August 20, 2015 at 5:49 pm EST | by Keith Loria
LGBT issues in sports 101
Team DC, Cleveland Gay Games, gay news, Washington Blade

International competitions such as the International Gay Games have helped raise the visibility of LGBT issues in sport, leading some colleges and universities to address related issues in curricula. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

A lot has changed in the realm of sports in terms of LGBT athletes and the role sports have in international LGBT politics. The call for a boycott of the Sochi Olympics in light of recent Russian laws making illegal any kind of “public” declaration of one’s sexuality is a perfect example of the important discussions about international human rights happening around sports.

Not only are more and more athletes coming out in sports, but there are out athletes entering sport and willing to be spokespeople for LGBT issues. Further, many national and international sports bodies and organizations are taking a stand on promoting inclusion and speaking out against homophobia.

Some colleges and universities are now tackling the role of sports and LGBT issues, with courses designed to talk about the history, present and future of this important pairing.

The Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto, will offer a course next year called “Sports and Sexual Diversity” in its undergraduate program.

“This course will explore the role of sports and wellness programs in promoting or impeding social inclusion, as well as their role in community building among sexual minorities,” says Scott Rayter, associate director of the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies. “It will consider the ways that sexuality has been framed or regulated in sports, as well as the challenges to such limits from among athletes, LGBT community activists and others.”

The course’s coverage will range from local community and school-based programs, to national amateur and professional sporting activities, to international competitions.

Rayter says the course came about partly as a way of building on the expertise at the university in the areas of sexuality, gender and sport, and to reflect what is a growing body of research and field of study, plus an increasing interest and demand from students to study this area.

“Sport is an interesting place to study issues of sex, gender and the body, since bodies in sport are ‘ideal’ or non-normative in the sense they do not reflect what most bodies look like or are capable of, and yet sport is also a space that demonstrates an extremely rigid split between male and female bodies,” Rayter says. “There is also a growing body of research about sexual and gender violence (and hazing) in sport; it seems every day we hear about some new sex scandal in professional sports.”

At some higher learning institutions, there may not be a specific course, but inclusion of the LGBT community and sports is embedded in the curriculum itself.

Laura Burton, associate professor of sport management at the University of Connecticut, says she includes aspects of diversity and inclusion in both undergrad (Intro to Sport Management) and graduate (Management of Sport Services) courses.

“This includes sections on effectively managing diversity in sport organizations. I include examples of LGBT employees/fans/participants in sport as important constituents,” she says. “In our Issues in Sport course I will include a chapter on issues faced by the LGBT community. That section will include the experiences of athletes (participants), employees in sport organizations and fans/spectators.”

Burton understands that the LGBT community has been and will continue to be an integral part of the larger sport community and feels it’s important that they are represented in the sport management curriculum.

“Our students will work with, and some also identify as, members of the LGBT community, and this constituent group is as important as any other group of individuals with an interest in working in, participating in, or being fans of sport,” she says. “We also recognize that the LGBT community has been a marginalized/ostracized and silenced constituent within the domain of sport; it is important that we give voice to this marginalization and work toward a more inclusive sport environment.”

In the 10 years she has been including LGBT examples in her courses, Burton says she has never received a negative comment from a student.

“I have had numerous students (gay/bi/straight) tell me that they have enjoyed the openness and inclusiveness of the courses, the course content and of the program in general,” she says.

Momin Rahman, a professor at Trent University in Ontario, notes that in classes he teaches on the sociology of gender and sexuality, sport is one of the themes discussed both because it interests students and because it is often regarded as one of the last institutions of gender binaries and homophobia.

“Sports are one of the biggest entertainment industries worldwide and an everyday experience of living and seeing gender and sexuality,” he says. “Sports are a part of the socialization of childhood as well, so it is an important and wide-ranging experience that needs to be addressed seriously as a location of gender normativity and homophobia.”

Rahman says he’s touching on new topics all the time and is sure to discuss the latest LGBT issues in his classes.

“For example, trans issues have become a difficult one for organizations such as the Olympics, who are traditionally invested in keeping a binary division between men and women,” Rahman says. “We also look at how homophobia operates in sports, particularly as a normalized part of bonding in men’s sports, and how this makes it difficult for gay athletes to come out. The widespread community organization of LGBT sports, and international versions such as the OutGames, are partly a response to this.”

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