Hudson Taylor's story at the University of Maryland doesn't start with his advocacy for LGBT rights — it starts with wrestling.
A three-time All-American in the sport, Taylor could have completely enclosed himself in the wrestling culture and not worried about anything but collecting national accolades. But as he studied theater and Interactive Performance Art, he became aware of the vast differences between how LGBT people in the theater department were treated compared to those in athletics. Take a wild guess at which culture has the larger problem accepting its LGBT peers.
When Taylor stepped onto the wrestling mat wearing a Human Rights Campaign LGBT equality sticker, the country took took notice. A combination of media attention and emails from parents and closeted LGBT athletes drove Taylor to start Athlete Ally, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating people around the world about LGBT issues as they appear in athletics.
I had the immense privilege of asking Hudson Taylor some questions about not only Athlete Ally, but also the LGBT sports culture at large.
Christine Salek (CS): What is the primary goal of Athlete Ally?
Hudson Taylor (HT): Athlete Ally is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization to raise awareness about and end homophobia and transphobia in sports by educating and empowering straight and LGBT members of the professional, collegiate, and high school athletic communities to create a safe and welcoming athletic environment.
CS: How many teams and athletes have joined the Athlete Ally movement? Can you name a few of them?
HT: Currently, our ally count sits at 13,133 but is updating every day! Please visit AthleteAlly.org to get the most recent update. Athlete Ally also includes an advisory board of athletes, media, academics, and other sports professionals that help drive the organization's programmatic work. The Advisory Board includes:
- Brendon Ayanbadejo, Chairman of Athlete Ally Advisory Board, NFL Player
- Kathleen Behrens, Executive Vice President, Social Responsibility & Player Programs, NBA
- LZ Granderson, Journalist and Commentator, CNN & ESPN
- Brett Haber, Sportscaster, The Tennis Channel
- David Kopay, Former National Football League Player, Author of The David Kopay Story
- Mark Kriegel, Commentator on NFL Network's morning show "NFL AM," Author of Namath: A Biography; Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich; and The Good Son: The Life of Boom Boom Mancini
- Beth A. Livingston, Assistant Professor of Human Resource Studies, Cornell University
- Martina Navratilova, Professional Tennis Player and Coach
- Akil Patterson, Director of Programs; Greco-Roman Athlete, Terrapin Wrestling Club
- Nick Rogers, President, Minnesota United Football Club
- Robbie Rogers, Former Professional Soccer Player
- Erin Sharoni, Host, "Romering the World," Jim Rome on Showtime
- Rennae Stubbs, Professional Tennis Player
CS: NBA player Jason Collins publicly came out in April, and this month, Robbie Rogers of Major League Soccer and Jallen Messersmith of Benedictine College's basketball team did the same. Each were the first in their respective leagues to do so. While it's a stretch to say that these events are connected, are there any common factors that you believe gave these athletes the courage to come out to the sports world?
HT: I am extremely proud of the actions taken by Jason, Robbie, and Jallen — without a doubt the trio have exuberant courage and bravery while creating a momentous shift in how we view inclusion of LGBT athletes in sport. That being said, it has been due to the combined work of multiple parties internally and externally that has made the venue of sports a more accepting and welcoming place for every individual to truly be themselves. Athlete Ally is working to keep this overarching momentum at a peak so that other athletes can be themselves and allies can ubiquitously support them.
CS: Brittney Griner acknowledged the fact that she is a lesbian following the WNBA draft, and several more female professional athletes in sports with "major" male counterparts — like the WNBA and Women's Professional Soccer league — have come out in the years before Collins. While Collins' coming out is certainly noteworthy and commendable, why do you think that female athletes coming out as lesbian or bisexual is more "accepted" than men doing the same?
HT: It is about the space we create in sports — female athletic personnel have done a commendable job in streamlining inclusion of all athletes regardless of sexual orientation. Male sports can look to leagues such as the WNBA, and others, for effective models of how to eliminate homophobia and transphobia in sports. Once that happens, I am confident that men and women alike will be able to not only be themselves on the playing surface, but also off of it as well. I'll say though that homophobia in women's sports is still a significant challenge and something that we all must place significant emphasis on.
CS: Fallon Fox is a transgender female MMA fighter whose gender identity has created a stir in both the MMA community and among sports fans at large. With transgender female athletes, the comment that they "used to be male" often comes up, as many claim this creates an "unfair advantage" over their fellow female athletes. What’s the best way for someone unfamiliar with trans* athletes or trans* individuals to understand that the gender with which these people identify should be the only relevant one, both in daily life and sports?
