This week, here at The New Civil Rights Movement, editor David Badash referred to as sports as “one of the last bastions of ‘heterosexuals only, please,’ in America.” Thursday, on his own blog, David Mixner noted that “many have viewed sports as the last stronghold of homophobia.” Couched in such stark, militaristic language, you would think that the rest of the world was gliding into a Utopian bliss, while athletes were staunchly warding off all signs of progress. Both went on to detail many brave and heroic coming out stories, but the framing of their respective pieces is symptomatic of how this topic is being (wrongly) treated in print and television media.
Before I even jump into the issue of sexuality in sports, I would be a poor feminist if I did not note that in most every treatment of this issue, the word “sports” has stood in for “men’s sports,” and “athletes” for “male athletes.” Male athletes aren’t the only ones that count, and our language ought to reflect that. That said, being male bodied, I only have experience playing on a men’s team, and that is the experience that I will speak to.
Now, I played four years of collegiate rugby and, based on both my own experiences and those shared by other out athletes, my response is: what homophobia in sports? And why are sports the “last bastion” or “stronghold” of homophobia? Quick, name all of the out members of Congress. Actually you can do that quite quickly indeed; out of 535 members of both houses; only 4 are out. How about those scores and scores of out Hollywood celebs? Wait, did you draw a blank after Neil Patrick Harris? Yeah, me too. So why are men’s sports teams the focus of our accusations as being a hotbed of homophobia?
First of all, I don’t doubt that many gay and queer men older than me, or perhaps that grew up in more conservative areas than me, had significantly different and likely more difficult experiences on athletic teams, or that kept them from playing sports altogether. However, that is simply not the experience that I had, nor the experience of many, many out athletes who have shared their stories.
Let me be emphatic here: As an out, queer, gender non-conforming person, there was absolutely no environment more utterly accepting of me, or that did more to foster my sense of confidence and self-worth, than playing for The College of New Jersey Lions Men’s Rugby Football Club. Yes you read that right. Rugby – one of the world’s most brutal contact sports – with team rosters positively overflowing with intelligent, sensitive, straight allies.
The story of NBA executive Rick Welts, as reported in the New York Times, reflected my experience, and that of so many out athletes whose stories I’ve heard: the people he told already knew, and were completely supportive. The pain and fear he experienced before coming out was also real, yet if so many of our experiences show these fears to be unfounded, why do many in our communities continue to experience it? Where is it coming from?
Let’s do a little basic capitalist math. News organizations make their money selling ads. Controversy gets more readers, and more readers mean more can be charged for ads, hence higher profits. Cue the Times digging up a four year-old quote by retired player Tim Hardaway, originally in response to John Amaechi’s coming out, that he would never play with a gay teammate. Journalists can make the claim that they are reporting in this way for “balance,” but a years-old, out of context quote wouldn’t pass muster in a journalism 101 class, and the Times should be ashamed for reporting in this way. In doing so, they further unfounded fears of closeted athletes, and negative stereotypes of straight athletes being homophobic.
National polls have now shown that the majority of Americans support marriage equality, and an overwhelming majority approved of the repeal of DADT. I frankly expect many athletes to be ahead of the curve on this, not behind it. In four years, not one teammate ever commented negatively on my sexuality or gender expression. I was told “good stiffarm,” or “get lower when you tackle,” but never whom I should love or sleep with.
What mattered to my team is what matters to any team: winning, and doing so with fine sportsmanship. Why would pro athletes, all of whom are relatively young, and many, especially in the NFL and increasingly in the NBA, are college-educated, feel any differently? Youth and education are two of the best predictors for being an LGBT ally. I do not doubt that if the Times chose to do a survey of pro athletes, rather than finding one or two contentious bigots to quote, the results would back me up on this.
As my friend and fellow Philadelphian and out athlete, Brian Sims, wrote for The Advocate in his Letter to Straight Athletes, “You’ve gone to college, traveled the country, worked with countless professionals, and had thousands of fans, gay and straight. You already know you have gay teammates and you’re fine with it. In fact, you’re great with it. Now you need to tell everyone else about it.”
More and more straight athletes are doing just that. In fact, just two days prior to the Times‘ lopsided reporting on Welts’ coming out, they ran a feature on famed English rugby star Ben Cohen, and former Division I wrestler and current Columbia wrestling coach Hudson Taylor. Cohen kicked off a four city American tour in Atlanta today, taking a stand against bullying and homophobia in sports, and Hudson is the passionate founder of Athlete Ally, which asks straight athletes to “pledge to lead my athletic community to respect and welcome all persons, regardless of their perceived or actual sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. Beginning right now, I will do my part to promote the best of athletics by making all players feel respected on and off the field.”
With power allies like Hudson and Ben in our corner, it’s time that LGBT communities start re-evaluating our perceptions of straight, male athletes as homophobic. Frankly, as an athlete, I’m offended to see them portrayed this way. We don’t like negative stereotypes of our lives and our communities being portrayed, so we should not be doing the same thing to others. It is time that we recognize the immense and largely untapped support for our rights that can and will come from our athlete allies, and provide the support and education for them to grow into the amazing advocates for equality that they can and will be.
Looking for athlete ally resources? Hudson’s organization, Athlete Ally, has a website, Facebook and Twitter pages, and his YouTube account is full of fantastic advice for allies. Ben Cohen is online, on Facebook, and on Twitter. Finally, Brian has a website and he currently tours the country speaking at colleges. Check out the Facebook page for LGBT Athletes and Allies with Brian Sims.
J. Rudy Flesher, a Philadelphia based actor and author, holds a B.A. in Women’s and Gender Studies from The College of New Jersey, and is an award-winning feminist scholar. Ze blogs here and at The Pistol in Bed Thirteen, works with PhinLi Bookings to connect LGBTQ and sex positive talent with audiences, and is currently writing hir first book, an essay collection on the daily experiences of a genderqueer life.
Read J. Rudy Flesher’s most-recent previous article at The New Civil Rights Movement, “LivingSocial’s Super Bowl Ad – Offensive? Or Living Beyond Gender Binary.”
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