Friday, September 19, 2008

The L Word - Homophobia in Sports

You can't talk about women in sports without addressing the L word issue. It affects every aspect of women's participation in sport--from a woman's personal comfort on a team, to the role models she has in coaches and older players, to the team dynamic, and all the way up to pro athlete marketability. People crack jokes about how lesbianism runs rampant in women's sports and yet there are still only a handful of athletes who are "out and proud."

Unless you're Ellen DeGeneres and you can laugh your way through it, it's really hard to navigate sexuality when you're a public figure. (Actually, I take it back. It's never easy to navigate your sexuality when you're a public figure...especially when you're gay).

And when your sport becomes your career, you have to make careful choices about what you're willing share about your personal life and how it could affect your next endorsement deal. Sheryl Swoopes officially "came out" in 2005 with an endorsement deal with Olivia (a San Francisco-based travel and entertainment company for lesbians) and she seemed to weather it well. But then again, she's Sheryl Swoopes. She was the first woman to have her own line of Nike basketball shoes and she is a 3-time WNBA MVP. She made numerous appearances with Olivia for years, talking about her decision to come out and embrace her sexual identity despite the consequences it may have on her endorsements. Read this article for her own words on the matter.

When you take a step back from the pros and take a look at collegiate sports, homophobia is also prevalent. Coaches are constantly trying to recruit the best talent for their program and many won't hesitate to suggest that competitor teams are full of lesbians. This negative recruiting tool is designed to scare parents into preventing their daughters from joining a program where they may fall victim to lesbian attacks (whatever those are).

But there are a number of female athletes who have been very successful even after coming out. Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Rosie Jones to name a few. And more recently, Natasha Kai from the gold medal winning US women's soccer team in 2008.

This year, Billie Jean King celebrates the 35th anniversary this year of her victory over Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes tennis match. She now runs the Women's Sports Foundation, which promotes girls and women's participation in athletics, and even has a task force for addressing homophobia in sports.

The times may be changing a bit, but homophobia still runs deep in our society. The California Supreme Court recently made a ruling to allow gays and lesbians to marry in the state, however there's a proposition on the ballot this November that could amend the California state constitution to remove that right (again).

If you're a female athlete, chances are you've had to deal with homophobia before. Whether it's your own or one of your teammate's or gossiping about other teams and coaches. It's very real. I intend to blog about this more but I wanted to open up the forum and get people thinking about their own experiences with this issue. Please feel free to comment on the post and let me know what you've witnessed.

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