Ace sprinter Dutee Chand, US Olympian figure skater Adam Rippon, former basketball player and psychologist John Amaechi, British Olympic gold winner Nicola Adams, midfielder for Los Angeles Galaxy Robbie Rogers, NFL defensive end Michael Sam, NBA centre Jason Collins, boxer Savoy ‘Kapow’ Howe, Amelie Mauresmo, Penn State Basketball player Jennifer Harris, German midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger and the late professional footballer Justin Fashanu. These are just some of the sportspersons who’ve come out of the closet in public either at the start, during or after retiring or quitting the sport. But a lot of others have been hesitant to come out, mainly due to the consequences and the fact that they will then be burdened with jumping over the hurdles which come with being a gay/lesbian personality in the field of sports where homophobia and gender stereotypes persist, especially since many people have the image of a locker room being a place where gay people are put down and where homophobic slurs are thrown around casually. The truth of it is far worse and makes it even harder for homosexual sportspersons to continue being brilliant in the field, let alone in the public eye.
Guylaine Demers, an expert on homophobia at Laval University , Canada, states that for gay and bisexual men, the main hurdles are the fear of losing bond with their male teammates, whereas lesbians face the pressure to hide their sexuality in public due to the stigma of being seen as the ‘lesbian team’ and too much pressure to pretend to be someone you’re not (Elks, 2018).
And it has always been like this even since the 1980s when homosexuality was stigmatised and although changes were made to improve on this throughout the nineties, football still remains one of those sports where it is considered a taboo for male players to come out, as in the case of Justin Fashanu who was so stigmatized for his sexual orientation that he was bounced around from club to club after being fired from the one he played for, was falsely accused of 3 counts of sexual assault on an underage boy (whom he later outed for framing him in his suicide letter and admitted to having been afraid of not getting a fair trial as he was a homosexual and that it’d been hard enough to be a gay personality as is.),was made the butt of jokes as well as investigated for his sexual relationships with cabinet ministers and even bribed to keep it hush by his own brother, John Fashanu, who later would blame his monstrous actions on a lack of education, lack of understanding as well as on the shame it would’ve brought on their family and on society and their fan following who had already begun painting a picture of the Fashanu brothers as the ‘tough men’ with a strong and macho image, which are just some more hurdles that have contributed to difficulties in coming out and embracing ones’ true self or identity. (Toureille, 2018)
While men in sports are burdened by ingrained homophobia (statements like ‘Don’t throw like a girl or a fairy’ are just some ways of encouraging such homophobic tripe) and stereotypical ideas of heterosexism (NFL Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr was more than once unfairly subjected to snark homophobic slurs from spectators and critics for not conforming to the heterosexual norms and instead dyeing his hair, wearing fashionable clothes and dancing shirtless with men in Instagram videos), women in sports are shackled by the numerous drug tests which force them to prove that they’re indeed female and lesbians have been even barred from the sports arena in the past, such as in the 80s when Rene Portland ruled with an iron fist and even imposed an ‘anti-lesbian policy’ when she was first hired by Penn State! Rene even informed ‘Sun Times’ that she doesn’t allow lesbians to play on her team and told every lesbian athlete that their sexual orientation is ‘something stupid’ and that it could mean the end for women in sports and could destroy the world of women athletes everywhere and so they had to keep their true identity a secret. However, such hateful homophobic comments would only result in protests from lesbian sportspersons like Savoy ‘Kapow’ Howe who became the first professional boxer to come out, followed by Amelie Mauresmo who chose to bravely come out during the peak of her success as a professional athlete and the biggest middle finger to the face of homophobia in sports came from lesbian basketball player Jennifer Harris who filed a lawsuit against Penn State for discrimination which led to Rene Portland’s resignation after news surfaced that she had assured Harris’ mum that her lesbian daughter would never be allowed to play again! Savoy Howe continues this fight against homophobia and she has been empowering women and transgenders for 24 years now.
In India, where homosexuality was legalised just last year, Dutee Chand continues to fight for her love as her family (who’d been supportive of her when she was subjected to drug and hormone tests that led to her being unable to qualify for Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and which even had her at a crossroads doubting her own identity and sexual orientation) sadly refuses to come to terms with her being in a same-sex relationship after she came out of the closet publicly. “I was asked to prove I am a girl and I proved it. Now, I don’t need to prove anything anymore. They will have to accept it, I’m not doing anything wrong.”, Dutee said in an interview with ‘News18.com’ just recently. (Bose, 2019)
Of course, it is hard for most people to digest the bitter truth pill, but is there still hope for homosexual sportspersons in the future?
Well, according to Robbie Rogers who came out in 2013, there might still be hope…if more athletes came out so that others had a role model to look up to. “I was hoping there’d be more athletes that’d come out and after that, it just wouldn’t matter. I was hoping there would be so many out-athletes, it wouldn’t be a topic to talk about.”, Rogers admitted in an interview with the ‘Thomas Reuters Federation’. John Amaechi also spoke out on his fears that the caricatures based on sexuality would persist, thus either deterring fellow homosexual sportspersons from coming out or laying waste to the effort, work and legacy of already out- athletes who could then be reduced to being known as ‘that gay guy’. Cyd Zergler who runs ‘Outsports.com’ (a website which covers gay issues in sports), on the other hand wishes for a reduction in the constant heterosexism in the locker room, the objectification of women, talk of sex with women by heterosexual athletes and other topics that not only make closeted homosexual athletes uncomfortable to open up to fellow teammates but which they find hard to relate to as well. (Hines, 2016)
Despite all these hurdles however, countries like San Francisco and people like Tom Waddell have embraced sportspersons of all ages, genders, weight groups, sexual orientations, etc. by establishing the aptly titled ‘Gay Games’ (the last one took place in 2018 in Paris) which welcome not only the homosexuals, but even those participants who are hindered by anti-doping policies or life-threatening illnesses like HIV/AIDS. The ‘Gay Games’ have in fact been around since 1982 when the ‘New Agenda for Women in Sports Conference’ refused to even use the word ‘lesbian’ in their action proposals, thus acknowledging that lesbians do not exist in the athletic world. Since then, these Games have been a safe place for everyone to participate in their beloved activities and have even led to a breakthrough via the ‘Transgender Inclusion policy’ which is now followed in Olympics and other sporting events worldwide. (Smith, 2019)
So, you see, dear readers, although naysayers and homophobic policies still exist and threaten the life of the homosexual athletes out there in the ring/arena, there also exist the trailblazers who’ve endured and persevered against all odds and against such homophobic and heterosexist ideas to leave their mark in their own field, won not just laurels but also hearts and minds and even dared to go against the stereotypical norms, braving it all from start to finish only to emerge victorious!