As I was writing The Hustle, I grappled with the question of whether sports can be an effective vehicle for social change. In some cases, such as with Jackie Robinson’s integration of baseball, changes on the field presage greater shifts in society. In other areas, though, sports lag behind. One case where this seems to be true is that of acceptance of gays and lesbians – the issue is so taboo that there are no “out” players in all of professional basketball, baseball and football. In addition to that, homophobic language is common in locker rooms across the country.
All of this plays a part in what makes Hudson Taylor exceptional. In March 2010, while wrestling at the Atlantic Coast Conference championships for the University of Maryland, Taylor gained national attention after he placed a sticker for the Human Rights Campaign – an organization that lobbies for LGBT rights – on his wrestling headgear. It’s extremely rare for athletes to speak out for LGBT rights. The action was even more noteworthy because Taylor is straight.
That stand was just a start. Taylor, who is now a wrestling coach at Columbia University, has just launched Athlete Ally, an organization that aims to get straight athletes to pledge to stand against homophobia. “Members of the sports community have the power to affirm, connect and inspire people around the country. By taking small steps based on simple ideas at the heart of sportsmanship – like treating others as you want to be treated – athletes, coaches, parents, fans and administrators can unite a team where each player has unique talents, traits and preferences,” Taylor writes. After a terrible wave of suicides by LGBT teens last year, Taylor’s message is especially urgent.
Taylor and I recently met for an interview. He described his progression towards activism, his thoughts on using sports as a lever of social change, and his goals for Athlete Ally.
How did this all start?
I grew up without any “out” friends, any “out” relatives, so for a long time this was an issue that didn’t affect me, wasn’t important to me. But when I got to college, I started at the University of Maryland as theater major. Pretty much once a month, one of my friends, one of my classmates in theater, would come out. It would just be a very wonderful occasion in which the whole class would cheer and hugs would be exchanged, it was just like we would congratulate this person taking that next step in their life, and it was very wonderful to see. And then a few hours later, on the other side of campus, when I’d be in the locker room with my teammates, arguably my best friends, the people I shared most of my time, effort and energy with, to hear them use that homophobic and derogatory language all of a sudden affected me a lot more than it ever had and made me realize how harmful and divisive and contrary to who I was, and who I thought we were as a team.
How did you handle that dichotomy?
For a while I didn’t speak up, I stayed complacent because I wanted to be accepted and have that affirmation of my teammates as much as the next person. It took a certain amount of time to be accepted by my teammates, I had some athletic success, and then I got voted to be the captain. At a certain point I looked around and realized I’m not looking for anyone’s approval, I’m very confident in who I am and what I believe, and have now been placed in a position to affect positive change. So as a captain, I started with just trying to promote word consciousness: We’re not going to speak negatively to each other about other people, whether that’s racist, sexist, homophobic, whatever, because in my opinion a united team is going to be a successful team, and a divided team is going to be an unsuccessful team, and any type of degrading language, language used to bring somebody down, divides a team. It started with that and I think my teammates were really receptive to it because it was about respect and inclusion and just being mindful of how you spoke.
What happened after you put the Human Rights Campaign sticker on your headgear?
The conversation changed. Before it was about respect, but once the HRC sticker came into the picture it was about politics, it was about religion, it was equated with equal marriage. I think it got to the root of where a lot of the division lies, and was a bit more proactive than just speaking respectfully. Respect is sort of tolerance, it’s not pushing for change, and I think that me putting the HRC sticker on was another push towards just that respect and that inclusion. So I got in a lot of yelling arguments with my teammates, just political battles that could never be won for either of us, we just saw the issue differently, and no matter what I said, no matter what he said, we were never going to find a common ground, or at least we were never going to change each other’s minds. So I learned from that that the common ground is just respect, it’s not about your religious beliefs, it’s not about your political beliefs, it’s about how we treat each other.
Do you think you went too far by wearing that?
Not at all. It taught me an important lesson about how to effectively talk to athletes and how to make this meaningful for athletes, because a lot of athletes grow up in a very insular environment. I wrestled for 19 years, so all of my friends have been wrestlers, all of their friends have been wrestlers, so chances are they haven’t had the exposure to the LGBT community that oftentimes brings about a more open, accepting worldview. And so I think that makes it more difficult for athletes to take that step to being an ally. Just making it about respect I think is something that everyone can understand and agree with regardless of where you come from. But with the sticker, the way that this unfolded, those arguments and those political conversations just kept happening more and more frequently and were really burdensome and really weighed on me, and I was in my senior year and I was looking to win a national title and it just got to a point where the conversation about the sticker was more important than what I was trying to accomplish in my sport. So I eventually decided to take it off and from that point on mention equality or whatever my beliefs were in any interviews I did, and kind of take my activism outside of wrestling a little bit.
What happened then?
I was contacted by Outsports.com and did this interview with them about why I put the sticker on. I gave them my e-mail address and told them they could put it with the interview – I wanted to start a dialog, I wanted to have this conversation with people. I got hundreds and hundreds of e-mails from just that interview. Most of the e-mails were from young, closeted athletes who didn’t feel safe in this space, and I was crying reading a lot of them.
What did they tell you?
