MLB panel examines LGBTQ+ experience, progress

June 25th, 2020

For the LGBTQ+ community, the fight for civil rights has often depended upon participation across race, gender and class lines. In recognition of that intersectional approach to social justice, Major League Baseball’s virtual Pride Month panel, “Working OUT at MLB,” focused not only on the work experiences of out members of the LGBTQ+ community, but also on the systemic racism currently plaguing the nation and the male hegemony embedded within the sport.

Moderated by Billy Bean, vice president and special assistant to the Commissioner, Tuesday’s hour-long discussion featured Nona Lee, executive vice president and chief legal officer for the D-backs; Greg Bader, senior vice president of administration and experience for the Orioles; Anna Powell, account executive for the Indians; and Erik Braverman, senior vice president of marketing, communications and broadcasting for the Dodgers.

For Lee, Bader and Braverman, who each has more than a decade of experience as executives in baseball, their careers and identities were initially at odds amid the straight white male culture of sports, so they chose not to talk openly about their sexual orientations. As Braverman put it, they faced three “coming outs” in their lives -- to themselves, to their friends and families and then to their colleagues -- and didn’t want to be defined by it.

“I did it for others who are out there,” said Braverman, who came out publicly in 2015. “There are so many people I’ve heard from across the country and the world, frankly, who have said they love sports, whatever the given sport is, and they just didn’t think this was an accepting culture. They didn’t think this was an environment where they could come and be their authentic selves.”

The tides are turning, however, as Powell, who is only five years into her career, has been struck by how positive the responses have been to her being out. She did admit, though, that it’s often the case that women in sports are almost assumed to be gay, making it less challenging than it is for men.

“The best way to put it is, the process for women feels easier because you’re almost living up to a stereotype, rather than defying one,” Powell said.

Lee -- who is Black, female and part of the LGBTQ+ community -- knows better than most how difficult it is to balance multiple minority identities, and when Bean asked which of the three has been the hardest to navigate, she had thought a lot about it.

“If I’m honest, I would say the one that has been the least problematic for me has been being gay. That has been seamless and smooth,” Lee said. “Not that there’s been a lot of outward hostility or anything around my being African American or a woman, but I’ve had to fight a lot harder and I’ve had a lot more obstacles to overcome because of those two things that are very much a part of who I am. I still look around and don’t see a lot of people who look like me in sports, and I really hope to see that change.”

Bean, who oversees educational initiatives with the players centered on fostering respectful, accepting and inclusive workplaces, clubhouses and gameday experiences, admitted that sexism is still the foremost problem the league faces. But baseball hasn’t shied away from addressing societal issues related to the game of late.

Bader spoke about two high-profile racial incidents that have sparked a shift within MLB during his time in Baltimore. The first came in April 2015, when Freddie Gray was killed in police custody with no video evidence, leading to unrest throughout the city. The O’s postponed games and even played in an empty stadium to avoid escalating tensions.

“[It] really brought to light a lot of issues about inequality within Baltimore, and issues not unique to Baltimore, that happen throughout the country with the systemic racism that exists and the opportunities that simply aren’t provided to a huge portion of our population,” Bader said. “It felt like the attention was of a World Series game, but it mattered so much more than baseball.”

The second came in May 2017, when Adam Jones was subjected to racial slurs at Fenway Park in Boston. MLB responded by implementing a code of conduct that mandated an automatic ejection and potentially a lifetime ban for fans found guilty of hate speech.

“It represented something that Black baseball players have had to endure unnecessarily for decades,” Bader said. “And I think it was shocking for a lot of people to learn that something like this was still happening in 2017. It was something, I think, people thought they would have read about while Jackie Robinson was trying to break the color barrier.”

Behind that backdrop, MLB’s recent actions following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis point to a collective desire to bring about lasting change across the sport. It’s a development that encourages Lee, who was a child before the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 and has firsthand experience of having to use a Black-only bathroom or water fountain or having to quit the swim team because, as she put it, “their parents don’t want them in the pool with me.”

“What is so different now is what people are doing in terms of being allies, whether that’s at the organizational level or at an individual level,” Lee said. “And that is something that never existed before, in terms of people who don’t look like us, who don’t share this experience, being willing to step up and say this is wrong and this has to stop. … I’m happy to see this happen in my lifetime because, frankly, I wasn’t sure that it ever would.”

In addition to Tuesday’s panel, MLB recently partnered with PFLAG -- the nation’s first and largest organization committed to advancing equality for LGBTQ+ individuals -- to host a webinar for club and league employees to learn more about the community’s history and culture. Jean-Marie Navetta, PFLAG’s director of learning and inclusion, emphasized how it took protests and activism from an intersectional coalition -- like that of the current Black Lives Matter movement -- to make progress in the fight for social justice.

“Understanding history provides lots of great opportunities for us,” Navetta said. “[We should] acknowledge that we’ve come a long way, but equality is not here, and it’s definitely not here for everybody in our community. We need to use an inclusive version of our history to tell our stories and include the names and faces and accomplishments of all the people who have been erased, especially people of color and trans folks.

“Twenty years from now, when someone else is teaching this class, what are they going to say about what we did? That is the question that we actually have to answer. It’s an exciting one to answer, but it’s a huge responsibility.”