May 17th is officially known as International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, and people and organizations around the world participate in events to facilitate awareness of just how damaging homophobia (hatred or fear of homosexuals) and transphobia (hatred or fear of transgendered people) can be to people in the LGBT community. It’s a problem that has affected most all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people at some point in their lives. Whether it’s the cause of job discrimination, family discrimination, abusive language, vandalism, in-person or Internet bullying, physical violence, depression, suicidal thoughts, or death, all forms of homophobia are destructive and violate basic human rights that should be sacrosanct.
What does this have to do with sports? In fact, quite a lot. I am, admittedly, a sports fan. I played varsity volleyball and basketball in high school, and now rabidly watch my favorite pro teams (Go Rockies! Go Broncos! ) each year. But whether you’re a sports fan or not, the role sports plays in homophobia and how it can help improve it is significant and worth acknowledging. With the recent coming out of NBA player Jason Collins, gay athletes, particularly gay male athletes have been in the news of late. Traditionally, pro male athletes have stayed in the closet throughout their careers for fear of repercussions from their teammates, their coaches, their organizations…or all of the above. In the United States, where I live, nothing aside from the military has embodied the perception of “macho he-men” like professional sports. Professional male athletes, especially those in the “biggies”—the NBA, (National Basketball Association), MLB (Major League Baseball), NHL (National Hockey League), and NFL (National Football League)—have always been prized for their strength, endurance, and physical toughness. Qualities that are considered to be the ultimate sign of “masculinity.”
Unfortunately, that perception of “masculinity” has become such a stereotype that many male athletes are judged by it. The assumption has been that only straight men could possibly be strong enough mentally, physically, and emotionally to deal with the stress and rigors of team sports. Only straight men would be able to “fit in” and be part of the brotherhood, be a true team player, be “one of the guys.” The implication behind this is, of course, that gay men are softer, weaker, and too fem to be a real man’s man, and only men’s men can successfully play sports.
Many professional female athletes have come out over the years—people like tennis legend Billie Jean King, WNBA star Brittney Griner, and soccer star Megan Rapinoe, to name a few. What’s notable is that the “masculine” stereotype plays a role in women’s sports as well since many female athletes, even straight ones, are automatically perceived to be lesbians because they’re strong and have what some consider a “butch” appearance. It’s an odd but interesting distinction between men’s and women’s pro sports. When women athletes come out, there’s almost a “Yeah, okay, so what’s the big deal?” attitude because so many female athletes are presumed to be lesbian anyway. It’s expected, even if not fully accepted. Some female athletes have lost their jobs, their endorsements, and their friends by coming out, yet people are rarely surprised by their sexuality when they do.
Gay men coming out in pro sports, however, has never been expected or accepted. Even with the positive changing tide of gay rights in the United States and across parts of the world, even with the U.S. military—the other bastion of those perceived “manly men”—embracing LGBT troops and carrying on with business as usual, professional men’s sports has been a steady hold-out. The naysayers use many of the same arguments bandied about by people who didn’t want to see LGBT soldiers serve openly. What they don’t bother to mention, or perhaps choose to ignore, is that after all the fear-mongering about what could happen…once Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell ended, the transition to allowing gays to serve openly in the military has been pretty much uneventful. So why would having openly gay athletes on football or hockey teams be any different? Those gay players the naysayers fear will be ogling them in the shower? They’ve been there all along, showering alongside their teammates, playing in games with them, traveling with them, and the team’s managed just fine.
And yet, even as recently as the past few months, a handful of NFL football players have spoken out against accepting gay men on their teams. Comments such as there’s no place in the locker room for gays, or anyone in the NFL who comes out is committing a “selfish act” are indicative of the non-acceptance many athletes have toward gay players. With those kinds of attitudes, it’s no wonder gay players have, traditionally, chosen to keep their sexuality under wraps. Negative attitudes such as these hurt not only players, but they have a lot of pull, especially with young fans. So when kids hear their favorite athlete making bigoted remarks, they think it’s okay to do the same. It breeds a climate of intolerance and teaches the young and impressionable that the “cool” guys don’t accept gays.
