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Humanity streamed down Los Angeles boulevards last Sunday. Fists and flags punctured the air. Tens of thousands chanted and danced. In an alternate universe, it would have been a celebration of the 50th anniversary of LA Pride. And Adam Rippon, the first openly gay American to medal at the Winter Olympics in 2018, likely would have partaken.
But 2020 had other plans. The coronavirus canceled hundreds of LGBTQ Pride Month festivities nationwide. The Black Lives Matter movement swept up millions of Americans. The second weekend of June instead brought an “All Black Lives Matter” march to Hollywood. And Rippon?
He marched, in solidarity, with as much pride as ever.
Hundreds of athletes have protested police brutality and racism in recent weeks. Among them are LGBTQ athletes who’ve been fighting this fight, and adjacent fights, for years. Black LGBTQ WNBA players, such as Natasha Cloud, have long been at the forefront.
— Washington Mystics (@WashMystics) June 19, 2020
But the past few weeks have also brought a new group of athletes to the streets, and to other public forums. Many prominent white LGBTQ athletes have stepped forward as allies. And they’ve done so, as beneficiaries of white privilege but also members of marginalized communities, with perspectives that people who look like them could learn from.
“My experience as an LGBTQ+ person is not comparable to somebody who is Black,” Rippon says. But he knows discrimination intimately. He knows that sensation “of feeling not included, or not belonging.”
“I hate that feeling,” he says.
Which is why it has informed his approach to the past month. “I think it’s definitely made me a more aggressive ally, and somebody who doesn’t hesitate to go to a protest for human rights,” he says.
He agreed to speak with Yahoo Sports, however, not to tell you about his frequent ventures into the streets. He speaks because he wants others to follow.
Megan Rapinoe began with causes near and dear to her. Gender equality. LGBTQ rights. She fought for them for obvious reasons. Her advocacy directly impacted her own life. Like most activists, her work focused on communities she belonged to.
But in 2016, her perspective changed. “You don't have to understand everything fully in a personal way,” she told Yahoo Sports two years ago. “That's impossible.” But she did understand some forms of inequality and injustice personally. That understanding shaped her response when Colin Kaepernick started protesting police brutality and racial injustice, and when WNBA players wore black shirts to raise awareness for similar causes.
“When I saw Colin kneel, when I saw the WNBA players wearing the shirts,” Rapinoe says, “there did come a point where I was like, ‘Wow, yeah, I’ve looked at that [American] flag and not had all of my rights upheld.’”
So a few weeks after Kaepernick first knelt, Rapinoe did too. She’s been a staunch ally in the fight against racism since, despite never experiencing it. Over the past few months, with the Black Lives Matter movement erupting like never before, several prominent white LGBTQ athletes have joined her – in part because they know, first-hand, what it’s like to have people dislike you for something out of your control. Of the six white athletes who participated in “Share The Mic,” an initiative to amplify Black voices, five are gay.
Others have shown solidarity at marches, or on social media, or via donations. Athlete Ally, an organization that fights homophobia in sport, is funneling 50 percent of money from a Pride month fundraiser to the Audre Lorde Project. It was also one of over 500 LGBTQ+ institutions that signed a letter calling on community members to be actively anti-racist. In part because, as the letter states, “We understand what it means to rise up and push back against a culture that tells us we are less than, that our lives don’t matter.”
Which is not to say there hasn’t been decades of explicit and implicit racism within the LGBTQ+ community itself. There has been. And the oppression white LGBTQ people face, as Rapinoe clarifies, is “not nearly to the degree we’re talking about with Black people, and police brutality, and systemic racism in this country.”
Says Rippon: “My experience is still sheltered and blanketed in my own white privilege.”
But it’s nonetheless informative, and galvanizing, because it generates empathy.
“I can hear Colin speak, and hear other people speak, or activists speak, and say, ‘Yeah, I get what you’re saying,’” Rapinoe explains. “I may not have walked a mile in your shoes, but I believe you in what you’re saying. Because I’ve been in that position, asking someone to believe me and back me, knowing that they hadn’t had the same experience.”
The importance of allyship
That’s the other aspect of the LGBTQ experience that frames its anti-racism allyship: Its members know what it’s like on the other side of an alliance.
Rippon has spoken freely in support of LGBTQ+ inclusion. Since coming out publicly in 2015, he’s been both visible and vocal, notably criticizing Vice President Mike Pence for past stances on anti-LGBTQ policies.
His takeaway from his advocacy, he says, “was the people who spoke up for me, and how that made me feel. And how I felt included and seen by peers, who were in the LGBTQ+ community and also not.” They accepted him in private and supported him in public. “In the same way those people stood up for me, and the way that made me feel,” Rippon says, “it’s our duty, and it feels like my responsibility, to do the same thing” for the Black community.
“It’s a time for us – as white people, gay white people, all white people – to take a step back and see the experience through someone else’s eyes.”
Which leads to his, and others’, call to action. Education comes first. “And I think right now, it’s really important, particularly for white people who maybe haven’t been outspoken, or who are a little late to the party, to not call out, but to call in,” Rapinoe says. To welcome, rather than criticize, acknowledgements of past ignorance that lead to understanding. “Because ultimately, what do we want?” she continues. “We want people educated, we want people to have both the tools verbally and in conversation, and in their workplace, and in their families, to start to talk about systemic racism, and start to really break it down so we can root it out.”
Then, with those tools, comes real change.
“As a white athlete, of course I’m gonna stand by my teammates, and wear these T-shirts in support,” says Sue Bird, referencing WNBA player activism. “And a lot of people refer to that as being an ally. But now I think, as a white athlete, it has to go further than that. It can’t just be that you show up, wear the T-shirt, and say you support. … What are you gonna do after that?”
Adds Rapinoe: “We obviously have the privilege of taking off the shirt. Black people and people of color in this country, and in the world, don’t have that ability and that privilege.”
Which is why Rapinoe chooses to wear that figurative shirt so often. The backlash to her kneeling was fierce and draining, but her protests continue in other forms.
“It wasn’t easy for me,” she told Yahoo Sports in 2018. “But it shouldn’t be. Whenever you’re trying to be an ally, and it’s super easy and comfortable for you, you’re not an ally. ... I think that was a really good lesson for me: This is what it’s going to take for things to change, norms to change, conventions to change, to try to break down white supremacy and break down racial bias. It’s going to take it being hard. For everyone.”
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