I’ve written a ton here about the important role sports have and can play in the movement for LGBT equality in the United States and the ways in which the sports world has tried (and in many ways succeeded) in catching up to the rest of mainstream society when it comes to LGBT issues. Most of those efforts have concentrated at the professional or collegiate level, but the You Can Play Project, which partners with sports teams and leagues to carry out its mission to rid sports of homophobia, is now taking its efforts to the high school level.
You Can Play is now partnering with the Colorado High School Athletics Association, its first scholastic partnership below the college level, and it has created a contest in which athletes from high schools around the state will create videos supporting LGBT equality in sports and the project’s broader mission. The first of those videos, from East High School in Denver, came out this week:
High schools remain some of the most dangerous places in the country for LGBT people, especially when it comes to athletics or physical education, where bullying is more common and LGBT participation is weaker even though it has substantial academic and social benefits off the field. Both the perception that sports aren’t as tolerant and the reality that they usually aren’t are driving LGBT students away from them. And while it’s great to hear professional athletes stepping up for equality and acceptance, my own experience in high school athletics leads me to believe that nothing could be more powerful in limiting and ending the abuse LGBT students face — and making them feel accepted and included in both sports and school as a whole — than hearing that message from their fellow students. And given the prominence so many communities grant athletes — and that they are often viewed, rightly or wrongly, as the “cool” kids least likely to accept those who are different — hearing that message from them strikes me as even more powerful.
I was a high school athlete during a time and in a place where LGBT acceptance wasn’t really talked about, especially not in sports. I had gay and lesbian classmates and, even in a town and a school that is more liberal than most when it comes to acceptance, I remember how they were viewed as different. I don’t know if I had any gay teammates — I didn’t ask — and as far as I know from the contact I have with them today I didn’t. I don’t know how we would have felt in that locker room had a guy decided to come out, though I’d like to think we wouldn’t have cared since he was on our team and was helping us win. Here’s what I do know: had I been gay in that locker room, I would have been hesitant about coming out to my teammates, and nothing a professional athlete told me about it being OK to be who I was would have persuaded or comforted me more than hearing it from my own teammates.
That’s why this sort of message strikes me as particularly powerful in its ability to both change the attitudes of people who aren’t ready for tolerance and to make LGBT students feel more comfortable. And while it obviously works in a sporting context — “if you can help the team win, it doesn’t matter your sexuality” is an easily-digestible message — it has the power to translate as so many messages in sports do into something more universal: that you, the student struggling to find yourself in ways that others maybe aren’t, are a positive piece of this team, of this school, of this community and this society no matter who or what you are. That is effective coming from the most prominent people in the country. It’s especially so when it comes from the most prominent of a student’s peers.