Does football have a gay glass ceiling?

Last May, when Michael Sam was drafted by the St. Louis Rams, lots of people asked me, “Are you going to write a blog post about Michael Sam?”

Later, over the summer, I ran into a colleague at work. We chatted, and he asked, “When are you going to write about Michael Sam?”

Last week, when I returned to work for the fall semester, another colleague said, “I love your blog. I read it every week. But when are you going to write about Michael Sam?”

Why haven’t I written about Michael Sam? Because I don’t care much about football. It’s as simple as that. Baseball is much more my thing, and lately I’ve been focused on Derek Jeter’s upcoming retirement. Because I’m woefully ignorant about football, I didn’t feel especially qualified to comment on Sam.

I will say this, though. Years ago, I was talking with a friend about the lack of out LGBTQ people in professional sports, and I said, “When someone does finally come out, it’ll need to be someone like Peyton Manning or Mariano Rivera. They’ll need to be so invaluable to the team that being gay won’t matter.”

Now that Michael Sam has been cut by the Rams, I still stand by that comment. And I’ll explain why, drawing from research focusing on the broad spectrum of minority groups.

Michael Sam’s situation is a perfect example of a phenomenon called access discrimination, which takes place during the hiring or promotions process. Federal legislation prohibits many forms of access discrimination – per the Civil Rights Act, an employer can’t say that an applicant didn’t get the job because of race, or sex, or religion, or a number of other factors. (Sexual orientation and transgender status, by the way, aren’t currently included in that list. Stay tuned to see if that changes anytime soon with the passage of an inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act.) Because overt employment discrimination is illegal (not to say it never happens), access discrimination often occurs in more subtle forms. And when discrimination occurs in subtle ways, it’s hard to know whether it REALLY was discrimination, or if it’s a figment of your imagination.

Michael Sam could have been the victim of access discrimination based on sexual orientation. Or he just might not have cut it in the highly competitive world of professional sports. Researchers who study marginalized groups are aware of the challenge of identifying access discrimination when it occurs subtly. As a result, a wide range of studies have zeroed in on some “clues” that can tell you whether or not access discrimination may have taken place.

Clue #1: Your employer holds stereotypical beliefs. This is probably one of the more robust research findings. For example, several studies indicate that employers are significantly less likely to hire someone who has a very African American-sounding name (like Lakisha or Jamal) compared to a White-sounding name. Older workers are likely to face access discrimination if the person who is hiring holds ageist beliefs. And gay and lesbian applicants, according to research conducted by organizational psychologist Belle Rose Ragins, are more likely to face discrimination if the workplace culture is predominantly heterosexual. If the gatekeeper to a new job opportunity has strong beliefs about who should and shouldn’t be hired, you better believe it’s going to be challenging for the shouldn’t-be-hireds to gain entry.

Clue #2: You are applying for a prestigious position. A perfect example of this is the U.S. Presidency. Only one person of color has been able to break through into that position. As of yet, no woman has been successful in securing that job. Yet women and people of color have served in lower levels of government for quite some time. This “glass ceiling,” if you will, probably occurs for a number of reasons. For one thing, researchers have noted that members of marginalized groups are likely to be “tokens” on the job – single representatives of their minority group. As a result, they may be less likely to be mentored by senior employees and groomed for more prestigious positions. If you’re not an “old boy,” so they say, it’s nearly impossible to break into the “old boys’ club.” And that club, like it or not, can make an enormous difference in whether or not a person breaks into a high-level position.

Clue #3: You are applying for a job that is considered “inappropriate” for your minority group. A study published in Sex Roles a number of years ago indicated that males and females who were applying for “sex-incongruent” jobs faced a steeper hill to climb in getting the job – and being favorably evaluated later on if they were actually hired. This is a factor that is also highly likely to intersect with Clue #1 – if an employer has stereotyped beliefs, and the applicant in question challenges the gender/race/sexual orientation/age/etc. norms of the position, it’s highly likely that access discrimination will result.

