Cal and Stanford basketball players team up to address LGBT issues

Mikayla Lyles

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Two women’s basketball players from UC Berkeley and Stanford University are teaming up to spark a dialogue and create a safe space for LGBT athletes and straight allies at their respective schools this week.

Cal’s Mikayla Lyles and Stanford’s Toni Kokenis organized panel discussions, a workshop and a clinic as part of an effort they started called We A.R.E. (Athlete Reaching Equality) Pride to coincide with games Thursday and Sunday between the universities’ nationally ranked women’s basketball teams.

Kokenis — who is on Stanford’s roster but is unable to play anymore due to multiple concussions — and Lyles believe LGBT collegiate athletes and even their straight allies are often uneasy about speaking out in support of greater LGBT rights.

“That silence is affecting not only those who are in it and feel like they can’t speak up,” Lyles said. “But it’s silencing those who support the equality in sexuality.”

The panel discussions will focus on diversity and bring together advocates of LGBT acceptance in sports. The first will take place Tuesday at the Field Level Club at Cal’s Memorial Stadium, and the second is scheduled for Wednesday at Stanford’s Burnham Pavilion. Both panels will be held from 7 to 9 p.m.

Before the 8 p.m. game Thursday between Stanford and Cal at Maples Pavilion, the players will put on a workshop to encourage diversity and inclusion for high school students, followed by a youth clinic on teamwork. The two events will be held at Stanford’s Kissick Auditorium and at Maples Practice Facility.

The idea for the events was conceived in the summer when Lyles was working with former Cal teammate and current WNBA player Layshia Clarendon on a public service announcement for Br{ache the Silence, an organization supporting the inclusion of LGBT women in sports. The video, which included women as well as other LGBT and straight female advocates, is part of the group’s All In campaign and was released online in September. Through working on the project, Lyles said she became more aware of the inequalities facing LGBT athletes, especially women.

“There’s a lot of sports in women’s culture that are automatically identified as being an LGBT sport versus a straight sport,” she said. “Especially in basketball, I think the perception is that most women’s basketball players are gay or of that nature. And I think when it comes down to that, you have people that are straight who are trying to prove their identity and people that are gay that are trying to prove their identity.”

For instance, former collegiate standout and current WNBA player Brittney Griner publically acknowledged that she is gay last April. A month later, Griner revealed to ESPN that she was told by her head coach to keep her sexual orientation a secret while playing at Baylor University because it could affect recruiting and the program’s reputation.

Kokenis’ activism began in 2012 when she and three other varsity and club athletes at Stanford co-founded Stanford Athletes and Allies Together to provide a safe space for LGBT athletes and their allies on campus. Since then, she has also helped create a video released last June for the You Can Play Project —  an organization pushing for athletes to be judged on their performance and not by their sexual orientation — that featured 29 members of Stanford’s athletic department. Cal also published a video for the project the same month.

A couple of months later, when Kokenis saw the All In campaign video, she reached out to Lyles, hoping to work together. After meeting, Lyles texted Kokenis with the idea of organizing an event around the games between their respective teams.

From there, the two women pitched the idea to their own coaches and athletic departments and received support and access to facilities. Now, both players are hoping their efforts are mirrored on other college campuses.

“To be honest, this is something where we see Stanford and Cal doing it, but we don’t want it to stop there,” Kokenis said. “We want it to be something that we start, not just like a one-hit wonder.”

Attendees of the Stanford events will receive a ticket to Thursday’s game in Palo Alto. Those present at the panel discussion at Cal will get a ticket for the 1 p.m. game Sunday at Haas Pavilion.

“The greatest thing about this was really Mikayla and Toni’s leadership throughout,” said Jenny Simon-O’Neill, Cal’s associate athletic director of intercollegiate services. “It’s so exciting to see student-athletes take on a cause like this.”

Contact Stephen Hobbs at [email protected].