HT: Understanding stems from education, and that is what is needed most across multiple sports leagues. MMA is not the only entity facing questions regarding transgender athletes. In fact, the NCAA just came out with a new guide on best practices for providing inclusive spaces for LGBT athletes, which I helped to author. Just as Athlete Ally strives to do, professionals in sport, who have knowledge of LGBT inclusion, must step up and be trailblazers for everyone else. Once this occurs, a significant shift of thinking towards that of understanding, accepting, and welcoming all athletes regardless of their gender identity, will occur.
CS: It's rumored that several gay NFL players are thinking about coming out, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has already voiced his support for these players. However, several other players have made offensive comments about potentially having gay teammates. Do you think the NFL will accept its "out" LGBT athletes similar to the NBA's supportive reception of Jason Collins' announcement, or might some aspects of American football culture — that it's a "masculine" sport, for instance — make that more difficult?
HT: Stereotypes exist for many people and things, but they are quickly eradicated when individuals choose to become educated and realize everyone is a human being, regardless of sexual orientation. The NFL is definitely a leader in its own right in this space. I am very hopeful that if a player were to come out in the league, the response will be as positive as Commissioner Goodell anticipates. His comments were very inspiring and set a fantastic example.
CS: How much are you aware of LGBT sports cultures overseas? What kinds of similarities and differences do you see to the United States?
HT: We are very in tune with LGBT culture abroad, and our list of ambassadors includes a growing number of athletes from outside the U.S., like rugby star David Pocock in Australia, and Alex Blackwell, a world-champion cricketer. Similarly, there is deeply rooted homophobia in sporting culture in other countries that we need to help stamp out, and engaging even more international athletes is one of our main focuses going forward.
CS: You're an assistant wrestling coach at Columbia University. How has your work at Athlete Ally influenced your coaching, or vice versa?
HT: As a coach, I have the utmost responsibility in setting an example for my athletes, and every day that I interact with these young men and the teams we face is another chance to ensure their behavior represents inclusivity and openness. They certainly teach me a lot, and I hope coaching and mentoring them continues to show that there's no room for homophobia or transphobia in sports or any other part of life. I believe though that wrestling is one of the most diverse and inclusive sports in the world, so it's no surprise to me that our athletes are very responsive and receptive to my work in this space.
CS: What was the LGBT culture like at your alma mater, University of Maryland, both inside and outside of sports?
HT: The homophobic and transphobic language I was exposed to both inside athletic culture and in everyday student culture was part of the reason I became an LGBT advocate. The culture has improved steadily, and we have scores of University of Maryland athletic alums who now support Athlete Ally. In fact, the University of Maryland may the most frequent alma mater among our list of professional ambassadors. Go Terps!
CS: How can non-LGBT athletes support their LGBT teammates or coaches?
HT: Straight allyship is one of the most crucial parts of the Athlete Ally movement. When non-LGBT individuals stand in solidarity with their LGBT teammates and friends, it allows for everyone to feel more comfortable being whom they are.
CS: How do you reach out to recreational athletes, coaches, and parents?
HT: One of the main ways we try and reach recreational athletes and fans is through engaging professional athletes that are given a powerful platform with their celebrity and fan base — like Kenneth Faried, Andy Roddick, Connor Barwin and others. Outreach through speaking engagements, our affiliates, and our online presence are all important as well, and we continue to strive to reach as many people as possible.
CS: What’s your best advice for an athlete who wants to come out to their coach or teammates, but may be apprehensive about doing so?
HT: Coming out can be a trying process, and requires an incredible amount of bravery and fortitude. But if you're willing to sit down with your coach or your teammates, and to open up and be honest, a mutual respect should be shared. The NCAA's policy leaves no room for anti-LGBT bullying or discrimination, and we continue to work with the organization to ensure policy and practice coincide to allow LGBT athletes to come out and remain valued members of their teams.
CS: Where do you hope to see Athlete Ally in the future?
HT: We hope to remain the leading voice in support of LGBT athletes and straight allies, and to work with major sporting associations to provide trainings and workshops to help educate players on how to best support LGBT teammates and fans. We will continue to build a presence at colleges and universities across the country, starting the conversation on campuses where LGBT issues may be taboo to discuss. Our simplest purpose is to continue to make a positive impact, and as we gain more support from athletes in the U.S. and abroad, I think we will achieve this goal.
CS: How can others get involved with Athlete Ally?
HT: To get involved with Athlete Ally, sign our pledge at athleteally.org and stand with our message. If you're someone who's in school and would like to be an Ambassador for us, email email@example.com for more information. We are always in need of strong vocal supporters, and encourage anyone who supports our mission to engage with us on social media as well, through Facebook (/AthleteAlly), Twitter (@AthleteAlly) and Instagram (@athleteally).