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Fighting sports homophobia

Some might consider former University of Maryland wrestler Hudson Taylor brave for choosing the sort of activism he has elected to champion. 

But don’t tell Taylor that he’s “manning up,” because that’s the type of language that has defined “masculine gender scripts” and prevented closeted athletes from admitting publicly that they are gay, according to Taylor.

As the founder of the not-for-profit organization Athlete Ally, Taylor travels around the country speaking out in defense of the rights of bisexual, gay, lesbian and transgendered people to be exactly who they are wherever they are. 

“I think that I can have a huge impact,” said the 24-year-old Taylor, who will marry his fiancee, Lia Alexandra Mandagli, on Sept. 24. 

“It doesn’t have to be marching in parades or it doesn’t have to be a huge change in your life in order to be an ally,” he said. “It’s actually taking simple, small steps that I think will go a long way toward changing the culture of sports.”

As a high school wrestler, Taylor attended the prestigious Blair Academy, in Blairstown, N.J., where he started as a 152-pound sophomore, a 171-pound junior and a 189-pound senior, winning National Preps crowns each of those seasons. 

A three-time wrestling All-American in college, Taylor placed third twice and fourth once in the NCAA tournament, holds Maryland’s career record with 165 victories and ranks fifth on the Terps’ all-time career pins list with 87.

Taylor also earned academic All-American honors before graduating from Maryland with an interactive performing arts degree in the spring of 2010. 

“Obviously, my awareness started to become raised as a theater major, seeing some of my friends and peers come out, and then witnessing by contrast the homophobic language in the locker room,” said Taylor, who is now a volunteer assistant coach at Columbia University

“It was the contrast of the two environments,” he said. “That made me aware. Once you look at the two next to each other, it becomes clear how hurtful and harmful any type of derogatory language can be and is.”

Taylor spoke more about his cause during this Q&A with b

What are your earliest memories developing an acceptance and awareness of gays rights?

I would say that until I got to college, I really wasn’t aware of the LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered] community and how my words and my actions affected them. 

What I was aware of was how sports shaped my identity, both as a straight man and how it shaped my understanding of masculinity. 

I think that because of athletics and because I grew up as a young man in sports, the homophobia that I witnessed was, in a way, sexism. As a straight man, you can act, dress and look a certain way. 

Homophobia and homophobic language was really a tool. I mean, you can learn as a little kid that calling somebody gay and using derogatory language like that was a tool to assert that I was straight. 

So, I didn’t have any outwardly gay friends in high school or when I was younger. I didn’t know anybody who was really openly gay back then. 

But what I did know was that in order to be a successful athlete, I was told and taught — maybe not explicitly — but that in order to be a successful athlete, I had to be a straight, masculine man. 

Was there a moment or an incident in college that firmly transitioned you into this type of activism?

I think that the transition was a lot slower than a lot of people think. Everybody always asks me “What was the light switch?” They think that there was this one incident where I was like, “That’s it. Enough is enough.”

But I think that before I could call myself an ally, I had to determine two things. The first was whether I could  internally become conscious of my own words and make it a very serious effort not to use any type of derogatory or demeaning language.

Second, why should I speak out when I hear other people using that type of language and do not speak up about it? 

What are some of the worst homophobic actions that you have seen?

What I’ve witnessed the most in sports is not necessarily targeted language toward a specific person, but I have seen language targeted toward a specific idea about masculinity.

So if an athlete doesn’t do something that the rest of my teammates perceive as being masculine, the language that stems from that was either homophobic or sexist. 

You know, “You throw like a girl” or “Don’t be a fag” or  “Man up.” These types of comments are defining masculine gender scripts. And what it does is it keeps closeted athletes in the closet. 

It prevents them from being able to come out because it defines what is and is not acceptable as an athlete. That’s what may continue to happen until we correct the homophobic and the sexist language and all of these narrow definitions of masculinity.

How effective do you think that you can be in getting through to jocks who might not have any gay friends?

You correct your teammates. You don’t do it in an aggressive way, but you ask in the form of a question. Is that really what you mean? Is that the word that you want to use? 

My whole purpose with everything is to try and get other members in sports and other members of the community to think critically about their place in society and their own role in the lives of others. 

I can tell you how I came to be an ally, but until the athletes have a desire from within to change their behavior and to change the culture of sports, we’re not going to see the type of change that we know can happen.

How many institutions have you visited as a speaker?

I’ve gone to Rutgers, Columbia, Fordham, Bates, Amherst, Marist. I went to a summit at one high school. I think that there were 12 different high schools represented. It was at Beaver Country Day School in Massachusetts. 

It was a GSA [Gay Straight Alliance] Summit. Truthfully, I think that there is a generational shift going on. I think that younger kids are getting this conversation more and more easily than our parents did. 

Times are changing and being an ally and being respectful of others is not only accepted, but it’s almost required. 

How did you meet British rugby player Ben Cohen, also a straight gay-rights advocate?  

I was starting my journey with Athlete Ally, and the twitter-verse that everyone has come to be involved in connected Ben and I. I launched Athlete Ally in December-January, and was tweeting things.

Around April, Ben signed the pledge and reached out to me and said, “I’m coming on to this acceptance tour, and I’m going to be traveling in the United States.”

Do people ever think that you’re gay?

Absolutely they do. There aren’t a lot of allies out there, so it’s assumed that if you care about the LGBT movement, therefore, you must be gay. So people do ask me. 

I was speaking at Marist a few months ago, and at the end of my talk, a friendly football player raised his hand and said, “Now how did your teammates react when they found out you were gay?”

And I was like, “Oh, no, he missed it.” 

But I think that one thing that is very beneficial about being an ally when I do get that question is that it gives me an opportunity to say, “So what if I was? There’s nothing wrong with that, and until you all are comfortable with that, we’re not going to make a difference.” Special to b 

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