Clue #4: Your qualifications are ambiguous. Both classic and current studies indicate that ambiguous qualifications are an easy scapegoat when access discrimination is happening. For example, in a research article aptly titled “Hard Won and Easily Lost,” researchers note that, for minorities in the workplace, making small mistakes on the job can be an employment deal-breaker. Drawing from Alice Eagly’s many studies of gender discrimination in the workplace, the article states:  “Although minorities with unambiguously strong qualifications are often evaluated fairly, when qualifications are ambiguous, stereotypes strongly influence judgments . . . . Thus, a Black job candidate with a stellar record will receive high evaluations, but a Black candidate with a mixed record will face discrimination when compared with a White candidate.” If you’re a minority, and you’re not The Perfect Candidate, then you’re much less likely to get hired for the job.

Let’s bring all this back to Michael Sam. Without commenting specifically on the decision-makers within the St. Louis Rams organization, I think it’s fair to say that many people in professional sports hold “stereotypical beliefs” about gay men – and that those stereotypical beliefs might be strengthened by the fact that Michael Sam is a gay Black man. (There’s Clue #1.) I think it’s also fair to say that getting a spot on the team is a “prestigious position” (Clue #2.) Some would say that it’s “inappropriate” for a gay man to play football in a world of heterosexual teammates. (That’s Clue #3). And Michael Sam was the 249th out of 256 draft picks, making him a good player but maybe not a Great Player (Clue #4).

So was Michael Sam a victim of discrimination, or was the cut fair? Even with all those clues, I really couldn’t tell you, because there’s no way to know for sure. I hope that another team picks him up. I hope that lots of other gay professional athletes come out of the closet, so the spotlight won’t be so brightly focused on one person. And I really hope that a miracle happens and that the Yankees clinch a spot in the playoffs, so that Derek Jeter will get one more shot at a World Series ring.

 

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My queer elevator pitch

It was lunchtime. I was at a day-long picture book workshop, and at the break a group of us sat down to eat together. I hadn’t met any of them before, so we introduced ourselves and started making small talk. Then, the inevitable question arose:

“What do you write?”

A logical question, considering we’re all attending a writing workshop. But a loaded one – for me, anyway. In my experience, if I say, “I write LGBT-themed books,” I get one of two responses. Usually, people are excited and interested. But sometimes the response is stark, uncomfortable silence. Picture book writers tend to be white, female, heterosexual, and middle-aged, a demographic that could swing either way in terms of LGBTQ acceptance. When I give that answer, I’m simultaneously preparing myself for any possible reaction – much like LGBTQ kids and young adults do when they’re coming out to their parents.

The other issue with the what-do-you-write question is this: Saying “I write LGBT-themed books” isn’t a complete answer. I’ve written lots of stories that have absolutely nothing to do with the LGBTQ community – and they don’t fit neatly into some category or genre. One story is about weaning from breastfeeding. Another is about Humpty Dumpty getting fixed. (That’s called a “fractured fairy tale,” where a traditional fairy tale is told in an entirely different way.) I’ve written stories about cats, dogs, roosters, seagulls, and toes. (The toes story is one of my favorites.) Sometimes I write stories because I want to infuse some deeper meaning into them. But often I write stories just because they’re fun to write.

So often people have to market themselves in order to be successful. If a person is looking for a job (or looking for a publisher), they’re told to develop a thirty-second “elevator pitch” that quickly summarizes who you are and what you’re all about. It’s part of a larger process commonly referred to as “personal branding,” which is how you package yourself as a marketable asset. The book Think and Grow Rich, originally published in 1937, first introduced this idea – later,  the 1980s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People  used the concept of “visioning” to modernize this idea. Hundreds of studies in business, marketing, communications, and psychology have been conducted on the power of personal branding. If I were to brand myself, I could say, “I am a community college professor and author who specializes in LGBTQ issues.” That’s a short, sweet elevator pitch.

But just like the what-d0-you-write question, that pitch doesn’t even come close to telling the full story. Labels and categories rarely do. When people ask, “What do you write?” I don’t have a quick, easy answer that is complete and honest. When people ask, “What do you do?”, my elevator pitch doesn’t tell people that I’m a licensed psychologist (who currently doesn’t practice), a mom, a crafter, a crazy cat lady and chicken keeper, a swimmer and lover of the ocean, an obsessive scrimper and saver – and lots of other things. If anything, my elevator pitch allows people to pigeonhole me into a category. It encourages stereotyping.

