Inaugural panel discussion about homophobia held at NCAA Convention in Nashville

More than 175 of the nation’s biggest players in college athletics attended the GLBT diversity and inclusion session led by panelists Neil Giuliano, President, Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD); Laurie Priest, out lesbian Athletic Director at Mount Holyoke College and John Amaechi, gay former NBA player and former Student-Athlete at Pennsylvania State University.

Pat Griffin, director of the advocacy organization “IT Takes a Team! Education, Campaign for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Issues in Sports” teamed up with Charlotte Westerhaus, vice president for diversity and inclusion at the NCAA to pull this event together. 

Jill Pilgrim, general counsel, LPGA was the perfect moderator asking the three panelists “lawyer like” questions that made some attendees in Presidential Ballroom B at the Opryland Hotel a little uncomfortable but eager to hear how the panelists would respond. 

Pilgrim, a heterosexual ally, led the discussion, titled “Time Out! A Conversation About Including Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Student- Athletes."

Pilgrim greeted the standing-room-only crowd by stating, “I am really happy to see all the faces in the room. You never know when you talk about a controversial and uncomfortable subject who is going to show up," The issue on the fear of discussing homosexuality resonated throughout the dialogue on LGBT Student-Athletes.

Pilgrim asked the panel to provide an example of an instance of discrimination involving LGBT Student-Athletes.  Giuliano, an American gay rights activist and former four-term Republican mayor of Tempe, Arizona, told a story of a 14-time All American Olympic Tri-athlete swimmer that spent his entire collegiate career totally in the closet because he didn’t feel like he would be protected from the top down. 

The student-athlete said, “It took an awful lot of energy to hide and live a double life both with my teammates as well as with my coaches, but I felt that I had to do so.  I didn’t feel I was in an environment where I could be open or I could be out. In the end I probably could have been a better student-athlete had I not tried to hide as much as I did."

Laurie Priest has been doing advocacy work in this area for years and acknowledged that there are some great coaches but is still surprised to find that they are uncomfortable talking about this topic. 

“They are good people, they have good hearts, they want to support all of our students but they don’t have the language and are fearful of saying the wrong thing," Priest said. 

According to Priest, Student-Athletes themselves are likely more progressive than the administrators at their various institutions. “What you have happening in intercollegiate athletes is students are coming out of high school where they have been out and open. Often times what happens is on the campus itself of many schools they are embraced. But once they go to the Athletic Department often times the Athletic Department is a much more homophobic environment than the rest of the campus overall," she said. 

Priest recommends that we lean into this discomfort and have the conversation about sexual preference.

Pilgrim was shocked to hear that the some Athletic Departments were less progressive and polled the audience members to find out how many feel that they were working in an Athletic Department that is progressive, that is open and these issues can be openly discussed;  only about 45 hands went in the air. 

“Herein lies the problem, we have a lot of work to do," said Pilgrim.

The fight for LGBT Americans is visible as it has ever been and yet in the majority of states in this country you can still be fired for simply being honest and open about your sexual orientation. There still is a lot of discrimination and a lot of defamation. The good thing is that our young people are coming into their own as young adults or student- athletes and are wondering what the big deal is here. They want to be open and honest. 

“What is fascinating right now," said Giuliano, “is that when you poll young people, ages 18-28, seventy -percent of that demographic supports full equality for the LGBT community on every issue from being able to serve in the military, to not being discriminated against in the workplace and even to the point of same sex marriage.”

Amaechi, who was raised in Britain and travels between Unites States and Europe, was asked the difference between Britain and America. 

“Policy is fundamental, it is fundamental. In this country it is proper for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgenders  to believe that they are not fully human. Some people are stupid, you can’t 'catch' gay," said Amaechi. One suggestion from Amaechi was to not assume that everyone is straight. “They are not, you don’t know.”

Giuliano does believe that our society has evolved and there has been change in our culture that has been very positive but we still have a lot of work to do. 

“You can still be fired in the majority of the states in this country. You still hear from major institutions and individuals politically within our society that LGBT people are less and deserving less and therefore not entitled to institutional equality.  We still don’t have a hate crimes law in this country," Giuliano added.

During the closing questions and answers, Josie Harper, director of athletics and recreation at Dartmouth College reminded us of how far we have come as a society when discussing GLBT issues. 

“I have been in the business long enough where a meeting like this would have only ten people, and all ten would have been females. We really have come a long way on this discussion," he said.

We have people like Pat Griffin, Charlotte Westerhaus, Jill Pilgrim, Neil Giuliano, Laurie Priest and John Amaechi to thank for this progress.

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