one of the areas that, from my standpoint, is relatively under-addressed. We talk about LGBT athletes, we talk about the locker-room environment, but we haven’t seen a lot of discussion about fan culture and conduct. A recent study found that majority of Americans believe that LGBT fans would not be safe going to a sporting event and being out. Fan culture is a big challenge and big issue. We just launched a campaign called “EveryFan,” which is really calling on teams, leagues, and athletes to say what culture and conduct they want for their fans. Our hope is that by giving teams and athletes the opportunity to, in no uncertain terms, support their LGBT fans, that will change the environment for LGBT fans and set a bit of a standard for how fans should treat one another.
What can fans do to help?
HT: On the fan side, you can go to EveryFan.org. That will redirect you to our pledge that we are trying to get as many fans as possible to sign.
Any last points you’d like to make in closing?
HT: There’s never been a successful social-justice movement for a minority group without the support of the majority. So we need everybody to be a part of the solution. It can’t just be the responsibility of the those impacted by a form a prejudice to shoulder the [weight] of ending it. Everybody can do something. I know that everyone is not going to be an outspoken advocate, but everyone can take to social media. It takes seconds to send a LGBT-inclusive tweet. I just encourage people to take action, because progress doesn’t occur unless we are willing to engage on these issues.
So that was my serious interview about a serious topic. Hudson and the people at Athlete Ally are doing important work. Are these issues the most important ones in the world? Maybe not to you, but for a lot of LGBT kids—who have to deal with slurs on top of the regular shit sandwich that is adolescence—it’s super important. And much like my heroes, the Wu-Tang Clan, I’m for the children.
When people cry out against “political correctness,” it is easy to dismiss the feelings of others in favor of the good ol’ days. I’m not sure when the good ol’ days were, but I saw the ‘80s, and they were garbage. Sure, it was acceptable to throw around homophobic slurs, but that was because we were much less informed as a culture than we are now.
If you still feel the need to use homophobic slurs and think it no big deal, that’s fine too. Just know that your mom should have dumped you on the side of the road when she had a chance. You see how it easy it is to hurt people without slurs? Peace and love.
Chris Laker is a standup comedian who hosted the Heteronormative podcast, in which he challenged his straight-male perspective through conversations with LGBT friends and colleagues. You should follow him on Twitter.