No wonder so many people in queer communities have resisted being labeled, categorized, pigeonholed, or elevator-pitched. Labels can help us find each other and form communities. Labels can also help others understand who we are – to a point. But they don’t tell the whole story. When I’m asked, “How do you identify your sexuality?”, I don’t have a quick, easy answer. If I say “bisexual,”  which is the most technically accurate term, I’m aware that a particular vision of bisexuality is likely to get conjured up – and that vision might not be who I am. If I say “lesbian,” that matches my long-term relationship status, but it doesn’t acknowledge the fact that I’ve had relationships with men (and potentially could again in the future, although I’m quite happy with my partner).  The fact that I don’t look “bisexual” or “lesbian” (most people who know me will tell you this) complicates things even further. I don’t have an elevator pitch that conveys a “sexuality brand” – and frankly, I don’t think I want one.

Alison Hearn, a professor of Media and Information Studies at Western Canada University, has written many articles about self, identity, and branding – and essentially what she says is this: When we engage in self-branding, we’re constructing a “narrative of the self” (which may or may not accurately reflect the real self). This narrative comes from what she calls an “outer-directed” form of the self (giving people what they want, in the service of capitalism), rather than an inner-directed self. This is not a new idea – many classic theorists, including Carl Rogers and D.W. Winnicott, talk about the “false self” as the society-conforming personality. If you think about it, this is the opposite of  what feminists, anti-racism activists, and social justice advocates have been working towards – creating space for our true, authentic voices and selves to be heard and seen. The idea of an outer-directed self is not new – many classic theorists, including Carl Rogers and D. W. Winnicott, have identified the “false self” as the society-conforming personality. It’s not something that people in radical social justice communities want to participate in, I’d say.

I’ll end with a funny story. During lunch at this picture book workshop, when I shared more details about the kinds of things I write about, someone said to me, “You write great stories! They just aren’t a good fit for what mainstream publishers are looking for.” I laughed and said, “Even my stories are queer!” And then I realized: That’s my elevator pitch. I write stories that speak to people, but they don’t fit neatly into a category or niche, which, ironically, is often how my queer identity plays out. If I’m going to have an elevator pitch for my writing, that is one that’s subversive enough for me to live with.

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An attitude of gratitude

Several of my friends are going through a rough time right now. One is reeling from the breakup of a long-term relationship. Another is grieving the loss of both of his parents. Still another has had trouble finding a stable housing situation. And one friend was recently diagnosed with a terminal illness. That’s just skimming the surface of the troubles I hear about. I don’t know if something is in the air or water or what, but a lot of people I’m close to are dealing with seriously heavy-duty stuff.

So how are they handling it, you might ask? Overwhelmingly, they’re going into gratitude. On a daily basis on Facebook, through personal e-mails, or in face-to-face conversations, they’re talking about what they’re grateful for. Several friends have been making gratitude lists and posting them on social media. As cliché as it sounds, they’re focusing on the fullness of the glass, rather than the emptiness. And what do you know – it helps them feel better. A LOT better.

Gratitude lists are nothing new – for decades, they’ve been the stuff of 12-step programs and Christianity. When sponsors tell their newly-sober protegeés to write a gratitude list, they’re trying to get them out of their negativity (“Now that I’m not drinking, life is dull and boring!”). When pastors talk from the pulpit about gratitude, they want to help people get in line with “God’s will” – an article in Christianity Today, for example, uses the story of Jesus traveling between Samaria and Galilee on his way to Jerusalem to illustrate the dangers of being ungrateful. From the Bible to The Secret (which, as an aside, is a book that I find to be dishonest and manipulative – but that’s for another post), gratitude has been a centuries-old antidepressant. It was Prozac before we had Prozac.

Given its Prozac-before-Prozac status, I’m struck by two things:

Thing 1:  The field of psychology is just beginning to pick up on the power of gratitude. Which is odd, considering that cognitive psychology (and understanding the connection between thoughts and mood), isn’t a new field. For whatever reason, gratitude is a subject that’s only now starting to appear in the research literature.

Thing 2: Gratitude is spreading through the queer community like wildfire. At least, in my circle of friends it is. What has traditionally been a cornerstone of Christian faith is gaining traction in the LGBTQ community – which I find to be deliciously ironic.

