A new documentary making its world premiere at the Philadelphia Film Festival shines a brighter spotlight on the discrimination lawsuit alleging homophobic practices in Penn State’s women’s basketball team.
Academy Award-nominated and openly gay filmmaker Dee Mosbacher was already set to direct a project about homophobia in sports when she heard about the case.
“Training Rules” covers the lawsuit filed in 2006 by student athlete Jennifer Harris against Penn State University and women’s basketball head coach Rene Portland after Harris was dismissed from the Lady Lions because of her perceived sexual orientation. During her 27 years of coaching, Portland was known to enforce a strict “no-lesbians” policy on the team. Portland was fined $10,000 for creating a hostile and offensive environment and, in March 2007, she resigned from the university.
When she heard about Harris’ story, Mosbacher decided to shift her focus and make a character-driven, social-issue documentary.
Because the lawsuit was settled under confidential terms, Mosbacher found that many of the parties involved were not willing to be interviewed for the project.
“Penn State’s administration was not particularly cooperative with making the film,” she said. “We did go there and try to interview some of the folks there. They were not willing to talk about the issues. We tried several times during the case and after the settlement to interview Rene Portland and she was not willing to be interviewed and, in fact, I could not locate her after she moved away from State College.”
Moreover, Mosbacher said some of the victims of discrimination were reluctant to participate because of the emotional wounds.
“They were too raw,” she said. “Even interviewing some of the players that this happened to 20 or 30 years ago, they were still pretty broken up about it. I am a psychiatrist by trade, and it seemed to me that some of them still had some symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. It was still painful to recall. I applaud their courage as well as the Harris family’s courage to speak out about the issue.”
Mosbacher said the film shows that homophobia is as big a problem in women’s sports as it is in men’s sports, but the effect on the players is vastly different.
“If you’re a woman playing sports, you’re assumed to be a lesbian,” she said. “That’s the way that it’s been for a very long time. In fact, the better you are, the more you’re assumed to be a lesbian. If you’re a guy playing sports, you’re assumed to be straight. It’s easier to cover as a male because you’re not assumed to be gay. The dynamics are very different.
“The cost of coming out can be pretty high. That’s why you don’t have someone who is out on the football field, particularly in professional ball, because they don’t want to get themselves killed. If you’re a woman, you’re assumed to be gay, and that means you have to go to extreme measures to make sure that people don’t perceive you that way. The hiding and needing to be so deep in the closet that you have to wear a ponytail on the court or you have to wear eye makeup while you’re playing contributes to the issue of homophobia.”
Mosbacher said “Train Rules” shows both the emotional pain caused by allowing homophobic practices to continue and the financial pain — for the academic institutions — that can be caused by allowing it. Which makes the settlement of Harris’ case — and keeping the details confidential — part of the problem, not the solution.
“That’s exactly why I made this film,” Mosbacher said. “I made this film not only as a challenge to colleges and universities to stop this practice. The people who had the courage to come forward, they felt so disappointed that Rene and Jen didn’t get their days in court. This is going to show the depth of it, the breadth of it and the role the university played in it.”
“Training Rules” premieres at 7:15 p.m. April 4 at the Ritz East, 125 S. Second St. For more information or tickets, visit www.trainingrules.com or www.phillycinefest.com, or call (267) 765-9800 ext. 4.