Categorized | Women in Sports

Opening the Last Closet

Amelie Mauresmo retained all of her sponsorships after disclosing her sexuality. (Associated Press)

Female athletes are trying to break the gay stereotype

By KETHEVANE GORJESTANI

When it comes to homosexuality in the United States, the most widely accepted statistic -– according to several academic studies and news reports – is that, on average, 1 in every 10 American is gay, lesbian or bisexual. There are gay singers, writers, lawyers and even gay politicians. Turn to sports and the picture is different.

“Sports is the last closet in America,” said Jim Buzinski, co-founder of the website Outsports.com, the “ESPN for homos” as he calls it.

There is not one openly active gay player in the Big Four sports. And abroad, among active players in major professional team sports, there is only… one, Gareth Thomas, one of the greatest Welsh rugby players, who came out earlier this year.

Women’s sports seem more reflective of society. Tennis stars Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and Amelie Mauresmo, the WNBA’s Sheryl Swoopes and Sue Wicks, the LPGA’s Rosie Jones and others have disclosed their sexual preferences.

Yet, for all the big names coming out, there are still many Rene Portlands with their “no lesbians” policies, many closeted players and a lot of stereotypes, even among athletes themselves.

Model and golfer Anna Rawson said in an Australian radio interview last year: “They [the media and the industry] still think we’re at 25 years ago when the tour was full of, you know, a lot of dykes and unattractive females nobody wanted to watch.”

Lesbian athletes benefit from stereotypes as much as they suffer from them. They are often stereotyped as tomboys, manly and therefore good at sports, whereas gay men are stereotyped as feminine, “sissies” who can’t possibly be good athletes.

“Lesbians in sports are under suspicion,” said Pat Griffin, author of Strong Women, Deep Closets: Lesbians and Homophobia in Sports”. “Until you can prove that you are straight people wonder.” Because female athletes are very often assumed to be gay, Griffin believes it is easier for them to come out than to hide.

Read more about emotional abuse of female college athletes.

In male sports, no one questions your heterosexuality according to Buzinski. “It’s easier to hide in a male team,” he said. “You’re seen picking up girls and no questions are asked.” Being around lesbians can sometimes have the opposite effect for women.

“I was definitely helped along by being on the team,” said a University of North Carolina athlete, who asked not to be identified, discussing how she came out during her freshman year. She said she hesitated before joining the women’s rugby team. “I already knew that I was gay and held off from joining the team for about a month because I knew I couldn’t deny it anymore after I really was surrounded by other gay girls.”

There were only a couple of lesbians on the team eight years ago, but now gay players represent about half of the women’s rugby team and, according to the UNC athlete who graduated recently, it has never been an issue with the players.

“In terms of women’s rugby, gayness just kind of comes with the package,” she joked.

And “gayness” seems to come with the package for many women’s sports, at least in the common perception. “I think people stereotype and assume that female athletes are gay, so people aren’t surprised,” said Buzinski, who spoke by phone, as did other sources for this story.

Eric Anderson, who coached track at Huntington Beach High School in Orange County, Calif., was the first openly gay coach in the United States. He now studies the question of homosexuality in sports and for him, the explanation lies in the history of sports. “[Lesbians] paved the way for women to play sports,” he said. “They found sports to be a safe place to meet when gay men were controlling the bar scene.” And that is still true today.

Although it wasn’t a factor in her decision to play rugby, the former UNC athlete said she believes the concentration of lesbians on a team or in an individual sport such as golf or tennis is often an incentive for others to join. After all, the UNC team song that is sung at team parties starts with “We have a reputation for seducing other girls …” *

“Over the years at the [preseason training camp] there would be chicks who were blatantly there for the gayness factor,” she said. “But not many of them ever lasted for very long.”

Sports were never a social destination for men. The goal was always to toughen up young boys, to turn them into men and therefore sports were never accepting of gay men, according to Anderson.

Others think that sports are just a reflection of society. Women in general are more tolerant and the status of lesbians in sports reflects the male attitude towards female homosexuality. “Lesbianism is not as threatening to straight men as male homosexuality,” said Buzinski. “Men think lesbianism is hot!”

The UNC athlete doesn’t remember any of her coaches, who happened to be all men, having a problem with coaching lesbians. She joked about one former coach saying, “He thinks that most gay girls just haven’t found the right guy yet.”

Even in Europe, which is seen as more tolerant, the situation for gay men is very tough. “It would be suicidal for any male athlete to come out in France,” said Pascal Brethes, the co-founder of Paris Football Gay (PFG), a gay friendly amateur soccer team. “Coaches ask players not to come out, sponsors too. There are no favorable signs.”

The PFG created a charter against homophobia three years ago. “Only four clubs have signed it,” said Brethes, who added that French soccer authorities don’t recognize the problem. “This discrimination is not taken into account on the same level as racism and anti-Semitism.”

But when French tennis champion Amelie Mauresmo came out in 1999 at age 19, the French Tennis Federation, the public and the media were extremely supportive. And so were her sponsors, including Nike. Mauresmo has always said she didn’t lose any sponsors after coming out.

But not everyone was quite as supportive. American Lindsay Davenport said playing Mauresmo was like “playing a guy” and Martina Hingis of Switzerland said of the French player that she was “half a man.”

Still, lesbians have it easier if only because of the type of sports they play. “The men’s big four are all team sports, the epitome of being macho,” said Griffin. “Individual sports aren’t seen that way.”

