Last week, I was fortunate enough to interview Hudson Taylor. Taylor is the founder of Athlete Ally, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to fight “the rampant homophobia and transphobia in sport and to activate the athletic community to exercise their leadership to champion LGBTQI+ equality.” Together Taylor and I discussed the genesis of Athlete Ally, the struggles queer athletes face, and vital advice for entrepreneurs invested in social change.

What inspired you to start Athlete Ally?

I started Athlete Ally because of a sticker that changed my life. A three-time all-American athlete and a theater major, I was in two very different cultures. I had a lot of LGBTQ friends in theater, and teammates using homophobic and sexist language. I got to a place in my athletic career where I thought “Sports should not be this way. My team culture should not be this way.” My senior season I was number two in the country in my weight class. I decided to start the season by wearing an LGBTQ equality sticker on my head gear. In response to that, I had a lot of difficult dialogue with my teammates. I did an interview about why I wore the sticker. In response to that interview, I got about 2,000 emails from closeted athletes. That was the “aha” moment. If I could have that kind of an impact as a wrestler, imagine if I had been a football player, or a professional team or professional league.”

A black and white photo of Taylor and the sticker that changed his life
A black and white photo of Taylor and the sticker that changed his life

Athlete Ally is based on a simple belief that there’s never been a successful social justice movement for minority groups without the support of the majority. If we’re going to end any form of oppression or discrimination, people who experience it shouldn’t be the only ones who shoulder the responsibility of ending it. The majority must get involved and start changing their language and their behavior. And then the second thing is there’s a unique power in sports. These emails [from closeted athletes] made it really clear to me that sport is a global language. [Sport] is a connector, it brings people together across political ideation, its most accomplished participants are known globally so a single professional athlete can make people listen in a very unique, special way. I would also say that the rules of sport are a human invention. That this billion or trillion dollar industry is based on rules that people in a room got together and made up fascinated me. The idea that we could change those rules, we can change those policies and practices, became really exciting to me.

How have the goals of Athlete Ally changed since its founding? How have they stayed the same?

I think in the beginning [Athlete Ally] was so much about personal responsibility, and trying to make the case to every athlete, every coach, every parent, that they have a personal responsibility to be better, to do better, to be more intentional. A lot of our messaging and programs were about stepping up and being a better ally. The evolution of the organization and our work really shifted to say, “Yes, we want that personal responsibility. But if we can change a sport policy or shift the way sport is conducted, and which teams are onboarded, that could amplify the number of people who were reaching.”

We went from this mindset of person, by person, by person, and “let’s affect change at the individual level,” to really thinking about systems change, and how do we change the organization of sports, which has allowed us to be more judicious with our time with a staff of only eight people. Sport is a pretty big space. There’s a lot of homophobia and other issues of inclusion that exist. Shifting to a systems change approach was probably our biggest adjustment. 

How have the challenges faced by queer athletes changed since Athlete Ally’s founding? Has this changed how the team at Athlete Ally approaches these challenges and advocates for athletes?

The landscape has definitely changed. Outside of sport, in 1990 the average age of a person coming out was 26. Today the average age is 13. When I began 10 years ago, the number of athletes who said they knew somebody who openly identified as LGBTQ was much less than it is now. More and more athletes say, “Yeah, my friend is gay. My sister’s lesbian, my cousin came out as trans.” There’s more of a personal connection to the LGBTQ community in sport than there was 10 years ago.

We’ve leaned into helping make people more aware of the experiences of LGBTQ athletes. Over the last five years, we’ve done a lot more storytelling about the experiences of LGBTQ athletes. We want people to understand why this issue is important. We want people to understand what they need to do about it. But if that person doesn’t think they know anybody who’s personally impacted by homophobia, or transphobia, then we’re gonna miss the mark. It’s not going to connect on a personal level to the extent that it probably could or should. We’ve been much more intentional about elevating the visibility of LGBTQ athletes nationally as a vehicle for us to train more people and involve them in our work.

With more and more professional athletes coming out, how can leagues like the NFL and the NBA show support for queer athletes in a way that isn’t performative?

When I look at the landscape of opportunities for a league, I always envision a matrix of proactive, reactive, affirming, or discouraging. Within each of these sections, there’s a whole world of opportunity for the ways in which a lead could be showing up. Proactive affirming represents the things a team or league could be doing before an athlete ever comes out. Those are mandating training, really being clear about their values, saying “We welcome LGBTQ athletes.” It’s a proactive affirming way to make it clear to any young queer athlete that your sport is welcome.

