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LGBTQIA+ dog owners have always been part of AKC dog sports. For some, the dog world has been a supportive haven, while for others, it has been more challenging. In honor of Pride Month, I spoke with LGBTQ dog owners, handlers, and judges to discuss what they have dealt with living openly and authentically in the dog world. We also discuss ways that clubs and shows can be more inclusive, as well as how anyone in the dog sports community can stand up and speak out to support LGBTQIA+ people.

A Safe Haven

For many LGBTQIA+ people, the dog show world has been a welcoming and supportive home. “I have always appreciated the inclusive and welcoming nature of our sport. We have always had LGBTQIA+ owners, exhibitors, breeders, professional handlers, and judges participating successfully and at the highest levels,” describes AKC Judge Allan Reznik of Eureka Springs, Arizona. Reznik, who is gay, has been involved in the dog world for over 50 years and owns Afghan Hounds and Tibetan Spaniels.

This sentiment was echoed by AKC Conformation judge Joe Buchanan of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “Growing up in the dog show world, where we enjoy a beautiful level of diversity, became a safe and welcoming place for me,” says Buchanan, who began his journey as a Junior Handler. “Like so many, I was not out in my younger years. I learned quickly that I could be myself at dog shows and felt very safe there. This helped me to come out, both more comfortably than what many people experience, as well as on my own terms and timeline. While I am sure many people that I interacted with assumed that I was gay, I was never pressured, and I was allowed to be myself in whatever form that took. I was blessed to be surrounded by wonderful people, many of whom I still enjoy friendships with today.”

Danny Gonzalez, a non-binary lesbian from Centralia, Washington, appreciates the friendships and community built through a mutual love of dogs. Gonzalez competes with their Nederlandse Kooikerhondjes and Xoloitzcuintli in Conformation, Agility, and AKC Rally. “I’ve found wonderful friends and a breed community who have become like family, and they have supported me in my journey to find myself.”

Alex Sun, a gay, transgender man in Salt Lake City, Utah, echoed this sentiment. Alex is involved with Obedience, Retriever Hunting Tests, Barn Hunt, AKC Scent Work, AKC Rally, and Conformation with his dogs, including a Curly-Coated Retriever. “I was worried at first about people being welcoming, but my mentors and trainers shut down any bad behavior really quickly,” Sun explains.

Building a Supportive Community

Brandy Peeples' wife and their Shetland Sheepdog Gus.
Photo by Brandy Peeples

“I can’t imagine doing any dog sports without my wife and best friend. We see so many people in dog sports whose spouses don’t participate,” notes Brandy Peeples of Myersville, Maryland. The Vice President of the Shetland Sheepdog Club of Greater Baltimore, Peeples is involved in Agility, AKC Trick Dog, Disc Dog, and Herding. “People think we’re weird, not because we’re lesbian … but because we’re so crazy about our dogs—and we wouldn’t have it any other way,” she says. Peeples notes that she and her wife have felt accepted from day one with their first dog at puppy class.

Eliza Rubenstein, a cisgender lesbian from Orange County, California, is active in Agility, AKC Rally, and Obedience. “Very few of the new friends we’ve met have so much as batted an eye, and though we’ve heard a handful of horror stories from LGBTQ friends in the dog world, they’ve mostly served to let us know whom to avoid.”

Shannon Price, a cisgender lesbian from Salt Lake City, Utah, says she has “been incredibly lucky and my experiences have been positive.” She is active in Agility, Barn Hunt, AKC Rally, Coursing, Fast CAT, Conformation, and AKC Trick Dog with her All-American Dog and Cardigan Welsh Corgi. “I’m pretty quick to out myself when meeting people by mentioning a funny story about my wife and our dogs, simply because I have found it’s easier to weed out people who might have an issue with it.”

Facing Discrimination

An active Agility competitor with her Standard Poodle, Miniature Poodle, and Norfolk Terrier, Holly Hughes of Ann Arbor, Michigan is a queer and gender non-conforming lesbian. At one competition, when a secretary was announcing each team and reading out their biography, they skipped Hughes’s bio. “I was running two dogs, multiple runs a day. I felt it was homophobic.” Holly continues, “There are some people who I’ve seen for years and don’t acknowledge my presence.”

Carol Gravley of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, identifies as nonbinary. Active in Conformation, Agility, and Barn Hunt with their Swedish Vallhund and Smooth Collie. Also a breeder, Gravley also serves on the board of the Swedish Vallhund Club of America. Gravley credits their mostly positive experiences in the dog world to surrounding themselves with other queer people and allies. “I did once have an older judge ask me if I was ‘a boy or a girl,'” they recall, “but I shrugged it off at the time. This was a few years before it became a bit more customary to ask someone what their pronouns are in a more polite manner.”

