Gay men and lesbians share many common patterns in the hyper-masculine institution of sport. They both violate the arena of masculinity and they both threaten the dominant form of masculinity in America. A masculinity that says that men are stronger than women and that straight men are stronger than gay men. Whereas, the presence of gay men has subverted the latter statement, the mere presence of women in sport (regardless of sexuality) threatens male domination and rule.
Masculinity is a socially constructed role it’s not something people are born with. Since the late 1800’s sport has been one of (if not the) primary agent into which boys have been socialized into that masculine role. Sport has served as a male rite of passage in our culture ever since. Therefore, women in sport are met with individual and institutional resistance.
The labeling of female athletes as lesbian helps men justify the athletic talents of men. Men have associated lesbians with having mannish qualities. In fact, early 20th century sexologists believed that lesbians were merely men trapped in women’s bodies. Thus, men could save face in the fact that the women who were doing what men did by saying that they weren’t real women at all. So while gay male athletes couldn’t possibly be athletic; female athletes must certainly be lesbian.
The lesbian-sport myth may have actually generated some truth though. It’s quit possible that the existence of the myth increased the number of lesbians in sport (primarily team sports) because heterosexual girls either dropped out of sport, or were prohibited by their parents from joining sport because of the myth. Either way, women’s team sports, in years gone past, have been associated with high numbers of lesbians. With the passage Title IX (which mandated equal educational funding for men’s and women’s sport 26 years ago), however, sport began to be redefined (by women) as something socially acceptable within the feminine role.
Still, old myth’s die-hard and the stereotype of female athletes being lesbians persist; and women are still oppressed in sport. Men desire to maintain their male privilege and if women can be competitive and tough (masculine traits) then what will happen to the meanings of masculinity and femininity? And what rite of passage will men use to secure their privileged place? Still, traditional women have met the push toward a decreasing of polarized gender roles, with resistance. Heterosexual female athletes fearing that they will be labeled lesbian act out in homophobic and heterosexist ways to prevent themselves from being though of as lesbian. Much of this can be easily witnessed in sport.
For example, the basketball coach paces the sidelines wearing high heels and a mini-skirt. Clothes not exactly conducive to coaching. The coach actually has to cover her crotch when she bends down to talk to her athletes. Furthermore, all the highlights of female athletes in the media are centered on heterosexual women. Lesbians are rarely interviewed about how they manage family life and professional sporting careers as heterosexual athletes are. Coaches of women’s teams (of which far too many are men) say that athletes should leave their personal life at home while they discuss their heterosexual family in recruiting brochures. Worse yet, coaches use negative recruiting techniques, in which they say to prospectful athletes, You don’t’ want to go to that school, it’s a lesbian team.
A lesbian participating in a staunch heterosexist environment may find herself in the same position as a gay male athlete, hiding her sexual orientation by talking of men in the lockerroom, dating men, and being sure to look the feminine part. They may be cautious about socializing too much with women, and are sure to wear a dress to formal functions.
Fortunately, solid progress has been made. I recently saw a Gatorade commercial in which the lyrics read, I can do anything you can do but better as a female athlete played a variety of sports against Michael Jordan. Recent images of female athletes in the Women’s World Cup, are less feminine, more masculine, and seem less concerned with presenting a pretty ballerina look. But perhaps the best subversion of the heterosexist attitudes of sport, may be coming from out gay athletes. There are some known professional lesbian athletes including Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, and Muffin Spencer-Devlin, but there are far more in the closet than out. Fortunately, young lesbian athletes are beginning to come out, and blaze new trails.
Breaking the Mold – Jessica’s Story
Jessica is a bright and lively 17-year-old senior (to be) at Western High School in Anaheim. She’s been an athlete most of her life, as her mother introduced her to soccer when she was seven-years-old. She’s been playing ever since.
Jessica says that she’s always known she’s liked girls. I went through a stage in which I thought I was bisexual. But she now identifies with the lesbian label while simultaneously showing a strong dislike for labels. Let’s just say that I’m in love with my girlfriend. Jessica came out to a few of her best friends as a sophomore in high school, and much to her surprise her simple proclamation was heard throughout the school’s populace within two days. It’s a good thing I didn’t tell my enemies, she says.
