Last fall, Kye Allums, a George Washington University basketball player, made the courageous decision to come out as transgender. As Allums awaits surgery to transition from the female body he was born with, he is making history as the first publicly transgender athlete to play Division I women’s basketball. The response from coaches and teammates was best summed up by the South Florida Gay News’s headline: Kye Allums Is Trans; World Does Not End.
But is this story of tolerance a singular exception or another sign that the sports world is becoming friendlier to LGBT athletes? Of the approximately 3,500 men who play in the big four American sports—football, baseball, basketball and hockey—not one has come out of the closet while playing professionally. Of the 350 women’s Division I basketball teams in the NCAA, Portland State’s Sherri Murrell is the first and only coach to come out as a lesbian (the “no lesbians” edict in college basketball is the subject of a powerful documentary, Training Rules).
A majority of Americans accept gay and lesbian relations. Antidiscrimination and marriage laws are slowly catching up to social consciousness. So why does the world of sports, such a dominant part of our culture, remain fiercely hostile to open participation by LGBT people?
It’s tempting to presume that sports simply reflect the prevailing ideas in society and that athletes and fans make up a particularly homophobic demographic, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. A Sports Illustrated survey among 1,400 pro athletes in the big four sports shows that a solid majority in every league would welcome an openly gay teammate.
With a stunning 80 percent support, NHL players are practically ready to host Lady Gaga on their Gay Pride float, perhaps reflecting the abundance of players from gay-friendlier Canada. In fact, Blackhawks defenseman Brent Sopel accepted an invitation from the Chicago Gay Hockey Association to stand atop its float alongside his team’s Stanley Cup trophy at the 2010 Gay Pride parade.
Even 57 percent of NFL players, emblems of the most orthodox hyper-masculinity, say they would play with an openly gay teammate, despite bugaboos about the locker-room showers.
Media tend to focus on the crassly bigoted statements of players like former NBA all-star Tim Hardaway, who declared “I hate gay people” in response to the 2007 coming-out story of retired NBA player John Amaechi; or the verbal knuckle-dragging of former baseball player John Rocker, who told SI he didn’t want to sit “next to some queer with AIDS” while ranting against blacks, immigrants and multiculturalism.
Far less attention is given to sports figures like ex–New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas, who said he’d “make damn sure there’s no problem” on his team if a player came out; or former quarterback and ex–ESPN commentator Sean Salisbury, who offered this advice to any homophobic football player after retired NFLer Esera Tuaolo came out in 2002: “Get over it…. If you think there aren’t other gay players, you’re crazy. And it takes a lot more of a man to do what Esera has done than it does to threaten someone for being different.”
As for the fans, in a poll published by SI in 2005, an astounding 86 percent said that it’s “O.K. for male athletes to participate in sports, even if they are openly gay.” Given these numbers, which reflect the growing embrace of sexual diversity throughout the population, we need a different explanation for why the locker room remains America’s deepest closet.
Most Americans believe organized sports have always been the sex-segregated, testosterone-infused nationalistic battles for dominance that define much of today’s big-money athletics. But like sexuality itself, organized sports were socially constructed in the nineteenth century along with the rise of capitalism.
As American society evolved from agrarianism to industrialism, a huge influx of immigrants settled in growing cities. Sports were consciously used to win them over to a fabricated national identity, and to improve the flagging health of newly industrialized working-class men. As for the scions of the elite, playing sports was thought necessary to prevent these future masters of the universe from going soft. In an increasingly mechanized world where the ethos of competition came to dominate, the rules, teams and nationalism of sports became part of the new “American way.” Theodore Roosevelt hyped “vigorous manly out-door sports” as an antidote to effete urbanization.
Viewed historically, sports culture doesn’t simply reflect the prevailing gender and sexual biases of its time; it helps to shape them. The brutal machismo pounded into male athletes from the earliest age—they are told not to “throw like a girl” or to “man up” and play through extreme pain—reinforces the denigration of femininity and vulnerability, as does the classic coaching tendency to mock players by calling them “ladies” or “girls” when they’re slow or when they drop the ball.
Sociologist Eric Anderson interviewed dozens of athletes, some closeted, for his book In the Game: Gay Athletes and the Cult of Masculinity and found that even gay athletes feel pressure to deride other male athletes. “I have to call them fags, or fear being called one myself,” one closeted high school football player reported. The perverse reality of this gender fortress is that it constructs a fiction of the male athlete as an idealized heterosexual while stigmatizing women in sports as unnatural outliers whose sexuality is universally suspect.
Though men’s sports tend to avoid the issue of homosexuality, a near-McCarthyite anti-lesbian atmosphere prevails on many women’s teams. The most notorious example is Rene Portland, who reportedly enforced a “no drinking, no drugs, no lesbians” rule throughout her twenty-seven-year career coaching women’s basketball at Penn State, which ended in 2007. More recently, allegations of public rants and verbal humiliation of players suspected of lesbianism by Shann Hart, the women’s basketball coach at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, led several players to quit the team. (Hart was fired last fall.)
When current and former women’s college basketball players were surveyed, 55 percent said that “sexual orientation is an underlying topic of conversation with college recruiters.” The practice is known as “negative recruiting,” and according to ESPN, “homophobic pitches are unique to women’s games. They are an open secret in college hoops, almost as open as the fact that there are lesbians who play and coach.”
The fact that sports is a bastion of social reaction when it comes to sexuality is at least in part a reflection of the millions of dollars at stake in endorsement deals. If you walk into any gay or lesbian bar in the country, you’d think equality is brought to you by Absolut vodka. But no major brand is ready to hand over its national profile to an LGBT spokesperson, and it’s clear that being openly gay is a commercial liability for athletes.
I asked Pat Griffin, author of Strong Women, Deep Closets, what impact, if any, team owners and advertisers have on professional athletes’ decisions to remain closeted. “Though we have come a ways since Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova lost almost all of their endorsements when they came out, it is still a risk—probably more so for gay male athletes,” Griffin said. “Advertisers and team owners are basically conservative, both socially and politically. They are about the money. That means unless they can figure out a way to make supporting an openly LGBT athlete make money, they aren’t going to risk threatening their brand.”
Despite these cultural obstacles, the once hermetically sealed locker-room closet is slowly cracking open. As with so many liberatory struggles, young people are at the forefront, aided by a few veteran LGBT athletes and advocates.
In March Griffin launched Changing the Game, a project of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, to help LGBT athletes and coaches come out and challenge the persistent homophobia in K–12 sports. Changing the Game is exactly the kind of project that a generation pounding away at the closet door could use to overturn the sports world’s asphyxiating gender norms and homophobia.
The NCAA has banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Another milestone came in May, when the NBA fined basketball great Kobe Bryant $100,000 for calling a referee a “faggot.” It is hard to say whether the decision was prompted by Phoenix Suns’ CEO and president Rick Welts’s coming out to the league commissioner the day before. Nonetheless, fining players for verbal abuse is a step toward combating the homophobia that pervades sports culture.
Perhaps a courageous closeted male athlete will soon come out while playing and crack open the door a bit more. But the big money is on the growing number of extraordinarily talented and brave young LGBT athletes coming up through the ranks who are out, proud and playing to win more than just a game.
This article first appeared in The Nation.