Seahawks-sponsored summit promotes solidarity in LGBTQ+ sports & business

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David Young, Chief Operations Officer of Seattle Seahawks — Photo by AV Eichenbaum
David Young, Chief Operations Officer of Seattle Seahawks — Photo by AV Eichenbaum

LGBTQ+ sports teams, advocates, startups, and allies met at Lumen Field Monday, April 4 for a two-day summit to discuss how best to promote and support the community and each other. The summit, hosted in partnership with Compete Sports Diversity and the Seattle Seahawks, was attended by representatives of nationally renowned Seattle teams and smaller local sports organizations alike.

Eric Carlyle, diversity advocate and CEO of Compete Sports Diversity, based out of Arizona, also served as an MC for the event, introducing speakers and hosting panels the first day. Participants came from a variety of backgrounds across the gender and sexuality spectrum, each bringing a new perspective to their respective discussions. "It takes a lot of diversity to make diversity happen," said Carlyle.

Lumen Field — Photo by AV Eichenbaum  

Day 1: Building and strengthening a community
The mood was bright among summit-goers Monday morning in the Delta Sky360 Club lofts at Lumen Field. Topics such as gender identity, representation, pronoun etiquette, and more were discussed with an air of levity and sense of humor grounded in the knowledge and shared lived experience of attendees.

"Dignity, worthiness, and value are our birthrights as human beings," said Carlee Hoover of Rainbow City Softball, who opened the event with a passionate pitch for the importance of using someone's correct pronouns in every setting. "Support people's rights to how they want to be addressed."
David Young, chief operating officer of the Seattle Seahawks, followed this by recognizing the importance of having a spot on the national stage.

"We recognize the broad impact we have to our community here in the Pacific Northwest and across the country," said Young.

Other speakers Monday included Connor Shane of USA Racquetball — an ally giving a presentation on productive allyship — and John "Jay Jay" Defee, commissioner of the NAGAAA Board of directors and self-described "out, proud, Gay Latino," who spoke on his life's trials and how he found community playing softball. "As leaders of our organizations and communities, we have an opportunity to change perceptions..." he said. "We all want to create an environment where people can be comfortable with who they are."

Pro Sports panel (From left to right) Kenny Dow, Kimberly Aigner, Mari Horita, Karen Williams-Mickey, Santiago Gallo Villamizar — Photo by AV Eichenbaum  

A moral and business imperative
Panelists on the first day spanned the spectrum of Seattle sports teams. Representatives from the Kraken, Seahawks, OL Reign, Sounders, and Storm gave their voice to allyship in athletics. "It is the moral imperative and the business imperative," said Mari Horita, vice president of community engagement and social impact for the Kraken. "It's the right thing to do."

"Seattle fans are the best in the world," she added later. "Hands down."

Karen Williams-Mickey, VP of diversity, equity, and inclusion for the Seahawks, shared her strategy: amplify the stories of Seahawks employees. "The first place I wanted to start was our people," she said. "My goal is that, by sharing these stories, others will become compassionate."

Kenny Dow, the Seattle Storm's VP of marketing, spoke out about the support and compassion the WNBA team has for Trans youths. "We support them, we're behind them, and we want them to play." The Storm also announced their continued involvement with political campaign Rock the Vote.

Seattle's pro teams plan to march with the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association in the Pride parade on June 26. "We want to leave a better place for the next generations," said Santiago Gallo Villamizar, the associate general manager of OL Reign, "in the field and out of the field."

"We want to make Washington the most inclusive, safest place for gender-diverse sports in the community," added the Sounders' VP of social impact, Kimberly Aigner. "We believe the right to play is a human right."

Representing local LGBTQ+-focused teams on another panel were Jayla Watje of Queer City Sports, Andrew Gorman of Cascade Flag Football, Amanda Bonfield of Emerald City Softball, and Mark Hedelund of CHEER Seattle.

The LGBTQ+ sports scene in Seattle is "a safe space where anyone is welcome and made to feel welcome," said Bonfield. "I'm encouraged beyond belief."

The talks were cap-ended with a series of roundtable talks led by Feisty Media founder Sara Gross, wherein the attendees were encouraged to share their thoughts on QTBIPOC representation and inclusion, representation in women's sports, and strategies for amplifying voices within their organizations.

"Sometimes, being uncomfortable is okay," said Mashonda Gilmore, founder of the Lynn Lewis Foundation, who organized one of the discussions, "as long as you're learning."

Monday's event ended with a happy hour and silent auction that raised $2,000 for the Lavender Rights Project and United Sports Seattle.

Seattle Seahawks President Chuck Arnold toasts the crowd during the silent auction — Photo by AV Eichenbaum  

Day 2: Down to business
The shorter of the two days began with a business-and-education-oriented talk centered around gender identity, proper conduct, and biases, followed by two panels and a tour of Lumen Field.

The first panel focused on the LGBTQ+ experience in sports, with speakers Rabecka Salisbury of Rainbow City Softball; the director of DEI for Cascade Flag Football, Bella Bowman, CHEER Seattle board member Beau Bradley; and the executive director of US Quidditch, Mary Kimball. The conversation quickly turned to Transphobia and Trans representation in sports, as most of the panelists identified as Trans and/or Nonbinary.

"Trans women have always been in sports," said Bradley.

"If you're a good athlete, you're a good athlete." added Bowman. "Gender identity doesn't really matter."

"I get so angry," said Kimball, talking about Quidditch and its association with famed transphobe J.K. Rowling. "I don't always feel as if I'm doing enough," she added later.

"We have to be conscious that not every city is as open as this one," said Salisbury. "Not every region is as open as this one. We're in a bubble on the West Coast, but even so, some of the worst treatment I've gotten has been here on the West Coast." Salisbury also announced that Rainbow City Softball's hopes to bring the Softball World Series to a more Trans-friendly city, like Seattle.

The following panel, on the importance of supporting LGBTQ+ businesses, was led by entrepreneur Sam Lehman. "Capitalism is alive and well," said Lehman.

Panelists included CEO Elise Lindborg of Brand Pride; President Michael Yerkovich of PridePays; the GSBA's training and consulting manager, Toraya Miller; and Trayer Martinez. Topics included branding strategies and the power of standing against rainbow-washing, a practice in which non-LGBTQ+ owned businesses add rainbow and Pride-themed products and statements to their public image but do not actually support the LGBTQ+ community in any way.

"Capitalism is alive and well," repeated Lehman near the end of the panel.

Why does this matter?
To many, a meeting of the minds connecting local LGBTQ+ community leaders and representatives from major sports teams may seem inconsequential, but much of the nation looks to athletes and sports teams as role models, and many people find a home in sports. "I believe that [playing] sports is the biggest form of social inclusion," said Shane.
The sentiment was echoed by summit-goers at every level.

"Our players are passionate, and we follow our players," said Dow.

Perhaps more important than the enthusiasm a summit like this encourages is the message it spreads.

"These summits bring all of us together," said Rainbow City Softball's Tori Jacobson to the SGN between talks. "We already have these conversations in everyday life, but now we can take what we've learned and bring the conversation back home."