We Cannot Quiet the Straight Ally: A Response to Patrick Burke

November 11, 2013

Mike Bryant

As a gay man rooted in personal and professional efforts to improve sport climate and culture for the LGBT community, I want to offer some comments countering the perspective of Patrick Burke and his recent remarks summoning the straight ally voice to step out of the spotlight of the LGBT sports conversation.  I feel his encouragement of unbalanced and unequal representation of perspectives is a counterproductive message in the effort to create more inclusive sport culture.

Mr. Burke’s call to repress the straight ally perspective clearly violates the principle of inclusivity, a fundamental element for improving sport climate or any form of social justice advocacy.  Mr. Burke’s You Can Play Project is a member organization of the LGBT Sports Coalition, a formal collection of the major individuals and organizations collaborating together to better sport climate and culture for LGBT individuals.  The explicit mission of the Coalition, whose members I have engaged with on several occasions, is to end anti-LGBT bias in sport by the year 2016.  By any standard this is a monumental task.  Upon reading Mr. Burke’s remarks, I question if he and others of the Coalition honestly believe that eliminating anti-LGBT bias in sport will occur without equal visibility of both LGBT and heterosexual perspectives.

I had very mixed emotions while reading Mr. Burke’s recent remarks as throughout I found myself agreeing and not.  I agree with him that the straight ally perspective is still necessary moving forward.  But, as I disagree with his opinion to impose limits on the straight ally voice, I also disagree with his inappropriate and casual use of the term “ally”, of which I feel will never lose its meaning if used inclusively.

The ally discussion in general encourages individuals to reflect upon their own beliefs and behaviors as they impact sport culture.  It also provides an entry point to the dialogue in an accessible format by framing the content such that it is relevant to every person choosing to engage without the need for identity disclosure.  The ally discussion puts the onus on the individual as a catalyst for the sport culture that surrounds them.  As they improve their behavior, the culture is immediately better as a result.

Additionally, I increasingly hear the case that we should not be massing LGBT and straight individuals as “allies” together, or even considering LGBT individuals to be allies at all.  Everyone can be an ally, regardless of sexual identity or gender expression.  The acronym LGBT represents four very distinct identities.  We must refrain from considering “LGBT” to be representative of each other as one.  However, incorporating L, G, B, T and heterosexual identities as allies distinct from one another is something that should be commonplace and celebrated.  These perspectives and voices can and should exist side by side, and equally be welcomed to assume the spotlight in the conversation.

It is in the above sentiments that my concerns regarding Mr. Burke’s remarks are rooted.

Mr. Burke backhandedly encourages the LGBT community to stand up and tell their straight ally supporters, “Thank you for everything, but we’ve got this now.”  Furthermore, he offers a very bold statement in that “…a true ally has only one ethical move left to make: Get the hell out of the way.”  To me this represents a very naïve and misinformed endorsement.  Is the fight for LGBT equality suddenly so advanced that, as a community, the LGBT voice can continue moving forward with less injection of their ally’s influence and expect to maintain the same pace of progress as in recent years?  I believe the answer is no.  As I recall, marriage equality has been legalized in only a handful of states.  As a gay man, even though we have made incredible progress recently, I am not confident that Freedom to Marry will achieve blanketing all 50 states without the continued support and sometimes explicit visibility of our straight allies.  And in regards to tackling one of the most traditional institutions in American society, that of sport, are we so far ahead in our efforts that we can now encourage our straight allies to take a step back and let the LGBT voice do the bulk of the work from here on out?  Again, my answer is no.

The recent light shed upon the stark reality that is the NFL locker room is the perfect example of the need for straight ally voices to be front and center, and even more vocal.  What questioning closeted gay male athlete is going to want to disclose his gay identity in that type of culture on his own?  It will take a very brave individual to go it alone and this notion is a primary reason why we don’t have any out gay male athletes currently competing within the four major professional sports leagues in America.  It is imperative that straight allies continue to assume the spotlight.  Especially in this current situation, the straight ally perspective must be sustained in response to locker room bullying that combats the behavior in opposition of the overwhelming recent affirmations offered by heterosexual NFL athletes and coaches that this behavior is an acceptable part of the NFL culture.  Mr. Burke describes the dominance of the straight ally speaking out on these issues as “suffocating” towards the LGBT voice and perspective.  But, isn’t that exactly what he is calling for in restraining the straight ally voice, suffocation of their role and perspective in efforts to improve sport climate for the LGBT individual?