So, why is it such a big deal when a male pro athlete like Jason Collins comes out? Because it’s cracking the closet door open for other gay players to do the same, to know they’re not alone. Because it forces players, coaches, and organizations to take a hard look at their tolerance policies and how they present themselves to the public. Because pro athletes have a tremendous amount of influence over their young idols, so showing young people that tolerance is right and good, and that being gay doesn’t have to stop anyone from following his/her dreams are powerful messages.
Kids aren’t the only ones to benefit. Even adult fans can learn from the pros. One of the predominant images of a “straight” man is that of a guy hanging out with his pals at the bar, drinking beer and watching the game. There has long been a perception that gay men don’t do such things. Gay men go to the theater or the opera and drink wine or fruity cocktails. Well, guess what? Gay men are as varied as straight men, and there are plenty of gay men who like watching the game with their buddies, who prefer beer to wine, just as there are straight men who love the opera and strawberry daiquiris. So when a male pro athlete comes out, it’s a good reminder to fans that athletes, straight or gay, don’t necessarily fit any particular stereotype. That gay athletes can be muscular and powerful, that they can lead a team to victory as well as straight men, they can run as long and as fast, lift as much weight, pass a football just as far, knock a homerun out of the park, or score a goal from the three-point line just as well as their straight counterparts. It gives hope to other gay athletes of all types that they, too, can make it and be successful in their chosen field.
With the exception of movie and music stars, no one has greater reach or more access to the public than professional athletes. Rather than using their image to promote negativity, think of all the good that could come instead from educating, enlightening, and offering hope to people. If more pro athletes—male and female—chose to come out, and if more straight athletes, like NFL player Brendon Ayanbedejo, who’s an avid and vocal supporter of gay equality, took a stand for what they know is right, it could only help fight homophobia by bringing awareness and acceptance to their fans. Change can be slow for things like this, especially when it means overhauling a whole culture (in this case, the sports culture), but every little step forward brings us closer to a society where being gay, being lesbian, being transgendered, or any of the other varieties of sexual or gender orientation are just different aspects of normal. And that’s as it should be.
As I did last year, I’d like to challenge each of you to find one thing you can do this week that will help fight homophobia and/or improve the quality of life for LGBT people. It could be a simple as making a supportive post on Twitter, or telling your kids a bedtime story that has two moms or two dads or tells about a girl who prefers to dress like a boy and the people who love her support that. It could be encouraging your gay son or daughter in their athletic endeavors, or having a chat with your straight teenage son or daughter about the importance of tolerance and acceptance. It could be donating a few dollars to one of the many LGBT support groups online. It could be writing a blog post like this one, to help educate the people who follow you. Or it could be simply reaching out to your lesbian neighbor and giving her a hug and telling her you appreciate her for exactly who she is. Trust me, there’s no thing too small. It all helps, bit by bit. We, as individuals and as a community can make a difference!
To read more blogs about homophobia, please check out the Hop Against Homophobia and Transphobia website, where you’ll find a long list of authors, publishers, reviewers, and readers who are participating in this event.
To show my appreciation for you taking the time to read this post and for (hopefully!!) taking me up on my challenge to you to find one way to help fight homophobia this week, I’m doing a random drawing for copies of my backlist. At the end of the blog hop, on May 27th, I’ll pick 3 winners who will each have a choice of any 2 books from my backlist. Yes, that means each winner can choose 2 books. If you’ve already read all my books (Thank you!!! ), then you can pick any two books from the Amber Allure catalog and I will buy them and send them to you. To enter, please leave a comment below with your email address so I’ll be able to contact you if you win. Or, alternately, if you’d prefer not to have your email addy posted here publicly, you can send me an email with “Fight Homophobia” in the subject line and enter that way. Only one entry per person, please.