You can set those signals in your policies, in your day to day interactions. Either at the individual level or at the organization level, what are the proactive affirming signals that can be sent that aren’t sent? Those signals are important when nobody is out, when the perception or the assumption is that it’s not a welcoming environment. So reactive affirming is what one says or does once an athlete does come out. Once somebody does speak out as an ally or calls attention to an issue, how is that institution having that person’s back? Whenever I see an athlete come out, I’m always super interested to see, does the league make a statement? Does the team make a statement? Which athletes do and do not stand up and speak out? Those are reactive. Something has happened in the world and you are given an opportunity to either support that thing or uplift it. And if you don’t, that silence says something. 

Proactive discouraging is defining the lines of what norms and expectations are okay. When we look at the repercussions and the penalties for homophobic behavior across professional leagues, it’s all over the map. Some leagues fine players a consistent amount. Some leagues have undisclosed amounts in the fines. We don’t know the full landscape of what the repercussions are when somebody uses homophobic behavior across all sports. There should be a proactive discouraging system in place that says, “Hey, this is not okay. And this is the repercussion if you do it.”

But then the second piece of that is the reactive discouraging. When somebody uses a homophobic slur, are they held accountable for it? And I think this is one of the areas where the policies of sport and the practices of sport aren’t always a one-to-one match. I think we see it in the World Cup and the Olympics. There are so many human rights abuses that happen in and through sport. The policies of sport might say “We protect and respect human rights,” but then the way in which the business of sport is conducted, human rights isn’t always a priority. How we actually respond when there is a breakdown of culture, a breakdown of our values is super telling.

A picture of Carl Nassib who came out in June, becoming the first openly gay N.F.L. player.
A picture of Carl Nassib who came out in June, becoming the first openly gay N.F.L. player.
GREY Journal is an online platform that celebrates the entrepreneurial spirit. As the founder of Athlete Ally, in what ways do you consider yourself an entrepreneur?

I think whether it’s for profit or nonprofit, to start an organization requires an entrepreneur. The majority of nonprofits fail in their first five years. It is very, very hard to get an organization to be sustainable, growing, especially in the nonprofit space. We function by people believing in us. People are not buying a product, they’re buying impact. They’re supporting our mission. The nonprofit space can be really tricky, but to make it work and work well you have to have that entrepreneurial spirit. I like to think that Athlete Ally’s organizational identity has that baked into it to a certain extent.

My staff structure is very flat. I really like to let people lead and grow into their role. We’re going to be most successful when we have a team of exceptional generals. I want as many high performing people as possible to be a part of this team. If they get poached by other organizations or sought after by other companies, we’re doing our job. So I want the most high performing, creative, entrepreneurial people to be a part of the team. I want to give them the autonomy to run with their work and I think that’s a recipe for good things to occur.

What are some valuable lessons you’ve learned over the years at Athlete Ally that could be useful for other entrepreneurs invested in social change?

I think the building blocks of any high performing team are threefold. I think you have to build safety, share vulnerability, and align on purpose. Building safety means your team feels competent, they have a home, that you have their back, that you’re a team.

The vulnerability piece means we own our errors. We’re comfortable asking for help, comfortable calling each other out when we make a mistake and not in a way that puts each other down. We’re all in this together, we’re all trying to work towards the same goal. And I think how you engender a culture of vulnerability is really, really important. If everybody thinks that they have to be perfect when they make a mistake, if there’s not a culture where somebody can say, “Hey, I screwed up,” or where I can tell somebody, “Hey, I think this could be better,” it’s going to be really hard to stay at the top of your game. That vulnerability is critically important, it builds trust on that team as well.

The third piece, align on purpose, means where are we going? What is our North Star? The most high performing cultures are crystal clear about those ultimate goals. We talk about this in our sports work. If I went down the line and asked everybody, “What is your ultimate goal? What is your purpose?” I would want to see everybody having the same exact response. And if that’s the case, if that’s the foundation of your culture, you’re going to do great things. Whether that’s as a nonprofit organization, a for profit company, or even as a sports team, you have to align on purpose.

To learn more about Athlete Ally and their inspiring advocacy work, visit the Athlete Ally website.

This article originally published on GREY Journal.