Price notes that she always tries to include new people at events, wanting to “let them know they have someone in their corner to support them, especially the younger LGBTQIA+ people who are just getting started. Dog sports are for everyone who loves their dog and enjoys working with them and everyone belongs there.”

Increasing Diversity at Dog Shows

“Everyone knows somebody who is LGBTQIA+. If they say they don’t, it’s probably because the LGBTQIA+ people in their lives don’t feel comfortable coming out to them. Be accepting, open, and love everyone,” encourages Lenore Pawlowski, a lesbian in Cheektowaga, New York who competes with her All-American dog in Barn Hunt, AKC Scent Work, AKC Trick Dog, and Fast CAT.

For some LGBTQIA+ people, dog shows have been safe havens and spaces. “I have felt safe in the dog community as a gay person,” explains AKC Conformation judge Doug Johnson, a breeder/exhibitor from Bloomington, Indiana involved with Clumber Spaniels, Sussex Spaniels, Welsh Springer Spaniels, English Toy Spaniels, and Nederlandse Kooikerhondjes. “As a kid coming to dog shows, I could see more people like me than anywhere else in my small world, so it was a wonderful feeling. Today’s world is more diverse and less closeted than the one I experienced as a teen. I am and have always been grateful to the dog community for being so open to everyone.”

We can also consider how we can grow our sport by making our communities more welcoming, especially to people from marginalized groups. “I am incredibly lucky that here in the South, I am able to find LGBTQIA+-friendly venues,” Ash Huemmer of Cary, North Carolina, who identifies as non-binary and competes with their All-American Dogs in Fast CAT, AKC FIT Dog, AKC Trick Dog, Barn Hunt, and AKC Rally. “Where we train for Barn Hunt just hosted a Pride Event for Disc competitions! All the money raised went to the Durham LGBT Center. It’s lovely to be able to connect and support the community while doing what we love.”

Even if your club isn’t ready to organize a Pride event, you can send a message of inclusion. “We all have work to do to be as welcoming as possible to people who are different from us,” Buchanan advises. “Generally speaking, I am proud of our clubs.” Buchanan says it’s important to advocate for improving and expanding diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. “The goal should be to promote a greater understanding and appreciation for one another, and to build and maintain a culture that ensures everyone is treated with the highest level of dignity and respect.”

Being Good Sports and Being Allies

“Most of us probably remember being the new face at the shows, and it can be awkward and intimidating enough to ‘fit in,’ even when you’re not worried about being misgendered or subject to prejudice,” Eliza notes. Volunteer your pronouns and ask about spouses or partners (rather than husbands or wives). “Be sure your humor doesn’t come at the expense of people with a different orientation of gender identity from yours,” she adds. “We aren’t trying to make dog sports about politics. We’re just asking for a safe space to have fun with our dogs, same as everyone else,” Huemmer explains.

Part of being a good sportsperson is interrupting rude and discriminatory interactions. Sun remembers that, when marshaling a hunt test for a local club, “a competitor let his dog poop in front of me after having an attitude all day.” A few months later, Sun says, another member apologized for that competitor’s behavior. “We had a conversation about how he told the competitor that his behavior was out of line … It made me feel very welcome and it was a huge relief that people have my back.”

“Breeders and exhibitors openly being allies and standing up for their queer neighbors in the dog community goes a long way. Queer people finding a place to feel safe is everything,” Gonzalez encourages.

Speak Up for Diversity

You can help foster diversity and inclusion of LGBTQIA+ dog owners in your local area. Huemmer would like to see more classes, events, shows, and clubs use Safe Space icons. “Show that this is a welcoming space without judgment,” Ask recommends, encouraging the exchange of pronouns and names “so that it isn’t solely on the shoulders of the LGBTQIA+” members to share how they identify.

Avoid critiquing how someone chooses to present themself in the ring. Many nonbinary and transgender people face challenges when entering their dogs in shows. “It would be lovely to see an emphasis on wearing clothing that compliments your dog, not necessarily ‘girls wear dresses/skirts and boys wear suits,'” Huemmer says. “I find that hinders gender expression and have had several friends locally who have stopped showing because the environment felt stuck in a [gender] binary.”

LGBTQIA+ identities and terminology may be new to some, but Gonzalez reminds us that these are no more “complex than the breed standards we live by.” It’s OK not to know something, to ask questions, to apologize when you mess up someone’s pronouns, and to do better in the future.

Photo by Danny Gonzalez

“I especially want fellow LGBTQ+ exhibitors, or hopeful exhibitors, to understand that there is a place for you in the dog world,” Gravley says. They encourage people to “choose breeders, mentors, trainers, and instructors who are supportive of LGBTQ+ people if at all possible. Find the local queer or ally community of dog people in your area to establish a supportive base.”

No matter who you are, and how you identify, there is a place for you at AKC events and at AKC sports. LGBTQIA+ people have always been active in dog sports, and we always will be.
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