Haven or Hell: Women's sports - a good place to be gay?

posted by Felicity (Fawkes) Hawksley, a Women Talk Sports blogger
Saturday, October 27, 2012 at 4:31pm EDT

About Felicity (Fawkes) Hawksley:

Freelance sports hack, ex-rower, keen cyclist and professional accidenteer. Enjoyer of insane self-made challenges. Proud to wear Dark Blue on Boat Race Day. About to escape the country to follow th...more

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It passed under the radar months ago and only hit the headlines with Laura Robson’s cute, understated rainbow hair-tie protest at the Australian Open. Margaret Court, Australian tennis legend, turned wacko chose to speak her mind.

Though these moments have an outrage factor into the high nineties, there’s also an element of the ‘so-what’ about them. The church (and I'm a Catholic) is pretty much always beating on ‘the gays’, and if you can’t reason with them, probably the most powerful thing you can do, is to ignore them. But it was Court’s particular choice of words that really turned the crazy amp up to eleven. This woman thinks there is a conspiracy. Court stated that politically correct education had “masterfully escorted homosexuality from behind closed doors, into the community openly”.

It’s the absurdity of the language that strikes you. And I would laugh, were it not for the fact that this lexis of fear breeds segregation and violence.

Professor Arlene Gorton, at Brown University said, in 1991 after Court’s first gleeful foray into public bigotry: “what we’re seeing is a re-creation of the discrimination against blacks…’they will spoil the neighbourhood, ruin the game, hurt recruiting’…Substitute the word ‘black’ every time you hear ‘lesbian’ and wonder if [people] could get away saying the same thing.”

Professor Gorton’s subtext is clear – saying these things is criminal, cynical and out of date . So why, nearly 21 years later is Court being allowed a soap-box to stand on? Even the New York Times helpfully allowed her to defend her views on gay marriage in a puny question and answer session.

Court argued a “misunderstanding”, and said that she didn’t hate gay people. I believe her. I believe that Margaret Court doesn’t hate gay people. But she tells them that they are wrong. She tells them that they are “unhealthy”, that they engage in “abominable sexual practices”, and that their behaviour will bring “ill” on society.

Soggy reasoning and the language of “help” allow this kind of destructive view to drift into the public consciousness unaddressed. It keeps people in the closet, keeps many out gay people miserable and legitimises any number of lesser, day to day hate crimes.

The response to the whole affair was fairly muted. Tennis Australia issued a vanilla statement about equality, and Robson diplomatically noted that she had not seen any direct quotations. So why wasn’t there more outrage? Why hasn’t the arena been re-named, as it would have been if Court had decided Serena Williams wasn’t her favourite colour? Why hasn’t Court been publicly censured? The most plausible answer lies in the treatment of, and discourse surrounding lesbianism in women’s sport.

It’s a myth that women’s sport is a haven for lesbians. I went to Oxford – a university supposedly full of intelligent people. I rowed varsity, a programme that attracts, for some reason, some of the finest minds at the university. And I can't count the amount of times that I heard something casually homophobic about participation, sexuality and the inevitable ogling in the showers. No-one ever said it, but it was not OK to be out and some fairly extreme bullying went unchecked. Eventually, one couple came out, and a bunch of others followed. It got a bit better. But you would still attend boat club dinners, fundraisers and presentations and be expected to keep your woman on the down-low. You were a cliché and a drag on the image of the sport.

There's even some dumb notion that girls on the varsity squad would hook up and play 'gay until graduation'. There was this undercurrent that your relationship with a woman on the squad wasn't serious. You were just helping each other out – you didn't have time for a boyfriend. Boat Race balls and social functions would have been made a whole deal easier if every man in attendance could have been issued with a card upon arriving that listed the names of female athletes that were together, and said “yes you are drunk and no, we do not want a threesome”. There was a whole lot of snickering and whispering about the women's teams. And it won't have been unique to crew. There's a heteronormative narrative that says: “if you're a woman and you play sports, you'd better not drop the soap in the shower”.

Part of this stems from the truth that you’re more likely to meet a lesbian on your sports team than you are in the office. The reasons behind this are likely manifold. : First, you’ve got elevated levels of testosterone, which are more likely to make you both gay and more likely to make you athletic (based on the digit ratio theory, anyway). Second up, you have the mimetic nature of sexuality: some lesbians are 'male-oriented', and as sport is so totally male right now, their participation is in part copycat behaviour. Then finally, you add the notion of expectation – lesbians are expected to play sport, therefore they do. It’s one huge feedback loop based on biology, sociology and looser notions of sexuality.

