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Creating An Atmosphere Of Inclusion For ‘The Invisible Minority’

In early January I informed my editorial "adviser" of Coach And Athletic Director magazine, as well as the publisher, about my plan to write the following column in the February issue of the magazine. Within a couple of hours, the column I had written exclusively since mid-2011 had been assigned to someone else. When pressed about it, I was told this topic "did not fit the vision statement of Coach And Athletic Director" and was of "limited interest to our readers." I now do not work for the company and have opted to self-publish the column due to my belief that gay high school students are being discouraged from participating in athletics, and today's coaches and athletic directors must do more to create an atmosphere of inclusion.

It’s not about affixing a rainbow bumper sticker to your car. It’s not about marching in a parade. It’s not about changing your philosophy on marriage. But, it is about 47.8 percent of heterosexual high school students participating in athletics compared to just 23.2 percent of their LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) counterparts, according to the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN). It is about creating an open atmosphere where all athletes feel safe, loved and valued regardless of to whom they are attracted.  

“Gay student-athletes can be invisible on scholastic sports teams because you can’t just look at someone and know they are gay,” says Dan Woog, the head boys soccer coach at Staples High School in Westport, Conn., a member of the Connecticut Soccer Hall of Fame and an openly gay man who is the author of 16 books, two of which cover the topic of gay males in athletics. “It’s easy to think they do not exist and it’s not an issue in your program. The gay athletes are the invisible minority.”

This minority remains invisible as coaches and athletic directors stand idly by while gay slurs are tossed around a locker room. It’s hard to feel comfortable in an athletic setting with your peers when you constantly hear the word “gay” used to mean weak, soft or not as good, or when the term “fag” is spewed by individuals who have no other way to tear down someone else. In the 2011 National School Climate Survey conducted by GLSEN, which featured responses from 8,584 student respondents, 84.9 percent of LGBT students reporting hearing “gay” used in a negative way while 71.3 percent heard homophobic slurs frequently at school.

Athletics is supposed to provide a refuge for all teenagers to escape from the rigors of the classroom and pursue activities of particular interest to them. That becomes hard to do when the feelings deep inside someone constantly are under attack.

As the coach or athletic director, you set the tone. It’s your locker room. You make the rules.

“We’re finding the use of slurs is dying down considerably when coaches make a big deal of it,” Woog says. “Address the behavior and it will end. But, if you allow it to become part of the background noise, then athletes feel like they have the approval of the coach to use that language.”

Enacting Change

Beyond simply forbidding hateful language in your locker room, look to create a more open atmosphere for all athletes to compete on your teams, regardless of sexual orientation. Yes, this helps the LGBT students feel more accepted but also shows your heterosexual athletes how an inclusive society works.

GLSEN supports schools and administrators in this effort with national campaigns aimed at creating awareness for the invisible minority. Each January, No Name-Calling Week is initiated as a campaign designed to reduce bullying and increasing communication within the scholastic setting. Every April (this year it's Friday, April 19), GLSEN promotes its National Day Of Silence, which specifically addresses sexual-orientation name-calling while encouraging students to take an active stand against anti-LGBT behavior.

Woog, who works closely with GLSEN, says coaches who participate in both the No Name-Calling Week and National Day Of Silence send a clear message to their athletes about the type of program they are running. He also addresses four other strategies for creating an inclusionary atmosphere.

1.      Keep Your Ears Open. Pay attention to the news. Right now, the topic of gay marriage is being debated within the United States Supreme Court. And, during the week of the Super Bowl, San Francisco cornerback Chris Culliver made insensitive remarks about the possibility of a gay athlete in the locker room. Use these timely events to encourage conversation among your athletes.

2.      Monitor Their Language. Previously mentioned, curtailing slurs is one of the easiest ways to show your stance on bigotry and hate within your program.

3.      Use Inclusive Words In Your Language. Woog says instead of defaulting to using a term like “your future wife,” say something like, “when you find someone you love.” “This kind of subtle message shows athletes there is a big world out there,” Woog explains.

4.      Urge Athletes Out Of Their Comfort Zone. If you routinely offer suggestions for good books or movies, occasionally suggest one with a gay theme. When doing so, tell your athletes to monitor their reactions.

The world continues to change and evolve. Woog says gay high school athletes today are far better off than even just three years ago due to a shift in attitudes (consider positive efforts made by current NFL players Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo). GLSEN’s 2011 survey found a decrease (for the first time ever) in biased language and victimization of LGBT students. Yet, 81.9 percent of LGBT students report being harassed, which shows we’re not doing enough. Coaches and athletic directors – it’s time to step up, face whatever fears you have, change the culture in your locker room and do the right thing to ensure the safety of your athletes while encouraging those on the sidelines to become part of your program.