“Helping kids have a voice” — that’s what Hudson Taylor says his trip to Sarasota next week is all about.
Taylor began speaking out about LGBT rights as a wrestler at the University of Maryland, challenging the common homophobia and transphobia in athletic culture. Last year, that experience led him to form Athlete Ally, a nonprofit that aims to foster respect for those of all sexual orientations, a message he’ll be carrying to four Sarasota County schools over the course of three days next week. Taylor’s appearances are part of ALSO Out Youth’s Stand Up Sarasota week, chock full of events rallying Sarasota to combat bullying (which Taylor calls an “epidemic”) and discrimination.
The Sarasota News Leader spoke with Taylor over the phone Thursday to find out more about his work and his message.
The Sarasota News Leader: What will be your message to Sarasota students?
Hudson Taylor: Be conscious of your words, and make others conscious of theirs. I started this nonprofit and started doing this work because my senior year of college I started speaking out as an ally and I got thousands of emails. … Being a strong support voice for others can really change lives and save lives.
SNL: What’s the typical reaction when you speak to students?
Taylor: It’s been incredibly supportive. I know that when you talk about the LGBT community, it can be scary. It can be divisive. It can often be the first time you talk about homophobic language. As an athlete, no one engaged me in conversations like this. … When you make it about how we treat one another, you make it about respect, those become very easy to understand.
SNL: Did ALSO Out Youth reach out to you to visit?
Taylor: Yeah, absolutely. I’m not sure how we inititially got connected. I think they just reached out and expressed an interst in bringing me down. … I’m happy everything’s come together and I have an opportunity to visit Sarasota and raise awareness.
SNL: High school kids are generally more supportive of LGBT rights than their parents, right?
Taylor: I think if you look at the polling, there’s a huge change of support for young generations, and that is even more prevalent when you get into the high school range. … There is still division when it comes to equal marriage. There is still division when you start talking about people’s faith. So, you know, that can’t be ignored, and that’s why I try to keep my conversations and my talks very apolitical. I’m very much about respect.
SNL: So no Dan Savage/Brian Brown debate?
Taylor: I think it’s important to engage in those kinds of divisive conversations because progress can’t occur unless we’re willing to hash out where we disagree. … There are many, many, many things we can agree on. No child should be made to think that their only choice is suicide.
SNL: Has homophobia in sports changed at all?
Taylor: In the last year we’ve seen more progress than at any other time in sports, with several baseball teams, a football team, recording an It Gets Better video. … I think we’re really seeing athletes and athletic departments understanding the role that athletics plays in people’s lives. The athletic environment is looked to as leaders, as role models, so if we can get the sports community to champion respect I think a lot of progress can occur.
SNL: How do you encourage kids to become LGBT allies?
Taylor: I always like to start with, if you don’t feel comfortable speaking out in your real life, start using your virtual life … without having to necessarily engage in those scary conversations. And then I kind of build it from there. Start to wear your beliefs on your sleeve. I also think there’s strength in numbers. … To all join in some campaign together, it drastically reduces the perceived risk of speaking out.
SNL: What else is Athlete Ally up to?
Taylor: For the first time, we provided Ally training for the NBA, so the NBA rookie training camp featured an Ally video. … So that’s one level of things, doing more proactive outreach to the professional world.
SNL: Last year, responding to your potential visit, a Sarasota blogger called anti-gay bullying “healthy” and simple “peer pressure.”* Did that news make its way up to you?
Taylor: Yes, it definitely reached me. I think that definitely cemented me definitely coming to Sarasota. So I definitely, definitely saw that. But it’s to be expected. There’s still a lot of division around having this conversation, even something as straightforward as bullying. But it’s not going to go away if we don’t do something about how kids treat one another. Kids are going to continue to think they don’t have a place in the world and I think that’s unacceptable.
SNL: Have you ever encountered opposition from schools?
Taylor: There’s been some resistance and the process has definitely slowed down depending on how affilated the school is with various faith-based communities. I’ve gone to a lot of colleges but I’ve gone to very few Catholic colleges. There are definitely some communities that are more open or willing to engage their students in this conversation than others, but I think it’s only a matter of time.
*The blogger in question, Richard Swier, is a a “dear friend” of U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota.