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Bullied on the Playground

Bullied on the Playground


COMMENTARY: Kobe Bryant made national news April 12 when he denounced a referee as a "faggot" during a basketball game. He apologized, was fined $100,000 by the NBA, yet now pledges to appeal that fine. My reaction to the incident came in waves. At first I was offended by Kobe's use of the antigay slur and then more so by his refusal to accept the fine. Then I felt Kobe should know better because he is African-American and surely must understand the power a hateful word can hold. But later I felt childhood pangs of pain -- from being picked on while on the playground and being picked last (or close to last) for sports teams. While pundits debate what sanction is appropriate for Kobe and implications for the NBA's playoff season, for me, it is this playground pain which provides the key lesson. We must move from a nation where LGBT youth are picked on while at the playground to a world where they are actually picked to be on teams in the playground.

Like many gay men, I was not very athletic as a child. I was small, skinny, and shy. That made the school playground my arch-. My ability to throw a ball paled in comparison to my song-and-dance prowess as Linus in an elementary school production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

Nor was I particularly interested in team sports that required me to play with other boys. I'm sure many of you have been there. You are not wanted on teams because you're not athletic, because you're awkward, or because the other kids think you're gay. Or all of the above. So I always dreaded that inglorious moment. Kids are lined up to pick teams for handball. Popular jocks self-select as team captains and choose from the lineup. Invariably, I stood there sheepishly until I was picked last ... or close to last. I wish no child (gay, straight or anywhere in between) has to endure the anguish of standing on the sidelines while everyone else is picked, until you are the "leftover."

I also dreaded those occasions during P.E. class when the week's sport activity was announced. "Please, no flag football this week." "Good Lord, just let us just run track today so I don't have to interact with anyone." These pleas raced across my internal thought bubbles. I was the child who would rather go play tennis with my sister so I did not have to deal with other kids from school. (Looking back now, the inclination to play tennis with my sister should have been an early sign of my budding gayness., , there was also that propensity to sing with a blanket as Linus in a musical.)

In addition to being a bottom-rung sports pick, I was also picked on. In classrooms it's harder to bully. But once kids run to the playground for recess and P.E. class, watch out. With limited teacher supervision, there's far more opportunity for antigay taunting. Add to that inability to throw a ball correctly, and many gay youth experience cries of "sissy" and the antigay f word on the playground.

For the most part, I have gotten over these childhood pangs. Today, I even fancy myself as somewhat athletic and a dedicated fitness buff. But those pangs from the childhood playground never quite go away, just as I'm sure they don't entirely disappear for other LGBT adults.

That's why the Kobe Bryant situation was so jarring. It wasn't just that Kobe used the reprehensible word "faggot." Far more powerfully, his use of the slur is a sad reminder that playgrounds -- whether in school or in professional sports -- remain a breeding ground for homophobia and intolerance. Most male sports are all about being masculine; apparently to Kobe (and I'm sure to many other pro athletes), being gay is "lesser than" and something that can be demeaned on the court.

This attitude will not change any time soon. That is why there is such a dearth of openly gay athletes -- especially in team sports. Occasionally, a star openly gay or lesbian athlete emerges in individual sports -- witness Olympic champion diver Greg Louganis or tennis icon Martina Navratilova. But in team sports, the straight kids just don't want to play with us. That creates a spiraling cycle, where athletically talented LGBT youth may not feel comfortable pursuing college or professional careers in sports. In turn, fewer gays and lesbians become well-known athletes and role models.

The LGBT community spends so much time focused on advancing our political leverage and legal rights that we can overlook the need to advance culturally. Whether we gays like it or not, sports hold a profound influence in world culture. They make cultural heroes. And rightly or wrongly, they help define popularity and masculinity. One day, I hope for sports arenas to be places where gays and lesbians are welcomed with open arms rather than places where we are derided.

How can we achieve that field of dreams? First, it begins on the school playgrounds where all kids play. Because of gay teen suicides, we are hearing much discourse about antibullying efforts. Let's ask those antibullying campaigns to also teach tolerance in the gymnasium, not just in the classroom. And let's hope they educate teachers and sports coaches, not just students. It is those supervising adults who are needed to crack down when kids taunt each other on the playground.

Second, school athletic teams can encourage a climate for LGBT youth to participate. The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network has its eye on this. Changing the Game: The GLSEN Sports Project seeks to help K-12 schools create a sports and P.E. climate that is inclusive for LGBT kids. One thing I particularly like is its Team Respect Challenge. This encourages athletic squads to sign a Team Respect Pledge, committing to inclusion for all members of the team and school. Among other things, team members would vow to avoid name-calling and to treat other teammates with respect. By changing attitudes on academic sports teams, we slowly improve the whole sports culture.

Third, we need to fix the perception that being openly gay or lesbian in pro sports is bad. Certainly, it would be great for more LGBT pro athletes to come out. And it would be even more powerful for teams and sponsors to stand behind them. Short of that happening, people like Kobe Bryant really could help. Kobe has a moment now when he could convincingly tell the world that being gay is OK in the NBA and in any sport. More than just issuing his own apology, Kobe could gather his Lakers teammates to do the same. I would love to see him pledge GLSEN's Team Respect Challenge. Better yet, the Lakers as a team could so. Or what if the NBA or other sports leagues asked all their teams to sign the Team Respect Challenge? What a powerful symbol that would be for today's kids on the playground.

I'm not naive. I don't expect this all to happen overnight or perhaps ever. But I can certainly hope for my field of dreams. If Kobe Bryant's outburst shows tolerance taking a step backward, it also presents an opportunity to take two steps forward to greater LGBT inclusion. If something good comes out of the scandal, it can be a gradual evolution of attitudes on the court, field, or Astroturf. I want to see the playground stop being a place where gay youth are picked on. I want the playground to evolve into a place where gay kids are picked to play.
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