Civilities: Live from the Olympics with Outsports' Cyd Zeigler talking about LGBTQ athletes

Aug 09, 2016

Every other Tuesday, Steven Petrow (the author of "Steven Petrow's Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners") addresses questions about LGBT and straight etiquette in his column, Civilities. In between, join Steven for his chat about everything that's on your mind.

Here's more about Steven's "Civilities" column and what makes him the person to dole out advice.

You can also reach Steven on Facebook at facebook.com/stevenpetrow and on Twitter @stevenpetrow.

Have you been glued to your TV or live stream the past few days? Watching what's going on down in Rio? If so, you're in luck today because Outsports' co-founder Cyd Zeigler is joining us live in this chat to field some of your questions about the state of LGBTQ at this year's Olympics. (By the way, Cyd is also the author of “Fair Play: How LGBT Athletes Are Claiming Their Rightful Place in Sports," which I highly recommend.)

 

I'll also be taking questions about this week's column in the Post: Do transgender athletes have an unfair advantage in the Olympics?

 

All that and more. Thanks for joining today.

 

And welcome, Cyd. This is your second time on with me here.

 

Cyd, Can you start with an update from Rio? Any news last night? This morning? So far, how are these games playing out against your expectations (specifically re: LGBTQ athletes)?

Yesterday was a big day for #TeamLGBTI. Tom Daley snagged the first medal - a silver in men's synchro diving - of any LGBTI athlete. And last night we had the first marriage proposal of the Games when Brazilian rugby player Isadora Cerullo was surprised by her girlfriend after the gold-medal match. Pretty cool.

Apparently, there are 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45 out gay/lesbian athletes in Rio. I've lost count. What accounts for such a record breaking number? Have there been any issues, problems for any of them? On the other hand, Rolling Stone reported that there are two trans athletes in Rio but they haven't self-identified to the public. What's the climate for those athletes -- as best you can tell?

Whew lots of questions there. Ha. We know of now 45 publicly out LGBTI athletes, adding Cerullo and Dutch beach volleyball player Marleen van Iersel yesterday. You can see our constantly changing list clicking here. I think the reason the number is so high - double what it was in London - is because people are finally accepting that the sports world has changed and if you're LGBTI you will be accepted by your teammates and fans. Still, that number should be 145 - there are many, many more than have come out publicly.

I'll also say it's disappointing that Rolling Stone would say there are two trans athletes yet not share who they are. Why even mention it? If there are trans athletes, work with them to come out so they can share their lives openly and freely, don't start a "who's who" witch hunt to figure out who it is. I thought this was a sad move by Rolling Stone.

I recently saw a nice IKEA commercial that showed lots of different couples using IKEA furniture. One of the couples featured was two women who said to each other "Happy Anniversary." If the arc of universe bends towards justice, I'll say that my parents (in their 70s) probably wouldn't have like the commercial at all. My wife and I (in our 50s) liked the commercial, but definitely noticed it. Our adult children in their 20s didn't even notice it (which I believe is a good thing.)

I think you pretty well captured the sentiments of three generations when it comes to LGBT acceptance. Your parents raised you well and ditto for you re: your kids.

 

Did you or your adult children notice Nike's commercial last night, which featured Chris Mosier, the first out trans athlete to compete in the US nationals? I think that's the next boundary when it comes to acceptance.

I've seen some buzz on my Facebook wall about your story yesterday regarding Tom Daley's taking of the bronze medal I think it read "Openly gay diver Tom Daley ...." Readers want to know why we still need to qualify someone's sexual orientation. What's your take -- as a journalist and as an LGBTQ advocate?

There are only two publicly out divers at the Games - Daley and Ian Matos of Brazil. There are so many more who are gay but aren't out, both in diving and across the sports. Because so many athletes choose cowardice over courage and opt to stay in the closet, it's important to continue to point out the out gay athletes so our youth see, very clearly, that you can be gay, be labeled gay, and still win medals. The people who complain about ID'ing athletes as gay in headlines don't get the emails from young athletes about suicide that I get. If they did, they would think differently.