How much this one interview affected them or gave them courage to join a sports team. Or, “My younger sister’s gay and I’m a varsity athlete and for a while I haven’t felt comfortable standing up for my younger sibling, I’ve been nervous about what my friends would say, but now, seeing you do it, I’m going to do better.”
It just made me really realize there isn’t a large, prominent voice speaking out in this area. If I can get 500 e-mails as a college wrestler, imagine if we could encourage and empower a professional athlete to really speak out for equality, really speak out for inclusion and respect, it would just go so far into changing the culture of sports.
There are very few professional athletes who have spoken out.
In terms of football, basketball, baseball, there’s never been an “out” male athlete while they were still competing. They all come out after they retire, because there’s a lot of difficult decisions – you have your advertising and PR person telling you, “Oh no, don’t come out because you could lose fans, lose endorsements, lose a lot of money on the line.” It’s a large burden for LGBT athletes to come out, whereas speaking out as an ally, it’s no burden for me. Maybe I’ll get an occasional e-mail but at the same time I’m helping to open the door for athletes to feel comfortable coming out, to feel comfortable participating in a sport that I love.
There have been a few professional athletes who have been allies. Scott Fujita, who plays linebacker for the Cleveland Browns, he’s strongly supported marriage equality and adoption for LGBT parents. Steve Nash has talked about bullying. Charles Barkley has spoken for marriage equality.
What did you do after you started to receive all these e-mails?
I started a blog called Why do you fight? The idea was: “I’m going to encourage the allies to write in and tell the story of why they believe in equality, maybe they have a son or daughter or friends or parents, and that’s why they support equality and do what they do.” My thought was that if a non-ally reads this maybe they’ll find some common ground and be exposed to something they wouldn’t otherwise be. After a while it really dawned on me it wasn’t proactive enough. I had people telling their stories but I had no idea if it was reaching the people it needed to reach. Chances are everybody who was visiting the site was a member of the LGBT community or already an ally. So I think that’s when I started to think: How do we plan the next steps, how do we move forward and really proactively address athletics? And from this Athlete Ally was born.
I secured the domain names, put together a website. One thing that was important was that we had a pledge to eliminate homophobia in sports by agreeing to live to a new standard of integrity. So I figure that was a little more proactive, it speaks directly to the athletic community. Since then I’ve been approached by so many people who have been wiling to help, saying “I had a terrible athletic experience and I love what you’re doing and I want to help change that for others.”
What positions would you like to see athletes taking?
My hope is to really empower athletes to make their own change in their own communities. A coach can set a rule in place or make them sign something, but unless an athlete wants to make a change or feels they need to make a change, it’s going to be very hard to actually reshape the discourse in athletics. So this pledge, trying to get athletes to take the pledge to their athletic communities and really try to mobilize athletes to go out in the world. We’re trying to encourage people to make YouTube videos. I’d like to change the pledge into something that has a little more of a face. Moving forward, I want to try to do “A picture and a promise,” where people can upload a picture and write a paragraph about how they pledge to make a change in their community. I think that would make people feel more part of this movement and eager to share and contribute. I’d also like to make a database from the pledge of safe spaces in sports, so if a football team in Miami signs the pledge, I’d like a young LGBT kid to know that they can go play football in Miami because it’s an open environment. So many people, they don’t know where to turn, they don’t know where to go, there definitely are friends in this area, we just need to show the world where those friends are.
You’ve mentioned before that you’ve taken inspiration from the writings of Martin Luther King Jr.?
I’ve definitely been inspired by his philosophy – the idea that making sure that everybody’s welcome, that everyone has a place at the table, is a common thread. You fight hate with love, there’s no other way to do it or it breeds more hate. I’m not trying to point a finger at anybody or place blame, it’s just we can do better as a group.
Can sports lead social change?
Absolutely. In case of Jackie Robinson, baseball integrated before the military, before voting, so in that instance, it definitely can. Athletics are similar to the military in that it’s a space doesn’t matter where you come from, you’re here together and working towards same goal, and it’s about how well you do that. So I think athletics can lead the way. In terms of homophobia, it’s not. Sports are one of the last closets. We have different states now that have voted for marriage equality, we have “Don’t ask, Don’t tell,” there’s a lot of different areas in which this is a non-issue. It’s moving a lot faster in other areas than athletics.
Why have we seen such changes in the military but not sports?
I don’t think athletics has a strong enough voice. At a certain point there were members of the military that really started to be vocal about it and put themselves on the line to make a change. Thus far we haven’t had a lot of professional athletes do that. In order for this to get more national recognition, that might need to happen. But on the other side of the coin I think straight athletes need to offer the space where that’s OK, that can actually happen. Because until straight teammates say, “Yeah I’m totally comfortable having an ‘out’ teammate,” nobody’s going to come out, nobody’s going to take that step.
So far it’s very early, but 1,500 people have signed the Athlete Ally pledge. Where does it go from here?
The next step is brainstorming and figuring out how we can get more athletes to come out as allies. It doesn’t have to be that loud, but even if you make a small change on your sports team it can make a difference. You don’t know if one of your teammates is closeted, you could be hurting your teammate every single day by using that language and you would never even know it. Just changing how you speak to each other, how you speak to other people, can go a long way, even if you’re at a small high school in the Midwest. Every community has its closet, and I think every athlete has the responsibility to open the door a little bit.