Though I had my mom with me on our crew of activists, Soulforce’s action at the women’s Final Four basketball game this weekend was one of the more daunting in my dozen years of direct action organizing.
From the moment we entered the arena, police crowded us, grilled us with questions, monitored us from above, and even followed us to the bathroom.
We breathed deep. We prayed.
We scanned the arena. We checked in with our comrades who were spooked because they couldn’t get a drink of water without a police entourage.
We had brought with us several permissible banners, according to the NCAA rules, and we wore pink t-shirts with “IX” painted on the back.
Out of respect for the players, we lifted our largest banner at halftime—sharing a direct message to the NCAA. Because we can’t back down from reclaiming our spirits in public, speaking out against Christian Supremacy, and demanding solidarity from institutions with power.
Not even when the police threaten us that “Texas fans” might get angry and uncontrollable in response to our actions.
And especially not when we are courtside at the final game of the Final Four.
Our action this weekend was part of Give Back IX, a campaign that has been ongoing on for over a year. Title IX is a federal law that makes it illegal for schools to discriminate against students on the basis of sex. At least 30 members schools of the NCAA have applied for Title IX exemptions for a range of gender justice issues, like being pregnant or transgender.
In the last year, the public actions of Give Back IX and two sign-on statements sent to the NCAA—one led last year by Campus Pride and Soulforce, and one from Athlete Ally and HRC—evoked some significant and positive changes from the NCAA.
A year ago, the NCAA made a public commitment to consider safety and inclusion when deciding who can host championship games. This year, the NCAA made a commitment to add more tooth specifically regarding LGBTQI safety and inclusion.
Public pressure is necessary because it works.
We planned our Final Four action to ask the NCAA to urge their member schools to uphold Title IX. Despite their commitment to inclusivity and nondiscrimination, the NCAA has remained virtually silent as their members have sought waivers to discipline, expel, or fire people who break religiously motivated rules.
Our goals for the game were twofold:
1. Get on the jumbotron as often as possible using exuberant and silly signs, e.g. “Go Red Team!” (both teams were a version of red), and “It’s Better When Everybody Wins!” Because it’s important to show trans and queer people claiming our joy.
2. Show up in our full dignity and humanity using a targeted banner calling the NCAA to account for its anti-LGBTQI member schools.
On Soulforce’s tour of Southeast schools in 2016, the relationship between sports, religious freedom, higher education, and legal questions of identity were more evident than ever before.
In fact, the topic of basketball came up so often in our meetings with school administrators that you might think they were briefed on this rhetorical strategy together in a room somewhere. Specifically, administrators spoke of the “danger” of some people exploiting permission for trans people to exist in order to gain an advantage in sports.
On the other hand, the Christian schools we visit are arguably as powerful as sports.
These are campuses that have worked over decades to establish “religious exemptions” as a viable legal framework. Today, we see this framework replicated in anti-LGBTQI laws across the country. Just last year, Mississippi passed HB 1523, one of the most comprehensive anti-LGBTI bills in the country. This year, more than 40 statewide anti-LGBTQI proposals seek to turn harmful theology into law.
At Soulforce, we know that sports (and the money of sports) are powerful cultural and political tools. We also know we cannot count on institutions like the NCAA to save us, and we cannot count on institutions like the NCAA to bridge the gap between the law and our lives as they ought to be affirmed and protected.
Just this week, North Carolina lawmakers rushed a fake repeal of HB 2 so their state could be eligible to be selected by the NCAA to host sports championship games over the next five years.
North Carolina’s backroom deal worked.
On Tuesday, the NCAA decided to allow their championship games to return to North Carolina. But what the NCAA called a “minimal achievement” in restoring security and inclusion of LGBTQI people in North Carolina is, in reality, a regressive legal precedent for other states considering similar laws.
Texas clearly learned from the battle with NCAA, ACC, and NBA in North Carolina. In writing SB 6, a proposed bathroom discrimination bill that bans transgender, non-binary, and intersex people from using restrooms in public schools, universities, and government offices, legislators tried to make a loophole for sports agencies so the state could have their cake and eat it too.
So what have we learned from all this, and how do we adapt?
Unfortunately, we learned that the NCAA, at the height of its ability to wield power and nudge a bigoted law in the right direction, won’t always lead but it might follow.
And so, we will be relentless in our demand for the NCAA to follow through on their commitment to inclusivity and nondiscrimination.
We will show the way so institutions like the NCAA can bolster us but not define us.
For Soulforce, this means pulling the conversation back from “Where do we place the big championships?” and “What can the NCAA do for us at the capitol?” to re-center instead on the NCAA’s foundation: its member schools, the students, and what it means when the NCAA looks the other way on discrimination within its own ranks.
It also means amplifying the stories of LGBTQI students and alumni from these Christian schools and making sure the NCAA hears them. These are stories they cannot un-know.
On Sunday, after we were threatened with criminal trespass and then ejected for raising our banner during halftime, we ignored the police warnings about “uncontrollable” Texas fans and stood on the sidewalk in front of the arena as the game let out. People gave us hi-fives, thumbs up, and took selfies with our banners as they passed by.
We met dozens of fans, both queer people and allies, who were happy to cheer us on.
We will do whatever it takes to make these fans aware of the NCAA’s unresolved struggle between wanting to be an ally to our community, and its own complicity with schools that help create the environment for laws like HB 2 to flourish in the first place.
Photo provided by Soulforce