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Grandma of the Movement

Longtime Valley educator and activist Pat Griffin is a pioneer of LGBTQ sports equality.

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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

At a national conference focusing on the New Agenda for Women in Sport, held in Washington, D.C. in 1981, Pat Griffin, a speaker from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, took the opportunity to discuss her experience confronting homophobia as a lesbian athlete and coach.

“When I was coaching [the women’s swim team] at UMass, I became sort of the ‘underground’ lesbian coach that lesbian student athletes could talk to,” Griffin reflected a few days after our meeting at a local coffee shop here in the Valley. “I hated it that they were struggling so much and so closeted themselves. It really motivated me to work to change sports.”

At the D.C. conference, Griffin felt that she had to speak out.

“It caused quite a stir to say ‘lesbian’ and ‘homophobia’ in that context,” continued Griffin, “but it was very empowering, and I was off and running.”

Thirty years later, Dr. Pat Griffin has enjoyed an unprecedented career in which she has managed to combine her passions as an athlete, coach, educator, organizer and activist, and in so doing she has advanced the cause of LGBTQ sports equality, as she refers to it, as much as anyone in the country, if not the world.

The past few years have seen an unprecedented amount of support for marriage equality and gay rights from the sports community, especially from professional male athletes. Notable names like the NBA’s Steve Nash and Grant Hill, the NFL’s Scott Fujita and Brendan Ayanbadejo, and Sean Avery in the NHL have all spoken out against homophobia and bullying based on sexual orientation. As Outsports founder and publisher Cyd Ziegler noted, sports, “the last closet,” is not as homophobic as it used to be.

But until last month, when the NBA’s Jason Collins became the first active male athlete in a major American sport to announce he is gay, that piece of history had yet to be written.

“I am not surprised that a male pro in a major sport came out,” offered Griffin, saying she hopes his public announcement is the first of many. “I think his article in SI [Sports Illustrated] does a wonderful job describing the pain of playing in the closet. Jason Collins is a great role model for young athletes of all sexual orientations.”

“I hope, now that the first male pro has come out, we can focus our attention on young athletes, male and female, who are struggling with their sexual identities or who have coaches who are not supportive and respectful,” Griffin added.

Work in the LGBTQ sports equality movement is far from finished. But there is no denying that the past few years have seen enormous social progress in the political arena as well as the sports world. And these recent victories are due, in part, to the years of dedicated work by pioneers like Griffin.

Griffin came to UMass to pursue an advanced degree in sports studies, eventually authoring the book Strong Women, Deep Closets: Lesbians and Homophobia in Sports. Later she helped create the university’s social justice education program, for which she co-edited and contributed chapters to Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice: A Sourcebook for Teachers and Trainers.

In addition to her work at the university, she has served as director of the Women’s Sports Foundation initiative It Takes A Team! Education Campaign for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Issues in Sport, and as the founding director of the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s (GLSEN) sports-centered organization Changing the Game.

Griffin was named Outsports’ Person of the Year for 2011, along with Helen Carroll, another longtime activist whose work has included leading the National Center for Lesbian Rights’ (NCLR) Sports Project.

And last summer, Griffin, Carroll and Ziegler organized the first-ever LGBTQ sports advocacy meeting, The event, which was sponsored by Nike and held at its corporate headquarters outside of Portland, Ore., was attended by a handful of the movement’s most prominent activists and organizers, including Anna Aegenes from GO! Athletes, ESPN columnist LZ Granderson, and Patrick Burke, scout for the Philadelphia Flyers and founder of the You Can Play Project.

“Nike has been very interested in funding this,” Griffin tells me. “They’ve really stepped up.”

Admitting that concerns about labor practices kept her from wearing Nike’s famed swoosh for years, Griffin suggests the athletic apparel giant sees LGBTQ inclusion as a marketing opportunity. “I think this fits with their corporate image,” she adds, “of creating a movement of sports for everyone.”

Nike regularly sells T-shirts at Portland Pride, Griffin tells me. And she tells me that last year, they donated all the proceeds from those sales—an impressive $18,000—to Changing the Game, the organization Griffin founded to make “K-12 sports and physical education inclusive and safe for all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity,” the organization’s website reads.

In her work for Changing the Game, Griffin created an LGBTQ inclusion curriculum to be used by coaches, educators and administrators at high schools anywhere in the country.

“The NCAA [National Collegiate Athletic Association] is very centralized and effective at reaching their constituents,” Griffin explains. “But the K-12 level is more complicated, because it is done through the states. It is less defined.”

While Griffin developed a 90-page report with recommendations for the NCAA on GLBTQ inclusion, she says suggesting such sweeping change at the high school level is much more difficult, even if today’s young athletes are generally more progressive than their high school coaches.

“While the agenda is starting to move at the college level,” she continues, “K-12 remains behind.” 

But while the progress she sees in collegiate and professional athletics is gratifying, Griffin tells me she is still very concerned about the sexism embedded in the popular sports community’s fight against homophobia.

“Before these past few years, it was virtually all women doing this work,” she says, noting that the sexism and homophobia faced by straight female allies is still far worse than that experienced by their male counterparts.

“As I celebrate the growth of … [the] LGBT sports equality movement,” Griffin recently wrote on her blog (http://ittakesateam.blogspot.com/), “I have had a nagging concern that has blossomed now into a full-blown red flag of frustration. It is this: Concern about homophobia in women’s sports has somehow taken a seat on the bench as all the starters in this game focus on men’s sports.”

(Last month, this year’s number one Women’s National Basketball Association pick Brittany Griner mentioned that she was gay in an interview with Sports Illustrated. Her announcement didn’t receive nearly the attention that Collins’ SI interview has.)

“Somehow,” Griffin continues, “with all of the attention focused on men’s sports, homophobia in women’s sports is in danger of being treated as either a non-issue or a less important issue.”

And this, she says, is far from being the case. The next step, suggests Griffin, is to encourage and support straight female athletes who are supportive of their LGBTQ colleagues to speak out, and to challenge the men already speaking out to remember that their fight is not the only battle.

Thankfully, says Griffin, there are a handful of accomplished LGBTQ sports equality advocates already continuing the work she has been engaged in for more than three decades.

“I’m the grandma of the movement now,” Griffin says of her role as mentor to the next generation of activists such as Kye Allums, Athlete Ally’s Hudson Taylor, and Nevin Caple of Break the Silence. “The movement is going to be just fine.”

And that legacy makes her life’s work even more impressive.•

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