Vendetta Against Lesbians?

15 years ago, Penn State's women's hoops coach said she didn't want any on her team. A former player says she still acts that way.
October 13, 2005

She hadn’t even started high school yet, but Jennifer Harris decided back in 1999 that she wanted to play basketball at Pennsylvania State University. Her mother had gone to Penn State, her older sister had gone to Penn State, and she would too. Now, she’s left the university, as have other players, because they maintain the coach is against lesbians -- and people assumed to be lesbians.

But looking back on her first conversation that year with Penn State women’s basketball coach, Rene Portland, Pearl Harris, Jennifer’s mother, recalls a passing comment by Portland that she took little note of at the time, but which she now sees as a sign of events that culminated in her daughter leaving Penn State last spring, toward the end of her sophomore year.

“She said I could rest assured that there were no gay individuals on her basketball team,” Pearl Harris recalled. At the time, Jennifer was also considering another university, and Portland told her that the coach at the other institution recruited lesbians – a scare tactic that may not be uncommon.

“I hear about that kind of negative recruiting all the time,” said Pat Griffin, a professor of social justice education at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and director of It Takes a Team, a project from the Women’s Sports Foundation that promotes education about sexual orientation issues in women’s sports. “It’s very common that if the coach knows that athlete is considering another team, they’ll tell them not to go because they have lesbians in their program,” Griffin said. “What’s changed is that some athletes and their families won’t tolerate it anymore, and speak up, like Jennifer Harris.”

Portland is known as a top women's basketball coach. She's also known for her anti-gay comments, which go back much further than Harris. In the late 1980s and up until 1991, Portland acknowledged in newspaper articles that she did not want lesbians on her team. A profile of Portland in 1991 by The Philadelphia Inquirer prompted Penn State to expand its anti-discrimination policy to cover sexual orientation. After that, Portland, the two-time Women’s Basketball Coaches Association coach of the year, said she would abide by the policy.

But Tuesday, the National Center for Lesbian Rights sent a letter to Graham B. Spanier, the president of Penn State, charging that Portland told players not to associate with other players who Portland thought were lesbians, including Harris. The center threatened to sue if something is not done about Portland.

A university official said Portland was not available for comment Wednesday. Spanier reviewed the letter late Wednesday and made a brief statement that “the university legal counsel will certainly follow up with the center to learn more about Jennifer Harris’ complaint.” Bill Mahon, a university spokesman, said that the university found out about the issue from reporters, and that neither Harris, nor any other player, had ever lodged a complaint about Portland since the expansion of the antidiscrimination policy. “We don’t have any record that she went to anyone in the athletic department, or the Affirmative Action Office, or the Office for Educational Equity,” Mahon said.

Harris said the she was afraid to make a complaint. “There are consequences when you go above your coach,” she said.

During her freshman year, Harris said that Portland told her and other players not to associate with a player who Portland said was a lesbian, a practice of Portland’s reported in an article in 1991. “She told all of us,” Harris said. “It was like an unwritten rule.” Pearl Harris still remembers the phone call she got from Portland. “She said she had proof this player was gay, and she didn’t want her to influence other players,” Pearl Harris said. “She wanted  the parents’ support.” Last year, Jennifer Harris said, her teammates told her that Portland said players should stop associating with Harris, even though Harris says she is not a lesbian, and that Portland also “warned” the team about two other players she suspected were lesbians. All three of the players have left Penn State.

Karen Doering, a lawyer with National Center for Lesbian Rights, said that Harris never made a complaint within the university because the power dynamic between coaches and players is such that players feel they are putting their playing careers and scholarships on the line by speaking up. Doering noted that, in response to a  discrimination complaint by a softball player at the University of Florida last year, that institution now informs athletes that they should feel free to make grievances about coaches to offices outside of the athletics department. Said Lynda Tealer, the associate athletic director for women’s administration at Florida, “it’s in case they don’t feel comfortable going to somebody in athletics.”

Doering hopes that Penn State will consider making its grievance procedures better known to student-athletes. If insufficient action is taking, Doering said she will not hesitate to take the matter to court, “where it will be painful for everybody involved.”

Mahon said that he thought the issue was more a question of whether Portland violated university policy, and that he was not sure the legal threat has much strength. Pennsylvania does not have a law specifically barring all discrimination based on sexual orientation.

But Doering said that, while she was not aware of any cases involving college athletics, she said there have been cases of high school students who have won in court under “equal protection clauses,” she said, and noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that an employee could not be discriminated against for not conforming to gender stereotypes.

Harris was released from her scholarship commitments by Penn State last year after Portland told her she would not be invited back, but gave no reason, an event documented in a letter Harris got from the university. She has since transferred to James Madison University, where she is a member of the basketball team. According to her mother, though, even though she left Penn State, she followed up with the issue when alumni referred her to the lesbian rights group because “she has a cousin and a niece who want to play at Penn State,” Pearl Harris said, “and Jen decided the behavior she had to go through isn’t right.”

Jennifer Harris added that she has been getting a lot of support from people who know about the “unwritten rule,” and said that “there are people who think I’m just trying to get revenge. I just don’t want anybody else to go through this.”

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