Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Ben Cohen tour: Mixed messages from a straight ally

- by Stacey Prince

International Rugby star Ben Cohen recently announced his retirement, and is now becoming well-known for an entirely different reason: he has dedicated himself to eradicating homophobia and bullying in sports, and has started a foundation (The Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation) dedicated to this cause. As the first straight athlete to do so, he is garnering lots of press and admiration; see for example this recent article in the New York Times in which he is profiled along with US wrestler Hudson Taylor who has devoted himself to the same issue. On Friday, May 27 Ben came to UW as part of his Foundation’s inaugural tour, and appeared at a Town Hall meeting at the University of Washington. On the panel with him were UW Center for Leadership in Athletics Professor Jennifer Hoffman, Associate Athletic Director Shannon Kelly, and David Kopay, who came out in the 1970’s shortly after retiring from the NFL, becoming the first professional male athlete in the Big 3 (football, baseball and basketball) to do so. The event was moderated by the amazing Jennifer Self, coordinator of UW's Q Center (a center for support, resources, advocacy and mentoring for LGBTQ students), who added a feminist, queer and anti-oppressive analysis as well as good humor to the event.

I was excited to attend, as I have a strong focus in my own work on reducing homophobia in general, and bullying in particular. But as the conversation unfolded, I found myself becoming uncomfortable with some of the messages that were being conveyed, and also maybe more importantly, with what wasn’t being said. I thought it might be helpful to try and unpack some of my reactions here.

First, I of course thought that it was fantastic that this conversation about homophobia in sports (and in general) was happening, and that it was happening in this particular setting, a large, mainstream state university with prominent sports teams and programs. Many on the panel (particularly former NFL star David Kopay, for whom the progress is likely especially salient since he came out some 30 years ago) commented on how much progress has been made toward acceptance of LGBTQ individuals. The sensation I had was one that I often have at such events: marveling at how far we’ve come, but also how far we haven’t. For example, the fact that people locally and globally are so excited about Ben Cohen’s foundation is because he is unique: the first straight male athlete to take a stand to end homophobia in sports. The fact that it’s 2011 and he is the first shows how far we haven’t come, and makes me sad.

Further, he is often admired for taking a stand on this particular issue, which is not a "straight person’s issue," and asked why he does so. Why would a successful, popular straight athlete decide to work on homophobia? This makes him a hero. This, too, makes me sad – because homophobia is a straight person’s issue in the same way that racism is a white person’s issue – it’s just that we see the marginalized group members (gay men and lesbians, people of color) fighting for their own issues so much more often. The fact that he is such a dedicated heterosexual ally is something to be celebrated, certainly; the fact that it is so unusual that he is revered as a hero is sad.

The next area I was concerned about was his message to kids. I know he wants to be a role model for students in high school and college, but he is in a very different boat than most. As a highly successful, widely respected world class athlete, he has little to lose by taking this stand. As he says in the NYT article, “I can say something and it can be so little to me, but it can be so powerful for tens of thousands of people." But what about high school kids? At a time when peer pressure is at its height, and gender conforming behaviors are valued, a straight kid who allies himself with a gay peer runs the risk of being bullied himself. Part of what makes me cry nearly every week when watching the TV show Glee is how touching it is to see those straight kids stand up for their gay friend Kurt – yet this is a fantasy world which does not approach reality for many, many gay high school students. I think it’s fantastic that some kids will see Ben Cohen’s website or hear him talk and will be inspired to take a stand against homophobia, but we need so much more than this – for example, comprehensive anti-bullying programs in schools, real sanctions for when bullying does occur, and parents supporting their kids’ acceptance of gay peers – before kids are going to stop torturing other kids and driving them to depression, isolation and suicide.

Another part of Ben’s message I felt uncomfortable with was a refrain that he repeated often in different forms that went something like this: “when so-and-so came out it was so not a big deal, because he is such a stellar athlete”. This sounded to me a lot like what some of my therapy clients who are men and women of color call the “black tax” – the idea that, in order to be accepted, they have to work extra hard, perform extra well, and be super successful. Ben’s message that stellar athletes will be accepted rang of the “gay tax,” and also suggested that what was happening in these cases was more of an overlooking of the person’s sexual orientation, due to their athletic prowess, rather than true acceptance. A comment from an audience member that the gay rights movement just needed some top athletes to “come out and act normal” didn’t help matters. The conclusion seemed to be if you come out but you're really good at what you do, and you act straight and don't make any waves, it will all be fine. Is this what we want our LGBTQ high school and college students, and their heterosexual classmates, to hear?

