By Mary Cunningham
Rene Portland died the other day, and her career as a member of the Immaculata College Might Mac national champs in the early 1970s as well as her coaching record at Penn State has been duly celebrated.
But she had a massive blind spot toward the gay and lesbian community, as the New York Times has pointed out:
… almost from the start of her time at Penn State, Portland’s attitude toward gay players drew attention away from her on-court success. In an interview with The Chicago Sun-Times in 1986, she said she had raised the subject of “lesbian activity” when she recruited prospective players.
“I will not have it in my program,” she said. “I bring it up and the kids are so relieved and the parents are so relieved.”
In 1991, Patti Longenecker, who played at Penn State from 1983 to 1986, told The Philadelphia Inquirer: “She tells you flat out, ‘I don’t have any appreciation for the homosexual lifestyle. I won’t have that on my team.’ ”
But that year, Portland grudgingly agreed to follow Penn State’s new policy prohibiting discrimination because of sexual orientation.
“This is a policy I have to work under as an employee of the university,” she said at the time. “That’s all I’ll say about it.”
In late 2005 another former player, Jennifer Harris, filed a lawsuit against Portland in federal court accusing her of sexual and racial discrimination. Harris — who is black and not gay — said Portland had questioned her about whether she was dating women and threatened to remove her from the team if she were in a same-sex relationship; told her to change her appearance to look more “feminine”; challenged her friendship with a black teammate; and dismissed her from the team after her sophomore season.
An investigation by the university found that Portland had violated the school’s anti-discrimination policy and fined her $10,000 — she said the claims were “unfounded” — but she returned to coach during the 2006-7 season, when the Lady Lions had a 15-16 record.
She resigned, however, about six weeks after Harris settled her lawsuit. While subsequently responding to questions about her departure, Portland issued a statement that accused the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which represented Harris, of spreading “damaging allegations while they attempt to exploit this case for their own agendas.”
Helen Carroll, the center’s former sports project director, said in a telephone interview that the lawsuit was a “turning point in bringing national visibility to the harmful effects of discrimination and homophobia against L.G.B.T. athletes.”
“It opened a national dialogue about what had been happening in women’s sports forever,” Carroll said.
“It didn’t stop the behavior,” she added, “but it empowered athletes and even coaches, who had been treated poorly, to speak up and get help on how to address what was happening to them.”