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  Windy City Times

Project urges end to homophobia in men's sports
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times
2013-05-06

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Filming for The Last Closet started in 2005, as a follow-up to a project 15 years before that.

Dee Mosbacher, president of San Francisco-based Woman Vision, released Out for a Change, a documentary on homophobia in women's sports, back in the 1990s.

The Last Closet was initially started as a documentary on homophobia in men's sports—centered on a gay college football player with the potential to land in the NFL.

"Our plan was to follow this young man for the two years leading up to his hopeful NFL recruitment and on the way interview all the ancillary characters and pivotal sports figures that would impact this kid's future," said Fawn Yacker, who was hired to direct and co-produce the project.

"We began shooting and editing some of the ancillary interviews and shot a short trailer for fundraising."

But then the anonymous student-athlete backed out.

"A documentary, to be successful, needs a story line, or an emotional tie and now we didn't have one," Yacker said. "Concurrently, I was finding that the leaders in sport, [specifically,] commissioners, agents, etc. weren't all that excited to be talking about this taboo subject. Interviews with these folks were going to be hard to get."

So that's exactly where The Last Closet went.

"I called Dee with the suggestion that we use our already shot interviews from 2005 and the more recent ones with retired out athletes, educators, journalists, publicists, straight athlete allies, etc., to post on a website and at the same time create a letter-writing campaign to enlist web viewers to send requests for interviews to our campaign targets, starting with league commissioners," Yacker said. "We imagined that a deluge of letters asking for these interviews would either provide us an interview, or at least begin the leagues moving toward a dialogue on these issues.

"It seemed that we could get our mission accomplished even sooner than making a documentary and possibly reach more people. "

The website for The Last Closet was launched last September.

"The league commissioners [of the five major male team sports] are the first campaign of several leading into 2015. Owners are next. So far over 1,000 letters have been sent to all five league commissioners," Yacker said.

The City of San Francisco passed a resolution supporting The Last Closet in late October, calling on the league commissioners to speak on camera with The Last Closet among other requests.

"From the success of the San Francisco resolution, we have formed a [multi-person] coalition to bring this resolution to other cities that host pro sports teams," Yacker said. "Other LGBT sports organizations also have joined us by composing letters asking for commissioners to speak on camera with The Last Closet about homophobia in sports and offering any assistance they need to ensure a safe environment for any athlete who chooses to come out."

Yacker said The Last Closet project was spurred by statistics related to bias-based bullying and gay teen suicide. "[Due to] the enormous power of sports in this culture, we knew that just one professional athlete saying the words, 'I am a pro athlete and I am gay,' would make a world of difference in the lives of those kids struggling with self-acceptance," she said.

"In addition, hearing the stories of pro athletes [who] have come out after retirement, we understood how devastating living a lie had been. They all wonder what their level of professional achievement might have been if they hadn't spent energy keeping their sexual orientation a secret. All athletes, all people deserve the basic human right to be who they authentically are."

Yacker, who lives in San Rafael, Calif., said The Last Closet has heard from only one of the five male sports leagues—not exactly how/why The Last Closet had hoped.

"We have heard directly from Major League Soccer, asking us to please stop sending letters," Yacker said. "We explained that we would be glad to do so following a commitment from [MLS] Commissioner [Don] Garber to speak on camera answering the two questions we pose on the web site: Would you invite the gay players in your league to come out, and, what support systems would you have in place for them once they do?

"According to the [MLS] PR person a conversation is in process [about the subject]."

MLS in 2012 launched a DON'T CROSS THE LINE! campaign, encouraging all to "pledge to treat others with dignity and respect and will not tolerate discrimination, bias, prejudice or harassment of any kind."

"We think that, when a sports figure goes on camera and makes statements that support a player coming out, it is much more powerful than anything written. Videos go viral and there is more opportunity for people to get the message," Yacker said. "According to some people who have sent letters to the NFL, they have gotten letters back saying that the NFL is tolerant of and does not discriminate."

The other leagues—Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League—have been silent, she said.

"I think the leagues are a bit behind in getting all of their talking-points ready for these issues," Yacker said. "My guess is that they are first now realizing that a gay pro athlete is inevitable and they soon will need to address the issue. Our campaign and others like it are pushing the time line for that discussion forward.

"We ask the question, 'What safety nets will you have in place for the athletes once they do come out?' I think they have not addressed that within the league yet. They can't answer that question and [thus] don't feel comfortable engaging in an on-camera interview. Their answer at this point in time would probably be inadequate. Having asked that question and giving that question a high-profile presence via broadcast, print and on line media, makes the leagues realize that they will soon have to answer it, regardless of who is asking.

"That's the point of our campaign—to stimulate a dialogue and help create a safe environment within which the first pro athletes can come out."

That first active openly gay athlete in one of the major male team sports will be an icon a la Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in baseball back in the 1940s.

And, yes, it's females spearheading The Last Closet.

"This is a social issue, a human-rights issue and women have been at the forefront throughout our history of taking these issues to heart," Yacker said. "Personally, it is about the children. I made an earlier film, 'Ugly Ducklings,' for the state of Maine, through Hardy Girls Healthy Women that addressed biased-based harassment and teen suicide. When I first read the statistics regarding LGBT youth suicide, I found it at first hard to believe and then extremely upsetting.

"My commitment to [The Last Closet] is based on knowing that sports carries a lot of weight in this culture and that athletes are role models for many children as well as adults. I know that if an athlete comes out, many kids and parents of these kids will begin to see that being gay is as abnormal as being left-handed. Families will not as often eject their children from their homes, churches will become more accepting, and the [overall] culture will become more tolerant. Jackie Robinson had this effect on the culture when he courageously stepped up to become the first black Major League baseball player."

Yacker said 2013 plans for The Last Closet include fundraising, coalition building, more campaigns, planning for the next sports summit, and engaging the major cities on their list—including Chicago—to create resolutions supporting the campaign and their LGBT pro athletes, and creating more interactivity on our site.

Asked when she thinks a male athlete will come out in one of the five major male team sports, Yacker said she thought it would have already happened.

"Our goal is to have an athlete come out in each of the five major sports. That goal is, I believe, several years away," she said. "Some people believe that if one person comes out, then more will follow, however, the coming-out process is so personal and individual that it may not unfold like that.

"What some propose is that someone who is already out in high school or college will be recruited and then there essentially will be no coming-out, but it will still be a very newsworthy event and would have to be dealt with within the league.

"If I had to guess, I would say within two years someone will either take the leap, or be recruited to become the first gay major league player in U.S. history to be out while actively playing."

That said, some speculate male team sports are still 10 years away from having an openly gay athlete.

"Ten years seems like an awfully long time considering how quickly our culture has been evolving towards tolerance regarding LGBT citizens," Yacker said. "The polls regarding acceptance of a gay athlete have changed dramatically over the last five years in a positive direction. There are too many LGBT organizations working toward changing the tide in sports that I highly doubt we would need 10 years to make it happen. If it took 10 years to shift the culture of sports I would be very surprised and extremely disappointed."


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