Mr. Burke additionally distinctly addresses the issue of straight allies speaking out on behalf of LGBT identities that are not their own.  I agree that this is not the most representative or inclusive approach to educating people or advancing efforts.  It certainly can also be disrespectful.  However, by pushing aside the ally supporters and empowering LGBT individuals to be more vocal and visible, not only would that repress a vital perspective of the effort, that would also then put at the forefront individuals that do not represent the straight ally role.  If the effort is trying to curb anti-LGBT bias of individuals that primarily identify as heterosexual, then it is critical that the voice of the heterosexual ally identity continues to be emphasized.  Moreover, Mr. Burke violates this very concern of his with remarks claiming that the LGBT community is ready for the straight ally to step back.  Is this not a clear example of a straight ally speaking out on the preparedness of the LGBT community, a voice and identity to which he does not belong?  He also claims that within his own actions to speak out on LGBT issues in sport he makes certain that he involves an identified LGBT voice in accompaniment of his efforts.  Am I missing something, or is there a glaring absence of an LGBT-identified voice and opinion to supplement his claims as part of this recent message?

As part of his remarks, Mr. Burke identifies what I perceive are his list of key out individuals to whom he is encouraging an increased visibility.  As I agree it is important to have observable active role models in place to help strengthen any message, it is also important to understand that his list represents only the male perspective, with the majority of these examples having no experience as an out athlete within the current landscape of sport.  While their perspectives and experiences are not to be discounted, not all of them represent what life is like in today’s athletic trenches as an athlete. I am concerned that his call for louder voices and increased visibility of an identity (the gay male athlete) that has very little current representation is adding pressure upon individuals to come out before they are ready, especially since Mr. Burke is also encouraging straight allies to take a back seat.  Asking people to step back while there is nobody in place to step forward constitutes a counterproductive perspective.

As popular media has successfully done such a great job, Mr. Burke does the same.  He makes the claim that there is an issue of male dominance yet he perpetuates this himself by lacking explicit inclusivity of other identities throughout his statement.  In providing his list of well-known American gay male team sport athletes, Mr. Burke offers very little acknowledgement of lesbian, bisexual, or transgender identities.  It is important to be mindful that these identities collectively have continued to emerge in greater numbers within American sports culture than their gay male counterparts.  It is imperative for those working to improve the LGBT sports experience to elevate the visibility and voice of these identities.  For that matter, I think where we also should be offering increased critical praise and recognition specifically is towards the American high school- and college-level populations.  Among the most recent gains, it is from this younger generation that we have seen the greatest influx of shared experiences and beliefs of both out individuals and allies, portraying some of the most candid and inspirational courage and strength within the LGBT sports conversation.

In moving forward, I am justifiably concerned that Mr. Burke’s voice is being accepted as a representation of all efforts engaged in work similar to his organization and others within the LGBT Sports Coalition.  As someone involved in a removed effort, I don’t subscribe to all of his viewpoints.  Although maintaining some accommodation of the straight ally perspective, I found Mr. Burke’s remarks overall to be credulous, contradictory, and non-inclusive.  Therefore, I felt compelled to speak out to clarify some key points, challenge his call for limitations upon straight ally voices, and to question the opinions of a key player that may appear to be representing the collective voice engaged in these efforts.

Throughout my experiences in sport as an athlete, coach and administrator, I have greatly been influenced by the element of fairness, and of the right and wrong available to everyone involved in playing any game.  It is that integrity in effort and competition that I value above all else.  If inclusion is at the root of the effort to defeat anti-LGBT bias in sport, then it is a fundamental and ethical expectation of mine that those advocating for improved sport culture are engaging the right way.  Fairly, without bias, and fully considerate of the teammates and allies that stand beside them.




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About Michael Bryant

Mike is a doctoral student in the University of Washington’s College of Education, with a research focus on LGBT issues in sport, the intersection of athletics and higher education, and student-athlete peer culture.  His experiences as a college-level athlete and coach continue to inform his research interests.  Mike’s master’s level project titled Gay Male Athletes and the Role of Organized Team and Contact Sports was  was awarded distinction at Seattle Pacific University.  He was also a feature chapter in the book Jocks: True Stories of America’s Gay Male Athletes (Woog, 1997).  Contact Mike: mbryant7@uw.edu.

View all posts by Michael Bryant


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