Hello Steven. Thank you for this safe place! I have seen a change in my brother's circle of friends in the past few months, and I am convinced he is at the very least transcurious. I am very sensitive and perceptive to this sort of thing since I have long struggled with being bi with my family and friends. Last weekend and I overheard him in his room singing "It feels like the first trans. It feels like my very first trans" and he had the happiest smile on his face! It just made me so happy inside. In your experience would it be wise for me to offer him counsel (he doesn't know about my orientation). Or would I risk him potentially overreacting and shutting down and living in an even more conflicted state? I love him dearly and I really want to do what is best for him. Thank you for your expert advice!

Thanks for writing.  It sounds as though your brother is quite happy, which is fantastic news. Instead of offering him counsel about his possible gender identity why don't you just start the conversation about your sexual orientation. That may lead to other conversations ... but in general I say let folks come out to you on their own timetable.

Chris was a main focus of my column this week. Why should our audience know about him? What should they know?

Chris is incredible. When last year he qualified for the World Sprint Duathlon Championship, he set in motion a series of events that essentially forced the IOC to open up its trans policy. If they had not done so, he would have been barred from competing in a world championship for which he had qualified - He did not pass the old IOC trans policy, as a trans man. Also, as a trans man, Chris is upending all of this nonsense that you have to be "born a man" to compete against men. Chris was the #2 American finisher at the world championship - of all the American men there. He is truly changing how society looks at trans men in sports, and I think will also help shift this idea of the "inferiority" of female athletes.

Hello! Great timing for your guest this week! I have long had a thing for swimmers (I am gay) even though the feelings are always a bit traumatic since I was beaten up in high school for winking at a boy swimmer I fancied and thought might be interested in me. I actually always dread the Olympics because of this (confounded face). But what do you suggest for situations where you are in a group with unfamiliar people and others start to question if you are paying more attention to the men's swimming than the conversation and then you don't even bother watching the women? I hate to feel like I should miss what I want to see when out with a group of friends of friends but I also find it awkward to announce I am gay to a group of strangers. Thanks!

Assuming you're in a safe place, why not just come out? The others are coming out to you as straight (not that gay men only watch male athletes or straight guys, just women). I think many of us (I'll include myself here) are often traumatized by what happened to us as young gay men that we have trouble letting go of it -- and fear being retraumatized. You're not that person anymore .... and I trust your friends aren't like those high school 'friends' of yours.

Readers are often confused by our abbreviations and I see you're using LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bi, trans, and intersex) and not LGBTQ (with q either for queer or questioning). Why? And when you write "Team LGBTI" what does that imply or say explicitly?

Internationally, LGBTI is the most common used. I like it because it covers the different specific identities of sexual orientation and gender identity. You start throwing in other letters and you start adding LABELS, not IDENTITIES (BTW, I know I'm using crude terminology here - but there aren't great words to use). Plus, if we keep adding letters it will get so out of control (some think it already is). I have a young friend who says it should be LGBTQQIAAPPP - I'm not kidding. Frankly I wish we could just come up with one WORD to use to describe us all. I know "Queer" is the option for some, including Huffington Post, but having grown up with that word being SO cruel and powerful, that one is hard for me to swallow.

Yes, there will always be differences in height and weight between the competitors. However, hormones alone do not represent the differences between males and females. Females also have monthly bloody menses that lasts about one week every 4-5 weeks. Monthly blood loss can definitely affect women's hemoglobin and oxygen levels, which can significantly impact women's performance in sports. To level the competitive field, men would need to give monthly blood donations to mimic menses. Does monthly blood loss not matter?

