How Men Leading LGBT Rights in Sports Culture Can Help Stop Violence Against Women

BOURBONNAIS, IL - JULY 30:  Brendon Ayanbadejo #94 of the Chicago Bears looks on during a summer training camp practice on Ju
BOURBONNAIS, IL - JULY 30: Brendon Ayanbadejo #94 of the Chicago Bears looks on during a summer training camp practice on July 30, 2007 at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Brendon Ayanbadejo is correct: "Gay" does not equal "feminine." More to the point, as the Super Bowl-winning linebacker recently told Meet the Press, "gay" does not automatically equal anything at all. "People think that gayness has something to do with femininity, when really we just need to erase that stereotype from our minds, because LGBT people come in all different types and shapes and forms," Ayanbadejo said shortly after Jason Collins became the NBA's first out gay player.

Way to go, Ayanbadejo. Double high-five, in fact. We already know he is awesome, but such continued challenging of these norms and stereotypes will not only promote LGBT rights and acceptance but stands to help prevent violence against women.

Without diminishing current victories for LGBT rights, we also need to connect them with women's rights and the increasing number of men stepping forward as leaders and partners in ending all forms of gender-based discrimination and violence.

For far too long, popular culture and stereotypes have associated "gayness" with femininity. Of course, there's nothing inherently wrong with the traits traditionally associated with "femininity." The problem is this: Boys and men are taught to be "men," and certainly to be good athletes, by not being "feminine." Don't cry like a girl. Don't throw like a girl. Don't be a bitch. In this way, boys and men learn that femininity is inferior. Femininity is a threat. Femininity is the enemy.

It's only a short step from there to this: Women are inferior. Women are a threat. These assumptions and connections, part of what many are calling "toxic masculinity," enable violence against gay (or "effeminate" men) and violence against women alike.

Most men are not violent. But for many of those who are, their behavior is learned. So too is the far more common (and perhaps even more damaging) silence -- silence about discrimination and violence, even small, daily inequalities. That's why men like Ayanbadejo, along with the thousands of men who have joined Breakthrough's global Ring the Bell campaign to end violence against men, are absolutely critical to stopping this pandemic. In order for true change to happen, more men must follow this lead and examine how their own behavior -- or simply unexamined inaction -- might enable, ignore or excuse such violence.

The conversation that Collins helped launch benefits us all. Violence against women is the largest and most widely tolerated human rights abuse worldwide. Here in the U.S., domestic violence costs us nearly $9 billion a year. The stereotypes that seemed to prompt Jason Collins to underscore his "toughness" are the very same stereotypes that perpetuate our culture of violence. All men -- and women -- should be able to feel that they're not limited to only one narrow way of being. As another impressive male athlete once told me, having access to only one set of traits is like being able to run but not pass, throw but not catch. We're at our best, obviously, when we can do it all.

Today, momentum is on our side. The LGBT justice and equality movement and the activism working to alter the singular definition of masculinity that enables violence against women continue to gain force and visibility in new ways and spaces. I believe we will soon reach the point where an athlete's orientation will be a non-issue. And when we dismantle the constructs of masculinity that damage men, women and families worldwide, everybody wins.