The past several years have seen a growing general acceptance of the LGBT community across the country. The professional sports community, seen by many as one of the last bastions of institutionalized homophobia, is coming around as well. Although no male gay athlete in a major sport has come out during his professional career, 2011, in particular, has been a banner year for tolerance and acceptance from athletes and industry insiders.
In May 2011, Phoenix Suns President Rick Welts came out as gay in an effort to make the professional sports world more accepting of homosexuality and mentor those in the LGBT community who want to work in professional athletics. Also, many professional sports franchises are partaking in the “It Gets Better” public service announcement, which shows “LGBT youth the level of happiness, acceptance and potential their lives will reach” (itgetsbetter.org).
Charles Barkley, current TNT analyst and former NBA All-Star, summed up the general landscape of homosexuality in professional sports best in a May 2011 interview with the Washington Post:
“Any professional athlete … (who) says he never played with a gay guy is a stone freakin’ idiot … every college player, every pro player in any sport has probably played with a gay person.”
Barkley, the bard of the sporting world, brings up an astute point that agents and managers need to apprise themselves of: Gay professional athletes are, and will eventually become, a more public reality in the professional sports landscape. Those athletes who choose to make up the vanguard of this social movement will face unique employment, marketing and family law decisions that have the potential to greatly affect their careers, and more importantly, their personal lives. Agents must be able to assist their principals in issue-spotting and advising in the rapidly emerging and legally opaque world of same sex rights in family law.
In his recent memoir, Welcome to My World, Johnny Weir, the three-time U.S. national figure skating champion and two-time Olympian officially came out. Johnny and his longtime boyfriend, Victor Voronov tied the knot in a New York City courthouse on December 30. Weir’s recent marriage illustrates some of the issues that same-sex couples will face as they marry in one state and eventually settle in another that does not afford them the same marriage rights.
New York passed the Marriage Equality Act last June, which states that “ a marriage that is otherwise valid [under the domestic relations law of New York] shall be valid regardless of whether the parties to the marriage are of the same or different sex” (A8354-2011). A growing number of states among them - Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and the District of Columbia – permit gay marriage. Washington state will sanction gay marriage in June. Another handful of states, including Illinois and New Jersey, where Wier and Voronov plan on living, recognize civil unions.
The Illinois Religious Freedom Protection and Civil Union Act “entitle[s] [a party to a civil union] the same legal obligations, responsibilities, protections and benefits as are afforded or recognized by the law of Illinois to spouses” (750 ILCS 75/5). Similarly, New Jersey’s civil union statute states that “couples shall have all of the same benefits, protections and responsibilities under law, whether they derive from statute, administrative or court rule, public policy, common law or any other source of civil law, as are granted to spouses in a marriage” (N.J.S.A. 37:1-31).
Despite the broad language in the respective statutes intended to afford same sex couples equal protections and rights under the civil union statutes, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), passed by Congress, ensures that same-sex partners are precluded from enjoying many of the same rights given to opposite sex partners. DOMA prohibits the recognition of same-sex relationships by defining marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman and the word spouse as a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife. 1 U.S.C. 7 (1996).
The overarching federal prohibition on same-sex marriage/union rights impacts same-sex partners from receiving federal pension, retirement or disability benefits from their partners, from filing as jointly married couples, or receiving Social Security benefits. Additionally, the refusal of a majority of the states to pass any civil union and/or same-sex marriage legislation puts same-sex couples at risk in terms of parental rights, inheritance, and property rights.
As Barkley so eloquently stated, gay people in professional athletics are here and those of us who refuse to acknowledge it “are stone freakin’ idiots.” Until such a time as DOMA is repealed and same-sex couples are granted full and equal marriage rights throughout the United States, agents must seek expert advice in order to ensure that their LGBT clients are afforded the maximum protection of their parental and property rights under the various jurisdictions.