It is difficult to put my white, middle class, middle-aged and lesbian feet in the basketball shoes of a young black lesbian athlete from the projects. I know nothing about what Tayshana Murphy’s life was like. I do know something about keeping secrets. I hid my own lesbian identity for years before coming out in my 20s. However, I had the advantage of class and race privilege to help buffer the effects of the homophobia I faced as a young lesbian athlete. I did not live with violence in my neighborhood on a daily basis. I lived in a home where my parents were comfortably able to provide for my brother and I. When I looked around at my classmates in school, most of their faces were white like mine and their families also enjoyed similar middle class status. Most of us assumed we would go to college. I could afford to be oblivious to the challenges facing the few classmates of color I had.
I wrote about Tayshana’s murder in early October when I first learned about it. In this insightful article, Mecca Jamilah Sullivan invites us all to ponder the effects of racism, sexism, classism and homophobia and their interconnected impact on young black women athletes from the projects. The tragedy of Tayshana’s senseless murder is evident in the loss of a talented young woman athlete who had the potential to leave the cycle of poverty and violence that most of her classmates will never escape. The hidden tragedy that Mecca Jamilah Sullivan invites us to think about is that Tayshana’s murder is largely unnoticed outside her local community.
She asks, “What are the relationships between athlete culture and LGBTQ identity for youth of color in 2011? Why does the principle of the open secret persist for youth athletes, even as institutional structures like ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ long convicted in the court of public opinion, have finally fallen away? And what are the roles of race in all of this? We know white men’s lives and deaths get wildly disproportionate media coverage, but what happens when responsible journalism means frank discussions of sexuality, outness, and homophobic violence? If Murphy had been white, or male, would we know more of her story? And would more people know about her in general?”
Advocates for LBGT athletes and coaches must make a commitment to think beyond our own personal experience. Men must understand the role of sexism as it affects the experiences of lesbians and bisexual women in sport. White people must examine how racism mixed with homophobia make the experience of LGBT athletes and coaches different from those of us who can ignore racism even as we benefit from it. Those of us who have enough food, safety, shelter and access to financial resources need to ask ourselves what we are going to do in response to Tayshana’s death? How will we make sure this kind of tragedy never happens again.
We can make all the “It Gets Better” videos in the world, but how will they touch the lives of young women like Tayshana who probably don’t even have access to a computer to watch them? Every time we speak out, we need to consider how race, class and gender filter the experiences of young LGBT people and make sure our interventions take into account the challenges they face. We owe it to the memory of Tayshana and to the future of her sisters whose names we do not even know.