Why Athletes’ Coming Out Matters

Recent outings by gay athletes may pave the way for greater tolerance in sports.

Posted May 08, 2013

Historically, homophobia has been in embedded in the culture of sports, although it has manifested in distinct ways within male versus female dominated athletics. For male dominated sports, the hyper-masculine subculture promotes homophobia to the extent that homosexuality is seen as “threatening” to the status quo. One need look no further than the common ways athletes (or coaches) insult one another on the field or in the locker rooms with homophobic slurs to gauge the implicit hetero-normative values embedded among male dominated sports institutions.

In contrast, since female athletes were breaking barriers by venturing into traditionally male dominated institutions, homophobia manifested in 1) presumptions that female athletes “must be lesbians” or 2) assurances that the sport wouldn’t “turn female players gay” in its inception when the industry was still struggling to attract players (and financiers).

Despite progress over the globe (at least 14 countries have now legalized same sex marriage) and within the United States, sports culture has been lagging in its evolution of norms regarding both acknowledgment of and tolerance and acceptance for openly gay athletes. Hence the watershed moment when NBA player Jason Collins announced that he was gay.

Research actually identifies that knowing a gay person is the most influential factor in altering anti-gay sentiment. It isn’t that athletes don’t have gay teammates they just don’t know they’re gay because it has been the norm for far too long for gay athletes to remain closeted while they are active players. Collins’ announcement was marveled as the first public reveal of an active gay professional player—although, actually, that moniker isn’t entirely accurate. In fact, at least a month before the Collins’ reveal, Brittney Griner casually replied that she was a lesbian when asked a question by the media following her being selected first in the WNBA draft.

Interestingly, her outing wasn’t accompanied by nearly the same level of media exposure—perhaps because of how casual she revealed it, or maybe because there remains a presumption that female athletes are more likely to be lesbians or because homophobia isn’t as entrenched in female sports as it is in our cult of masculinity, so her revelation was somehow perceived as less risky or groundbreaking. I don’t necessarily ascribe to any of those sentiments, however, the difference in media and public reaction undoubtedly brings up issues related to media agenda setting and the prominence of male versus female-dominated sports institutions in our culture.

The takeaway point is that the more gay athletes who out themselves, the greater the chance to overcome both ingrained homophobia in sports culture as well as to offer a voice to a minority group that continues to be marginalized in our culture today (despite significant social and legal advances). As Griner reflected in a compelling editorial she wrote for The New York Times’ Sports Section this past Monday, there are many facets to each of our identities, and our profession or sexual orientation are only parts of a larger whole—no single characteristic defines who we are. And our social acceptance (or rejection) should similarly not be reduced to our sexual orientation.

Griner, B. (2013, May 6). Proudly Part of a Mission to Help all Live in Truth. The New York Times, Sports Section, Print edition.

Copyright 2013 Azadeh Aalai