Voice To Voice: Kye Allums And James Blake Discuss Race, Gender, Sexual Orientation And Sports

Each month Athlete Ally and Huffington Post will feature a new Voice to Voice segment featuring LGBT and ally people of color leading the movement to end homophobia, biphobia, sexism and transphobia in athletics. The discussions will focus on the interplays of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity, and how those relationships affect LGBT inclusion and allyship in sports. Topics may include faith, family, health, body, immigration, community, stigma, visibility, economic status, violence, masculinities and femininities, language and more. Kye Allums, Ashland Johnson and Akil Patterson, all active and accomplished LGBTQ advocates, will act as lead moderators for the initiative. They will be joined by guest moderators Katheryn King and Alyssa Puno.

This month Kye Allums talks with tennis great James Blake.

Kye Allums: You know it’s crazy that I’m sitting here skyping with you right now. I still remember back when I was in high school. Basketball season was over so I had nothing to do but watch TV. Tennis came on nearly every day but the only time I watched a game was when Venus or Serena were playing. I had no idea that there were any pro black male tennis players. Once I saw you, your presence truly changed the way I viewed tennis, but more importantly myself. Simply having someone who looked like me playing in a white space empowered me to continue doing the things I loved regardless of the color of my skin. I also continued to watch tennis because I became determined to become a pro tennis player. Obviously that dream has yet to come true. Now that we know your impact on my interest in tennis, bring me back to the moment when you first got into the game and picked up a racket.

James Blake: I picked up a racket very young. I’m always hesitant to tell people that because I don't want parents thinking that they need to start kids really young to make them successful. I went with my parents while they would hit together and just picked it up to be like them. My parents introduced me to the game and I always loved playing with them. My dad pushed me to be great, but I was just driven more by the work ethic not necessarily the result. I think that’s pretty different from a lot of the other parents that just want to see their kids win, and yell at them or get upset at them when they lose. My dad - he wanted me to act right, and work hard and that was it. He was great at that. You know, he pushed me a little hard and my coach had to reign him in a little bit, and my coach had to tell my mom to relax a little bit too, but she did such a good job and they listened to him very well.

Allums: I was watching your documentary earlier and they showed a picture of you when you were younger. I couldn’t help but think of my little brother because you both looked exactly alike.

Blake: Oh yeah?

Allums: Yeah! It brought me back to a moment when my mom was holding my brother in her arms. He was really light as a baby, and my mom is darker then I am. One time, we were in a Denny’s getting breakfast and some people across the restaurant were looking at her, yelling: “Is that your kid? Why are you holding that baby?” My mom proceeded to then get up and let them have it, as she does not take anybody’s crap. So I was just wondering, what was your experience like navigating the world as a biracial kid?

Blake: Well first of all I’m not exactly surprised that was at a Denny’s. My dad and I had an experience that was terrible at Denny’s. Both of us vowed to never go back there and my dad never did his whole life. I actually went back to one because we were on a team trip for school and that was where our coach put us up for breakfast, but other than that I haven’t been to a Denny’s either. It was not surprising to me that a few years later they got hit with a huge law suit about racism because they were pretty terrible to us. But with my mom, there hasn’t been really negative or horrible incidences like that. With her, sometimes people are in disbelief that I’m her son. Especially when I had my crazy hair, you know I had dreads for a while, so you see a kid with dreads and this white British red haired mom and people just don’t believe it. I remember one time when she was coming to a Davis Cup match. She was coming there early to watch practice, but they had already kind of shut down the stadium and they weren’t letting people in for the practice and she said “look that’s my son he invited me.” I wasn’t thinking it would be that hard for her to get in, and then the security guard said “ Yeah right.” He asked her which one and he may have believed her if she had said Andy Roddick, but you know she said “James. That’s my son.” And he said “No.” She said he looked at her like she was crazy and so she had to pull out pictures of my high school graduation and my brothers Harvard graduation, and she showed the pictures like “look these are my sons and these are the pictures that I have in my wallet.” He walked her down to see, and I have had that happen a bunch of times where people are like “Is this your mom?” “Yes. That’s my mom.”

Allums: Do you remember any times that were specifically challenging for you?