Let me expand a bit on Thing 1. Robert Emmons, a research psychologist at the University of California at Davis (right in my backyard!) is the first strong scientific voice to emerge on the subject of gratitude. He’s written scores of research articles, a handful of books (including The Psychology of Gratitude, written for an academic audience, and Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier and Gratitude Works! A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity, both written for the general public). Although Emmons is a scientist, Christianity appears to have a strong influence on his work. (I don’t know how Christianity has influenced his views on LGBTQ people.)

Whatever his bias, his studies of gratitude have yielded compelling results. His experimental research shows that keeping a regular gratitude journal causes people to exercise more, to feel better physically, to feel better about their lives, to have higher levels of optimism, and to move forward in attaining personal goals. They’re also more likely to feel alert, enthusiastic, determined, attentive, and energetic – the opposite of “depressed,” really. This is true even for people who are going through “heavy-duty stuff” – in one study of adults with neuromuscular disease, keeping a gratitude journal was associated with better moods, a stronger sense of connection to others, higher levels of optimism, and better sleep. Even children benefit from gratitude – according to one study, children who practice gratitude have more positive attitudes toward their families and toward school. It’s proof-positive: Gratitude is Prozac.

Now, to Thing 2. So far, no one has studied how gratitude affects LGBTQ people (or people from marginalized communities, as far as I can tell). However, I think people who engage in political activism are potentially high on the list of skeptics. (At least, I’ll cop to that.) Here’s how, at times, my thinking has gone:

Gratitude is naive, pie-in-the-sky, and unrealistic.

Gratitude will lead you down a slippery slope to complacency and indifference.

I’m suffering too much – how can I POSSIBLY be grateful?  

“Five Myths about Gratitude,” written by Robert Emmons, does a good job of addressing each of these statements. But since these arguments came from my head, I’ll share a little of my experience. Years ago, I was, well, going through some heavy-duty stuff. I spiraled downward towards the bottom of the drain. But before I got there, someone threw me a series of life preservers – one of which was The Gratitude List. I didn’t want to do it, but I did it anyway. (I was sane enough to know that you don’t have to like the lifeline that’s thrown to you, but taking it will save you.) And it worked. It allowed me to focus on the good things in my life (which are plentiful). It also shored up my resources to address the not-so-good things in my life (which are much less plentiful, but there). Gratitude isn’t ignorance – it’s fuel to help change things for the better, both internally and externally.

So what am I grateful for today?

I’m grateful that the sun came out today. (It’s been cold and foggy in Santa Cruz County – another thing I’m grateful for, given that it’s been f%$#ing hot in Sacramento.)

I’m grateful that I have friends and family who get me and my sense of humor.

I’m grateful that it rained recently. (For those of you who aren’t in California, rain is A BIG DEAL around here.)

I’m grateful that Stephen King didn’t die. (I just finished reading his memoir, and it gave me a deeper respect for him as a writer. If you read it, you’ll know what I’m talking about.)

 

I’m grateful that we have a run-down, falling-apart garage – because, when we save up enough money, we can turn it into an art and writing studio.

I could have mentioned the grand, sweeping things in my life. But the things I chose are honest. They ground me. They put a smile on my face. And they give me fuel to tackle the hard things.

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Book giveaway!

This month, I’m hosting a Goodreads book giveaway for my recently-released children’s book, This Day in June. Five copies will be given away, and the winners will be randomly picked on August 23, 2014. Click on this link and it will take you to that page!

TDIJ cover

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Why gaydar is my Spidey-sense

It was the first day of swim lessons. My daughter was ready to go, adjusting her swim goggles and trying to guess who was going to be her swim teacher. As we waited, a woman approached us, little boy in tow, both of whom looked uncertain and more than a little nervous.

“Is this the Seahorse Swim School lesson?” she asked us.

“Yes,” I answered.

“I don’t know how he’ll do,” she said anxiously, pointing to her son. “He’s terrified of the water. His uncle tried to teach him to swim by throwing him in.”

