For Mike Blaylock, director of Midlothian, VA-based FAME All Stars, all-star cheerleading’s evolving attitude toward gay athletes in sports can be summed up one way: The fact that he can talk openly about his upcoming wedding to his partner of five years, Adam, in the gym.
“What I love is when I have little girls in my gym begging to be flower girls,” he says, fighting back tears. “I have little girls, that the day of the wedding—this makes me emotional talking about it—but they want to be involved. Not because it would be fun or different, just because they recognize that the bond I have with this person with whom I spend my life. They respect that it’s not a mockery, and it’s not fake. They respect it enough to where they would be a part of it if they could.”
When Blaylock talks about his gym’s 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds recognizing his relationship in the same way they recognize “quote-unquote traditional relationships,” he gets choked up. Because according to Blaylock, that positive reception wouldn’t have been the case 15 years ago in all-star cheerleading.
One Step Forward, One Step Back
All-star cheer isn’t the only area that has made some strides—in April, Washington Wizards player Jason Collins made history when he became the first openly gay male athlete playing in a major sport. Professional athletes from sports organizations including the NFL, NHL, pro soccer and ESPN, among others, have also banded together to form the You Can Play organization. Its motto: “Gay athletes. Straight allies. Teaming up for respect.”
Yet some feel we haven’t come far enough. Though most would assume that the last place sexuality would be an issue would be all-star cheerleading, a USASF rule made last spring cast doubt on the industry’s acceptance level. The rule mandated that males “minimize exaggerated or theatrical movements,” and many in the industry viewed it as discrimination against gay cheerleaders. The rule was later retracted, but the spotlight on the issue brought the treatment of gay athletes in competitive cheerleading to the forefront.
The recent controversy begs the question: What’s the climate for gay athletes in cheerleading gyms today?
That Was Then
Blaylock remembers all too well being discriminated against as a high school cheerleader via “harsh statements” to his face and behind his back from fellow students outside of his squad. Since starting his coaching career in 1998, he has slowly experienced a significant difference in the way he is viewed.
“The treatment back then wasn’t that it was negative, as far as in-your-face negative,” says Blaylock. “It was more of the ‘Let’s keep this quiet’ attitude or ‘Let’s not put that out there so much.’ And as time has passed and perspectives have changed, the ability to be who you are as a coach—and discuss those kinds of matters without the fear of ridicule or fear of being included in certain things—has [risen] dramatically.”
This Is Now
Not all gyms have specific policies for inclusion, but some do have unwritten rules about acceptance.
“[At FAME All-Stars], we’ve never had to create a tolerance policy because it’s just a universally known idea that we’re accepting,” Blaylock says. “We’ve never had to address with our parents or our team that one behavior should not be frowned on. I know that that is my own little bubble, but I have to say that I’m proud of that bubble.”
Over at ACE Cheer Company, based in Hattiesburg, Mississippi (a part of the country that skews conservative), co-owner Brandon Roberts says they take a strict anti-bullying stance, going as far as to sit down with parents and athletes if they hear kids making anti-gay comments about other athletes or coaches.
“We now have 11 locations, and it doesn’t matter the location—whether it’s Nashville or as far south as Pensacola. It doesn’t matter where you’re at, or if you fall into the Bible Belt; [we make sure] the entire program and all of the families are loving and accepting of all of our athletes. That’s the one thing that we really push,” Roberts says. “It’s about safety. It’s about sticking with your brothers and sisters no matter what, and [being] there for them.”
But the self-expression and tolerance that ACE and FAME encourage isn’t the case everywhere. Some local gyms, Roberts says, still encourage their athletes to keep their sexual identity a secret or turn athletes away from their program because of their sexuality. He tells the story of one gay athlete who switched from another gym to ACE as a high school senior and finally came out at the end of the season.
“He said the one thing that our program taught him was that it was okay to be himself,” Roberts says. “It wasn’t that our program turned him or changed him; it was just the fact that he felt like he had to be silent or couldn’t say anything because of the [former] program he was at. [He felt] that he would be bullied or kicked off the squad, or that they wouldn’t allow him or they would out him to their entire school. It’s a shame that that still happens.”
Rules of Engagement
Circling back to that controversial USASF rule, depending on whom you talk to, the rule was either a pointed dig at gay athletes or a more broad-based nudge toward how the federation wanted the sport to look.
“I was offended [by the rule], to be quite honest,” says Blaylock. “I felt that in a sport that I think that that is so huge in comparison to other sports, in which we teach and advocate for so much inclusion, I felt that [the rule] was hypocritical and contradictory to one of the most wonderful things about our sport. It was so against what I think event producers and coaches and parents and athletes have worked so hard to create. To get that wording from the USASF board really came across as a slap in the face to not want to carry on that wonderful sense of inclusion that we have in our sport.”
However, Roberts felt the rule could be interpreted differently than merely a slam to gay cheerleaders—and that “flamboyant” performance of any kind, from gay or straight athletes, isn’t necessarily in line with what some gyms, ACE included, preach. He says he has asked individuals to tone down their performance if it takes away from a squad’s “uniform” look. For example, ACE does not include makeup for boys or body glitter when it performs in order to encourage what Roberts describes as an “all-American” style.
“I did think that when [the rule] came out that it was pointed in a certain direction; however, you had to look at it both ways, and I wasn’t going to jump on the side that this is homophobia,” he says. “But we have to look at what are we putting out as an industry. Are we scaring other people away from joining our program? Are we putting the label that every male cheerleader will immediately be [assumed] gay? Or is this a way of telling individuals not to be themselves? I think we as an industry and we as a gym had to look at what exactly they were asking and how we interpret it.”
Despite the rule and its subsequent controversy, Blaylock says he is optimistic about the future of all-star cheerleading’s role in equality for all sexual orientations.
“What I am hoping we achieve is…when you see an athlete walking by who may not have proper gender behavior, you don’t even notice, you don’t even turn your head—that’s when we’ve achieved some serious groundwork, and I believe we’re on that path.”