We have a choice when it comes to trans athletes. 1) We can keep throwing up these arguments about "unfair" advantages, or 2) We can accept we all have advantages and disadvantages and focus on inclusion. I opt for #2. With that said, trans women have to take a ridiculous amount of hormones and drugs to qualify for competition. Should we then force all women to start taking mind-affecting drugs as well to bring them down to the level of trans athletes? We all have things that help and hurt us in sports. Let's stop focusing on what makes us different and focus on what makes us part of the same sports world.

Tom Daley's win is a big deal for LGBTQ athletes, but i can't help but notice a lot of the press coverage all but ignores his diving partner, Daniel Goodfellow. Good for LGBTQ's, but is it normal to shaft a lesser known athlete like that?

Yeah, it's normal. Tom Daley has been a "name" in sports since he was 14 in 2008. He's been a decade-long staple in the diving world. He's also a pin-up boy and a hero to many LGBT people. His diving partner isn't any of those things. It's like in football. Everyone knows Tom Brady - but I bet no one in this chat can name a single offensive lineman who blocks for him. But with a name like Goodfellow, I'm sure Daniel can find his way out of Daley's shadow. :-)

I'm surprised at your negative reaction to "queer." Although I'm not sure of your precise age, I've generally seen that it's Boomers and those older who have the most negative associations with "queer" as an epithet. You're a millennial, right?

I'm 43. Is that Gen X? Y? Q? I don't know. What I do know is that word brings up bad feelings for me. I don't ID as Queer. I never will. I'm gay, and there isn't a day goes by I don't THANK GOD for making me gay. 

Where doe the Olympics stand concerning transgender athletes who have to take hormones. Are these banned or allowed? Does the organization even broach the topic?

Yeah there's a clear understanding that hormones are a necessary part of transition. Chris Mosier takes hormones. The IOC policy addresses this and sets some standards. If he was suddenly jacked up like Barry Bonds, he wouldn't be allowed to compete. You can read the new policy here

...the world's then-greatest decathlete, Bruce Jenner, had transitioned to Caitlin prior to the 1976 Summer Olympics, then chosen to compete in the women's pentathlon or heptathlon. Would this origin have given Caitlin an unfair advantage over cis-gender, lesbian and bisexual competitors?

A couple things here. First, I never use Caitlyn's former name. Ever. My policy is to never use any trans person's former name. They have enough issues being accepted for who they are now without me bringing up their old name. Second, my issue is with the word "unfair." People don't understand what it is to transition genders, the incredibly difficult process, the mental strain, the physical strain of hormone therapy and gender-reassignment surgery. I have no doubt that Jenner would have some advantages over other female competitors, and she would have some disadvantages as well. But let's be clear - we have not seen anything like a male Olympic decathlon champion transitioning and attempting to compete at the height of her physical ability. When we do see that, we'll cross that bridge.

Basing gender on hormone levels is dangerous. What if a born female decides to undergo Male puberty with Testosterone, and then decides to change back to Female at age 20? She had the advantages of Testosterone therapy and male development, and then stops taking hormones to become a female again. This is a dangerous slippery slope for future female athletes.

I absolutely agree with you. 100%. We do NOT want to venture again down the gender-testing route. To be clear, the testosterone levels they have set in their new policy are in regards to TRANS athletes, not INTERSEX athletes. With that being said, INTERSEX athletes are subject to certain tests. Given the sports world's total obsession with testosterone, I'm not sure we'll ever get past this, certainly not in the near future. We just have to keep talking about it and helping people understand that ADVANTAGE is ADVANTAGE and not necessarily "unfair."

Chris Mosier said this to me last week (which is in my column):

 

People come in all shapes and sizes,” he said. “We don’t disqualify Michael Phelps for having super-long arms; that’s just a competitive advantage he has in his sport. We don’t regulate height in the WNBA or NBA; being tall is just an advantage for a center. For as long as sports have been around, there have been people who have had advantages over others. A universal level playing field does not exist.”