Although Jessica never huddled all of her soccer or cross country teammates into one room to make an announcement about her sexuality, they found out soon enough through the same grape-vine process that all of the other students at her school did. They really didn’t have a problem with it, she says. I mean we didn’t talk a lot about it, but no one gave me a hard time for it either.” Her experiences seem almost too good to be true. I mean how can an openly lesbian athlete go without having any homophobia against her? Well, maybe I took a few extra shots on the field, you know, perhaps I got knocked around a bit more. I had to be a bit tougher out there, but nothing really happened blatantly. And she has never been called a Dyke, on or off the field. In fact, Jessica found herself quit popular, especially on her cross-country team. I had friends on the soccer team, but it wasn’t real close; but the cross country team was great. I think because it was co-ed, and the boys really liked me.
Jessica’s positive experiences are undoubtedly credited to many factors. First, her coach was openly affirming of Jessica’s sexuality. Once when some girls were saying shit, she pulled them aside, and it was the last I ever heard crap from them again. Secondly, Jessica’s has a very high self-esteem; she is very secure with herself. She is amazingly articulate, and is shrouded in an air of confidence. Perhaps they are qualities she learned from her parents. I was getting ready to go out one day with a friend, and I was wearing a rainbow belt. My mom said, honey I just want to know something, and I really don’t care what the answer is. Are you a lesbian?’ Jessica answered, Yes. I think so. And her mother replied, That’s fine with us honey, I just wanted to know. Now have a good time with your friends. She walked out the door, and that was that. Her parents have been very supportive ever since.
Despite all the support Jessica gets from her parents, coach, teammates and classmates, it would be hard to say that her teammates are 100% comfortable with her being a lesbian athlete. She still feels a bit of anxiety with the whole locker-room situation, and her teammates occasionally joke about her checking them out. She normally responds, Don’t flatter yourself. And seems to have eyes for her girlfriend only. The fact that, One girl was so disturbed by my presence in the locker-room that she changed clothes in her car doesn’t seem to bother Jessica at all. In fact, rather than getting mad, she tried to talk with the girl, but she ran away from me and into a classroom, apparently not wanting to be seen talking to a lesbian.
Jessica has never had the experience of what I call the litmus test for acceptance of gay’s in sport. That is she’s never been on an overnight trip with her teammates. Still, she finds that her teammates do stand up for her when she’s not around. I heard once that some girls were saying stuff about me, and my teammates stood up for me.’ And no one degrade her to her face.
While Jessica finds neutrality or support from all of her teammates, she finds more support from her cross country team than her soccer team. My soccer team just sort of takes a don’t ask don’t tell attitude to it. But my cross country team is much more openly supportive. Interestingly enough, both teams share the same coach. Perhaps this is attributed to the lesser team attitude than soccer possess; but Jessica thinks it has something to do with the guys on the boys team. The boys and girls teams run together and the guys really like me.
Jessica will be a senior this year, and she has decided not to run cross country, and she is yet decided about playing soccer. None of this has to do with being a lesbian, she insures me, rather it’s a matter of time. Jessica wants to find a job and begin to save some money for college; where she plans on studying psychology or computer system engineering. Whatever Jessica does, she will likely continue to be a magnet for women to come out to. I find so many girls come out to me. Most of them are from my classes, but I get a lot of athletes too. I swear the percentage of lesbians in sport is a lot higher than ten percent!
Overall, the most fascinating thing about Jessica’s story is probably what happened to her when she was in the closet. As a freshman, Jessica has no memories of homophobia in sport. She’s never heard athletes call each other dyke’s or coaches or players calling each other’s sexuality into question. She says that it’s the cheerleaders, not the atheltes who are hyper-heterosexual. The cheerleaders may talk about who they did what with in the locker-room, but not the athletes. In fact, the only memory I have of gay talk on the team before I came out was listening to my teammates talk about how gay guys were a girls best friend, and how cool it was to have gay friends. With progress like this, the future for Jessica, and other lesbian athletes looks bright.
Young, Out, Lesbian Athletes