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How to Address Homophobia in Women's Athletics

Playing on a team offers a rich education in getting comfortable with diversity

Stereotypes and concerns about lesbians in sports abound. Well-intentioned coaches and administrators question how to deal with LGBT issues. As director of “It Takes a Team!” for the Women’s Sports Foundation, Dr. Pat Griffin travels around the country helping them to figure it out.

She’s professor emerita in the social justice educational program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she has taught since 1970. She started there as a women’s phy ed instructor and coach of the women’s swimming and diving team while working on a master’s degree in sport studies.

Feminist principles began to infuse her coaching. After earning her doctorate she joined the faculty in physical education teacher education.

She started speaking out and leading workshops on homophobia long before she came out as a lesbian. Even listing homophobia on conference programs raised hackles. Not until 1981—the year tennis players Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova were outed in separate incidents—did any prominent sportswoman admit to a lesbian relationship.

Griffin came out as a lesbian in a conference presentation in 1987. Lightning did not strike. She competed in her first Gay Games in 1990. In 1992 she transferred to the education faculty, where she helped to create a concentration in social justice education.

Her book Strong Women, Deep Closets: Lesbians and Homophobia in Sport came out in 1998, the year she won a gold medal in the hammer throw at Gay Games V. Since retirement she has consulted with high schools and colleges around the country on LGBT issues in athletics. About 70 people attended her strategy session for administrators at the National Association of Collegiate Women in Athletics Administration (NACWAA) annual meeting in Sacramento CA in October.

Trespassers on male turf

Negative associations with women athletes have deep roots. Cultural assumptions link sports with masculinity. Dads play catch with their sons. Boys in Victorian England learned manhood on the playing fields of rugby.

Athletics taught boys to be tough, to compete, not to “throw like a girl” and never to cry. Then and now, sports—especially team sports—served to separate the “men” from the “sissies.”

Existing to instill masculinity, the world of sports held no place for women. In the ancient Greek Olympics, women could neither compete nor watch. If a woman was caught watching, she was hurled over a cliff to her death.

Though women’s participation in sports has increased, the sense persists that they are trespassers on male territory. One response is to belittle women’s sports. They get less funds and respect than men’s.

Another response is assuming that women who are drawn to sport must be men at heart. Hence the stereotype of women athletes as lesbians. Further stereotypes portrayed all lesbians as alike: mannish and predatory people you wouldn’t want to associate with your daughter.

Organizers and participants in women’s sports bent over backward to counter this stereotype. While participation in men’s sports was seen as prima facie evidence of a guy’s masculinity, women athletes had to prove their femininity again and again.

Femininity (a code word for heterosexuality) came in several forms or caricatures. There’s the sexy beauty queen, the wholesome girl next door, the cute little pixie, the bitchy slut and the wife and mom.

Gymnasts and most figure skaters count as pixies, beauty queens or girls-next-door. (Figure skater Tonya Harding was portrayed as a bitchy slut.) Everyone else has to prove she’s one of the above.

During World War II, professional baseball players went off to war and the All American Girls’ Baseball League was formed to fill the gap. Players were chosen for their appearance as much as for their baseball skills.

Only whites were allowed. They wore a skirted uniform and complied with dress, hair and makeup codes. They attended classes in ladylike behavior. Media guides bragged that the league did not permit “freaks or amazons.” The All American Girls’ Baseball League disbanded in 1950.

Throughout the rest of the 20th century and into the 21st, many women athletes continued striving to “prove” their heterosexuality. Media coverage focused on their husbands and children, or the men they’ve dated. By contrast, media stories on male athletes rarely discuss their family roles.

Feminine drag makes women in sport more acceptable. Long hair tied back in a ponytail, makeup and frilly clothes refute the lesbian image. The 1992 video Out for a Change: Addressing Homophobia in Women’s Sports shows a woman basketball coach pacing the sidelines in high heels. Martina Navratilova says in the video, “We should make men coach in those things.”

Recruiting

Since Griffin wrote her book nearly a decade ago, lesbian athletes’ experiences have become more diverse. More are open about their orientation, especially at the college level, having come out in high school, but it’s far from universal among either coaches or student athletes. “There are still a lot of closet lesbians,” Griffin told WIHE. Division I is the most closeted, especially in high-visibility sports such as basketball.

Division I-quality athletes choose their university for the teams they’ll play on. A lesbian team image may frighten students or their parents. Or TV sponsors.

Given the stereotype of lesbians as predators, even a hint that the coach is a lesbian can break the deal. “People assume if you’re a lesbian, you can’t be an ethical coach,” she said.

Negative recruiting may be subtle. A recruiter need only say, that other college you’re considering, you might not want to get involved in that lifestyle. If that doesn’t bother the potential recruit, it still might worry her parents.

