Being the first to do something is usually accompanied by a sense of accomplishment. But, this year saw You Can Play invited to be the first at something – and it left us with a profound sense that this is a long, long road.
When the Permanent United States Mission to the United Nations in Geneva contacted You Can Play in June, they asked for something that would be a first: You Can Play was invited to be the first LGBT sports advocacy group to address the United Nations. As part of the Human Rights Council’s annual discussions – this year’s topic was diversity in sports - You Can Play was being invited to represent the United States, and the LGBT sports world, in Geneva. You Can Play co-founder Brian Kitts made the trip. Following are his thoughts.
“I’ve always been proud of the small steps You Can Play has taken in support of something we believe. This started as three guys who thought we could get a couple of our sports buddies to say it’s OK to be gay. But, I’m not sure we ever thought the message would take hold. Then your group gets a call to speak on behalf of your country, at the United Nations, and it’s a surreal feeling that some of the work you’ve done is validated. Frankly, it’s the most humbling experience of my life.
This won’t be a travelogue account of the trip – Geneva is spectacular in that breezy Alpine way; the UN campus is stately and serene; and, there’s a real sense of history to being in a city at a certain place in time. But it was a raw, heartfelt experience – one that unleashes every possible human emotion and sense. Like these emotions, in alphabetical order:
Anger – So, let’s get this one out of the way since this is going in alphabetical order. Anger isn’t the first emotion I felt at the UN, but it’s one of the strongest. In my remarks, I noted that it’s still illegal to even acknowledge your homosexuality in 77 countries around the world – some of which are represented by the ambassadors seated in front of me. It’s not illegal for anyone else speaking at this event to live freely, albeit in varying states of persecution: the physically disabled, the women, those of a different race or religion. I’m the guy who’d be a lawbreaker in 77 of their countries and, yes, that makes me angry. It’s a shock to say it out loud in front of a group like that.
It’s impolite to call out specific countries or organizations. If you’re going to be impolite, it might as well be saved for a big occasion – and I was angry about something else, and I’m not that polite sometimes. I understand the argument that politics shouldn’t overshadow athletic accomplishment. But, I teach sports marketing and business, and sports is one of the biggest businesses in the world. As long as I do this kind of work, I’ll be angry that the biggest sports events on the planet are awarded – for business reasons – to countries with a disregard for human rights. Having just been through the International Olympic Committee’s relative silence in the face of Russia’s anti-gay laws, it’s tough to hold your tongue in this type of atmosphere. So, why is FIFA awarding World Cups to Russia and Qatar – countries known for their codified discrimination against combinations of gays, women and ethnic minorities? It flies in the face of everything You Can Play stands for.
Awe – OK, this emotion is lighter. This is the United Nations and it’s what you think it should be. You look out from the podium at a massive semi-circle of chairs and representatives, their countries listed in French on the nameplates. Some you can figure out, and some you can’t. The countries easily recognized are there: Australia, New Zealand, France, the UK. The Germans. But, in the front row are countries – all equal – that we don’t think of on a daily basis: Cuba, Algeria and more. And, yes, there actually are headphones they can press to their ears. It’s sobering. And awesome.
Compassion – One of the overriding emotions of the experience is an expanded sense of compassion. Those of us who work in a specific setting get a case of short-sightedness – that ours is the most important cause. But, the first room that we entered at the UN was a discussion being led by the First Lady of Burkina Faso about the impoverished women in her country who were being shunned as a result of failed genital mutilations. Another discussion wondered how kids in war zones would receive education, or even food. It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed
Embarrassment – That two-cheeked air-kissing thing: faire la bise in French. Why have I never learned it? Dear God. Now, it’s too late. Here comes the Brazilian ambassador, Regina Maria Cordero Dunlop, who’s moderating the day and now greeting everyone like a French movie star, or like a regular French woman actually. She’s going to be gracious about my going the wrong way with the first cheek. I can do difficult things like tie a bow tie and make my own beer, but I can’t master the double air kiss. I’ll never forget her kindness – or, her little laugh at my clumsiness.
Gratitude – I was struck by the feeling of deep gratitude toward the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and other countries who are actively working on behalf of LGBT citizens. It’s easy to forget this cause, but a number of countries around the world are making strong efforts. The US Ambassador to the UN’s Human Rights Council is Keith Harper, a man of Native American heritage. When it was time for commentary from the audience, Harper rose and gave an impassioned endorsement of human rights and the power of sports to unite cultures. That may have been expected. But, the feeling of gratitude when you hear him talk about You Can Play on the floor of the UN’s Human Rights Council, is overwhelming.
Honesty – Not many organizations get the chance to share this type of stage so honesty comes in the actual points made. On behalf of You Can Play, my remarks were simple:
• Every team – no matter the sport, business or nation/state – wants to win.
• Every team is better when it includes those who can help the team win, whether gay, physically challenged, or of a difference race or religion
. • The joy in winning is even greater knowing that an athlete’s physical ability has been respected equally to their emotional abilities and dignity.
• Locker rooms are meant to foster teamwork, not degrade teams and team members.
