On the Unacceptability of Bigotry and Hetero-Normativity in Athletics

Kurt WirthCorrespondent IOctober 3, 2013

Take a moment. Sit back and consider a time, or times, in which you were called out publicly for being different. Remember the pain; remember the embarrassment. 

Feel uncomfortable yet? Maybe a little angry? I hope so, because I did.

Growing up a gay boy in an Alabama town of 81 people, I have been to some very dark places. Luckily enough, I was able to realize and accept who I was at a very young age, so I avoided most of what many go through. I didn't have to question, fighting down the path for my own self-identity that leads to so many young deaths.

The news Thursday from Ole Miss, though, hit home once again. For those of you unaware, a group of 20 or so Rebel football players were reported by the Daily Mississippian to have hurled slurs at a group of theatre students presenting a play focusing on the death of Matthew Shepard. No refutations have been offered and a representative of the group has been reported to have apologized to the cast.

This hurts, because I've been that person. I've been that kid being heckled for doing something innocent. I've been the girl trying to do something that will make a difference and paying the price. Countless times have I been the one suffering because of someone else's bigotry.

I know all too well the limitations imposed by, and the benefits of, growing up in the South. I was ridiculed, had things thrown at me, was tripped on the stairs, had my yard destroyed and car vandalized by drunk, marauding 16-year-olds with nothing better to do. I was informed, in front of the entire junior and senior classes, that gay couples were not allowed at prom.

I've been there. It nearly cost me my life, and more than once.

Interestingly, I've gotten a rare glimpse of the other side as well. Having worked as a student assistant in a Southeastern Conference athletic department for five years, I saw the hetero-normativity so pervasive in the field of athletics. After being told I simply "wasn't liked" by the administration, I waited an unheard of three years before gaining scholarship status. By those who were not immediately around me on a daily basis, I was not spoken to. Outside of my personal story, I had several professors as friends that described their encounters with gay athletes and their fear of being discovered. Not their fear or struggle to come out, mind you, but simply to fail at hiding themselves. Both in the administration and in the locker rooms, there is an undeniable expectation of heterosexuality.

Though my openness with my sexuality wasn't particularly welcomed, I speak not for myself. I speak for the millions of people in this country, and in this world, that don't fit into that stereotype. Athletic directors, coaches, support staff, players: I beg you to open your minds. Your insecurities and willingness to impose them upon others are creating a dangerous and sometimes unbearable atmosphere for more of us than you care to imagine.

Making assumptions based on any identity, whether it be sexuality, religion, or any other, presents an unspoken chain of obligation by which many athletes and those associated with feel accountable. Workplace integration and diversity has reached into some of the most hard-rooted and blue-collar fields in our society. Athletics, though, has a long ways to go. For the athletes, the administrative officials, the support staff whose identities may not be in the majority, life is an excruciating challenge. Every day, thousands fear for being caught doing something that isn't wrong. Every day, those who would use coercion to keep the nonexistent status quo feel empowered to do so.

What many of those responsible for these types of events don't understand is the true impact of their actions. In that moment, you may feel better about yourself. You, however, have made the path toward happiness and self-acceptance so much more difficult for so many of those surrounding you.

I genuinely hope that every student and adult in the theatre that night were open-minded, self-aware and accepting adults who could not, even in the slightest bit, have been impacted by those words. The unfortunate truth is that this is simply not the case. For those who might have been attracted to the same sex, this served as a subconscious threat to keep their identities private; that who they were did not deserve to be in the public eye. For those who were close-minded and naive about the world and its differences, this incident encouraged them to speak out against minorities and that violence, verbal or otherwise, was accepted. And for those who were just caught in the middle, the words of a few proved that this kind of thing can happen, without regard to those who may be hurt.

Knowing the pain of so many, in particular those who grow up being different in a culture that is still learning to accept them, I refuse to be a bystander and accept this. I will not, by all my power, allow homophobia and other forms of bigotry to continue as accepted in this culture. Not in athletics, and not in America.

I stand beside my brothers and sisters of Ole Miss who were affected by the decisions of these people. I implore all of you to embrace who you are, whether it be your sexuality, your race, or any other category, and stand strong against those who would ostracize and marginalize you. We, as Americans, must aggressively move together against the persecution of minorities and welcome the differences that make us the vibrant, diverse country that we are.

As for the athletes that participated in the shaming at that Ole Miss theatre two nights ago, they should be singled out and punished. Punished not for vengeance, and not for justice. These athletes should be punished to correct the warped worldview they created that night. Somehow, these individuals considered this behavior appropriate and if no clear and obvious repercussions are presented, the wrong message is sent to the athletes, the patrons and actors of that play, and most importantly to countless others watching the situation unfold from the outside.

The message from the Ole Miss administration must be united, and can only be this: Hatred based upon any minority status can not, and will not, be tolerated.

I also hope that many of you not directly affected by what happened join this movement. Many already have. When you see bigotry and hatred, do not stand for it. Be the one who steps in and says something, does something.

Whether it's a call to an athletic department (phone for Ross Bjork, athletic director of Ole Miss: 662-915-7546), speaking up in a crowded auditorium or just a simple discussion with your child, you never know when a little effort can unexpectedly save a life.

For further updates/thoughts, please follow me on Twitter @SEC_Nerd.