It’s a tactic used primarily in women’s sports, but probably will increase in men’s sports as more gay male athletes come out of the closet.

Negative recruiting is insidious. “It’s not legal or ethical but nothing happens to the coaches who do it,” Griffin said. The NCAA has made huge strides on this issue since Myles Brand became president in 2003.

On October 30, 2006, the NCAA and the National Center for Lesbian Rights co-sponsored a meeting in Indianapolis on LGBT issues in sport. The central focus was negative recruiting based on perceived sexual orientation.

Participants noted that no matter how many policies are in place, negative recruiting is so effective that it will probably continue in the absence of serious repercussions. So long as “lesbian” carries a stigma, the threat of being called one puts a shadow over all women athletes.

Negative recruiting and predatory assumptions give lesbian coaches a strong incentive to stay in the closet. “The biggest problem is that it will be used against their program and they’ll lose their effectiveness,” she told WIHE. If it keeps them from getting good players and they start losing games, they may lose their jobs as well.

Relationships among players

With the rapid growth of women’s participation in athletics in the past 35 years under Title IX, straight women have become a larger majority in women’s sports. They’re sensitive to stereotypes of the lesbian athlete.

Some don’t mind a teammate being a lesbian so long as she keeps it to herself. Both on personal grounds and for the sake of recruiting and winning, they don’t want the reputation of a lesbian team.

Some worry about being hit on in the locker room. It’s perhaps a bigger fear among straight men. For either gender, such events are rare. Few lesbians or gays make sexual moves on heterosexuals.

On more and more women’s teams, lesbians are open about their orientation and it’s no big deal. There’s even good news on the men’s front. The University of Georgia has an openly gay male ice hockey player whose team is very supportive.

“There’s a sense of family about being a team,” she said. The tightness of teammates overrides sexual orientation or other differences. Playing on a team offers a rich education in getting comfortable with diversity.

As Griffin travels around meeting with coaches, one issue that comes up regularly is how to handle lesbian relationships between teammates. How does the presence of a couple affect team dynamics?

Treat it as a workplace issue, she advises. Heterosexual relationships in a mixed women-and-men workplace pose similar issues. The question isn’t whether the relationship is same-sex, but whether the exclusive bond between two players interferes with playing effectively as a team.

Coaches can discourage such relationships but she doesn’t recommend forbidding them (unlike coach-student relationships, which are never acceptable.) Driving student lovers underground will cause a bigger problem. The coach must be clear: You’re teammates first. Deal with your personal issues on your own time.

“My message to coaches always is that you set the tone,” she said. She doesn’t believe coaches who say their teams won’t accept a lesbian or gay athlete. Where the coach leads, the team will follow.

Policies for fairness

Coaches are increasingly open to the message. “Before five years ago, my job was convincing coaches this is an issue they should pay attention to,” she told WIHE.

Today they know it’s important. They want to discuss it. They’re looking for guidance. They don’t want to get sued.

Athletes increasingly feel entitled to fairness. Rene Portland resigned in March as women’s basketball coach at Penn State, following settlement of a lawsuit by a former player about Portland’s “no-lesbian” policy for the team.

Eight states plus the District of Columbia have statutes prohibiting discrimination or harassment on the basis of sexual orientation in educational facilities. Twelve states plus DC and hundreds of municipalities prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment.

In addition to avoiding lawsuits, coaches want a winning team. They want to attract and hold the best players. They don’t want trouble and they aren’t sure what to do.

Griffin encourages coaches and administrators to set policy before a situation arises. “Be proactive, anticipate, don’t decide in a crisis,” she said.

 She tells them, “You make policy all the time. This is one more issue. What is a policy that’s based on fairness and not fear?”

Addressing homophobia can improve team chemistry. Heterosexual young people get defensive and fearful when their prejudices and stereotypes are left unchallenged. Reducing defensiveness and fear improves team relationships.

“It Takes a Team”—the initiative she directs for the Women’s Sports Foundation—develops and disseminates educational materials on LGBT issues in high school and college sports (www.ittakesateam.org). A 15-minute video serves as a discussion starter. There’s also a discussion guide, action guides, case studies and a range of related re-sources including a model policy.

She’s encouraged by the response. Particularly heartening is the recent openness of male coaches, who used to see homophobia in sports as a women’s issue unrelated to them.

She tells coaches that their athletes are way ahead of them. College campuses are changing fast. As today’s student athletes advance into the ranks of coaches, progress will be even faster.

“We’re on the road to where being a gay or lesbian athlete will be as interesting as being right-handed or left-handed,” she said.

See www.ittakesateam.org

Contact Dr. Griffin at: Griffin@educ.umass.edu

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