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Homophobia in Male Sports: Who's to Blame?

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I have come across several articles lately focused on the issue of gay professional male athletes coming out. This one and this one are examples of the kind of articles I’ve seen. Both articles speculate about why it is that no male professional team sport athletes in the United States have come out while they are still actively competing.

Some articles cite the distraction that would undoubtedly be part of the sports media frenzy accompanying this announcement and how gay athletes might not want to become the GAY athlete. Other writers speculate that the loss of corporate sponsorship opportunities and negative reactions from teammates or fans are the factors that keep gay professional athletes in the closet.

Lebron James and other pro athletes have opined about the lack of acceptance or downright hostility that they predict would await any teammate who comes out publicly. To be fair a few other pros have, in contrast, expressed the belief that any teammate’s sexual orientation is irrelevant and what counts is the player’s contribution to the team’s success on the field ( Johnny Damon, Detroit Tigers and former Yankee, Mike Mussina, for example). When players talk about their discomfort with having a gay teammate, it usually comes down to the locker room, the sanctity of the locker room. LeBron described the necessity of teammates being “trustworthy” and his belief that having a gay man in the locker room would break this bond among teammates. Other players have expressed the more naked (so to speak) discomfort with the possibility that a gay teammate might look at their penis in the showers. I don’t know about you, but I find it a little strange that these big strong guys, the culturally designated epitome of masculinity are afraid that a gay man might sneak a peek at their wee wees.

I wonder if the whole thing isn’t more that this though. I wonder if the resistance to accepting a gay man in the locker room and on the team doesn’t have more to do with the fragility of masculinity and the illusion of superiority that being a heterosexual male athlete confers on the chosen ones who get to be part of that “band of brothers” sharing that locker room. I wonder if some guys worry that if a gay man is tough and talented enough to make the team and earns his right to be in that locker room, then the whole experience of being a pro team sport athlete is cheapened in their eyes. The whole bonding thing among male teammates becomes suspect.

Perhaps this is all academic clap trap, but it is worth thinking about. It makes sense to me if you take a broader view of the function of homophobia and the role it plays in sustaining heterosexual male privilege. I think homophobia plays a similar role in the resistance to the acceptance of women’s sports. The presence of seriously talented women athletes and equal opportunities in sport for all women in sport also is seen as an invasion on the sacred heterosexual male turf of sport.

But I am digressing. The point I wanted to make is that focusing on when an individual gay male professional team sport athlete comes out is interesting, but places the emphasis in the wrong place. It really isn’t about the brave and pioneering gay man who will come out sooner or later while he is still playing.

Though I will be thrilled to greet his announcement, it alone will not change the homophobic culture of men’s sports. Buried in Scott Gyurina’s Bleacher Report article is the following quote, “The responsibility cannot be laid on the shoulders of the gay athletes, it is not their responsibility to make the culture open and accepting for them. It is the duty of all of us to let go of our prejudice and preconceived notions in order to make it acceptable for people to feel free to open and honest, unafraid of repercussions for being true to who they are.”

John Amaechi took some heat from the gay press a few months ago for cautioning gay male athletes about coming out and tamping down expectations for any who do in the near future. He was accused of contradicting the common wisdom among many gay rights activists that coming out is always a good thing for all LGBT people, the sooner the better. I think many people missed John’s point though. He was trying to put the focus where it belongs – on the culture of men’s sports, on heterosexual male pro athletes and coaches, on athletic leaders. He was trying to point out how unreasonable it is to expect an individual athlete to change a social institution, especially if the individual is unprepared for being a social change advocate.

I am not discounting the power of individuals in social change. I have witnessed some pretty transformative experiences as a result of individual LGBT people coming out. Research also tells us that knowing individual LGBT people as friends, colleagues, family members or teammates does affect heterosexual people’s attitudes about LGBT people in general. However, we cannot place the responsibility of changing men’s sports culture on the backs of individual gay male athletes who come out.

We need more heterosexual men in sport to step up, to be team leaders, to have the courage to speak out publicly against homophobia in men’s sports and in support of gay rights in general. Fortunately we are beginning to see some role models who are doing just that in professional and college sports. Scott Fujita, a Cleveland Browns player; Hudson Taylor, University of Maryland wrestler; Jim Tressel, Ohio State Football coach; and Brian Burke, Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager are a few of these outspoken men. We need more heterosexual athletes, coaches, team owners and general managers who are willing to be public allies to their closeted colleagues and help their gay-challenged brethren to at least show a little more maturity, respect and class when someone sticks a microphone in front of their mouth.

We need to make it cool to speak out against homophobia and uncool and cowardly to speak out against the inclusion of LGBT people in sport and other social institutions. Outsports posted this web site where ordinary, everyday people of all sexual orientations are speaking out against homophobia. We need more role models and opportunities for heterosexual men to speak up for respect and fairness and against fear and prejudice in and out of sport.

That is how we will create the space for individual gay male professional athletes to come out without the risk of sacrificing all they have worked for to reach the professional ranks in order to simply live openly. I’d love to see the next bunch of articles on gay male professional athletes coming out focus on changing heterosexual male athletes’ attitudes and the homophobic culture of men’s sports rather than focusing on how an individual gay man needs to come out into it.

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