So, with more lesbians in sport, you’d expect that being gay and being out and being in a team is pretty ordinary. But it’s not the case – in fact, the exact opposite is in play. Within women’s sport, there’s a backlash against lesbianism. It’s no longer as petty as not wanting to be looked at when you’re changing into your gym knickers for Form 3B cross-country practice. It’s worse than that, because it got mixed up with money and it got mixed up with a particular variety of man. In his article Gay Bias Moves Off The Sidelines , Robert Lipsyte writes that “[m]en who want to make money from the women’s sports tour [are] concerned about its lesbian image, a concern that’s now pervasive throughout women’s sports”. He adds that “[a]s female athletes became a sales force for cigarettes, whiskey and cars, they needed to be perceived as hetero-sexy for the predominantly male sponsors”.

It’s not just wrapped up with advertising either. Whilst consumers of sport remain predominantly male, the female audience is expanding exponentially – so why are women in sport so desperate to convince us all that they’re all heterosexual? What’s the problem?

The undercurrent of discomfort with any hint of lesbianism is apparent on the track at the diamond meets. 400m runners plastered in makeup, hair extensions, false nails, eyelashes. In nearly every interview with a female sports star, there’s stand-out reference to how she ‘loves to feel girly’ despite the fact that she can bench press the equivalent of Brian Blessed.

There’s simply no support within sport itself. Worse, there’s relentless speculation over a number of global stars’ sexuality, when it shouldn’t even be an issue. If you’re young, talented and gay, the clear message is that it’s not worth your while coming out.

The discourse of disdain towards women’s sports and the continual subordination of female activity in this space is creating a reality in which women are becoming their own worst enemy. It encourages women to revert to sex as the single prism through which their profession or past-time can be viewed.

Lesbians pose a threat to this narrative. Lesbians don’t need men. At least not in that way. Lesbians are dangerous. Did you know Satan was a lesbian? Lesbians have the power to destroy advertising and brand every girl who catches a ball as not the marrying kind. Who wants a lesbian on their box of Weetabix?

It’s laughable and simultaneously deeply sad that sexuality should even be considered when it comes to your status as national champion, household name, inspiration and example to children. It seems that sport is one of the last remaining bastions of inequality. As Lipsyte writes “there’s homophobia of course, but I think it’s basically a power issue, another way of controlling women – especially now that there is money in women’s sports”.

The total non-reaction to Margaret Court belies a sickness in women’s sports as a whole. Women won’t step forward to defend themselves, gay players won’t come out of the closet because they need the money. A lot more female athletes should have vilified Court for her outburst. That they didn’t speaks volumes about how women in sport view their own profession, contract of employment and salary – as subject to the approval of men.

And that is why, precisely why, we need more Megan Rapinoes and Lori Lindseys; more Judith Arndts and more Kim Lammers.

(A longer version of this article appeared on The Sportscarton)

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There are 2 comments on this post. Join the discussion!

Dr. Nicole M. LaVoi says:

You have some insights in this piece but you undermine your credibility by making false blanket statements and stating them as fact, such as "First, you%u2019ve got elevated levels of testosterone, which are more likely to make you both gay and more likely to make you athletic (based on the digit ratio theory, anyway)" To my knowledge, this is a myth and a stereotype that perpetuates the homophobia is women's sport, the very premise of your argument. If it is a valid theory, I would encourage you to cite it better and elaborate on its premise, so the reader does not automatically take this statement up as fact. -nml

Monday, October 29, 2012 at 11:26am EDT

Felicity (Fawkes) Hawksley says:

A good point: I looked at a number of sources re. the digit ratio theory, and no-one seemed able to come up with a definitive answer. Hence my use of the word "theory" which here should denote abstract/generalised thinking, as per the true definition of the word. In citing it as a theory, I certainly did not mean for it to be taken as a fact, but merely a possible part of the matrix of social, biological and historical agents accounting for the (supposedly) higher number of gay women in sports. Certainly, I didn't word it well enough. FH.

Monday, October 29, 2012 at 11:53am EDT

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