How professional sports are getting into Pride
As the major leagues in the US make progress on LGBT+ inclusion, they're increasingly involved in Pride parades and events - and it's happening here in the UK too
Last Updated: 06/07/18 7:17am
Reggie Bullock of the Detroit Pistons was joined by his five-year-old son and friends from the NBA on his first Pride march, in New York last month.
All four of America's most popular sports had their own floats in the parade, and for Bullock, both his own attendance and the representation of professional basketball carried great significance.
The 27-year-old rode the NBA float with son Treyson, the New York Knicks' Michael Beasley, and John Henson of the Milwaukee Bucks, alongside Women's NBA players past and present, and coaches, officials and staff connected to both organisations. The NHL marched for the second time, while the NFL and MLB were making their NY Pride parade debuts.
Bullock hoped his show of support would send a simple but necessary message. "I'm a person that plays sports as a straight man," he told sports culture website The Ringer. "I want everyone to believe they can make it to the NBA. If they can compete at my level, that's what I'm standing for - incorporating LGBT into sports."
Yet for the Pistons forward, Pride also has a deeper, personal meaning. Tattooed on his left leg are the letters 'LGBTQ', above a heart containing the name of his sister, Mia Henderson. Mia was murdered in their hometown of Baltimore in July 2014, the victim of an alleyway stabbing. Being a transgender woman, she was part of a demographic at a statistically higher risk of fatal violence than others in society. In addition, data from November 2017 showed that 75 out of the 102 trans people killed in the US in the preceding five years were black or African-American.
Leading up to New York Pride, Bullock spoke powerfully in a Players' Tribune video titled 'For My Sister'; his parade participation was a further way of paying tribute to Mia and other victims. "I want to stand up for the people who have lost people within that community over tragic murders," he explained to the Chicago Tribune. "I just want to let them know that as a straight person, I am not within that community, but I see y'all as people and I see y'all as people that I love."
Whatever our individual interactions with Pride - via an event, a clothing choice, a donation, or other ways - they are appropriately diverse, and special to us, whether we are LGBT+ ourselves or not. When sport features strongly in someone's life, so might that form part of their personal connections to Pride. Increasingly, professional sports are recognising this, and helping to provide a platform to mark it.
The NBA's own Pride involvement has been championed by its senior leader, commissioner Adam Silver, another ally for the community. Having listened to and learned from Jason Collins - the first openly gay athlete to play in any of the four major US professional sports - as well as lesbian and bisexual athletes, coaches and administrators in the WNBA, Silver and his organisation have built trust and gained the confidence to be at the heart of Pride in their own right. The LGBT+ narratives of those within basketball have been shared widely, and continue to be woven into the fabric of the sport itself.
Here in the UK, sports bodies are on their own Pride journeys, with LGBT+ players, coaches, administrators and fans engaging colleagues who then become allies too. A milestone moment this coming weekend will be the Pride in London participation of the England and Wales Cricket Board, who will be the first national governing body (NGB) to have its own individual entry in a Pride parade in the UK. In 2011, the Rugby Football League partnered with the Sheffield Eagles and Pride Sports Rugby League at Manchester Pride, while the following year a group of NGBs including the ECB and the RFL featured at Pride in London following the launch of the Government-backed Sports Charter on LGBT+ inclusion. In the intervening six-year period, sports in general have continued to be represented at UK Prides by LGBT-inclusive teams, clubs, supporters groups and other grassroots organisations. The ECB's step up in activity this year will pave the way for the forthcoming return of 'Rainbow Stumps', the Rainbow Laces initiative within cricket that began last year, backed by Sky Sports. Doing more demonstrates how those at the highest levels of sport are exploring ways to be more open about their own interpretations of Pride.
Being out of club season, the visibility at Pride of the elite level of our other national games - professional football and rugby union - has been less tangible. Some professional clubs mark the occasion in their towns and cities through employees marching alongside supporters; Liverpool FC are believed to be the first Premier League club to support a Pride march in the UK in this way, with their involvement dating from 2013. At the very least, the majority now speak up in support via social media on the day of their local Pride (there are around 80 such events taking place in 2018, as listed by the UK Pride Organisers Network). Meanwhile, the annual Rainbow Laces campaign activation in November continues to provide the 'in-season' opportunity for football and rugby union clubs to raise awareness around LGBT+ inclusion on home soil.
Underpinning all of this are personal, shared stories. For Bullock, the devastating loss of his sister and the hope of a better tomorrow for trans and LGB people in both sports and society brought him to step aboard with the NBA. Ryan O'Callaghan, the former New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs tackle, was guest of honour on the NFL float at New York Pride, having described his long struggle as a closeted gay man in American football in an interview with the website Outsports published a year ago. Dale Scott, the first openly gay umpire in pro baseball and another Outsports interviewee, was with the MLB on the route from Greenwich Village to Fifth Avenue, while the NHL float featured Harrison Browne, a trans man who played two seasons in women's pro ice hockey (NWHL) before retiring in April in order to transition physically - a journey he has documented on social media.
