Opinion: The Last Bastion of Homophobia
The sporting world is the last bastion of tolerated homophobia in our society. In the last twenty years, the acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people has permeated much of Western society. There are openly LGBT singers, actors, newscasters, entertainers, and politicians. In the male dominated arena of sports, however, there are few openly gay LGBT athletes. Why is this? In an article published in August of 2010 in the Edmonton Journal, writer Kristopher Wells argued that homophobia would continue in sports as long as patriarchy and sexism prevailed.
Wells asks the readers to think about “how men’s team sports are privileged over women’s teams in terms of status, funding and prestige.” We do not have to look much further than the US Women’s National Soccer Team and the WNBA to prove Wells’ point. Even female fans, who, one would think would be more likely to watch sports featuring women, generally favour men’s sports. Events such as the NBA finals and the MLB playoffs regularly attract more viewers than the WNBA or the Women’s World Cup. While women may have their own leagues, they are still not as popular as their male counterparts.
Why aren’t women’s professional sports as popular as men’s? Wells believes this is related to sexism and patriarchy, the societal belief that femininity means one is weak and vulnerable, two qualities that cannot exist in sports. Female athletes suffer quite the opposite problem, although it stems from the same mindset. Jokes and rumours regularly surround female athletes, particularly those in soccer and basketball, as being too butch, being lesbians, or both. This sometimes goes too far, as is the case with Eudy Simelane, the female soccer player in South Africa, who was raped, and then murdered for being a lesbian. It does not seem to matter that many of these women could probably go toe-to-toe with many male athletes; these women are clearly trying to emulate men. Society does not want femininity in sports, and they do not want women participating in them either. Where do we draw the line?
The more important question is: how can we change this? Who needs to step out, or rather, who needs to come out in order for people to stop using “f–” when referring to teams or players they see as weak, or that they hate? What needs to be done to stop people from calling female athletes butch lesbians? Wells argues that fans are generally receptive to the idea of gay soccer players, but yet the derogatory insults still continue. Obviously, many things need to change before a gay athlete feels comfortable enough to come out.
Firstly, perceptions of gays in the media need to change. Hollywood needs to reflect reality. People outside of the LGBT community need to realize it is diverse, and also includes men who enjoy sports and want to be athletes. Unfortunately, there are not too many of these types of characters currently on television. However, one character immediately comes to mind, Riley Stavros from Canada’s teen drama, “Degrassi.”
Riley’s story is not one typically portrayed on television. When the audience is first introduced to Riley, he is your stereotypical homophobic jock. Eventually we learned that Riley acts in such a manner because he is hiding his own homosexuality. Moreover, he has anger issues that are amplified by the steroids he takes to make him feel stronger, more masculine, and to “cure” his homosexuality. Instead, it makes him even more violent, and prone to lashing out. Riley is not initially a likeable character. The most important thing to take away from Riley’s storyline is this: not every gay male readily accepts his sexuality, and that not every gay teen is as effeminate as “Glee” character Kurt Hummel. Though Riley is not necessarily a positive gay role model, he shows that there are gay teens that love and enjoy sports, but also struggle with their sexuality due to stereotypes.
Secondly, it is time for those directly involved in the sports community to take responsibility for the homophobia in their clubs and in their stands. While there are quite a few professional sports figures that support LGBT issues off the field, they have been reticent to do anything on the field. This support is important, but the fight to end homophobia in sports needs to start from within, with players themselves. How will gay and lesbian players feel comfortable coming out, when they are unsure if their teammates will support them? Players, coaches, and managers alike should look to Scott Fujita for direction.
Scott Fujita, a former linebacker for the Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints, is a vocal supporter of gay marriage. He is not too shy to discuss this contentious issue with his team mates either, although managers and coaches try to keep politics out of the locker room. According to Fujita, male athletes are a lot more accepting and tolerant than people realize. If this is true more athletes who support gay rights should take this next step. They might be labelled a “fag,” as Fujita was, but times and opinions are shifting. Fellow players and fans look to sports athletes that are leaders to speak out. Now is the time.
Sports culture has certainly come a long way since the tragic suicide of openly gay British soccer player, Justin Fashanu. As the case of Eudy Simelane demonstrates, however, there is still much work to be done. I am not sure if the sexism and patriarchy that seems inherent in Western culture will ever truly disappear, but surely, we, as a society can take steps to ensure a more welcoming and accepting sports community for the LGBT community. It is no longer acceptable to ridicule female soccer players’ sexuality, or to shout homophobic slurs at players from opposing teams. The rest of the world has slowly moved forward, and it is time that the sports world does the same.