Interview by Tia Williams
Dinean Robinson, 33, and Lillian Rivera, 42, along with openly gay former NFL player Wade Davis II and activist Darnell Moore, came together to create a camp that provides LGBTQA youth, ages 14 to 24, with opportunities for sports instruction and leadership development. The YOU Belong: LGBTQA Youth Sports and Leadership Initiative, a series of three-day clinics, travels across the country to create a safe space where LGBTQ youth and straight allies can become well-rounded athletes, leaders, and human beings. In a field where often the contributions and leadership of women are overlooked, ELIXHER took the time to chat with the organization’s first line of communication: Lillian as YOU Belong’s Director of Operations and Dinean running shop as their Director of Public Relations. They open up about using sports as a vehicle to empower young people, male privilege, and the changing landscape for queer women of color athletes.
ELIXHER: Can you tell us about the YOU Belong Sports & Leadership Initiative and your roles?
DINEAN: The camp is an interesting [mix] between the essence of Darnell and the essence of Wade. Wade is the sports guy. He’s the guy who has the tremendous passion for athletics and really wants to be able to create space—safe space—in athletics and sports for LGBT youth. Darnell has this love and commitment for providing leadership and advocacy support for LGBT [people] just across the board. So the camp does both of those things. Part of the day is spent on athletic training and development. The other part of the day is spent on leadership development and mentorship. Lillian and I both facilitate some of the workshops on the leadership side. We are pulling the strings to make sure the camp runs smoothly. We are making sure they are properly signed up. I make sure there is some media coverage. I interface with any of the venues.
ELIXHER: How long have you been working with YOU Belong?
DINEAN: Since its inception—probably two years. I remember the day Darnell and Wade called to say, “We’re starting this company.” Now, you have to understand, they call me all the time and will say they have some grand idea, some big game-changing idea. So when they called with this idea about bridging the gap between LGBT youth and sports (but also wanting to make a way for other LGBT speakers of color to be positioned as experts), then it really began to build from that.
ELIXHER: Where do you feel queer women fit into the initiative?
LILLIAN: Darnell and Wade are so incredibly mindful of how they create this organization and all of the initiatives within the organization in a way that’s equitable. They are very mindful of the privilege they have as men, and how they’re not going to silence us or marginalize us, but they’re going to empower and create. Darnell and Wade are the founders of this organization and I feel like there have been so many times where they made decisions with Dinean and I. It’s never in isolation. I think they are really mindful of creating space for queer women as people contributing to the program, and I think in terms of the young people, we want to make sure that they’re part of the process—that sports are accessible to them and that they receive the message that we rely on their leadership.
DINEAN: Lillian and I both have worked in environments where we were welcomed to the table or invited to the table. Working with YOU Belong, it’s not even like, “Oh, they have to invite us to the table.” It’s a given. There are decisions and things that happen in terms of the initiative that it’s not [like] if we make a decision we have to run it by them. No, we are a part of that “executive leadership team.” They trust in our abilities and respect us as professionals. They, at any time, push us to the forefront. It’s not even a second thought. It’s just the way that it is. In terms of the speaker’s collective, which right now is how we’re getting some of the income for the initiative. I run that. They have really allowed Lillian and I to grow roots in the positions we have, which I think is important to point out. Because a lot of time as women, as women of color, as queer women, that’s just not the case.
LILLIAN: I think they invited us to build the table with them.
ELIXHER: What about the sports culture in general—for queer women?
DINEAN: I love ‘em. [Laughs.] Coming up I wasn’t a professional athlete or anything like that, but I was in an athlete in high school. Early on in college, I was on city teams, so I have a soft spot in my heart for queer women athletes. I think we’re in a great time right now for queer women athletes and for queer women, but specifically for women. It’s really a good time for us to start making some noise, not just on the field or on the court, but really kind of politically. For a long time there’s been this unspoken rule that you can’t be political or you can’t be an activist or an advocate if you’re a professional athlete and so thankful that environment is shifting.
LILLIAN: I was an athlete in high school and that was my identity. It wasn’t necessarily a queer one. I was just an athlete. I think we had to compartmentalize our lives that way and I think we’re coming into a time in history where we no longer have to do that. We can have integrated identities and be visible in many places. I think it’s really promising when we have out lesbians, bisexual women, trans women increasing visibility. I think it speaks volumes to girls that these are the possibilities for you. The possibilities are endless. You not only be a phenomenal athlete, dedicate your life to a sport that you love and thrive in, but you can also be your authentic self. That’s really important for young people. I think in terms of the camp it’s really bigger than that. It’s not about being an athlete, per se. It’s about giving young people the opportunity to see sports as accessible to them regardless of their athletic ability—for some of the kids we’ve worked with, regardless of their athletic interest.
ELIXHER: What does it mean for you to be doing the work that you’re doing right now?
LILLIAN: It’s about my daughters. It’s about making the world better for them. It’s about leaving a legacy for young people to be celebrated for who they are. It’s about addressing the systemic challenges that young people of color face, specifically queer young people of color in this country. It’s about following my heart to do what’s right. That’s my calling in life. To contribute things that are going to change society for the better as a woman, as woman of color, as a Latina from a poor family. I think I was given great opportunities to become the person I am now. I want to create opportunities for young people to have those paths of choice for their lives. And I want my girls, when they grow up, to know they have to stand up just a little less. Because we can eradicate some of the gender bias, misogyny that exists in our society, some of the racism, classism we encounter every day.
DINEAN: I worked for an AIDS service organization for about three years. I think I served about a couple hundred HIV [positive] youth. I would only see youth in crisis. This work, for me, I often view it as the catalyst in preventing anyone who works in my old job to see what I saw.
Tia N. Williams is the woman behind The Buddha In Me, an agency of artists, speakers, poets, and activists based in Atlanta. The Buddha In Me specializes in providing quality programs to educate, enlighten, and entertain. Tia recently received her M.Ed. from the University of Georgia in College Student Affairs Administration.