Blake: Back when I was growing up playing junior tournaments I do remember one of the parents saying to my mom that basically he felt sorry for me, and my mom asked him why and he said “well because of who he is he could be hated by blacks and hated by whites.” And my mom without batting an eye or even thinking about it gave an off-the-cuff reaction. She said “ Well I actually look at it the other way. He could be loved by both.” I’ve basically taken that with me throughout my entire life. As I am sure you know the internet can be great and terrible. All throughout my career I have seen bloggers saying why does he have a white coach, or why does he have a white girlfriend? Or now that I have a white wife, people will say “what is he doing” he’s not really black or he’s not really white. I’ve seen that, but I choose to think to myself, who are these people that are putting out comments on the internet? They don’t have any influence over me; they are just people remaining anonymous and have negative things to say about almost anyone in the world. I was coached by a white person because, in my opinion, he was the best coach for me. I have a white wife because she’s who I fell in love with. I’ve dated black women before, I’ve dated mixed women before, I’ve dated, well that probably doesn’t sound too good that I’ve dated so many women, but it’s not like this was a choice. I fell in love and she is white. I don’t feel like people should ever think negatively about either side. If I had married a black woman, I don’t think that the white community should say “he’s not being true to his white mother” or that I’m not being true to my black father because I married a white woman. I never understood that because I always felt like I could be friends with whoever I wanted to be friends with, and it just so happened that I grew up playing tennis so a lot of my friends are going to be white because most of the tennis population is white.

Allums: I know that my brother, and many of my close friends who are biracial have felt this pressure to pick a box, and choose a race. Are you white or are you black? Have you come across any instances when you felt like you had to pick a side?

Blake: Yeah, I never really addressed that too much, as I think I have been pretty lucky. As I have gotten older, I haven’t felt the need to address that issue. But, anytime I was sort of challenged (which I definitely had a couple of reporters challenge me that way) I just tried to say: “look I am who I am, I’m proud of both of my parents, and I am proud of both of their histories.” I think I am going to be most proud as a tennis player when I’m not thought of as the first African American or the only African American to do something. I just want to be looked at as a tennis player. I understand that there are going to be kids that look up to me that wouldn’t look up to an Andy Roddick or look up to a Mardy Fish because they don’t look the same way they do. So I’m proud of that. I’m proud of where I came from, but I also don’t have that as my only identity. Being black and being white isn’t my only identity. When I was a kid there were a ton of times when I was asked “what are you?” or “are you white or are you black?. I use to always say: “well I’m half and half.” I use to always joke that I kind of have the best of both, and that’s the way I like to look at it.

Allums: What type of access do you think your white and black privilege has given you as you’ve moved around in a predominantly white space?

Blake: My high school and my career with tennis were predominantly white. I was lucky enough to go to Harvard, which was much more diverse then any environment I had ever been a part of. I think it was great for me to have those two years there to experience that diversity, because when I was growing up, I was sort of always in predominantly white or in extremely predominantly black spaces. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but my high school was over 95% white., Then, I would go down to the Harlem’s Tennis Program every Sunday, which had only one or two white kids in the program. So, I would go from all white to all black, and I felt great about the fact that I could fit in at both places. I didn’t feel like I needed to be a different person in either situation.

Allums: How would you define biracial privilege?

Blake: It’s like what you said, people want to put you in a box, but I feel like being biracial gives you the opportunity to choose your own box or to choose not being put in a box.

Allums: Speaking of being put into a box, I feel like a majority of the world has no idea what it means to be transgender leaving them to predetermine what box we should be in. Do you know what transgender means?

Blake: Um, yea, doesn’t it mean you were a woman and now you had surgery and are now a man?

Allums: Not Exactly. Do you know the difference between sex and gender?

Blake: Yeah. Well, maybe not. What’s the difference?

Allums: Sex is what you have (your body parts), and gender is how you feel (how you self-identify). So, my assigned birth sex would be female but my gender identity is male because that’s what feels right to me. Many people think that if you were born with female body parts that you have to self-identify as female when that isn’t the case. The feelings that we have in our hearts do not always coincide with the societal boundaries that our bodies provide us with. Does that make sense?

Blake: Yes it does.

Allums: So I am a transgender man because my sex and gender differ. It is important to know that just because someone identifies as trans* that doesn’t mean that they have or want to take hormones or do surgery. That depends on the person and their personal needs, as everyone in this world is different.

Blake: Got it! Thank you for explaining that. Now moving onto your family, so you have two siblings who are biracial?

Allums: Yes, I do.

Blake: Are they younger?

Allums: Yes. I am the oldest.

Blake: I know you said that your mom wasn’t happy with you being gay when you were younger, how was the rest of your family?

Allums: When I was younger I wasn’t really open about my sexual orientation with my siblings. My mom found out about my sexual orientation because an old teammate of mine outed me in an effort to take away the person that I was talking to at that time. Today, my siblings know who I am and they love me for me. They don’t judge me because they don’t care about anything but my happiness.