“I think they’ll be able to help him,” I said. “We’ve had our daughter do lessons here for a while. They’re really good.” We chatted for a few more minutes before the lesson started. After the kids went off into the pool, the woman walked to the other end of the pool to watch. Amy took that opportunity to lean over and whisper, “She’s one of us.”

“Yup,” I said.

Now, how did we know that she was “one of us”? She didn’t sport any of the obvious indicators – no rainbow jewelry, no buzz cut, no keys on a carabiner attached to her belt loop, no T-shirt that says Nobody Knows I’m A Lesbian. But somehow, we intuitively knew that we were playing for the same team. She must have had the same feeling about us – there were LOTS of other families there, but somehow she zeroed in on us. (Lest you think our relationship status would have been obvious, you’d be surprised how often people think Amy and I are sisters. Or they think I’m Amy’s mother – although I’m younger than she is, I’m significantly taller than her. Once someone assumed I was the grandma, Amy was the mom, and our daughter was Amy’s biological kid. No kidding.) Anyway, we were right – the next week, the other mom showed up at swim lessons with the little boy – and if we’d had just a mere inkling about Mom #1, Mom #2 set off loud, jarring alarm bells.

I’ve written about gaydar before – that “Spidey-sense,” as Urban Dictionary refers to it, that somehow allows people to figure out who’s gay and who isn’t. For decades, it was considered to be an urban legend – researchers who studied gaydar in the 1980s declared it to be a complete myth. However, since the late 1990s, there’s actually been a growing body of research focusing on the phenomenon. For example, Gerulf Rieger, a researcher at the University of Essex, has mostly focused on childhood masculinity and femininity to see if that’s a predictor of later sexual orientation in males. (He says it is, but I have my doubts. Maybe I’ll expand on this in a future post.) Nicholas Rule, who is at the University of Toronto, has done some fascinating studies that involve isolating facial features, showing them for a split second, and determining how accurately participants can determine the sexual orientation of the person in the image. (The answer, by the way, is “amazingly accurate.”) When it comes to “gaydar” involving women, Minna Lyons at Liverpool Hope University, and Mollie Ruben, a doctoral candidate at Northeastern University, both have conducted separate studies indicating that queer women are very good at pinging other queer women – and they do a much better job of it than straight women do. (At the risk of arguing by anecdote, it was a straight woman who assumed I was our daughter’s grandma, and that Amy was the mom.)

Clearly, gaydar is a thing – at least, according to a handful of studies that demonstrate statistical significance. But while these studies tell us that gaydar exists, they don’t really tell us why it exists. Obviously, if you’re looking for a same-sex partner (sexual or not), gaydar is helpful – and my guess is that, for most people, this sufficiently answers the why-does-it-exist question. But for me, that’s not enough. I actually think that gaydar potentially serves MANY purposes, one of which I’ll try to describe.

Let’s go back to the swim lesson. When this incident happened, I wasn’t on the prowl at a bar – I was with Amy, at a swanky beach and tennis club, waiting for our daughter’s lesson to begin. This woman walks in with her son, and because of her son’s swimming phobia, she’s a heartbeat away from an anxiety attack. She sizes up this unfamiliar environment, realizes she’s in Rich-and-Straightsville, USA, starts freaking out even more, and when fight-or-flight kicks in, she scans the area, looking for her people.  Her gaydar kicked in because she needed support. Our gaydar kicked in because we wanted to provide it (and perhaps we wanted a breath of queer familiarity in Rich-and-Straightsville, USA).

Gaydar might help you identify a potential partner – there’s no doubt about that.

Gaydar might help you find friends.

Gaydar might help you find community.

And if you’re a member of an oppressed group, and you’re in a situation that makes you feel anxious, scared, or threatened, gaydar might help you rally the troops, so to speak. Interestingly, I find myself doing that without really thinking about it – if I’m in an unfamiliar situation, my gaydar signal starts unconsciously sweeping the area. Whether I’m aware of it or not, I’m looking for my people.

Yesterday, when my daughter and I were leaving her swim lesson, I ran into the woman and her son. “Hey!” she said. “It’s so good to see you! We’re doing private swim lessons now, and that’s working out so much better!”

“That’s great!” I said. “I’m so glad he’s getting more comfortable in the water. Good to see you too!”

BFFs we are, now. All because of gaydar.

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