On contemporary sports culture: homophobia

In this series, I have covered the ways in which sexism governs contemporary sports culture, exploring masculinity and the notion of “protecting women”. These two concepts converge to drive homophobia in sport through the notion that perceived gender non-conformity among men or women means they identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Homophobia, acting as an arm of sexism, continues to police athletes by enforcing a binary culture of femmephobia among men and anti-masculinity among women.

For men, masculine expression is demanded with the exception of some sports, like figure skating (more on that later). Mainstream sports are considered to require strength, a masculine attribute. Think about football, hockey, basketball, and baseball; these sports are supremely popular, and men dominate them in popular consciousness. A sport like soccer, which is seen as requiring less strength is often regarded as lesser. Growing up in Indiana, this was pervasive. Boys who played soccer were considered to be weaker than and therefore inferior to those who played football. This is even more pronounced when considering sports like dance and figure skating. Both clearly require tremendous strength, but have the perception of femininity, which can lead to relentless teasing of boys who participate in any or all of these sports.

The continuing femmephobia in men’s sports breeds a deeply engrained sense of homophobia, through the assumption that feminine equals gay. In sport, this femmephobia acts as a policing mechanism of gender expression. This plays out in the way we celebrate certain gay athletes. Michael Sam, a masculine football player, and Derrick Gordon, a masculine basketball player, were lauded for their courage in coming out, whereas Johnny Weir was seen as a given, largely because of his feminine of center gender expression. Furthermore, while Collins and Gordon experienced celebration, Weir has often been the butt of jokes about his feminine expression and theatrics .

In team sports, femmephobia merges with the nature of sports themselves. Team sports are predicated upon homosocial environments, which can be heterosexist. This is why locker rooms come up in conversation consistently when discussing LGB athletes in a team sport context. If athletes assumed to be of the same assigned sex and gender are all showering and changing and performing locker room shenanigans together, as long as everyone is heterosexual, because there is no “threat” of anyone enjoying the nakedness. This is almost always brought up within men’s sports, but in women’s sports, it seems to be a non-issue, except with regard to the inclusion of trans women in sport.

For women, the narrative is completely reversed. Women in sport, especially those competing at a high level, are assumed to be gay. Whereas there is a short list of “gay sports” for men, for women that list is relatively long: basketball, rugby, soccer, roller derby, softball, hockey, etc. The perception of women who come out becomes that they reinforce a stereotype, rather than defy one. Women coming out in this environment become non-stories. Though Jason Collins was met with applause when he made history in 2013, there was also disappointment because he wasn’t an elite player. In women’s basketball, there are plenty of elite players who are out: Simone Augustus, Angel McCoughtry, Cappie Pondexter, and Brittney Griner, just to name a few. With the exception of Brittney Griner, none of them received any sort of fanfare. Even with Brittney, though, it wasn’t surprise that created media attention, it was the story surrounding her being forced to remain in the closet throughout college that many talked about.

The exception to the lack of fanfare around coming out for women is Sheryl Swoopes. When Swoopes came out in 2005, it was a gigantic deal. Part of the media storm, however, was due to the fact that Swoopes had been, to that point, a sex symbol for the league. Swoopes was the most elite and recognizable player to come out as LGBT in any sport in the past twenty years, a title I would argue she still holds, with the exception of Caitlyn Jenner, whose athletic career had long concluded by the time she came out. Though Swoopes’ story has been met with controversy,  the initial fanfare of her coming out demonstrates one element of the powerful influence of sexism on sexuality in women’s sports. She was feminine, and conformed to heteronormative and cisnormative beauty standards, publicly defying the stereotype of lesbian and bisexual athletes in a rare way. While she may have defied these stereotypes, she still was objectified through the male gaze, like many women athletes. In some ways, Swoopes’ coming out was the first of a steady stream of women’s basketball players in the last decade, solidifying the perception of the WNBA as a queer league, and the sport of basketball as a “lesbian sport,” through no fault of their own. The tendency to use these stories to reinforce stereotypes is an essential function of maintaining the hegemony of sexism.

Whereas Swoopes received media attention when she came out, while many others have not, there are still many athletes who choose not to come out. Playing in an environment of perceived queerness, girls’ and women’s sports have experienced a hyper-feminization driven both by advertising and the notion that “sex sells,” as well as a desire to not be tagged as queer. This limits the freedom of gender expression, as the expectations to meet heteronormative and cisnormative beauty standards become tacitly enforced through the celebration of femininity and the notion of what women “should be.” That does not mean that feminine women are non-existent in sports, or that every woman who wears make up on the tennis court, soccer field, or basketball court is doing so to mask their queerness. There is a giant difference between performing gender in a feminine way because that’s what is comfortable versus performing gender in a feminine way because that is what is expected. Both are happening alongside one another in women’s sports.

As more athletes come out in the next few years, there will be more challenges to these norms and stereotypes. Sports culture operates as a microcosm of society, enforcing many of its systems. As one of our greatest cultural vehicles, we need to dismantle the influence of these systems to affect true cultural change.

Header image credit: ESPN 


Katie Barnes (they/them/their) is a pop-culture obsessed activist and writer. While at St. Olaf College studying History and (oddly) Russian (among other things), Katie fell in love with politics, and doing the hard work in the hard places. A retired fanfiction writer, Katie now actually enjoys writing with their name attached. Katie actually loves cornfields, and thinks there is nothing better than a summer night's drive through the Indiana countryside. They love basketball and are a huge fan of the UConn women's team. When not fighting the good fight, you can usually find Katie watching sports, writing, or reading a good book.

Katie Barnes is a pop-culture obsessed activist and writer.

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