Sexuality and sport: breaking the stigma of gay athletes

Traditional perceptions of masculinity yet to be diminished

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Rob Gooch, Western Track & Field

Rob Gooch, Western Track & Field

“My best games were the worst.

“I would get a sack, force a fumble, stuff a play on the goal line. And hours later, in the middle of the night, I’d wake up sweating, clutching my chest and gasping for breath. Maybe someone who knows saw that, I’d think to myself. Maybe they’ll call the coach, or the owner, or the papers.”

Esera Tuaolo’s admission of his homosexuality in 2002 to ESPN Magazine sent shockwaves through the professional sports community.

After spending nine years in the National Football League, the former defensive lineman chose to reveal his sexuality following his retirement, becoming the third professional football player to do so besides former New York Giants running back David Kopay and Washington Redskins offensive lineman Roy Simmons.

Luke Cyphers, a senior writer for ESPN Magazine, interviewed Tuaolo after he publicly acknowledged his sexuality.

“The most interesting thing to the reaction to the Esera story to me was even though there was a lot of positive comments towards him there was also a lot of push back,” Cyphers said.

“There seemed to be more hostility towards Esera than I remember towards Kopay, even though there was more support too.”

Five years later, when retired centre John Amaechi became the first player in the National Basketball Association to openly discuss his homosexuality, Cyphers said there was less hostility directed towards him, something he attributed to Tuaolo’s example.

The topic of homosexuality in sports, while not new, remains a subject not widely discussed. Central to the dilemma is identity, which is crucial to many athletes.

“Athletes thrive off of masculinity as part of their identity,” said Cyd Ziegler, co-founder of, a California site catered to gay sports fans.

“[Sports] is the bastion of masculinity in North America and athletes thrive off of it ... and there is nothing less masculine in our culture " or the perception anyways in our culture " than being gay.”

Ziegler described the potential adverse effects of an athlete revealing his homosexuality in a sport considered to be macho, such as football.

“A lot of these guys, when they went to school, they got off on being the big guy on campus ... now they’re in the pros and as big, strong, hulking men they feel so masculine,” Ziegler said.

“Now to have somebody come along and say ‘I’m gay,’ that threatens their entire identity, because all of a sudden you don’t have to be masculine to play football in their eyes; you can be a fag.

“And if you can be a fag and play football, all of a sudden in their eyes, just because they play football doesn’t mean they are masculine anymore. It strips them of their identity. So I think fear of a loss of identity is the number one reason you have so much homophobia in sports.”

Homophobia is not unique to the professional ranks; in fact, many amateur gay athletes are resistant to reveal their sexuality. In response to this, a number of gay sports leagues have formed in North America.

“Back in 1998, I was looking for a place that was a competitive place to play hockey but I didn’t want to play in a regular house league because I felt there was a lot of homophobia in it,” said Stephen Reid, a member and spokesperson for the Toronto Gay Hockey Association.

“Even now when I on occasion play in the house leagues, you’d think they’d be more accepting [of homosexuality], but it’s still not there.”

Over the past decade, the TGHA has grown in size and prominence; the nine-team league was recently featured on Leafs TV. Reid said the league " which features players from ages 21 to 57 of all different skill levels " has given him the opportunity to develop his game in an environment where he feels safe.

“You can be sports-oriented to the gay world, but you can go into the locker room and talk about your relationship without it being a girl,” he said.

Ziegler met his current partner while playing in a gay football league in Los Angeles. Beyond enabling gay athletes to play sports, he believes gay sports leagues serve another important purpose: to show the gay community it is okay to enjoy sports.

“Everybody talks about homophobia in sports, but on the flip side of it, there’s sports phobia in the gay community,” Ziegler said. “When I tell people I like sports, they dismiss it as though I’m trying to put on some act for somebody.

“A lot of gay men today, when they come out of the closet in their 20s, 30s or 40s, a lot of them reject the straight world and they embrace this gay world, which is very different and puts an emphasis on Broadway show tunes and dance parties. That becomes their identity.”

