The power of LGBTQ athlete activism
I caught up with Joanna Hoffman of Athlete Ally, to talk about the power of sport.
Athlete Ally has its roots in athlete activism. There’s lots of powerful examples of athlete activism across recent decades, but do you think that the NFL players protesting police brutality have taken it to a new level in demonstrating the potential impact of athlete activism?
We’re witnessing an exciting time for athlete activism, with more professional athletes boldly speaking out than ever before. Players like Colin Kaepernick have forever changed what it means to be an athlete who wants to use their platform to call for social justice.
We are where we are today because of athletes who have paved the way through the years — from Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ black power salute at the 1969 Olympics to Billie Jean King’s victorious Battle of the Sexes match in 1973 and beyond.
Activism isn’t a single moment in history, but a continuum of people fighting for what they believe in and helping to make sport more inclusive and representative.
Inclusion for trans athletes seems to be one of your main areas of focus at the moment. What are some of the barriers that trans athletes are encountering in sport?
There is a patchwork of protections for trans people, and trans athletes in particular, that often fails to fully protect their rights. We see this come into play in instances like that of USA Rugby player Shawn Gatewood — who faced transphobic violence, hate speech, and opposing team players attempting to have him barred from the sport — and that of Australian Football League player Hannah Mouncey, who said that the AFL’s limits on testosterone levels prevented her access to the sport.
These trans athletes mirror the struggle of many worldwide who deserve full access to the sports they love. One way we’re working to combat these injustices is through education. Athlete Ally is launching a new training curriculum to educate professional and NCAA-level teams, coaches, and governing bodies on gender-identity and ways to ensure that trans athletes are treated with respect and are meaningfully included.
It seems as if we are slowly getting more professional athletes talking openly about their sexuality. Why does it seem to be easier in some sports compared to others?
We’ve seen such a variety of coming out stories, and so much depends on individual teammates, coaches, and governing bodies. While some sports tend to attract fans with more progressive politics than others, that doesn’t necessarily mean every athlete coming out in that sport will have the same experience. Challenging homophobia and transphobia happens case by case, person by person, day by day.
In professional football in England, there seems to be such a media frenzy about the potential for the first gay player that it’s almost become too intimidating for anyone to put their hand up to be the first out player in the Premier League. What advice or guidance would you give to players trying to navigate how and when to talk openly about their sexuality?
We would advise them that coming out is their personal decision and theirs alone. For those who do choose to come out, they can serve as powerful role models for fans and other athletes who long to see a place for those like them in sport. Visibility and representation have tremendous power, especially for young LGBTQ athletes who may feel alone in their experiences.
We also want any LGBTQ athletes navigating the coming out process to know that they aren’t alone, and that we’re here as a resource to connect them to other LGBTQ athletes and allies, and to support them every step of the way.
Who are some of the LGBTQ athletes who are really leading the way in terms of being role models for young LGBTQ people?
There are so many — we work with more than 200 professional, Olympic and Paralympic athletes as part of our Ambassador program, and many are LGBTQ.
A few that especially stand out for us right now are:
- Shawn Gatewood, a trans rugby player from North Carolina who refused to be held back from the sport he loves and is now fighting for greater inclusivity in rugby for all LGBTQ athletes.
- Tadd Fujikawa, who recently became the first openly gay male professional golfer after coming out on World Suicide Prevention Day.
- Soccer player Collin Martin, who serves as a powerful role model as the only active, openly gay male professional athlete in any of the big five American sports leagues.
- WNBA player Sue Bird, who recently led her team to win the championships and stands out and proud as a LGBTQ athlete.