Locker Room Bullies

05/25/2011 12:05 pm ET

"We're not trying to downgrade anyone else."

Indianapolis Colts Coach Tony Dungy trying to explain why his active support for a same-sex marriage ban is OK is somehow not a statement against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in USA Today.

I've always been a New England Patriots fan. Now I have even more reason to be.

Indianapolis Colts Coach Tony Dungy spoke at the anti-gay "Indiana Family Institute" fundraiser on March 20, applauding the group's efforts to deny marriage equality to same sex couples and saying that people like him who were so doing were "on the Lord's side." Aside from wondering when our Savior put Tony on his speed dial, I was reminded of the pervasiveness of anti-gay bigotry in sports.

Not that I needed much of a reminder. On March 21, my friends Judy and Steve called me and said they had two extra tickets to the New York Rangers' game. I am a hockey fanatic, who plays for the New York City Gay Hockey Association and has an NHL "Center Ice" subscription from my local cable company so I can catch every game, so I took my 24 year old nephew Chris and off we went. We were three rows behind the visiting Philadelphia Flyers bench and towards the end of the second period the guy behind me yelled at one of the Philly players that he was a "faggot." I decided to give him one "get out of jail free" card and confront him only if he did it again. He did not disappoint. Early in the third period the F-word flew out again which was not only unnecessary (since we were shutting out the Flyers 4-0 at the time and Ranger Colton Orr had knocked out Philadelphia's Todd Fedoruk just 21 seconds into the game, it seemed like piling on) but also offensive, so I turned and said, "You know, I'm gay, and I don't really appreciate your yelling that over and over again." In amazement, he said "Are you really gay?" to which I replied, "Yes, I really am!" Imagine: a gay person at a hockey game!

The fact is, the culture that silences LGBT people in sports and either makes them choose to leave or be invisible starts early and is aided and abetted by authority figures like Mr. Dungy. High school students report that bath and locker rooms are one of the two places in a school where they are most likely to hear anti- LGBT comments (the other being hallways). The GLSEN 2005 National School Climate Survey of LGBT high school students coaches were the school personnel they felt least comfortable raising issues with (in order from best to least, it was teachers, counselors, principals, librarian, nurses and then, in dead last, coaches). PE was just ahead of math as the class where LGBT issues were least likely to be addressed which, given the frequency of anti-LGBT comments in those settings, speaks to the silence of athletic staff that implicitly endorses this anti-LGBT behavior (remember the words of Nobel Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel: " remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all..."). Athletic stars like Tim Hardaway learn early on to disdain LGBT people and that speaking out against them is OK.

Folks like Mr. Dungy need to take responsibility for creating such a climate through their actions (or, in the case of the pervasive anti-LGBT commentary we hear in locker rooms, on playing fields, and at sporting events, their inaction). You can't advocate for denying rights to someone and then say you aren't trying to downgrade them. To paraphrase Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? "But you are, Tony! You are downgrading someone else!" When you go on, there are several definitions for "coach." One is "a person who trains an athlete or a team of athletes: a football coach." Another is "to give instruction or advice to in the capacity of a coach; instruct." The instruction that Mr. Dungy is giving is "LGBT people are not entitled to the same rights as other people." There is no way around it. Sorry, Coach Dungy: your explanation just doesn't fly. You are downgrading some of your fellow Americans (and your players, and your fans: trust me, we're in your locker room and in your stands).

I am proud that my organization, GLSEN, has worked with groups like the Women's Sports Foundation to create resources to address anti-LGBT climate in sports, namely It Takes a Team! Making Sports Safe for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Athletes and Coaches. We'll gladly conduct a free training for NFL coaches. Until then, though, all I can say: Go Pats!