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    Sports Paved the Way for a Global Leader in Gay Men’s Health

    By John Chen–

    Sports has been my bridge to meeting many amazing LGBT people over the years. Their capacity to overcome great physical, emotional and psychological obstacles has earned them tremendous respect and admiration from the communities that they serve and impact. Many of these leaders, including Stephen Leonelli of the organization MPact Global Action for Gay Men’s Health & Rights, are unsung heroes who are fighting and paving the way for LGBT people’s rights every day, every hour.

    Last year at volleyball, I had the pleasure of meeting Leonelli. He told me for the San Francisco Bay Times that he wasn’t the most athletic kid, but he emphasized: “Playing sports taught me about teamwork and being an integral member of a community, making contributions and sacrificing for the greater good.” Sports also helped him to develop the social and cooperative skills to be a team member of the LGBT student activists at the University of Virginia. Sports gave him the confidence to live, thrive and effect change in China. And sports paved the way for the impact he is now making on gay men’s health at a global scale.

    Originally from Fremont, Leonelli grew up in Ohio, where he found himself alone in a sea of conservative heterosexual adherence. At age 10, he would hear girls calling their gay male instructor, “disgusting.” In doing gymnastics, his friends questioned why he was in a “girl’s sport.” Leonelli said that, throughout his youth, “I was preoccupied with carrying myself the right way. At school I had to dress correctly so I wouldn’t be called a faggot. At church I had to appear righteous and virtuous so I wouldn’t be labelled a sinner. Around my father, I had to act a certain way so that he wouldn’t call me a girl.”

    After quitting dance and gymnastics, Leonelli tried every acceptable “masculine” sport imaginable, including soccer, wrestling, lacrosse and water polo, just to be one of the boys. Playing sports became a strong preoccupation and a fine suppression of his attraction to men.

    At seventeen, Leonelli decided to tell his parents about his attraction to other men, but ended up agreeing to conversion therapy as a means to appease his family. Leonelli told me: “The therapist consistently and continuously imprinted the unfounded, pseudo fact that consensual gay sex was molestation.” Although conversion therapy didn’t deter Leonelli from dating men, it did make him feel ashamed. He suppressed the significance and trauma of his story for many years.

    While he was a university student, Leonelli attended a rousing speech given by Julian Bond (1940–2015), an African American civil rights leader who vehemently declared marriage an issue of equality. Bond’s words had a personal and profound impact on Leonelli, leading him to part take in LGBT activism by organizing protests and education campaigns, as well as by pressuring school administrators to create a queer studies minor.

    After graduation, Leonelli’s interest in Chinese culture, language and philosophies led him to a six-year charge on the streets of Beijing—educating, supporting and assisting others at the Beijing LGBT Center concerning a myriad of gay issues, such as acceptance, visibility and equality.

    Fluent in Mandarin, Leonelli quickly connected with the ever-growing, but reluctant, Chinese gay community. He endured, at times, heated accusations of being an “evil Western influence.” Although cultural and belief challenges did little to deter his commitment and desire to make a difference in China, Leonelli said, “My inexperience in research and data analytics led to shortcomings in more impactful social and policy efforts.”

    Upon returning home from China, Leonelli pursued a master’s degree in public policy at Harvard, bridging that educational gap necessary to influence perceptions and policy changes on a more meaningful scale. Armed with advanced academic skills, he excitedly accepted a Senior Policy Advisor position with Oakland-based MPact, focusing on the “inclusion of key populations [including gay men, trans people, sex workers and drug users] within the [United Nations] 2030 Agenda framework and human rights mechanisms.”

    At MPact, Leonelli shared that he is “most proud of working with activists in countries around the world to address health issues gay men face on a day to day basis.” He provided an example: “In Tanzania, gay men face great discrimination when seeking healthcare, with nurses laughing at them and doctors telling them to turn to god to repent. In addition, 69 countries around the world criminalize consensual same-sex relations between adults, and in some countries, a humiliating form of torture known as ‘anal examinations’ are used to ‘substantiate’ homosexuality.”

    He assisted and supported activists in Tanzania by developing a stigma index survey designed to illuminate the truth and reality gay men face in that East African country. The data collected and analysis were part of a coordinated effort to persuade the U.S. government officials working with the Government of Tanzania to commit to abolishing these harmful “anal exams.” For Leonelli, it was rewarding and satisfying to see his efforts encourage the U.S. to leverage its diplomacy for policy change and for the better.

    As a guest speaker at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in 2016, Leonelli opened his speech with, “Can my story really make a contribution to the global movement of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Queer people?” The answer is an emphatic yes! Leonelli is truly an unsung hero.

    To learn more about MPact Global Action for Gay Men’s Health & Rights ( ), join Leonelli, Executive Director Dr. George Ayala and other speakers for a community event at the Oakland LGBTQ Community Center, 3207 Lakeshore Avenue, on June 26. Follow MPact’s Facebook page for more information:

    John Chen, a UCLA alumnus and an avid sports fan, has competed as well as coached tennis, volleyball, softball and football teams.