Brendon Ayanbadejo: Our Kind of Ally
By Amy K. Nelson
AKN: You’ve been interviewed so many times on this subject, and the word “tolerance” keeps coming up. But how do you gauge how you talk about words and dialogue and discourse versus what’s next—what’s next in terms of something actionable?
BA: First of all, I think about legislation and changing the laws. In 29 states you can still be fired if you’re part of the LGBTQ community, and that’s pretty outlandish. We talk about action -- when we start looking on homophobia the same way we look at racism, we’ve done our jobs. Also, if suicide rates change -- you know, with kids who are being bullied, who don’t feel like they’re good enough, or are being ridiculed for being who they are—then we’ve done our job and we’ve taken action. And society-wise, [there’s] physical acceptance; if you see a family, if you see two men walking down the street and you see them kiss, it’s not a big deal. You talk about taking action—those are the type of things we’re trying to change.
CK: You have to say something if you see it happening. If a guy is using a homophobic slur or saying something wrong, you have to point that out -- you don’t have to be rude about it, but you can say, “Hey, there are different ways to express yourself. Just because someone lives their life a certain way doesn’t give you the right to control their life for them.”
BA: Yes, it’s important to simply say, “Hey, you can’t say that word” or “You shouldn’t say that word because it’s no different than saying the n-word or a derogatory racial slur.” It’s the exact same thing if you call someone a “faggot” or call somebody gay, if you call someone queer, sissy. It could be all that stuff… I’m taking those words out of my vocabulary, but I think I need to start saying them more for shock value. I’m going to start talking at high schools, and I’m trying to debate what would be better: to say those words so they hear them, or say “derogatory homophobic words?”
AKN: Do you think instituting fines for guys on teams if they use those words would be effective?
BA: No, I don’t like that idea. If it happens in a football game and they’re talking to a ref and they say something on TV, then, yeah, you should be fined just as everybody else is fined, but a lot of this stuff is just talking. In the locker room, in meetings, even coaches -- certain people just talk like that. You saw that the coach from Rutgers [Mike Rice] was rampant about it; he did it all the time. I think you don’t want to scare people. You want them to embrace it because it’s the right thing to do, not because, “Oh, I’m going to get fined now.”
CK: I think another important thing to look at is that guys don’t come into the NFL as blank slates; they learn as they grow up in society. To start fining guys in the NFL is the wrong way to go about it. What we should be looking at is how kids are being taught in our schools—what are they being taught to value? There are a lot fewer incidences of homophobia happening with the younger generation—there’s a lot of work to be done, but I think it’s definitely more a societal issue than a sports issue.
AKN: Did you have gay and lesbian friends before this? How has your view of the culture changed since you’ve been much more active with this cause?
CK: I’ve never really been that curious [about friends’ orientations]. I don’t really care, as long as they’ll play video games with me -- that’s pretty much the only thing I’m looking for in a friend. For me, it boils down to: Are you free to live your own life? That’s something I would like all my friends to have, and something I would like everyone to have: The choice to make your own decisions in life.
BA: I spent a little bit of time in an LGBT dorm when I was a young kid… it makes a big difference when you get to hang around with the LGBTQ community. I didn’t see them as any different, even though they kind of had this label: “We live in the LGBT dorm.” It wasn’t that big a deal to me, but people were amazed that back in the ’90s I was living in that type of environment. That kind of developed who I was as a young person, and followed into my adulthood.
AKN: You two are tied together by this issue; you have become the faces for straight athlete allies. Bottom line: Why can’t you guys just marry each other already?
BA: [Both men laugh] Maybe in another life.
CK: In another life.