With Athlete Ally, the You Can Play Project, GO! Athletes, Break the Silence and dozens of others organizations and even gay representation at last in the NBA and NFL, it’s easy to think the era of homophobia in sports is behind us. But three LGBT women who’ve had long and pioneering careers in the field stress two main points: one, it ain’t over yet and two, even in the apparent victories, shades of sexism and stereotypes remain.
Helen J. Carroll, a lesbian, was an acclaimed national championship basketball coach from the University of North Carolina-Asheville before joining the National Center for Lesbian Rights in August 2001 to launch its Sports Project, which works to eliminate discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in sports through advocacy, outreach and litigation. The project works on all levels of athletic competition to ensure that LGBT athletes can compete and participate “open and equally.”
After retiring as associate professor of education from Pennsylvania State University in 2013, Sue Rankin runs the consulting firm Rankin & Associates in which she does climate assessment work for universities. She’s the author of several LGBT books such as “The Lives of Transgender People,” “Campus Climate for Sexual Minorities: a National Perspective” and “Our Place on Campus: LGBT Services and Programs in Higher Education.” For 17 years, Rankin, who identifies as queer, was head coach for women’s softball at Penn State.
Pat Griffin is the founding director of Changing the Game, a GLSEN sports project that focuses on K-12 school athletic and physical education programs. She’s professor emeritus in the Social Justice Education Program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and former director of the It Takes a Team! Education Campaign for LGBT issues in Sport. She’s a two-time Gay Games medalist and the author of “Strong Women, Deep Closets: Lesbians and Homophobia in Sports.”
If there’s anybody in the country qualified to discuss the nuances of LGBT people in sports, it’s these three. During lengthy and wide-ranging interviews last week, they talked freely about the impact of having out players like Michael Sam (the St. Louis Rams) and Jason Collins (the Brooklyn Nets), why out women are often shortchanged by comparison and what hurdles the country is still grappling with on these fronts.
“One thing we’ve realized in the Sports Project is that we still have a large number of people out there who are still being discriminated against in individual cases and certainly with transgender players,” Carroll says. “We’re doing a lot of work in that area right now because you’ll often see policies that are adopted against trans players that are in effect for an entire state. That’s going to continue if you don’t have a [National Center for Lesbian Rights] that can back up people legally and work with them pro bono. … I can’t tell you how many times we’ve seen [coaches come out] and get fired on the spot.”
Griffin says, “so much change has happened in the last five years, it boggles the mind … It’s very exciting, but we’re certainly not home free.”
Although in some ways she longs for a day when an athlete coming out will not be considered newsworthy, she also laments the wildly disproportionate amount of coverage Sam and Collins got compared to, say, Brittney Griner, the Phoenix Mercury (WNBA) center who came out in 2013. She says the reasons are multi-layered.
“The piece I always pick up is that it has so much to do with gender expectation and how society reacts if nobody thinks you’re gay,” Griffin says. “If you’re Michael Sam, he could have gone in as a closeted gay man and nobody would have said, ‘Oh, I wonder if he’s gay,’ but if you’re a woman and an athlete, you’re already going against heterosexual orthodoxy because you’re sweaty, competitive, strong, so you’re breaking all those gender expectations and people automatically go, ‘Oh, she must be a lesbian.’ Any woman who exhibits strength and leadership — ask Hillary — or any woman who tells some guy she’s not interested, they go, ‘Oh, you must be a lesbian.’ It’s reserved as a way to let women know they’ve stepped out of bounds and it’s used very effectively to make women have to apologize. It affects men a little differently because of sexism.”
Variations of this phenomenon can also be seen, Rankin argues, in the varying reactions seen in the coming out of, say, figure skating Olympic gold medalist Brian Boitano, whose 2013 coming out at age 50 was seen as wildly overdue, versus still-active players in other sports such as Sam.
“It’s again that sexism and heterosexism coming into play,” Rankin says. “If you’re Brian Boitano in figure skating or even Greg Louganis in diving, these are considered gay sports so having a gay man in them is not seen as a big deal. But in pro football or pro basketball when you have gay players — it’s not really that they’re considered more macho because all sports are grueling — but we see in those sports traits that we traditionally assign to men, if you will or what we think of as a man in our culture, then that sends a different message.”
The three women all say, based on personal experience and their research, that significant numbers of lesbian players on teams for which they played and coached in years’ past, did provide opportunities for community.
Upon moving to Massachusetts for graduate school in the ‘70s, Griffin noticed a “community of lesbian friends” and “a discovery process” on the women’s swim team she coached. She says being fully out at sports conferences as early as 1982 made her feel like a lone voice in the wilderness and a “pariah.”
“I’d have women walk out of workshops at conferences after 10 minutes because they were just too scared to stay,” she says. “Scared that if their administrator knew they were seen at a session on homophobia and sports, they’d lose their jobs. It’s amazing how uncomfortable it was in those years.”
Rankin, who coached softball at Penn State until 1996, remembers a “definite underground within the athletic world for lesbians,” she says. “If you played, you were automatically pegged as being gay.”
And Carroll who says basketball has “pretty much been my life,” remembers the “wonderful experience” she had coaching many years in North Carolina where a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell”-type policy took hold.
So if those kinds of experiences — at least for women — were relatively common, has homophobia in sports really been that big of a problem?
“This really gets into stereotypes,” Carroll says. “Is it easier for lesbians in sports than gay men? The answer is no, it’s not easier, it’s just different. If it’s so easy, why do we not have more women coming out? … Even if people on the teams know, the women don’t talk about it in the media or do anything to help the movement or help the situation. … From the outside, it may look like it’s this culture where everybody knows, it’s not really a big deal but again, it’s that combination of sexism and homophobia at work.”
Griffin argues that just because some women may not have been castigated for their perceived sexual orientations, that phenomenon probably had a scary downside for gay men.
“If we really knew, there probably are more lesbians playing pro sports than gay men and I’d say the reason for that is that in some ways, when you’re a little boy, you get the femininity beaten out of you or the gay,” she says. “There’s actually research to back this up. It’s less likely that you would find young gay men who have persevered who identified themselves as gay early on to get to the professional ranks. That would be one way to explain that.”
Regardless of the challenges that remain, Carroll says the work she, Rankin and Griffin are doing is pioneering and important.
“What Pat and Sue have really done is they’ve laid a groundwork for people who are doing media articles and research to go back and look at,” she says. “People in media are always asking for statistics and asking, ‘What does this look like?’ What little has been done, for years it was Pat and Sue who were doing it and that was really important. They’ve been working on this for decades to we have people who really know the lay of the land and how the attitudes have changed from the ‘70s and ‘80s up until now. People often say, ‘Well, everything’s changed in the last five years,’ and that’s just not true. It’s been changing for the last four decades but just reached a tipping point in the last five years where we started seeing some movement really, really fast. That never would have happened without all that work in the past.”