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Stanford athletes, allies launch “You Can Play” video
New group seeks to create safe space for athletes
As a basketball player, Toni Kokenis witnessed firsthand how toxic the culture of varsity sports can be for gay, lesbian, and transgender athletes. Kokenis recounted instances at Stanford and elsewhere where athletes have used the word “gay” as a synonym for stupid or uncool. Other times Kokenis saw athletes characterize their opponents as gay, as a way to feel superior before a big game.
Kokenis has also encountered situations where an athlete’s sexuality is commented upon simply because of the sport they play. She has heard male divers referred to as gay because their sport is thought of as feminine, while female basketball players are characterized as lesbian because their sport is thought of as too manly. “People will say it in a joking manner, but we need to create an atmosphere where everyone understands that’s not okay,” Kokenis said.
A year of firsts
To help create a more open environment for athletes at Stanford, Kokenis and three colleagues founded Stanford Athletes and Allies Together (StAAT). StAAT’s mission is to ensure a space to discuss issues about gender identity, gender expression, and sexual nonconformity as they relate to athletes.
After only one year on campus, StAAT has achieved remarkable success. The organization has hosted several intimate group meetings to discuss current events on campus and athlete-specific issues. They also collaborated with Safe and Open Spaces at Stanford (SOSAS) to host a panel at the monthly coaches meeting where LGBT athletes spoke to coaches about how to be strong allies so that the “if you can play, you can play” mantra can be expressed from a position of authority. More specifically, the group is championing a powerful message: “At Stanford, if you can play, you can play regardless of your gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation.”
StAAT seeks to eradicate homophobia and transphobia through inclusivity and mutual understanding.
The group has garnered support from students, athletes, and, most notably, athletic administrators. For Toni Kokenis and her co-founders, working with those in power is the most important and effective way to ensure that their message receives the attention and credit it deserves.
The culmination of the organization’s first year was its You Can Play video, a public service announcement that conveyed the group’s “if you can play, you can play” message. At first viewers see athletic director Bernard Muir setting up a circle of chairs for discussion. The video then highlights 29 athletes and renowned coaches such as Tara VanDerveer defending LGBT rights publically for the first time.
Kokenis says that the diversity of the group, with almost every varsity sport represented, conveys the solidarity behind StAAT and its ethic of acceptance. With the You Can Play video, nonconforming athletes were not distinguished from other athletes, and according to Kokenis, the deliberate omission showed that the difference does not really matter. Their message is clear: ultimately, sexual preference, gender identity, and object choice are irrelevant.
Ongoing quest for allies
In addition to providing safe spaces for athletes, StAAT is committed to recruiting a broad base of allies in the athletic community and beyond. Being an ally means standing up for your teammates and supporting them, whether in the face of sideways glances, derogatory language, or outright bullying.
“You don’t want to be the only out person on the team constantly calling people out on the use of language,” Kokenis said. Without allies, then, nonconforming athletes can be forced to choose between being harassed every time they try to police language, or being shamed into silence about their sexuality. When backed up and supported by an ally, a locker room can become a safe and healthy environment for nonconforming athletes.
In the coming year, StAAT hopes to attract more LGBT and allied athletes to its support meetings. At these gatherings, StAAT plans to raise awareness about issues like disrespectful language. A survey of Stanford athletes showed that derogatory comments in the locker room are more often said in jest rather than in a deliberately hurtful way. In other words, those making insensitive comments fail to recognize the negative impact that their “jokes” can have on their teammates. StAAT’s meetings provide an educational forum that aims to raise awareness of discursive violence and encourage athletes to speak more thoughtfully. Ultimately, StAAT seeks to eradicate homophobia and transphobia through inclusivity and mutual understanding.
This year the group also plans to foster communication between different athletic teams, which Kokenis and her peers believe will help generate a nurturing environment for Stanford’s LGBT athletes.
Being an ally means standing up for your teammates and supporting them, whether in the face of sideways glances, derogatory language, or outright bullying.
Just over a year ago there were few, if any, resources specifically for LGB, trans, or intersex athletes. Now, athletes can come to StAAT to talk about whatever is on their minds, from current media events to pressing issues on campus. Although entrenched attitudes in sports make it difficult to eliminate stereotypes altogether, StAAT is offering a way for athletes to diffuse negative expectations in order to create a more diverse and welcoming environment for everyone.
In addition to basketball player Toni Kokenis, StAAT was co-founded by soccer player Annie Graham, rugby player Smriti Sridhar, and diver Noah Garcia. StAAT meets in El Centro Lounge.
Toni Kokenis is a basketball player and Stanford senior majoring in Human Biology. Kokenis and three colleagues founded Stanford Athletes and Allies Together (StAAT). StAAT’s mission is to ensure a space to discuss issues about gender identity, gender expression, and sexual nonconformity as they relate to athletes
Tres Pittman is a second-year Stanford student who became interested in issues of gender and sexuality after taking a class taught by Stanford’s first Queer Studies Postdoctoral Fellow, and is now contemplating a major in Feminist Studies, Comparative Literature, or Earth Systems. Pittman is part of the Clayman Institute's Student Writing Team