Where Homophobia Is Still A Huge Problem

Photo: Darryl Dennis/BEImages.
Governor Mike Pence calls Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act a way to "enhance protection" for Hoosiers. Helen J. Carroll, former coach of the national championship-winning University of North Carolina-Asheville and current sports project director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, calls it "horrifying."

"We're horrified by the law," the activist told us in a phone interview. "And, we don't feel satisfied when they're trying to say that they're walking it back.

"I think it's a desperate backlash to take rights away from LGBT people anywhere you can," she added, citing the gay marriage movement. 

The RFRA is getting its own backlash, however. Despite making its objections publicly known, the NCAA men's Final Four championship remains in full swing in Indianapolis this weekend. As such, it may be up to women's college basketball to lead the charge and hit Indiana where it hurts: the wallet. Officials are currently determining whether or not to move the 2016 women's Final Four tournament away from Indianapolis, and UConn has already banned its employees from conducting official business in the state. Given the strength of UConn's women's basketball team, Indiana stands to lose some hefty tourism dollars because of this controversial legislation.

Activists like Carroll are optimistic about "putting pressure" on Indiana to reverse the law. But as much as the NCAA talks about fighting discrimination, it seems that it still runs rampant within the league, particularly concerning female athletes who happen to be LGBT.

"I think there's a huge fear of discrimination, and in some ways it's true," Carroll said. "A big part of my job at NCLR is working with athletes who have lost scholarships or been tossed off of teams because they're lesbians, or coaches who have been fired because of their sexual orientation. That certainly is out there. But what we are seeing is that there's more and more support for coaches and athletes  to be out and be themselves, especially in institutions and communities that support the coach, they're well known, they're accepted for who they are. That group of coaches could be out visibly without repercussions. We'd certainly love to see that. Be don't even have one out Division I coach right now. In 2015, that's just archaic." 

Carroll added that a supportive coach can be crucial to helping a player come out of the closet. Part of her job entails running workshops with coaches on how to support athletes who are LGBT, especially in an environment in which homosexuality may be frowned upon.

"It's not so much the institution or the coach meeting with the team and saying, 'Everybody on this team has to be straight or you're out,'" she explained, referring to the reluctance of some athletes to come out. "It's not happening overtly like that. But, if you have players that see that they have lesbian coaches, and those coaches never talk about it, they're out, there's a big culture of silence around that. The players are not going to feel like they can be out. They're going to feel in a subtle way that they need to be closeted."   

One such case, she noted, is Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner. Griner publicly came out in 2013, after leaving Baylor University, and is now engaged to WNBA player Glory Johnson. 

"I think Brittney Griner and her fiancée are fantastic role models," Carroll said. "I think it's also an example of Brittney being able to be who she is, which makes her a much better basketball player. At Baylor, she was not allowed to be out publicly, and I think that impacted her play. Her senior year they did not win the National Championship. I don't how anybody could have Brittney Griner on their team and not win the National Championship. I think that's a very good example of how teams can be much better if their players can bring their entire selves to the court."

Carroll advises young lesbian athletes to seek out the group Go! Athletes, which works with the LGBT community. Getting support is vital, especially for lesbians. 

"There is the double factor of homophobia and sexism, and it affects every single female athlete and coach in sports," she told us. "Every single woman. So combating that, and of course, the added issues of race or religion, is difficult for women. Just look at the cover of Golf Digest."  

Bottom line: "There has to be respect for every player on a team, regardless of where you are, whether it's at Baylor or Notre Dame." 
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