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Voice To Voice: Akil Patterson And Josh Dixon Discuss Race And Sexual Orientation In Sports

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Each month Athlete Ally and Huffington Post will feature a new Voice to Voice segment featuring LGBT and ally people of color leading the movement to end homophobia, biphobia, sexism and transphobia in athletics. The discussions will focus on the interplays of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity, and how those relationships affect LGBT inclusion and allyship in sports. Topics may include faith, family, health, body, immigration, community, stigma, visibility, economic status, violence, masculinities and femininities, language and more. Kye Allums, Ashland Johnson and Akil Patterson, all active and accomplished LGBTQ advocates, will act as lead moderators for the initiative. They will be joined by guest moderators Katheryn King and Alyssa Puno.

This month Akil Patterson talks with gymnast great Josh Dixon.

Akil Patterson: Josh, I am honored to have a chance to interview you, and to have a discussion with a fellow active LGBT athlete and Olympic hopeful. Very few know the amount of dedication it takes to get to this level of competition, and I just want to commend you for your commitment to your craft.

With that being said, many athletes come out at the end of their careers in sports, but you did it in the midst of the most important few months of your life. Similarly, I did so two years before the Olympic trials in wrestling and during one of my best seasons. Why did you choose to come out, and how was the response from your community as a whole?
Josh Dixon: For me it wasn’t really a question of where I was in my gymnastics career, it was more or less a decision to be more of a role model and to say, “You know, it’s okay to be yourself in the sporting world.” I was actually talking with one of my old teammates from Stanford, and he brought up the fact that I was in a very unique position being a US national team member in a very recognizable Summer Games sport. This was the quoted piece from the article in OUT Magazine.

Recently, an older former college teammate visited and urged me to speak out. He told me, “Now that you’re out to your close friends, you’re in a very powerful position to break down barriers, especially in gymnastics.” I realized I have an obligation, a responsibility to say, “It’s okay to be gay in our sport.” Ultimately, it’s about your gymnastics, whether you’re worthy to be on the team or in the sport.

Patterson: When you came out, did you have the blessing of your team and family? I would assume you had told many of your teammates even before your family.
Dixon: I definitely had the support of my friends and family. Some of my teammates and friends at Stanford were very supportive of my coming out way back during the end of my junior year and beginning of senior year. It was just great to have that support and it was such a burden taken off of my shoulders.

Patterson: My experience is in contact sports and combat sports, like wrestling and football. I really spend much of my time fighting my opponents in one form or another, and a victor is declared when someone outworks his opponent and scores more points. On the other hand, you’re in what I would call a strength and finesse sport where subjective judgment is used to figure out a winner. Do you ever think that your race or sexual orientation affects the judges and holds you back?
Dixon: Gymnastics is definitely a subjective sport; however, I’ve never felt a level of "unfairness" based on who I am. My mindset is that I just have to be undeniably better than the people I’m competing against and the results will pan out. There are definitely instances of speculation as to how certain guys obtained certain scores and were selected to certain teams, and your past credentials, resume and ranking in the sport may or may not play into that, but ultimately if I let that bother me or if I focus my attention on that, then I’ve already lost. I’ve already placed my focus on a potentially irrelevant externality, which is a complete waste of time.

One of my teammates is always speculating: “You know the only way I’ll make it is if so and so gets injured or I get really lucky because the men’s program hates me…etc.” The more I’m immersed in the highest level of gymnastics in our country, the crazier certain speculations of the "politics" can get, but honestly I see that as a big excuse for not holding oneself accountable for doing everything possible to be undeniably better than said people who are your direct competition.

Patterson: Growing up, I was in a more traditional home from the start, with my parents being married for over 30 years and raising three straight children, as well as myself. I was their All-American kid, with a national title under my belt and several All-American awards in two sports. We are also an east coast New York/New Jersey family where we speak our thoughts and feelings to each other, which made my coming out to them a very simple and straightforward conversation. You, on the other hand, are a west coast kid and were adopted by your parents. Within a multi-racial family, how was it for you coming out and growing up in a mixed ethnic culture?
Dixon: Yes, it was very different. There are different social cultures that exist from one coast to another, and certainly from one family to another, but the understanding human element exists everywhere. If anything, I was in the most accepting environment at Stanford University to come out and the time was just right. There isn’t a right or wrong way, it was just time for me to be who I was and I had the people and family around me to do so. I’ve had that around me my entire life, a compassionate and loving support system, it was more or less me getting over myself. I was scared to have that conversation with myself and wasn’t ready to until later during my time at Stanford. It certainly helped that I had met somebody who is very close to my heart, a fellow gay student-athlete who helped me navigate the path, and for that I couldn’t have really asked for anything more.

