When people question why the theme for this year's International Day Against Homophobia Breakfast (which takes places on Friday, May 17) is homophobia in sport, Qmunity executive director Dara Parker asks them, "Can you name one out male athlete in a professional sport?"
Parker says, in an interview at her West End office, that she's delighted she can name one now: NBA player Jason Collins, who came out on April 29.
But she points out that one major professional athlete simply isn't enough and there's far more work to be done.
She finds that homophobia and transphobia in sport is "still somewhat acceptable", and she speaks from experience. Parker played competitive rugby for 10 years (at varsity and provincial levels in Ontario and B.C.). After all that time, she says she can count the number of out athletes she knew on one hand.
"If you can't be out in women's rugby, where can you be out?" she says with a laugh.
She feels there's still a high degree of internalized homophobia, even in women's sports.
"It's almost like you're automatically assumed to be a lesbian if you're athletic and competitive and don't present as a traditional 'feminine' woman," she says. "So often I saw people fighting almost against that perception and working hard to demonstrate their heterosexualness or their femininity off the field."
She thinks that this is due to rigid gender definitions in sport, including "very traditional understandings of gender representation and what's masculine and what's feminine."
Interestingly, much of the fight to counter homophobia in sports has been taken up by straight allies, from Patrick Burke launching the You Can Play campaign and Manny Malhotra marching in the Vancouver Pride Parade to numerous professional athletes becoming vocal advocates for LGBT equality, including former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo and tennis star Andy Roddick.
"I think allies have a really important role to play in any fight against discrimination, whatever movement it is," Parker says. "And so, I think it's incumbent upon allies to use their voice because often they have more power and privilege than somebody who's coming from a community that's being marginalized within a certain arena, pun intended."
However, Parker says that for change to truly take place, closeted athletes do need to come out once they feel safe and ready.
"The fight can't come entirely from allies….But ultimately, those voices have to come from within the community as well in order to really create a safe space. Because it's different if I'm on my rugby team hearing an allied, straight-identified woman say, 'Yeah, it's totally fine', versus actually seeing a lesbian woman be out and see how she's treated. That's why the Jason Collins story is so important to me because it created this huge space and it was just so gratifying to see all these other big NBA stars tweet their support, the day he came out."
Someone who came out who deeply impressed Parker is 16-year-old East Vancouver hockey player Cory Oskam. Oskam, who will be speaking at the breakfast (accompanied by his mother, Nicole Seguin), had female sex assigned at birth but had been gender-nonconforming since the age of two. Approximately two years ago, Oskam made a decision to start taking testosterone to transition to become male.
"When Cory shared his story, sport was really central to some of his decisions because sport is usually gender-segregated," Parker says, explaining that he had originally started off playing women's hockey.
Oskam has since become a role model and advocate for discrimination in schools. What's more, Oskam's dream came true when he skated with Vancouver Canucks goaltender Cory Schneider on his sweet 16th birthday (Schneider was the inspiration for the male name that Oskam chose after deciding to transition).
Other speakers will include Ben Rutledge, an Olympic gold medalist Canadian rower and LGBT ally.
"He's also involved actively as a coach," Parker adds. "Personally, I think that that's a really important perspective to hear from as well, in terms of someone who's recruiting young athletes, saying like, 'Yeah, we don't care about your sexual orientation or your gender identity. If you can play, you can play.' "
Meanwhile, Louise Cowin will speak about her experiences as UBC vice-president of Students and Diversity Advocate, and whose portfolio includes student development and services, student housing and hospitality services, and athletics and recreation.
Ultimately, Parker agrees that the visible emergence of queer people in sports will help to break down stereotypes of both gender and sexual orientation.
"Heteronormativity is tied in with sexist perceptions of gender identity and constructions of masculinity and femininity and I just like to blow it all up because it's all a joke," she says. "I mean, we all carry masculine and feminine components in our personality, and we're all on a spectrum of gender, and I love when there's examples that counter peoples' perceptions of what it means to be gay."
The 2013 International Day Against Homophobia Breakfast, presented by Qmunity and Vancity and hosted by Kathryn Gretsinger, will take place on Friday (May 17) at 8 a.m. at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver (900 West Georgia Street). For more information, visit the Qmunity website.