An area that was touched on but not plumbed as much as I would have liked had to do with the intersections of homophobia, sexism, and racism in sports. For example, several folks commented casually on the fact that homophobia seems less of a problem on women’s teams than men’s. Yet a deeper analysis of this discrepancy was only hinted at by Jennifer Hoffman, the Center for Leadership in Ahtletics assistant professor. No-one mentioned the underlying sexism inherent in this phenomenon – the fact that gender transgressions are much more of a problem for men than for women, whether we look at kids or adults, athletes or non-athletes - because men acting feminine is far more threatening to the status quo and therefore must be corrected and brought back in line (usually by other men) than women acting masculine.

Despite the fact that being gay is a much bigger deal in men’s sports than women’s, homophobia is still a factor in women’s sports, too, often running hand in hand with sexism. For example, the panelists did comment on the unfortunate fact that female athletes are often made to pretty themselves up for promotional photos and non-athletic professional appearances. Similarly, the panelists chuckled over the fact that one recent women’s softball team was admired and commented on for being great athletes and good looking to boot (as if that was an exception). The assumptions about gender identity, gender expression, sexism, homophobia and transphobia inherent in these issues was a topic that would have been interesting to explore, but was maybe a bit beyond the scope and intention of this event.

Perhaps some of my problem and my criticalness came from being a member of the disenfranchised group being discussed. After all, I wasn’t really Cohen’s target demographic: his comments seemed largely directed at other heterosexuals. Yet as is often the case at these events, the room appeared to be more than half filled with gay folks (I am basing this primarily on observing same-sex couples who were clearly together, people identifying themselves when asking questions, etc.) including myself. I was reminded of a training I did recently focusing on white privilege, after which several people of color who had attended came up to me to tell me that they had heard most of what I’d presented before, and that workshops such as the one I had just led left them with little by way of tools or strategies to cope with privilege and oppression themselves. This was humbling feedback for me to receive, and on Friday as I sat listening to Ben Cohen I understood it at a more visceral level.

I hope you will excuse me if I sound critical – as I said, I am thrilled that there are Ben Cohens out there, that UW decided to host this event and Microsoft to fund it. Even if it is somewhat limited, what he is saying is so important. If his work gives one athlete, one kid, or one parent the strength to stand up to homophobia, that would be great. I just hope that some day we won’t have to get so excited about a heterosexual ally (or any dominant group member) working towards equality.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Dr. Stacey Prince, for your thoughtful and nuanced analysis of the presentation!

    I, too, came away with some mixed feelings. First off, I appreciate that Ben Cohen, the athletics department at UW, the Q Center at UW, and Microsoft collaborated to host an event with an intention of raising awareness about the impact of homophobia and the importance of challenging homophobia.

    Although this event was about standing up against homophobia in sports, I noticed a narrative that developed over the course of the 1.5 hours that focused more on how far the sports world has come in terms of racism and homophobia and how inclusive the world of sports actually is. In fact, very little was discussed about the current blatant or aversive homophobia that continues to exist in sports. As someone who has worked with a number of intercollegiate athletes, I know that there is pervasive sizeism, sexism, racism, and homophobia and they come in all forms, both subtle and overt. I also noticed some dynamics occurring in the room based on who spoke most on the panel, who responded to the questions, who asked the questions, and who got interrupted. Overall, it was a fairly male-dominated conversation sprinkled with noticeable interruptions, giving little room or maybe even sense of safety for many others to contribute or ask questions. Another point that caught my attention was Mr. Cohen's point about players on a team needing to band together to stick up for one another and that was one of the reasons for stepping up as an ally when homophobia occurs. In the absence of identifying other more important reasons for challenging homophobia, that particular reason fell flat for me as allyship, to me, is not about defending friends, or family, or loved ones. That may be a natural starting place but I would hope that it's about something bigger - about fighting for a just world, about the impact on our children, society, and culture when groups are targeted for what they look like, who they love, or how they identify. It cannot simply be to defend teammates.

    I want to emphasize my overall appreciation for events that raise awareness about homophobia and this time, uniquely about homophobia in sports. While there is room for growth in this dialogue for all the reasons that Stacey listed, we are at least continuing to dialogue about it and it is challenging us to deepen these conversations to include more complexity and nuance.