 

You were just talking about differences. Why does it seem some are easier for many to accept (height, arm span, for instance), while other differences aren't? I don't like to jump to the "phobia" words right off but is this what is meant by "trans-phobia"?

Because we're obsessed with testosterone and genitalia. Testosterone levels can vary widely within a gender - but as long as all men have penises and all women have vaginas, the average sports fan - heck, the average American - can accept it. Once you start messing with that, you're messing with gender roles that have existed since the beginning of time. But let's be clear: The fastest man in the world is faster than the fastest woman. The strongest man is stronger than the strongest woman. This is why the IOC has put things in place that don't allow Ashton Eaton to compete in the women's category. But if Eaton went through the adjustments needed - and this is the tough part for people to accept - HE IS NOW A WOMAN!! So many of the advantages he had are gone. Truly. That's the tough part for people to accept.

I always talk about Shaq. He was born with advantages in basketball over me that I can never ever overcome. Is that "fair"? Should I sue the NBA because they put him in the same category as me? 

That is a pretty strong dichotomy you are presenting. Isn't it possible that there is something that may be less than courage but doesn't get to cowardice? Desire for privacy in personal matters? Desire to concentrate on the competition at hand?

Re the desire to compete: That holds for a time, but look at the lack of retired athletes coming out. There is no need to compete there. As for privacy? Sure, some people are addicted to their own privacy - I get that. But even many of them are controlled by fear. Is it one of the other? Courage or cowardice? I never see the world in black and white. But given how few athletes come out, I'm pretty confident in saying that cowardice on this issue controls far too many athletes.

Cyd, Can you give some definitions here, especially regarding Intersex, which I think is still new for many. Also, why does that distinction matter in the answer you gave above?

Transgender is being born in a body that does not fit who you are. E.g., Chris Mosier is a man born in a woman's body. His mind does not match his body. Intersex people are born into bodies with "abnormal" sexual makeup. Their sex chromosomes could be XXY or other permutations. They may have breasts and a penis. They may have a vagina and internal testes. There are lots of different ways an intersex person can show up. 

I'm sure you saw this air on NBC last night during its Olympic coverage. Can you describe it? Have you heard about any negative reaction to it?

Yeah I was actually at Nike with some of the folks who made this happen just this past weekend. Nike has taken their "Unlimited" video series and focused on the COURAGE (look at that word pop up again) of trans athlete Chris Mosier. It shows how hard Chris has had to work to get to where he is as an athlete, and I couldn't be more proud that he and Nike have teamed up for this. I actually haven't even seen a negative tweet about it - but I know they're out there. Some people are just close-minded jerks who don't like that their view of the world is being challenged by powerful institutions like Nike.

My understanding is that many female athletes take contraceptives that prevent monthly menstruation (in fact, medical research has found that skipping monthly periods that way is not unhealthful, and some women are availing themselves of this opportunity).

I'm not surprised. Every elite athlete will do everything they can - some only the legal things and some illegal - to win. Supplements, diet, training, oxygen chambers - you name it. And if these contraceptives aren't against the rules, I imagine every elite-level female athlete will be on them at some point if it truly does give an advantage. 

Although I'm not trans myself, I feel strongly about trans equality. People often ask me why, and I say two things: 1) I see too much discrimination against trans people and 2) I'm fortunate to have a platform -- I better damn use it as best I can. You're in a similar boat, I assume. Cisgender. Gay. White. How did you become such an advocate for trans people/athletes?

I got to know trans people. Molly Lenore, Pauline Park, Kye Allums - getting to know these people personally has put a human face on these issues. And these are all such great people - I can't not fight for them.

menstrual blood is not a significant blood loss for most women (several tablespoons). In addition, to be able to train at that level for years, I suspect that most of them use contraception that reduces the amount of blood lost - either birth control pills or an IUD.