In recent months, athletes from London Otters (rowing), Kings Cross Steelers (rugby union) and Pride Boxing - three groups participating in Pride in London - have explained to Sky Sports how their LGBT-friendly sports clubs have played a crucial role in their lives. All this week, players from Charlton Invicta FC have been sharing their stories too. On Saturday, they will be part of a Charlton Athletic float carrying the slogan 'All Together, All Proud, All Charlton'; the League One football club, its Community Trust (CACT) and Race and Equality Partnership (CARE), plus representatives from the FA, PFA and EFL, will join Invicta and fans from the Proud Valiants LGBT supporters group to display their Addicks family values. For Invicta player-manager Gary Ginnaw, it will be "a day of celebration" for Charlton and a milestone in his own journey within football.
"To be proud of who you are and where you come from is so important," he told Sky Sports. "We're all different, and we should all show support for one another. To have the support of your local club and the footballing governing bodies makes each of us feel accepted for who we are and helps to break down barriers.
"From my own point of view, the support I've received from my boyhood club, CACT and CARE has been overwhelming. It makes me incredibly proud to be an openly gay Charlton Athletic supporter.
"The fight against homophobia in football is a big one and it may take some time, but it is landmark events such as a professional football club having a presence in the Pride in London parade, with huge crowds watching on, that will go a long way towards making a difference."
When Minnesota United's Collin Martin came out publicly as gay in Major League Soccer a week ago, he chose the morning of his club's Pride Night match on which to his publish his social posts (they have had over 130,000 likes or retweets at the time of writing). A matchday fixture with an underlying message of LGBT+ inclusion might be considered relatively low key compared to a whole city Pride parade, but the timing was notable, says the journalist who won Martin's trust on the topic and got the scoop interview.
"I wouldn't say it was critical, but it definitely influenced him," explained Megan Ryan of Minnesota's Star Tribune. "Collin told me seeing the support for the LGBTQ community in MLS/ US soccer in general really made him feel welcome. Part of that is the Pride Nights most teams hold. Another is Playing for Pride, which is a fundraising campaign that several MLS players have taken part in in the past two years.
"I think knowing that the league, his team and team-mates and other players would support him made the decision a bit easier for him. But I think he more decided to do it as a way to showcase his positive experience being out and accepted with his team, and hoping that might encourage others to feel there is a place for them in pro sports."
The Outsports website has built a whole community based upon this premise, using the power of its LGBT-focused journalism and the inspirational content provided by athletes, coaches and administrators from across the sporting spectrum over the course of almost 20 years. As part of New York Pride, the website's editors Cyd Zeigler and Jim Buzinski organised a Summit event in Manhattan, bringing together many of the people whose personal narratives have formed part of an ongoing chain reaction of storytelling. Among them was Katie Sowers, the San Francisco 49ers assistant coach whose appointment last year saw her become only the second full-time female coach in NFL history, and whose subsequent Outsports interview made her the NFL's first openly gay coach too.
She continues to be reminded of the impact she has had just by being out and visible in pro sports. "What's surprised me the most has been the positive feedback that I've received," says Sowers. "A lot of times you get focused on some of those negative comments that you see, but I feel like the outpouring of positive comments from not only women but men as well has been amazing."
Blazing a trail in men's professional sport both as a woman and as a member of the LGBT+ community, she knows talking about her unique experience can help change the environment for the better. "There is less encouragement for lesbians in sport to share their stories, just because of the stereotype that women who play sport are lesbian. A lot of times women don't want to feed into that. It shuts down that idea of being out and proud.
"Sometimes they don't feel that they have a platform to share and inspire, just because of where women's sports is right now. It has a lot of growth that needs to happen because of the way society views sports in general, and until we get on that platform, we do feel limited with what we can do."
Sowers was part of the Outsports group that walked in the New York Pride march, behind the floats of the pro sports bodies, the route going past the Stonewall Inn where the June 1969 riots marked the start of the modern LGBT civil rights movement. Another was Conner Mertens, named Outsports' 'Male Hero of the Year' four years ago after sharing his story. At the time, Mertens was a college football player who had received unwavering support from his team-mates and coach at Oregon's Willamette University after telling them he was bisexual, but was banned from working with his Christian youth organisation. When he spoke to Outsports about his experiences, there was huge national interest, and a flood of emails and messages that continues to this day.
"What was surprising for me was not only the amount of youth that reached out to me, but the amount of people who had been through sports before and weren't able to continue their journeys in sports," says Mertens. "That had a profound impact on me, because it made me want to try harder to make it so that no one had to live their life without some incredible outlet like sports.
"Sports was my outlet. Sports kept me alive. For people that didn't have that, that's heartbreaking. No one deserves to not have something as inspiring, passionate and wonderful as sports in their life simply because of who they are."
This Saturday, on London's streets, the strengthening connection between the UK's professional leagues and the LGBT+ community will be evident too. The ECB, Charlton Athletic and over 30 other groups linked to sports or physical activity will provide representation, thousands in the crowd will take away a message of inclusion, and the images will be seen by thousands more around the world.
Whether it means a tribute, a show of support, a celebration, or a step on someone's personal journey, Pride is increasingly part of people's stories. As more pro sports find their place in the parade, many other chapters are still to be written.