In sports we are always looking for that role model who inspires us and says, “Yes, you can be like me!” We see Sheryl Swoopes and the women of the WNBA, we idolize our favorite coaches as they lead their young teams to victory or coach them through heartbreaking losses, and we witness those incredible moments where the spirit triumphs. As National Center for Lesbian Rights Sports Project Director, I meet such role models everyday in our clients—courageous coaches and athletes who stand up for equality.
The opportunity to gain a new type of sports hero presented itself to me on the campus of Stanford University and the surrounding town of Palo Alto, California as they played host to 10,000 athletic competitors aged 50 to 100 years young competing in everything from swimming to archery to basketball for the 2009 Summer Senior Olympics.
I was honored to be invited to attend the games on behalf of NCLR’s Sports Project. In 2001, NCLR made history by becoming the first LGBT national organization to tackle the rampant homophobia and transphobia in sports. Since then, we have worked to eliminate discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in sports through advocacy, outreach, and litigation. We have provided assistance to hundreds of high school, university, and professional athletes, coaches, and sport personnel. It’s exciting and rewarding work.
I had no idea when I was invited to attend the games that I would find a group of basketball players who would make me want to grow up and be just like them, but that’s exactly what I found.
The women’s league consisted of nine teams and the basketball players who were 70 years and older. They stood 4’3 to 6’5” tall and were all shapes and sizes, with unique hairstyles having more than a little dignified silver shining like the medals they were to win that day.
I could tell these women never thought of basketball as a non-contact sport. They battled for position, pulled down rebounds, and showed us the beauty of that long gone shooting marvel ‘the hook shot’. I watched two overtime games, saw these women scramble after loose balls, and a few times even hit the floor. My grandmother used to describe what it was like playing sports in Tennessee in the early 1900’s. That image came to life as I sat in the bleachers and watched these incredible women play.
As a former North Carolina basketball coach, I gravitated to the Fabulous 70’s team from Raleigh and had the chance to meet and talk with some of the players. Then I had the opportunity to address the teams and tell some North Carolina coaching stories to warm up the crowd. But the real reason I was there was to talk about the important work that NCLR does to ensure equality and justice for everyone, including many of the people at that conference.
When I told the crowd about NCLR’s newest publication, the Planning with Purpose: Legal Basics for LGBT Elders (pdf), the women understood how NCLR’s work is directly affected their lives. The questions began flying. My favorite question came from a Colorado athlete who felt that the manual could assist her in planning for her own future even though she was not a lesbian. She also told us that she was not aware of the difficulties lesbian elders encountered and began to empathize. She was 84 years old.
There were out lesbians on several of the teams and I happily received more that one wink as I stood speaking about NCLR’s work to advance equality for all LGBT people.
I plan to recycle the energy I felt from that group right back into the Sports Project. I’m also now thinking about adding to my coaching career by forming a 55 and older basketball team. What NCLR members are ready to join me in going for the gold?