Sheryl Swoopes speaks at the 2007 Human Rights Campaign dinner. (YouTube)

Buzinski said the reaction of the media is telling. “Also gay this week is three-time WNBA MVP Sheryl Swoopes. It was revealed in an article in the new issue of No Shit! Magazine, which also revealed the fact that Yao Ming is Chinese,” said comedian Bill Maher on his show, after Swoopes announced she was gay.

A three-time WNBA MVP, three-time Olympic champion, Swoopes also won four championships with the Houston Comets. But when she came out in the prime of her career no one really cared, according to Buzinski, whereas when a retired John Amaechi became the first NBA player to come out, it made bigger headlines and had a longer media life.

Although major progress has been made and lesbians have an easier time then gay men, many problems remain, from almost public discrimination to covert attacks against lesbians.

The biggest challenge comes from “negative recruiting”. Some coaches will mention a rival team’s “alternative lifestyle” in front of a potential recruit to get the preferred athletes to enter their program. “They’ll say something like ‘I know you’re interested in this program but they have lifestyle issues that you might not be comfortable with,’” Griffin explained citing how some coaches try to use fear of lesbianism as a tactic to disparage programs at other schools.

Rene Portland’s policy at Penn State University was the most public example of unwelcoming coaching tactics for lesbian athletes. Jennifer Harris would have been the basketball team’s leading scorer as she entered her junior year at Penn State if Portland hadn’t cut her from the team in 2005. Penn State’s head coach was infamous for her “no lesbians” policy. Harris later sued Portland, who was then reprimanded and fined by the university. Portland eventually resigned from her position in 2007. But the problem didn’t end with her.

“There are still coaches who do that,” said Griffin. “It’s not in the past.” Earlier this year, Missouri’s new women’s head coach, Robin Pingeton, received criticism for this statement: “I’m a Christian that happens to be a coach. … This is something very unique, I think, for Division I women’s basketball to have a staff that the entire staff is married with kids. Family is important to us and we live it every day.”

According to many publications such as the Seattle Times and Outsports.com, there is only one openly lesbian coach in Division I women’s basketball: Sherri Murrell of Portland State University. The first and only one out of more than 300 teams.

In professional sports, the LPGA and the WNBA have been trying to push their athletes to be more feminine in order to attract more viewers and therefore more sponsors.

A couple of years ago, the WNBA even offered its rookies hour-long makeup and fashion classes as part of their orientation into professional basketball.

Golf may be the most visibly appearance-conscious sport for analysts and it has a very complicated relationship with lesbians. “The LPGA has always tried to project an image of sex,” said Amy Ellis Nutt, who covered the tour for Sports Illustrated during the mid-nineties. “They always tried to play down the lesbians on tour.”

In a tour strapped for cash, “The ones who got the sponsors were the ones who were the most attractive,” said Nutt.

Jan Stephenson, an Australian golfer, was one of the first LPGA stars to openly use her appearance as a marketing tool. She became as famous for her sexy pictures as her golf during the 1980s. She famously posed in a bathtub covered in golf balls and later made a pinup calendar.

The tour had to wait until 1996 and Muffin Spencer-Devlin before one of its golfers admitted to being a lesbian.

For Nutt, the media has played into the LPGA’s game. When addressing the lesbian culture in golf, the media turned towards what sold: sex. Nutt was asked to cover the LPGA’s Dinah Shore tournament “away from the golf course.” She refused to do the story about the big lesbian gathering that took place during the tournament. The story about the lesbian gathering was eventually published with more prominence then the story about who won. The picture that accompanied the article was “a photo of two women embracing, no faces, in string bikinis with one woman grabbing the other one’s ass,” said Nutt.

By trying to play down the gay aspect of certain sports, the leagues are also angering the largely lesbian base audience of the sport. But the balance is hard to achieve. “Only playing to a gay audience is limited,” said Nutt. “So you’re looking for the widest possible audience and of course you want men to be in.”

Even sports magazines put out lists of hottest athletes, like Golf magazine’s online list of sexiest women golfers. “It’s very simplistic,” said Nutt. “If you’re hot and gay, it’s fine.”

Experts say there are many more athletes who are out in their personal lives and to their teammates but they just refuse to make it public, especially in men’s sports.

Buzinski says he even did a story on a college football player who was out to his teammates but refused to have his name published on Outsports.com.

“Not everybody wants to be a flag waver,” explained Griffin. “They’re out in their personal lives but don’t want to be pressured to be a poster child.”

When Anderson came out in 1993, it changed who he was in other people’s eyes. “I went from just being a good coach to being a poster child,” he said. “But I had total support from my athletes.”

It wasn’t that way with some people in the school’s administration. “There was extreme homophobia from the administration and other coaches,” he said. “They were smart enough not to go after me for being gay but they did in covert ways.”

Many complaints were made about him after he came out. “[The principal] held me to a different standard,” said Anderson in a follow-up e-mail. “I, for example, was convicted of training during a period we were not supposed to be (which I contest I was not) and even though the girls team (and coach) was at that practice with me, he suspended me as a coach for ten days, but not the girls’ coach.”

Anderson said he believes his story wouldn’t be an issue today. “Homophobia has been dropping at a rapid rate,” he said. He believes that for both women’s and men’s sports, time will make things better. “Sports has always been a social anchor and never on the forefront of rights,” said Anderson. That could change, he says because younger athletes in high school are much more tolerant and many more young men and women are out. The problem, he adds, lies in the coaches or the administration. “They’re the macho of the machos.”

The author of this story was a member of the UNC women’s rugby team in the fall of 2008 during a semester abroad program.

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