At Wethersfield High, Strong Stand Against Homophobia In Sports

WETHERSFIELD — Hudson Taylor asked for a show of hands last Wednesday at the assembly at Wethersfield High School.

"How many of you have heard somebody say, 'That's so gay' in the last week?" Taylor asked.

A large number of hands shot up.

Then he wanted to know how many people expressed disapproval.

A lot fewer hands went up.

That was one of the reasons why Heather Ciarletto, a senior who plays tennis and has played field hockey and volleyball, went to John Sand, a social studies teacher at the school, and asked to start a club called SWAT (Student Wethersfield Action Team), which is involved with diversity and social justice issues.

"I hate when people use the word 'retarded' or 'gay,'" Ciarletto said. "It gets me so angry. "People on sport teams use gay slurs in the hallway. I'll hear it. I'm hoping this will open people's eyes."

And that's why Sand was moved to find Hudson Taylor on the Internet to speak to the student body. Taylor, a former All-American wrestler at the University of Maryland, is the founder of AthleteAlly, an organization focused on ending homophobia in sports by enlisting athletes, coaches, school administrators and fans to stand up as allies for the LGBT community.

Taylor, who speaks mainly to college students, was a theater major and a wrestler at Maryland. He realized one day that something was amiss when a fellow student came out in theater class and everybody applauded him, whereas Taylor knew that such a reaction would never happen in the wrestling room. He was also bothered by the homophobic language casually tossed around by the other athletes.

So he decided to show his support by wearing a gay rights sticker on his headgear. As the top-ranked wrestler in his weight class in the country, Taylor got a lot of attention. After an article was written about him, he received more than 2,000 emails from kids — some closeted athletes — around the country applauding his stance.

"When I first started to do this, my biggest fear is that somebody would think I was gay," said Taylor, 27, who is straight.

But some of his best friends were gay, he thought, so why would that be an insult to him?

Upon his graduation in 2010, he thought he would write a book. He started a website. People started to ask him to speak. Eventually, he started the non-profit AthleteAlly, which was originally supposed to be the title of his book.

Last Wednesday, he threw out ideas to the students to help change the culture of homophobia. Stickers on helmets or patches on uniforms or armbands show solidarity and that such language won't be tolerated. It's easier for a team to do something than one person. Create a slogan — the Maryland wrestling team's mantra was "Respect All, Fear None" — and say it whenever offensive language is used. There are "Pink Games" to raise money and awareness for breast cancer; why not wear rainbow shoelaces to raise awareness of LGBT issues?

"I feel like there's a lot of people I know who want to be allies, who want to speak out," Taylor said. "But they're not being given the tools to feel comfortable doing that."

The kids seemed to appreciate it.

"I try to do as best I can to influence some of my friends around me by not joining into that conversation," said Shane Sullivan, a junior soccer player at Wethersfield. "But it is always difficult on a sports team, being around kids that may have different views. I got a lot out of the program today.

"I think I should do a better job as to stating my views. Not getting involved, you feel like you're doing a part, but I think I should take it another step further by completely stating what I think."

Drew Moran's mom is gay. So is his cross country coach.

"I think that this organization is going to be a great opportunity for us to grow as a high school and for us to accept others as they are," said Moran, a junior who runs cross country and plays baseball. "My mother came out and she and her girlfriend have been together for a couple years now. It's really changed my perspective. I believe this will help teenagers become less homophobic to others. I am really excited to help out."

Jeff Sanborn, the cross country coach at Wethersfield, tells his freshman runners every year that he is gay. He said he generally gets "zero reaction." He had not heard anybody say, "That's so gay" in a while and was surprised by the show of hands in the auditorium.

"The last time I heard it, I said something to the athlete," Sanborn said. "He's not on the cross country team, so he didn't know where I was coming from. He stopped. He made a better choice of words after that."

And did he think the program would help?

"I believe so," he said. "A lot of it is just awareness."

A culture shift can occur; look at drinking and driving after the prom, Sand pointed out. When he first started teaching years ago, it was a problem. Now it's not as much of a problem, he said, because society has deemed the practice unacceptable and taken steps to fix it.

"When we as a culture and community say, 'That's not acceptable anymore,' it'll go away," said Sand, a former ice hockey coach at E.O. Smith. "That's what we're trying to get to."

To that end, Wethersfield High is establishing the first high school chapter of AthleteAlly.

And this week, Taylor is off to Sochi as an LGBT advocate to bring attention to Russia's anti-gay laws. He will serve as a liaison between reporters and any athletes who wish to speak out. He also will be part of the Principle 6 advocacy group, which uses Principle 6 from the Olympic charter, which states: "Sports does not discriminate on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise."

"I'm getting athletes to tweet pictures in support of Principle 6," he said. "If we can get 100-plus athletes to tweet pictures, that, all of a sudden, becomes a pretty powerful statement."

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