Blake: Okay great! You also mentioned before that two and a half years ago you started the process?

Allums: Yes, and by process you mean hormonal replacement therapy. Two and a half years ago I started taking testosterone because that is what I wanted to do.

Blake: How did your teammates, coaches and GW feel about you being transgender?

Allums: Well, when I came out to my teammates, they didn’t understand what being transgender meant. After I explained it they began to see that female pronouns were having a negative impact on my life. As time went on, giving them all time to process that transitional period using male pronouns, they slowly began to embrace me as the big brother of the team. My coaches did the same thing. Their only concern was whether using male pronouns was going to make me play harder, and shoot better. So, in the end, everyone supported me because they wanted me to be happy and be the best person I could be for the team.

Blake: That’s sort of the way I thought it was going to be, because I feel like - for me at least - if you’re making your shots, we’re gonna be cool. You know? If your setting your picks, if you’re in the right spot, if you’re doing the hard work, if your right there next to me doing all the pushups, doing all the sprints and in the trenches together, it doesn’t matter. You become friends and sometimes you think of them even as more then friends; it’s almost like a family once you’re putting in that work together alongside someone.

Allums: Exactly. I feel like a lot of the hate toward me came from people outside of the team, like the media, and other spectators who just didn’t understand how someone like me could be on a women’s team. If my team was comfortable with me playing on the team and I did not violate and NCAA rules, there is no reason why I, or any other trans* athlete, should feel the need to stop playing or switch teams. It all worked out though, and I am thankful for that.

Blake: That’s great! I think sports are a perfect place to learn that lesson of inclusion. It doesn’t matter what you do outside of the locker room, or outside of the practice facility, once you come in here and you become a part of the team, if you’re willing to do the work and make sacrifices you’re a part of this team no matter if you leave and your parents are driving you in a Bentley or if you leave and you’re going to a homeless shelter. Whatever your background, sexual orientation, or religion is, it doesn’t matter. I don’t know if you saw the comments that I made about the Olympics when Hudson Taylor first asked me about this, and why I was so sad to see what’s happening in Russia. Their intolerance of gay people and their laws basically forcing others not to openly engage in any “gay propaganda”. That - to me - is just disgusting for them to be hosting an Olympics and then make laws that exclude people.

Allums: Why can’t everybody just be like you? The world would be a better place!

Blake: I don’t know. My wife would disagree with that most days and say that the world would be a terrible place!

Allums: Now back to questions for you: how do you think a sport like tennis could open up for a wide range of different people and not just those who are privileged with that access?

Blake: Well I think it was something that Arthur Ash actually started with a grassroots movement. We need to get tennis in the hands of people that maybe don’t feel like they can afford it but really can because there are ways to play, like I said when I first started playing I played at Harlem Tennis Center and it was completely free. If you really don’t have any money they find a way to get you a racket. You can hit on those courts at certain times when they have those courts for free. There are a lot of programs like that around the country where you can find ways to play without having to spend a ton of money. If we can make it more accessible to kids and we have more of those grassroots programs you’re gonna find more of those kids becoming fans, and once they become fans people will start playing and they will realize the hard work that goes into it. I just think that tennis is something that, sports in general teaches great values, great morals, great sportsmanship, and I just think that sports are great for kids to learn.

Allums: You talked a little bit about LGB athletes, and how you believe in acceptance for all, but what about trans* athletes? Not even specifically trans* men, but trans* women. How would you feel about someone you competed against transitioning and playing on the women’s side?

Blake: Well that actually happened in tennis with…

Allums: Renee Richards.

Blake: Renee Richards. Yeah. So you know it’s a little tougher to say as a male. I don’t have anything against anyone competing as long as they are not doing anything that would give them any sort of unfair advantage, and I don’t see that as an unfair advantage. I also don’t see what everyone was talking about with Rene Richards. They said things like: “oh, this is unfair and everyone is going to try this or that. People asked “is going to start a trend?”. I think that is absolutely ridiculous, because - like you said -gender is the way you feel. People are not going to change their entire being to be a sports star. To me it’s just so ridiculous, if it’s who they are, it’s who they are. Let them be who they are and compete however they want to compete. I don’t know the ins and outs of what drugs are taken and if there’s some sort of steroid or something in there, then I could understand people’s objection. But I still don’t see being trans* as an advantage or something that needs to be regulated. I think people should be allowed to compete.

Allums: So basically the rule for trans* women is that they would take hormones for two years to allow their hormonal levels to become equivalent of their cisgender female competitors, ridding them of any “advantage” that they may have had previously. Does that make sense?