Patterson: As someone with a mixed racial background of Japanese and African American in a sport that many would consider very posh and not so diverse, have you ever experienced racism either in the school setting or directly in your sport of gymnastics?
Dixon: Not really, actually. I was fortunate enough to grow up in the Bay Area, where it’s such a melting pot of so many different cultures, races and religions. There are certainly patterns of who participates in certain sports due to the high price of privatized club sports and areas in which certain sports are even offered to youth, but I never really gave too much attention to it at all. Growing up in a mixed-race family, if anything, taught me right away that acceptance of anybody no matter what they look like is just the right thing to do, and I didn’t know otherwise. Something my sisters and I find semi-comical now is that the older we got, was that when we would go out to family dinners the wait staff would think that I was dating one of them simply because I’m the only dark skinned person in my family.

Patterson: Because I identify as African American, I find myself drawn to people that look like me and are able to relate to my experiences; even being in a predominantly white sport I still gravitate to people of color. Even my exes, minus my first boyfriend who was white, have all been Black or Latino. For you as a mixed man, do you find yourself drawn to having friends and being in relationships with Asian Americans and African Americans?
Dixon: Haha! There are a lot of things that determine attractiveness, and thankfully I haven’t found a trend based upon skin color. I’ve actually only dated one guy in my lifetime so I guess I can’t really answer more than that.

Patterson: So as you may know, I have a “spy” everywhere, and the ones here at the Olympic training center were shocked when I said I was coming to interview an openly gay gymnast. When I said your name and described you to them they were shocked to find out that you are gay. Does that happen a lot, and how many women’s hearts have you broken?
Dixon: Interesting. Shocked to find out that I’m gay? I’m not really sure. I haven’t asked any of my friends if it was a shock. I would probably say that most of them wouldn’t take it as much of anything. Probably along the lines of “Oh nice, I’m happy for you. Now what are we going to do for dinner?” As for girls, that’s kind of funny because I’ve gotten that a lot from quite a few of my friends who are girls, or from some of their friends. A recent texting conversation from a wedding I was at went something along the lines of “Hey my friend has been asking all about you and she wants to know if you are single.” I responded with, “Go ahead, give it your best shot. I must say he is a handsome guy.” Haha, oh the heartbreak. I’m flattered to say the least, but sorry ladies, I dig guys.

Patterson: You have expressed to me that you have other openly gay teammates. One question that I am asked and really never talk about is the potential for inter-squad or team dating. For me, I’ve spent far too much time around wrestlers and football players and know how “we” are, and I could never see myself with someone I see and compete with every day. On the other hand, many lesbian athletes I have spoken to say that they encounter it regularly. What about you? Do you see inter-squad dating, and if so do you see it being an issue?
Dixon: I’m open to the idea but probably wouldn’t. It’s too much of the same thing. Yes, we would share a huge part of our lives and what we know about sport, but I need a definite change of pace when I comes to anything dating or on a more intimate level.

Patterson: You, Kwame Harris and Jason Collins, all top-level athletes, came out as gay and all attended Stanford. While each of you has a different story, Kwame seemed to have a more difficult time with his transition from an athlete to living as openly gay. What was your experience on the Stanford campus? Did you come out there? What made your transition into living an open life different?
Dixon: My experience at Stanford was just awesome. So many good memories, friends and experiences that will last a lifetime, and I’m so lucky to have that. Yes, I did come out there and it was definitely a lengthy internal process but one I eventually made because I was at Stanford and because of the people in my life at that time. I thought to myself, if not here and now, then when?

Patterson: Josh, thanks for taking the time to talk with me
Dixon: Thanks for having me talk!

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