University of Toronto professor Brian Pronger, both an athlete and academic, describes his own personal journey with reconciling his identities as a homosexual male and sports fanatic in his book, The Arena of Masculinity: Sports, Homosexuality, and the Meaning of Sex.

“As a young gay man, homosexuality and sports seemed like opposites to me,” he said in the book.

“And so for many years I eschewed athletics ... I had avoided athletics because I didn’t want to be a part of that straight, masculine world that seemed to me both threatening and inappropriate.”

Closer to home, athletes at Western have had differing experiences with reconciling their sexuality in the sports world.

Rob Gooch has been involved in track and field for a number of years, and last year was a member of Western’s 4x400 metre bronze medal relay team at the Canadian Interuniversity Sport championships.

Gooch, who identifies himself as bisexual, said he has never encountered an issue with any of his teammates at Western.

“Nobody has ever said something directly to me about it and I’ve never felt excluded because of it,” he said.

“There’s the usual banter among people on the team the same way there is in the general public, making jokes or using terminology that might not be appropriate, but I never take it seriously and I know it’s never been serious.”

Western student Laura McPhie swam competitively for many years in her hometown and now coaches in London. While actively involved in the queer community at Western, she has never acknowledged her sexuality to her former teammates back home.

“It got to a point where it was hard to say anything. You reach this point where you go past it ... how do you go back and say anything?” she said.

“When you grow up it’s hard to come out, especially when it’s an extremely heterosexual world, the swimming community itself.”

With regards to breaking certain stereotypes in sports today, Gooch said people need to make a distinction between sexuality and gender identity.

“When it comes to people’s identities, they identify straight men with having a masculine identity whereas they want to identify a female gender identity with a gay man and I think we’re realizing that’s not completely true,” Gooch said.

“Straight men can take up a lot of elements from female gender identity and a gay man can have a perfect male gender identity and still want to have sex with men.”

At more competitive levels of sport, Ziegler said changing the attitude towards homosexuality in sports will be dependent on the attitude of administrators at colleges and professional sports leagues.

“It’s kind of a tricky business ... the NFL, NBA, CFL, they all make money off of this cult of masculinity,” he said.

“They all make money because their athletes are perceived to be these big, masculine gods, essentially. They don’t want to undermine that, so it’s getting to the administrators and getting them to talk about those issues. And some of that is happening.”

According to Cyphers, one area that has held back the progress of accepting homosexuality in sports has been the rise of religion.

“The rise of real, hardcore fundamentalist Christianity in sports and a real push in sports and openness about that probably hasn’t helped the homosexual movement as a whole or gay rights as a whole,” he said.

“Because [religion] has been so prevalent in the last two decades in sports it has helped solidify some stereotypical, masculine ideals that gays are inferior men.”

Unlike women’s sports, where some of its elite athletes such as tennis star Martina Navratilova and basketball player Cheryl Swoopes have been openly homosexual, no male star players in any of the major North American sports have openly revealed their sexuality.

Cyphers believes this process will likely happen with a younger, male athlete entering a sport than an existing star revealing their sexuality.

“There’s a theory that some day there’s going to be a kid, some 16-year-old athlete who is just so good and already out ... teams are going to recruit him as a football player or a basketball player and they’re just going to have to accept [he is gay],” Cyphers said.

As a coach today, McPhie said she is careful about revealing her identity, as some of the parents of her athletes are uncomfortable at the thought of having a queer coach.

She believes having prominent role models in the swim community, such as former Canadian Olympic gold medalist Mark Tewksbury " who announced his homosexuality in 1998 " are important to changing attitudes for younger athletes.

“When you have someone high up winning gold medals, it makes it okay to be gay and swim,” McPhie said.

“So if you’re 13 and questioning your sexuality and someone else comes out, it shows being queer doesn’t stop you from being a professional athlete and being good at what you’re doing.”

For his part, Gooch says individuals ultimately should be judged by their aptitude at their sport and not by their sexual preferences.

“Who you want to have sex with has bearing on who you want to have sex with and nothing else " not on how fast you can run, not even on who you want to hang out with or what you want to wear " it’s just who you want to have sex with.”

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