Revolution #57, August 30, 2006
"Living in an atmosphere of fear and recrimination"
Interview with Shannon Minter, Legal Director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights
In July during the Gay Games in Chicago, Revolution interviewed Shannon Minter, the legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, one of the country’s leading advocacy organizations for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. He is part of the legal team representing Jennifer Harris in the Penn State case (see Revolution’s article “Jennifer Harris: Standing up to Persecution at Penn State.”
Revolution: Could you talk to us about what has been happening to gay and lesbian people in sports, and how it relates to the larger things going on in society.
Shannon Minter: The world of sports has been one of the last areas in which lesbian and gay people have been able to come out and be open. It has really been, to an astonishing degree, a bastion of homophobia where it is accepted and taken for granted that it is permissible to be homophobic and to kick athletes off a team, if you find out they are lesbian or gay.
I think we are in the middle — maybe more in the beginning in some ways — of seeing challenges to that. I think things will move very quickly now that the flood gates have been opened and you are starting to see some openly gay and lesbian athletes come out.
I think the pace of progress now is going to get speeded up intensely. At the same time, creating change on this issue will require a big struggle, and it is likely to be ugly. A lot of coaches and coaching staff have been allowed to operate with complete autonomy and in complete disregard of the law. Especially at schools where the athletic program brings in money and prestige to the school , the athletic departments have operated like their own little kingdoms, outside of any meaningful oversight or control, so there is lots of blatantly illegal homophobic discrimination going on.
Revolution: Can you talk about the case your group has brought against Penn State and the treatment of Jennifer.
Shannon Minter: Pennsylvania does not have a statewide law prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination, but Penn State is a public university so they are certainly subject to the equal protection clause and to the constitutionally protected right to privacy.
One of our legal claims is that the coach, Coach Rene Portland, relentlessly probed into our client Jennifer Harris’ private life, constantly asking our client and other players whether or not our client was gay, and trying to find out details about who she was dating and so forth. So, in addition to alleging discrimination based on sexual orientation, Jennifer is also bringing an invasion of privacy claim.
Revolution: How common is this? How many athletes a year are targeted, and harassed, and get kicked out of programs?
Shannon Minter: I haven’t seen any kind of data, surveys, or studies on that. But it is pervasive. Many lesbian and gay people participate in athletics. And based on the experience we have, in terms of getting calls from student athletes, it is very common. Many coaches and administrators still have very homophobic attitudes. The environment at most schools is such that any student athlete who is lesbian or gay is just living in fear of being discovered — and we are talking about young people, eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old. These players are very young. It is very difficult for them to negotiate the pressures of coming to terms with their identities in such a hostile environment.
Revolution: Some athletes at the Gay Games have been describing the impact of suddenly losing the support of their teammates — ostracized in an environment that is built around teamwork.
Shannon Minter: What we often see is that student athletes who are themselves lesbian or gay, but who are highly secretive and closeted about it, will sometimes turn on another teammate who is known to be or suspected of being gay. This is such a sad statement.
The homophobia in these settings is just toxic. It creates an atmosphere of mistrust and leads to witchhunts, where students are pitted against one another. They are living in an atmosphere of fear and recrimination. It is enormously destructive.
Revolution: How is this fight over whether athletes are allowed to be openly gay connected to a larger fight over whether sex roles for men and women, even heterosexual men and women, will be tightened?
Shannon Minter: Athletes are heroes in our society. They are our modern day gladiators. Athletes are highly respected and well known. They are cultural icons and role models. Because of the unique role athletes play in our culture, for openly lesbian and gay athletes to be accepted would be a tremendous step forward.
If we can get to the point where an athlete can come out as lesbian and gay, and still be revered and respected and supported by the public — i think that will be a very clear sign that lesbian and gay people are fully accepted as equals. That is part of why we at he National Center for Lesbian Rights have a Sports Project: because the cultural stakes are so high.
I do believe that the root cause of homophobia in sports is gender stereotyping. Women participating in athletics and sports has always been caught up in all kinds of gender stereotyping.
This goes way back to when women first wanted to ride bicycles, back at the turn of the century — and people were upset that it was going to “masculinize” women and that women weren’t physically able to engage in this kind of vigorous activity and that it would prevent them from being able to have children. There was a firestorm of public controversy, based on sexist opinions that we now view as crazy, but that had very strong traction at the time. We’re still living with this legacy of cultural fear — that women being strong and athletic and participating in contact sports is somehow contrary to stereotypes that women should be mothers, and homemakers, and feminine, that they should different than men, and opposite than men – women are supposed to be the opposite sex.
To the extent that those stereotypes still are operative (which they are, much less than they used to be, but we still are not beyond them entirely), women in sports, and athletic programs for women, still feel a tremendous amount of pressure to dispel these stereotypes. One of the biggest stereotypes is that allowing women to play sports will turn them all into lesbians. Far too often, women who are athletic are automatically assumed to be lesbians.
I believe this legacy of sexism is the root of most of the homophobia in women’s sports. Many coaches and administrators are so paranoid about people viewing women’s sports negatively and viewing female athletes as lesbians — that they are determined to keep people who actually are lesbians off their teams. A lot of them, I think, don’t actually care if players are lesbians but they want them to hide it. As long as they keep it completely closeted and secretive, and don’t tell anyone, that’s "ok." But if a player is openly lesbian or gay, they are worried it will affect public support for their programs.
With men the stereotypes are just the opposite of course. The idea of men playings sports fits perfectly with conventional gender stereotypes — and the idea that a male athlete could be gay undercuts that.
Revolution: Penn State let this policy of overt discrimination go on for over twenty years. Last October, four Big Ten coaches were quoted in the press expressing personal support for Portland. What is your sense of the larger support structure for those on the other side of this battle?
Shannon Minter: I think that increasingly the public does not support people being penalized for the sexual orientation, we are right in the middle of a big societal shift on this. We have been really encouraged by how many mainstream sports writers and commentators have come out condemning Rene Portland’s policies and calling for her resignation. USA Today had an editorial calling for her resignation, the student newspaper at the college called for her resignation, a commentator for ESPN called for her resignation.
Things are changing. The public is not comfortable any more with the idea of a player being kicked off a team for being lesbian or gay. I think what we have as well though is an information gap on that point: Most people don’t realize how homophobic sports are. They are surprised when they hear about it. For example, when Penn State conducted its investigation of Coach Portland and confirmed Jennifer’s allegations, many people were shocked and upset and thought Portland should be removed from her position. I’m very encouraged by that.
Revolution: On the other hand Coach Portland got a slap on the wrist from Penn State.
Shannon Minter: We were not happy at all with Penn State’s response. I thought it was very odd that they did an extensive investigation, and confirmed that she had discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation and then failed to take any meaningful action. They fined her $10,000, which at her salary is minimal. It was concerning. I’m not sure what message Penn State intended to send or thought they were sending, that’s still a question for me, but objectively speaking, I fear that the message they sent is that they don’t care. Whether they intended that, I’m not sure. But I do think it gave her the impression she had a green light to carry on. We are still in the middle of litigating that case.
Revolution: And this is not an atypical story.
Shannon Minter: No it isn’t! The one and only thing atypical about the story is that someone was willing to fight back. Jennifer was willing to take action and file a lawsuit. And it is very scary for her — to be twenty years old and take on a coach with tremendous power to destroy Jennifer’s career is daunting. It’s a lot of pressure to put on a twenty-year-old.
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