Commentary

LGBT summit focuses on inclusion

Organizers committed to supporting LGBT athletes at every level

Updated: June 13, 2013, 8:59 PM ET
By Christina Kahrl | ESPN.com

Editor's note: Christina Kahrl, a writer/editor for ESPN.com's MLB coverage, is active in LGBT issues with several organizations working to support out athletes.

PORTLAND, Ore. -- From across the country, activists, organizers, coaches and athletes have made their way here to participate in a national sports conference focused on LGBT athletes and what can be done on their behalf. The objectives are revolutionary and the scope is national. The mission is simple, yet difficult: End bias against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender athletes in sports at every level by 2016.

For as much progress as there's been since an initial, less formal meeting in Portland last year, the goal might sound impossibly optimistic. But organizers and participants share a commitment to fighting for the inclusion of LGBT athletes at every level -- from major pro sports that command national attention to K-12 schools and recreational leagues in neighborhoods across the country.

That sort of top-to-bottom challenge across every level -- and every generation -- in American society demands an equal amount of ambition. Or, as urban planner Daniel Burnham said more than a century ago (and as folks from Chicago like to recite), "Make no little plans." Having met a couple of times in the past year, the core participants at the summit, hosted by Nike, will be asked to accept a founding document on Thursday before then working with the newly enlisted participants from sports and organizations from across the country on Friday.

Among the participating organizations are groups that have commanded considerable national attention in recent months. You Can Play has achieved working relationships with the NHL and MLS on behalf of LGBT players and employees. The YOU Belong group is fostering LGBT kids' participation programs in youth sports. Athlete Ally regularly makes headlines with its enlistment of athletes willing to stand up for LGBT equality in sports, regardless of their own sexuality. The National Center for Lesbian Rights has worked closely with trans athletes Fallon Fox of the MMA and Gabrielle Ludwig in community college basketball in California. The Last Closet has started to enlist city councils across the country to call on major pro sports leagues to guarantee a safe workplace for athletes who come out, getting San Francisco, Chicago and Oakland to pass supporting resolutions. From the StandUp Foundation, retired pro rugby player Ben Cohen will be on hand, joined by former major league ballplayer Billy Bean. Other major heavy hitters on LGBT issues like the It Gets Better Project; Campus Pride; GLAAD; and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) are core stakeholders in getting the coalition up and running.

In addition to the professional activists and media, the attendees include athletes, coaches or representatives affiliated with colleges and universities around the country, as well as the NCAA, USOC and USA Wrestling. And there's an anticipated increase in the participation of active and former athletes and coaches. More than a dozen current college athletes (gay and straight) will be joined by another dozen coaches, including Portland State women's basketball coach Sherri Murrell. Murrell is the lone out coach in Division I, and her perspective -- on her responsibilities as a mentor to her athletes and as a responsible citizen to the wider community -- might help move the national conversation beyond questioning an LGBT person's fitness to coach, or beyond concerns over sexuality or gender identity, and back to simple ability.

For myself, as an interested party as well as a reporter here, I'm most interested in seeing what comes out of the K-12, coaching and athlete components of the coalition's conversation. That is not to diminish the importance of the keyboard contingent where sports are concerned. But where these issues are sure to hit home for many people is far from the limelight -- in local school districts and with the next generation of athletes who, whatever their orientation or gender identity, just want to play sports. And because that's an issue that will crop up from coast to coast, that's where a conversation about media coverage might do the most good, because that's going to be about how these issues are handled at the local level -- a prospect that is much less predictable.

Beyond reviewing what has been achieved by organizations or people working together and learning more about each other, another major matter at stake will be a decision to create a larger, formal organization committed to working collectively on LGBT issues at every level of competition. From within that framework, there will be decisions about what near-term goals will be given priority and what the participating organizations need to do collectively.

However much these organizations and people might share similar big-picture goals, there has been an absence of unified strategic thinking. Rather than continuing to operate in the absence of a coherent agenda, the time has come to create one, articulated through the coalition's working groups to address the needs of coaches and athletes, for sports from K-12 to college to the pros, and even rec leagues. Make no little plans, indeed.

Christina Kahrl is a writer/editor for ESPN.com's MLB coverage and a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. She is active in LGBT issues with several organizations, including as a board member of You Can Play, an organization committed to LGBT integration within sports (working with the NHL and MLB). She recently worked with The Last Closet and the Chicago City Council to bring about the adoption of a resolution calling on the other four major sports to join the NHL in their support for out athletes.