International Day Against Homophobia Breakfast 2013: "Our work is not done" in sports
The name Jason Collins was on the lips of several speakers at the 2013 International Day Against Homophobia Breakfast. Held on May 17 at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, the ninth annual event, hosted by Qmunity and presented by Vancity, drew a full house who listened to a number of speakers talk about this year's theme, homophobia in sport. It proved to be a highly topical one, in light of the high-profile coming-out of NBA player Collins on April 29.
While he was cited as a positive example, some speakers mentioned other LGBT athletes who have also come out.
Anita Braha from Vancity's board of directors gave the example of tennis player Martina Navratilova, who came out as a lesbian in 1981.
"When she came out in the 1980s, I can't tell you how much it buoyed and lifted me," Braha said. "Because in doing so, she showed me that there was a positive way to live my life as a lesbian, that I could choose a path and I could be successful. And in coming out, she made more space for me as a lesbian in this world. What I realized is that that's what important. So I say to you, 'Come out, if you can, and when you can.' "
UBC vice-president of students and diversity advocate, Louise Cowin, argued that Collins' coming out should not overshadow the efforts of other athletes.
"May I just say that as important as this is, it shouldn't be lost on anyone that queer and trans women athletes have been risking their careers, coming out for decades," she said. "Queer and trans people deserve more than just a media frenzy one-off coming out story by a celebrity athlete. And perhaps we, the LGBTQ community, shouldn't be so easily seduced."
Cowin talked about her own discriminatory experiences as a competitive swimmer. When she competed in the 1978 Commonwealth Games at the age of 14, she was tested for chromosomal evidence to verify her gender. She noted that only women, not men, were subjected to this. She said it impacted her later in life and how it influenced her view of the world.
"Although routine gender testing has been abandoned since 1999, the IOC and its federations have reserved the right to test on gender in suspicious cases, which these days means what? That if she doesn't look a certain way, talk a certain way, walk a certain way, or dress a certain way, she could still be subject to testing?"
She said that the experience of being treated with suspicion for not conforming to gender norms didn't stop there.
"The policing of my gender happens on a regular basis every time I enter a women's washroom or a women's changing room. It's been happening for as long as I can remember."
She pointed out that unfortunately, there is a lot that hasn't changed.
"Sport, athletics, and recreation remain an active bastion of sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, and our work is not done."
Olympic gold medal rowing champion, coach, and ally Ben Rutledge echoed Cowin's sentiments.
"I definitely know that in my university career, that there were gay athletes, and these athletes have since come out. Good athletes. Along the way, I definitely will speak to Louise's comment that there is work to be done in universities. And I say this because I've definitely been a part of the wrong side—" Rutledge was overcome with emotion and had to pause. "But I'm here today to stand out and make sure that does not happen again."
His last statement received a strong round of applause.
But the biggest response from the audience was reserved for the last two speakers.
Nicole Seguin talked about her son, Cory Oskam, who was born physically female but identified with male things.
Seguin said that she's often asked when she knew that her child was gender nonconforming. She said that before her child learned to speak, he would remove anything female-oriented, he would take it off. When given the choice to pick out his own underwear, he went into the boys' section and chose Superman underwear. He also refused to wear a dress for picture day and wanted to wear a suit and tie.
"We loved and accepted him for he wanted to be and for letting him wear whatever he wanted to wear," she said. "Unfortunately, the rest of the world wasn't as kind and as accepting. He faced bullying and was ostracized by his peers for much of his younger days."
He wasn't interested in playing with girls and was excluded from the boys, until he proved his stellar athletic ability—which resulted in boys fighting to have him on their team.
Oskam later expanded upon his life story when he took to the stage. He explained how he started taking a hormone blocker at age nine, which he credits to saving his life. Although he found that starting high school was scary, he felt safe because his school had an LGBTQ policy to protect him. He initiated testosterone therapy at 14 years and transitioned at age 15.
Oskam said there are several myths about being transgender, including being too young to transition and that transgender people have no place in sports. (Oskam lived his dream of skating with his namesake, Vancouver Canucks goaltender Cory Schneider, on his 16th birthday.)
"I am a hockey player. I'm a goalie. And I see that there's a lot of steps to making sports a place where queer people feel comfortable, but I think one of these steps is me talking to you here today and having all of you sponsoring Qmunity, being here, your presence. That will ultimately save a lot of people's lives and make people feel comfortable playing sports. We're all here on our own journey. But heroes can't do it alone. They have help. I wouldn't be who I am today without the support of my community and Qmunity."
Seguin and Oskam received a standing ovation.
Other speakers included mayor Gregor Robertson, who read out an official proclamation for the International Day Against Homophobia; Qmunity board chair Danielle Jarvis, who spoke about her transition to becoming a woman; Qmunity executive director Dara Parker; and the CBC's Kathryn Gretsinger, who hosted the event.