• Homophobia is a mask for insecurity and ignorance. That the most popular kids in school, or 300-pound linebackers, are suddenly fearful of the gay or lesbian next to them is a ridiculous notion based in ignorance.
• A team member’s emotional vulnerability is always greater than physical nakedness and should be respected first.
• It’s time to stop rewarding big sports business and competitions to countries that thumb their nose at basic human rights.
Horror – I’ve done a fair amount of public speaking. I can stand in front of a class for two hours twice a week. And, I can talk about gay stuff in front of total strangers in a locker room. But, I’m not going to lie: when it was my turn to talk, I had the worst case of cottonmouth I’ve ever had in my life. Suddenly, I was that pudgy fourth-grade school kid again doing a history report. Sheer terror. Take a drink and move on.
Humor – Sex is funny. Beside some good-natured joking about your country’s chances to win a World Cup, it’s about the only thing that draws a laugh in presentations like this. For better or worse, respectful references to locker room humor provoke universal snickering. But, representatives of soccer’s governing body, UEFA, provide a couple of videos that are alternately amusing and poignant. Greece’s Theodore Theodoridis is deputy secretary general of UEFA and France’s William Gaillard is a presidential advisor to UEFA. They presented a Dutch video that UEFA is supporting against homophobia: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYqcvXRCPlU .
Inspiration – Also speaking as part of the program are those representing other groups who have faced discrimination – and the inspiration they provide will bring grown men to tears.
• Duane Kale is in a wheelchair. He’s a New Zealander who tells the UN he had a choice to go into a corner and die, or face his paralysis. He’s now a member of the International Paralympics Committee board and multiple medalist in the backstroke, freestyle and butterfly.
• Sunghee Park has a PhD in sports psychology and was on the Republic of Korea’s national tennis team. Some societies aren’t accepting of female athletes in general and Dr. See’s work has made her an expert in subtle forms of discrimination.
• Stevy Worah Ozimo is a professional basketball player from Gabon who has put his experience in pro sports to work teaching in his own Youth Sports Academy.
• Dimitris Mouyios won silver as a rower for the Greek Olympic team. His commitment to equality for all athletes is based in experience and a belief that all can contribute to a win.
Ignorance – The question-and-answer session is a chance to admit my ignorance. Many of the questions ask for advice on how to change language or attitudes – it’s what You Can Play does and I know what to say. But, an Australian group wants to know what You Can Play might do to help intersex athletes. I stumble through an answer, but the sense of ignorance is strong. I don't know any intersex people or athletes. Until two years ago, and because of You Can Play, I didn't know a transgender person. On most days, You Can Play does a decent job of working for gays and lesbians with an occasional nod to transgender athletes. Like other humans, we’ve had a learning curve. The question of intersex athletes has never come up. It will again, so, soon the ignorance will be turned into a different sense.
Pride – It’s with a tremendous sense of pride that my remarks allow me to mention a global cast that has supported You Can Play and LGBT athletes everywhere. In front of the United Nations, I was proud to acknowledge the support of the Canada’s Andrew Ference, the Czech Republic’s Zdeno Chara, Sweden’s Gabriel Landeskog and the US’s Caitlin Cahow and Kenneth Faried. It was with pride that the UN heard about the contributions of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and FUN. – whose work on behalf of You Can Play had been seen by embassy staff on Vimeo.
Self-Awareness – There’s a really odd sense of self-awareness that set in about half-way through the discussion. It suddenly occurred to me that You Can Play was momentarily representing all LGBT athletes on the planet in front of the United Nations. And, that I was the only gay guy there speaking on behalf of every other gay guy on the planet. Oh, and that thing about visualizing your audience in their underwear to overcome fear of public speaking? It doesn’t work. Actually, it’s suddenly reversed. For a split second, I felt like the most naked, vulnerable human in the room. A split second later, the feeling was gone, replaced by a calm sense of direction.
Respect – The feeling of absolute respect one feels for those who work on behalf of others is the sharpest emotion I felt that day. In a world of those who have much, and those who have so little, people whose careers are dedicated to making someone’s life better can’t be celebrated enough. That day, there were those working to solve the crises of refugees from wars they didn’t want. There are those working to feed children who are in the way of armies they didn’t understand. There were those speaking on behalf of women facing lives ruined by genital mutilation. And, there was a small group of sports fans and athletes trying to make things better for women, the physically challenged, ethnic minorities, and LGBT groups.
The appearance at the United Nations was made possible by a grant from the US State Department. The trip was arranged by an American from Maine, Meg Riggs, who’d heard about You Can Play on the radio while working overseas – she and her family have made careers as diplomats in Burkina Faso, Switzerland and other locations. You Can Play is grateful for the support of the Americans at the mission, and offers our sincere thanks to Meg. Part of that support included documenting You Can Play’s work at the Human Rights Council.
Since the appearance at the United Nations, You Can Play has been fortunate to speak with embassy staff from more than 20 countries around the world in countries around the world including Israel, Croatia, Northern Ireland, India, and Pakistan. While there is much work to be done at home in the United States and Canada, the strides made in Australia – where every national sports federation has signed on to a campaign against homophobia – and in countries across Europe, are pointing to quickly increasing desire to put homophobia into the history, not the present, of sports.