Blake: Yeah, totally. So then I think during that time maybe they’re not allowed to compete but then afterwards I see no problem with them being allowed to compete. Like I said, I think sports should be so inclusive and everyone who wants to compete should be allowed to compete.

Allums: Would you compete against Serena?

Blake: I’ve been asked that a bunch of times. If she wanted to play me, yes. The difference in women’s and men’s tennis is pretty great. I don’t think it would be to fair but if she wanted to enter into a men’s tournament I would have no problem with them putting her into a tournament.

Allums: Why do you think the difference between women’s and men’s tennis is pretty great? Do you think that the difference in how we train our boys and girls from a very young age has anything to do with it?

Blake: No. I think in tennis, it’s just the speed of it really. If I were to play Serena in just a straight cross court game when neither one of us is really moving and it’s just hitting the ball across without anything else, she could be just as good as the guys at that. But when we bring in the movement, the physicality of our 3 out of 5 sets, our moving side to side, how heavy our ball is to get them off the court and our serves… Its so much easier for men to kick serve; it really jumps out of women’s strike zones. It really comes down to strength and speed. That is the biggest difference in men’s and women’s tennis. Similar to if Shaq was posting up Lisa Leslie - you know there is just a size difference. In fact Lisa Leslie probably has a better shot, you know? They might have better hands and better skill, but the size makes it so that it’s an unfair match up.

Allums: You talk about unfairness, what about the guy you played against who was 6’11 and clearly had a size advantage over you?

Blake: I think on tour he beat me five times, and I beat him three. You know, unfortunately and fortunately that is part of the game. While I’ve played him, I’ve definitely muttered under my breath “this isn’t fair “because his height makes his serves so much easier for him to execute. Again, in terms of inclusion you can’t exclude someone because they’re to tall.

Allums: Exactly, but you still found a way to beat him regardless of his advantage, correct?

Blake: Yeah. At times I have beaten him. There are so many things: it could be advantages or disadvantages. I mean I also said it was unfair and joked with Andy about Andy Roddick having his upper body is so flexible, which makes him able to get off of a plane and serve at 145 miles per hour without any warm up. His shoulders are just like that and will always be like that. Or, like Mariano Rivera is just able to throw that 95 mile per hour slider without really making it look like its much effort. I’ve always thought that that was unfair and I have to put in so much work just to get 130 mile per hour out of my serve but then those athletes will shoot back and say “its unfair that you can run the way you can run” and that I can do some of the things that I can do on the court. But, you know that’s the fun thing about sports everyone has got their own talents.

Allums: I love to talk about that topic, because I feel like we forget that everyone has an advantage and disadvantage. Many woman that I have talked to or heard from truly believe that they could never beat a man simply because they are women. I think that given time, lets say we had women competing against men, women would figure out a way to win regardless of how strong or fast their male competitors might be. They would still figure out how to win because they are athletes and that’s what athletes do. A person’s sex shouldn’t be a limitation to who they can defeat.

Blake: Right, right.

Allums: Last two questions, can you define what it means to be a man?

Blake: Being a man has changed for me now that I am a father. It means being responsible for my family - my wife and my daughter. It’s sad or weird to say, but I don’t know if I really felt the same before 15 months ago when I had my daughter, I don’t want to say I didn’t feel like I was a man, but I feel like now that’s my job as a man: to make sure that I would do anything for my wife and daughter to be happy and healthy.

Allums: Love it! Last question, I still can’t believe you’re retired. I had no idea, I was over in London and I came back like what happened? No more James Blake? But, now that you are not playing, what are you going to do?

Blake: I don’t know. Right now I’m just going to spend some time at home with my family, and then I will probably start this new chapter in my life next year, seeing exactly what I want to do. I might do some commentary. I have a lot of interest in the company that I was with for my apparel, its called TravisMathew. They mainly do golf gear, but now they’ve started getting into tennis with myself and Andy Roddick. I may do something with them in helping them promote or just getting the fitness line out there a little bit more. But otherwise, I am not sure. I’ll actually spend some time over the next four months until the end of this year just figuring out what passions I have. I know I have other passions in life, but for the last 20 years I have been so focused on tennis. I haven’t had a chance to see what else I want to do, so I know I have a few months to figure out what I want to do.

Allums: Well I wish you the best of luck.

Blake: Thanks a lot Kye!

Allums: No problem, I’m sure you will be amazing in whatever you decided to pursue.

Blake: Thanks man, and thank you for being so open about your experiences. I completely agree with you that the more we talk about trans* topics the more people will become educated. You have a great philosophy and I envy you for that.

Allums: Thank you so much, I appreciate it.

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