Take one look at rugby superstar Ben Cohen or Columbia University wrestling coach Hudson Taylor and you’ll see why gay men across America are in total swoon. But the adoration is more than skin-deep. Much more. These two straight athletes are out, loud and proud advocates against homophobia and bullying, particularly against gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth. Ask any gay man and he’ll tell you that Cohen and Taylor are right out of central casting for the role of the popular, good-looking athlete who swoops in to tell the bullies to leave us alone.
I met these two inspiring leaders at a dinner last night hosted by the Human Rights Campaign to honor Cohen (right), who retired just 11 days ago and formed the Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation to combat bullying “wherever and to whomever it occurs” with special attention on the LGBTQ community.
With Cohen in front of me and Taylor to my right, it was hard not to think of how their positive examples contrast with those of Kobe Bryant and Joakim Noah. Two professional athletes whose recent anti-gay remarks on the basketball court led to fines levied by the NBA — $100,000 for Bryant and $50,000 for Noah — and, in the case of Bryant, a PSA promoting compassion and understanding. Taylor views this as a partial victory.
“People only record a PSA or make a statement when there’s a feeling that someone’s been assaulted or offended in some way,” Taylor, below, told me. “It’s not an internal desire to actually make a change in the athletic culture. So, it’s great that there is a fine of $100,000 or $50,000. I think
that that means that shows how far athletics is going but the fact that it takes an incident in order for someone to make a statement about gay slurs that’s indicative of how far we have yet to go.”
Let’s face it. Athletes hold a certain status in our culture. What they do and say has an impact on millions of people, especially the young. Whether they like it or not, they have a responsibility to act in a manner worthy of the adulation they engender. It’s a responsibility taken very seriously by Taylor, who talks to young athletes about the power of their words to hurt and isolate. His foundation, Athlete Ally, asks everyone involved in sports to sign a pledge to take proactive steps to stamp out homophobia and transphobia in sports. Here’s how he responded when I asked him what he would say to one of his wrestlers if he’d dropped the gay slur f-bomb.
Well, I think the biggest thing is to give them a sense of perspective. It’s to make them aware that how they speak to each other and how they speak to other people and about other people matters, not only for the well-being of the team but also for the well-being of themselves, of their character, of their legacy. So, I think it’s important that I stress the heart of athletics, the beauty of athletics is it’s that space where we compete together regardless of our differences. So, if you’re white, if you’re black, if you’re young, if you’re old we’re all coming together to accomplish the same goal and when we use derogatory or demeaning language what it does is it creates a culture of individuals and that hurts our potential to accomplish our goals. I try to stress the importance of victory through unity and that we are only going to be the team and the athletic culture we know we can be when everybody is made to feel welcome, respected, safe, included, equal.
For many, that f-bomb and other homophobic words aren’t considered a big deal. Taylor turned philosophical when I asked how young athletes react to his inclusive message. “I think a lot of the problem stems from masculine and feminine gender scripts,” he said. “There’s this kind of myth that in order to be a successful athlete you have to be masculine. In order to be masculine you have to be straight. And I think that a lot of athletes, their initial reaction is such that using homophobic language is a way of declaring their straightness. By degrading others in that way or using that word in a negative context . . . in some way asserts my being a heterosexual.”
“There are two kinds of obstacles that need to be overcome for younger athletes,” Taylor continued in earnest. “[O]ne, redefining what it means to be a man or a woman or what is athletic? What is masculine? And the second is just really making them aware that, you know, for me, I never felt I had an out teammate. I never had an out friend. But that doesn’t meant that I never knew anybody who was closeted. [T]he truth is chances are that every athlete at some point in their life or every coach at some point in their life has encountered a closeted athlete who is being made to live a life less than what they should be and that’s because they are being made to feel isolated and segregated because of other people’s words.”
Before Taylor bolted the dinner (not because of my persistent questioning but because he had to catch the 10 p.m. train back to New York), he made a rather interesting observation about the difference in the reaction to bullying between successful male and female athletes. “Where are the female allies,” he asked? “There’s an assumption that because you’re a successful female athlete that you’re gay. So you have a lot of female athletes who are being kept in the closet as [straight] allies. And you have male athletes who are kept in the closet because of their sexual orientation.”
Straight professional athletes have become more vocal in their support of gay rights. In New York, Sean Avery of the New York Rangers hockey team and Phoenix Suns basketball player Steve Nash have taken a public stance in that state’s push for same-sex marriage. More need to add their voices to those advocating equality, compassion and respect. Then finally one day athletes from school gymnasiums to domed stadiums will know that dropping the f-bomb and other homophobic terms that hurt and isolate fellow teammates and others isn’t cool.