Sport and Social Change - A Chance to Play as a Team

Posted by Wayves volunteer Hugo Dann 8/05/2013

By Keith MacMillan

Jason Collins, sporting "98" for the Boston Celtics, a number he wears in honour of gay university student Matthew Sheppard, who was murdered in an infamous homophobic slaying in 1998.

Jason Collins opened his personal essay in this month’s Sports Illustrated with the words “I’m a 34 year old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay”. What does his choice to come out of the closet mean?

Collins’ decision to come out is as courageous as anyone’s, and he is not the first gay male athlete to do so. There is a growing number of cisgender, gay male athletes who have also recently come out. American soccer player Robbie Rogers came out in February, as did former Montreal Impact player David Testo earlier in the year.

This points to a contemporary trend, where some gay men are no longer the victims of the systemic types of oppression which continue to marginalize many other social groups. Some gay men now occupy positions of social privilege, and as a result it is safe for some of us to come out within the context of sport. When I started telling teammates and coaches that I was gay, I didn’t need to worry about my personal safety. I enjoyed the support of my friends and my family. And I knew that I would still be allowed to play. “When you walk through a doorway, you do not slam it shut behind you. You reach back, and you hold it open.” As more and more gay male athletes feel safe enough to come out, I hope that we hold the door open behind us, so that other marginalized groups can also participate in sport. As a community, we have gotten this wrong in the past.

Gay men and women in Canada were relatively recently the target of the state’s security apparatus. The RCMP spied on our spaces, and kept lists of suspected homosexuals. Men and women were dragged into offices, forced to name names of other queers, and fired from their jobs because of their sexual orientation.

Yet now, mere decades after being the target of this type of violence, members of our community are silent (or worse, complicit) as the federal government perpetrates similar violence against poor people and racialized persons through its ‘Tough on Crime’ agenda. This series of laws will disproportionately put members of these communities in jail. We don’t speak out as a community against Islamaphobia in mainstream media. And we are often guilty of perpetuating sexist practices against women.

As certain members of the queer community attain positions of privilege, we owe a duty to stand in solidarity with those who struggled with us in the past, but still remain marginalized today. We need to look back on all the different types of people who marched in Canada’s first pride parades.

I have been so lucky to grow up playing soccer. On the field I got to learn important things like how to bring a group of people together toward a common goal. I also got to see parts of Canada and the world that I would have never otherwise seen. I made my best friends on, or near, the soccer field. Everyone should be able to have these experiences. But too often, either directly or indirectly, athletes face barriers due to such unchangeable characteristics as their sexual orientation, gender, or socioeconomic status. 

Would I have been able to play if my family were poor or one of my parents were in jail? What barriers would have stood in my way if I were a non-citizen? What if my gender identity didn’t match my biological sex? The door opening to participation in sport for cisgendered gay men like Jason Collins still leaves it closed for a number of marginalized groups. Jason Collins coming out, and so many of us beginning to feel like we can come out too, is the possibility of an exciting beginning. There is a potential here for us to include other groups too, and it’s a chance we cannot afford to miss. 

Historians recognize the link between Jackie Robinson breaking the colour barrier and legislated desegregation. Title IX was an important component of second wave feminism. Because of the important position that sport occupies in our society, because of the way that sport can inspire us, social change in sport is often a catalyst for broader progressive change as well. We have a chance here to push back against different types of discrimination which continue to marginalize and diminish other people. If we now feel safe enough to check one of our teammates when they say the word faggot, then we have a responsibility to also speak out when someone objectifies a woman, or says something that is racist.

I hope that we get it right this time. I hope that we act understanding the importance of solidarity amongst all minority communities, and hold the door open behind us so that we can all participate. I hope we do our best to exercise this new position of social privilege empathetically and responsibly.

Keith MacMillan is a second year law student at the University of Ottawa. He has competed in the Canada Games, and at the Varsity level for the Saint Mary's University Huskies where he was a four time recipient of the Larry Uteck Memorial Scholarship. He currently works for the Halifax Refugee Clinic, and plays for Dartmouth in the Nova Scotia Soccer League Men's Premiership. The picture above is of Keith on the soccer field.

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