You Can Play: Colorado teen athletes tackle homophobia

A little over a decade ago, in a faraway galaxy otherwise known as the southwestern Illinois suburbs, being an out gay high school kid was a tough path to choose. Unsurprisingly, most of us – and yes, there were plenty of us not-out gay kids – never walked that path.

But having my teammates on the Belleville West Men’s Soccer Team find out I was gay? That wasn’t simply a tough  path; to my knowledge, it was one that no one had ever even attempted to walk.

And you can be damn certain I wasn’t about to be the first. Not in a locker room where “fag” was practically an article of speech.

Today, my hometown informants tell me that Belleville West is a very different place. As is the case in so many high schools across the country, LGBT young people are finding the courage to come out – with more supportive faculty, school staff, and local resources than ever before.

Still, even if I were currently a high school student in need of welcoming peers and an inclusive environment on campus, a sports team is about the last place I’d think to look.

Turns out Colorado’s high school athletes are proving me thoroughly wrong.

Just last week, the Colorado High School Activities Association announced a groundbreaking new partnership with the You Can Play project – a national organization that partners with sports teams and professional athletes to eliminate bullying and homophobia in sports.

This new partnership, “You Can Play, Colorado!”, calls on high school students, teams, and clubs across the state to enter a video contest demonstrating their commitment to the idea that teammates should be measured by their passion and attitude – not their race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or other factors.

Already, students from two Colorado high schools have produced videos for this contest, which ends in February 2014 and has received generous financial support from the Gill Foundation’s Gay & Lesbian Fund for Colorado. The first video was submitted by Denver East High School – you can watch it here.

The semi-awkwardness of these high school athlete allies makes their message all the more poignant and authentic. This isn’t some hyper-polished, 30-second spot from a well-intentioned celebrity (don’t get me wrong – those are awesome, too). It’s a group of incredible young people stepping up and telling their teammates that it’s okay to be exactly who they are. Plain and simple.

Travis Waldron of ThinkProgress touched upon this powerful distinction in a recent blog post, saying:

“And while it’s great to hear professional athletes stepping up for equality and acceptance, my own experience in high school athletics leads me to believe that nothing could be more powerful in limiting and ending the abuse LGBT students face – and making them feel accepted and included in both sports and school as a whole – than hearing that message from their fellow students.”

That’s exactly what makes this new project so groundbreaking. Change isn’t being demanded of, or forced upon, Colorado’s high schoolers through You Can Play. It’s being generated from within – tackling intolerance head-on, in some of the most historically intolerant spaces.

And that, we know, is change with the power to last.

[ Image by Dan. ]

Jon Monteith serves as Communications Director for One Colorado, a statewide organization fighting to secure equality for Colorado’s LGBT community. His early 2013 sprint for the Mountain West – and quest for marginal political detox – came after a five-year stint in Washington, DC, most recently as a speechwriter for the Democratic National Committee. Jon has also worked for the Human Rights Campaign and as a congressional press aide. A proud graduate of the University of Illinois, Jon was once described as a “militant homosexual” by the official right-wing publication on campus; he considers it a badge of honor to this day.