Organizations that Swish September 25, 2012

Throw Your Hands In the Air: An Interview with Felipe Hernandez, President and Co-Founder of Cheer NY


If you have ever been backstage at a cheer competition, you have probably experienced pandemonium. In one corner a few girls are stretching, while guys are getting their wrists taped. In another, a group tasked with quality control makes sure every motion is known and in sync with the music. Cheer moms and coaches are holding up handheld mirrors and cans of hairspray. The stakes are high and so is the hair.

There is a similar pandemonium leading up to Pride Weekend for the New York based LGBT cheer squad, Cheer NY. “The Pride parade is like our Nationals,” says Felipe Hernandez, president and co-founder of Cheer NY. “We spend a lot of time training for it.”

And the training seems to pay off for the organization. Every year, they walk down Fifth Avenue, pom-poms and megaphones in hand, tossing teammates, dancing dynamically and flipping fiercely. They bring an electrifying energy when they march. An energy fueled by the fires shared by those who attend the parade, a fire to live free and accept who they are in a sport that, though full of glamour and glitter, still has a ways to go in fully accepting the LGBT community. “Unfortunately, it is not widely accepted,” says Hernandez. “A lot of guys are still in the closet when they cheer.”


The Road to Cheer NY

Hernandez experienced his own version of the “cheer closet” when he was in high school. He was fascinated by the world of Cheer but would help out with choreography for the squad behind the scenes. “I wanted to join the cheerleaders but never felt comfortable, because it is difficult for a guy to join a team and not be labeled as gay and be made fun of,” he says.

Hernandez’s fascination with cheerleading continued when he got into college, but he was not too easily convinced to join by the tactics of the cheerleaders. Though he was openly gay at this time, the cheerleaders attempted to use one of the old tricks in the cheer recruitment book: flaunting the aspect of working closely with the opposite sex. “Sex Sells. I don’t knock the strategy, I just knock the sadness that cheerleaders don’t really explore the options of maybe this guy is not straight; he’s gay. Maybe he should be able to join because there are cute guys on the team.”

Cute guys, ironically, convinced Hernandez to join the squad after seeing two of them sign up for the squad at a club fair. The wonder of being in their company was short-lived, since they quit early on due to law school commitments. Hernandez remembers looking into the faces of about 14-15 girls who hoped he wouldn’t follow suit. He didn’t. “When I make a commitment, I make a commitment,” he says.

In the beginning, Hernandez was bored by the experience because he was treated like a “tall girl.” Stepping away from his resident position as a back spot, Hernandez began to show the girls his partnering technique. “The girls were like, wow, you can throw a toss chair, you can throw a toss hands. Eventually I realized, yeah, I don’t have to be the back spot anymore. I can actually do stuff,” he says.

Pretty soon, Hernandez’s stunt work was a staple on the squad and drew in more guys to join. Falling in love with the sport in all aspects, Hernandez became captain of that squad at Columbia University and transitioned his skills to coaching Yale’s cheer program when he went there for Grad School.

Post-grad, Hernandez joined New York Spirit Project, a gay cheer team, for two years until it was dissolved. It was during his time cheering for the New York Spirit Project that Cheer NY took root. Ten years ago, Hernandez and a gymnastics coach who cheered with him wanted to create an organization that was charity-focused (e.g. fellow organizations Cheer Dallas and Cheer San Francisco). And, that’s what they did. Ten years later, Cheer NY has gone from three people to over 53 people.


Going against the grain…fiercely!

Currently the group comprises mostly gay men, followed by straight and bisexual women, a handful of lesbians and, this year, two straight men. Hernandez would attribute the lack of lesbian presence to the stigmas surrounding women cheerleaders. “Harder than getting a gay guy on the team is getting a lesbian,” Hernandez says. “Lesbians are going against a lot of the stereotypes and a lot of what happened in high school. Typically, in the high school level, cheerleaders are popular but cannot be the nicest at times.”

This stereotype can be seen in the film “Bring It On,” when Eliza Dushku’s character is called a lesbian slur during her tryout because of her outward appearance. Unfortunately, outward appearance and gender specificity seem to be obstacles towards putting together a cheer team that honors all aspects of the LGBT community, especially the inclusion of people who identify as transgender. “The sport [presents] as very sexist and very gender stereotypical; boys with pants and girls with skirts. It’s how it is created,” says Hernandez. “We are fighting against that. The nature of the sport scares them (the transgender community) more than the team.  It reflects the community better having everyone present.”

Cheer NY sits under the umbrella of a number of gay sports leagues in New York called Out of Bounds. During meetings, the topic of how to include and recruit more trans-identified individuals is a hot topic, according to Hernandez. Cheer NY had two trans cheerleaders join and then leave after a few tryouts. Hernandez would love to see more transgender individuals at his tryouts and is open to fulfill the needs of those who identify. “We encourage everyone to be who they are. If you are a boy and you feel more comfortable as a girl, be a fierce girl. If you are a girl and feel more comfortable as a boy then you are going to be a good boy. I’m comfortable with everyone wearing opposite uniforms, but, again they just have to make it look good,” says Hernandez.

Though gender and appearance are obstacles faced by lesbian and transgender cheerleaders, the war between masculinity and flamboyancy is at work between those men who identify as gay in the sport. “There is a pressure to fit two stereotypes, for lack of better words. If you are going to be the gay guy on the team, you are going to need to be super flamboyant,” says Hernandez. “You have to do splits and drops to the floor. There is that expectation to do that stereotypical kind of behavior. Some boys can do that well, but it is not necessarily every gay behavior, every gay personality.”

“The flipside is, if you are not going to do that extreme, then you really don’t have any other way to express yourself. You have to be closeted and hyper masculine, for lack of better words. Because in their minds, that is the only other option,” Hernandez continues. “There are two extremes that are often at war. Even the gay guys now are confused as to what they want. Do you want the sport to stay how it used to be with the classic, ‘guys had a certain role?’ Or do you want it to evolve where guys now can have a variety of roles, such as the women do?”

Despite these obstacles, Hernandez hopes that the organization can still be an outlet for people to break from their cheer closets in a supportive environment and that Cheer NY can move the sport of cheerleading forward. “A big thing for us in creating Cheer NY is that everyone felt comfortable,” he said. “Gay/straight, black/white, young/old. Everyone should be able to cheer as long as you cheer fiercely.”

Click here to learn more about Cheer NY and/or support its operational and advocacy goals.