by Dan Woog -
SGN Contributing Writer
Hudson Taylor is not Gay. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
But three years ago, when the University of Maryland wrestler put a Human Rights Campaign sticker on his headgear, some people wondered about his sexuality.
Taylor didn't care. He was more concerned about sending a strong show of support to the Gay community. For him, the medium - sports - was an appropriate means for an important message.
Taylor admits he had 'zero exposure' to Gay people growing up. 'I started wrestling when I was 6,' he recalls. 'All my friends were other wrestlers. I didn't think the LGBT world pertained to me.'
But in middle school he sang in a choir. At Blair Academy in New Jersey he performed in musicals and plays. 'No one was out when I was there, but homophobic comments of my friends - and me - always got corrected,' he says. He lived in two worlds - 'jock and thespian' - and his horizons broadened.
The HRC sticker was his first act of public advocacy. It attracted plenty of attention, and in February of his senior year the Outsports website interviewed him. To Taylor's surprise, 2,000 e-mails poured in. Many came from closeted young athletes. 'It was jaw-dropping,' Taylor says. 'About half of them made me cry.' For the first time, he realized the power of allies to make a difference.
'If a college wrestler could get that response, imagine if a football coach or athletic director spoke out,' he said. 'They could change the world.'
Deferring law school, Taylor and his girlfriend, Lia - 'my partner in everything' and now his wife - began planning an organization called Athlete Ally. Taylor accepted attorney Fred Raffetto's offer of help, and asked if he could do the work pro bono. Hesitantly, Raffetto approached his firm, Ansell Grimm & Aaron. They agreed. (Raffetto is now a partner there.)
Taylor initially planned to create a place for allies to sign a pledge, which would give LGBT athletes hope and encouragement. The website (www.athleteally.com) does that, while also offering a place for allies to post personal stories.
But Athlete Ally has evolved into something far more: a resource to help allies speak out publicly and encourage others to do the same.
Today there are several dozen college Athlete Ally Ambassadors. They talk to teams and athletic departments at their universities, asking them to sign the Athlete Ally pledge. It says: 'I pledge to lead my athletic community to respect and welcome all persons, regardless of their perceived or actual sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. Beginning right now, I will do my part to promote the best of athletics by making all players feel respected on and off the field.'
School newspapers, broadcast stations, and blogs cover those pledge signings, creating a snowball effect for the cause.
'Lots of student-athletes want to take a stand,' Taylor said. 'They just haven't had the tools to do it before.' So far, more than 5,000 athletes and coaches have signed the Athlete Ally pledge.
One of the group's biggest success stories is the University of Cincinnati, where 10 teams signed the pledge. Suddenly, the issue of LGBT athletes was in the news on campus.
Sometimes, Taylor notes, 'we get pledges from schools we hadn't even reached out to. This is definitely something that people are talking about now.'
There has been 'literally no pushback,' Taylor says. However, he admits, 'most of the schools we've reached out to are in the Northeast.' In an effort to broaden Athlete Ally's scope, he will head south - to schools like Rhodes College in Memphis - this fall. He's on the road often, usually every other week.
Taylor concentrates on colleges because, he says, those athletes and coaches are more politically and socially aware than their high school counterparts. It's easier to be 'active and aggressive' at the college level.
And, he explains, the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) sponsors a 'Changing the Game' project at the K-12 level. 'Pat Griffin and her group have done a fantastic job,' he says.
In the coming year, Taylor hopes to encourage teams to wear an ally symbol when they compete. The design is still in the works. He envisions something instantly recognizable, like the pink ribbon that symbolizes breast cancer awareness.
'I come at this conversation from a very safe place,' Taylor notes. 'I'm part of the athletic culture. I said stupid things when I was younger. By telling my story, I allow others to tell theirs.'
It helps that he is still involved in sports. Taylor is an assistant wrestling coach at Columbia University. He is once again living in two worlds - this time, athletics and Gay advocacy.
Thanks to Hudson Taylor and Athlete Ally, those two worlds are no longer mutually exclusive.
Dan Woog is a journalist, educator, soccer coach, Gay activist, and author of the Jocks series of books on Gay male athletes. Visit his website at www.danwoog.com. He can be reached in care of SGN or at OutField@qsyndicate.com.
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