Again, everyone has advantages and disadvantages. Should we start making sure that every woman is losing the same amount of blood? Extracting more blood from those who don't lose a lot of blood? You can take these advantage/disadvantage arguments anywhere you want. I think the IOC's current policy is just about as good as we're going to get right now. At younger levels, it's appropriate that certain things like hormone therapy not be mandated - for scholastic sports where PARTICIPATION and EDUCATION, not "winning," are the foci.

I've seen some comments to my piece echo this one: "The only solution is to have gender neutral for everything, just open competition" Any thoughts about that -- or whether that's a road we're headed down?

That's one option. But for the foreseeable future, only men will win Olympic track & field or swimming medals. That's reality. Now someone will say "but you're contradicting yourself because you say that trans women, who are born men, should compete against cisgender women." Again - the transition from male to female is arduous and you BECOME a woman. You become slower. You lose strength. Whatever residual speed and strength are left are what you have to make work as a woman.

I am an avid cyclist and have been since I was in my early teens. Prior to surgery and hormones I could keep pace with the fastest male cyclists in my category. I am now 44 and I have been on hormones since 37. I may not be able to keep up with the pack leaders anymore But I am faster than 60% of the males in my category, with that said even the fastest women are fighting to keep pace with me. To me, it would not be fair to compete against women as my muscles have bee conditioned with testosterone since I was 12... How is that fair competition when in reality I have had access to steroids, a banned drug at the Olympics.  
If you want the Olympics to be truly fair, a trans-person should have transitioned before puberty before the testosterone.

As a man, you kept pace with the fastest men. As a woman, you keep pace with the fastest women. So what's the issue here? You have been an elite athlete in your sport as both genders. Sounds like you're just a damn good cyclist!

You just wrote: "I think the IOC's current policy is just about as good as we're going to get right now" 

 

Where would you like to see it evolve, if in fact you would?

And let me add: When it comes to high school and college sports, what are the rules for trans men andwomen?

How can it improve? The testosterone level issue can be, as someone said earlier, a can of worms. For me as an activist and writer, it's tough for me to say exactly where there should be adjustments - I really do think the policy is good. As for high school and colleges, it varies widely. Each state has its own high school policy. The NCAA policy has gotten basic, focusing on hormone therapy and not surgery. You can read the NCAA policy, which was updated five years ago, here.

Among Team LGBTI, are there any men who play a team sport? It always seems that women athletes, and men who compete individually (or in pairs), have less trouble than do men in team sports. And I think I know why, but I still find it disappointing.

They're all team sports at some level. But basketball, rugby, soccer - sports like that? No. Rower Robbie Manson and diver Tom Daley both have partners for their events. And they all compete in team competitions, even in the individual sports like gymnastics and equestrian.

Honestly? Because Dave Zirin asked me to write it now. Lol. But I do think that this time for LGBT issues in sports is critical. We're at the precipice of the flood gates opening - and to an extent they have already opened. More people in sports are coming out this year than ever before. To push the whole conversation over the edge, we need several active pro male team-sports athletes in the US to come out publicly. I talk about that in a few spots in my book. The time for activists, writers and power-brokers in sports to focus on getting elite athletes to come out is now!

Great questions. And a great guest. Cyd, thanks so much for joining us at the Post today. Before we let you go, what should we be looking for from Team LGBTI in the days to come?

Gosh so many athletes, so much going on. Robbie Manson goes for gold in double sculls on Thursday. The US women in basketball are crushing it. You've got swimmers, divers - at 45 and counting, there are so many to watch. But we'll have recaps every day!

In This Chat
Steven Petrow
Steven Petrow is a respected journalist and the go-to source for modern manners. Petrow writes the "Civilities" column for The Washington Post as well as "Manners Hero" for Parade and "Medical Manners" for Everyday Health.
Cyd Zeigler
Cyd Zeigler is co-founder of Outsports.com, the world's leading gay-sports publication. Previously, he was the associate editor of the New York Blade and sports editor for Genre magazine. In 2010 he was inducted as an inaugural member of the National Gay Flag Football Hall of Fame.
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