Contrary to popular myth there are many gay and lesbian sportspeople out there and some of them compete at the top of their sports. What does life entail for them?
Which Sports Have Openly Gay Participants?
It is easier to find openly gay participants in individual sports, and the reasons for this are covered in some of the points which follow. Also, it appears that there are more open lesbian sportswomen than sportsmen. The reason for this is possibly that other female competitors are less homophobic than their male counterparts so therefore there is a greater ease in competing as an 'out' homosexual.
There have long been rumours in the public domain about certain sports especially female sports being 'full of homosexuals'1. This entry attempts to deal with both the facts and the personal experiences of a number of Researchers, and it will hopefully convey how an individual can cope in a world where they are often seen as freaks.
One of the first things you realise in a locker room is how homophobic an environment it generally is. A lot of it is banter but for any gay sportsman who is in any way insecure it can be like entering the Coliseum in Rome to face the Lions.
Straight men see the locker room as the one bastion where they can be naked in public with other men. They don't want to think that other men get naked with men for any other reason than to change and shower. So the locker room becomes some macho environment which, by definition, leads to gay jokes being intended as insults.
There is also great speculation about the number of lesbians in certain women's sports. This is particularly true of golf and tennis where the long seasons and constant moving from one hotel to another leads to such rumours springing up. Certainly, there are a number of top performers on both these tours that have acknowledged their sexuality, but it is probably no more out of proportion than any other section of society.
How to Handle the Joking
It does seem hard and unfair, but if you are in any way athletic and gay, you will have to suffer the humiliation that first entering a locker room entails. As you grow in stature as a sportsman, there are one of three things that you will eventually have to do:
Ignore the homophobic jokes and mocking that tend to go on around you.
Join in, therefore feeling more scared that some day you will be found out.
Tell them you're gay. Now this does not mean you should wear the pink and lavender 'Hi I'm gay and oh, by the way, my name is [insert name]...'
The Pub Discussions
You and your team mates will invariable end up down the pub after your match. On occasion the conversation will get around to the sexuality of certain other players or stars. This can cause tension, especially if you and you partner are both in the conversation or your partner is the subject of speculation.
How you react will depend on how out of the closet you or the person the conversation is about is. If you or your boyfriend are not out, leave it to them to let these fellow sportsmen know the full story.
It can also affect you if you are in a position of coaching young people, as one Researcher has found.
When I came out, it didn't seem to bother [the young people] at all, their parents at the club and a number of the older male players reacted very adversely. The most hurtful and objectionable comments suggested that I was a paedophile.
Somehow it remains difficult to satisfy people that just because you are gay you are not going to want to have sex with minors any more a heterosexual in the same position of responsibility.
What About if You are a Coach
One Researcher faced this very dilemma. For various reasons after he came out he moved away from the area in which he lived. However, whenever he did return he found that:
To my dismay, a large majority of the male players just ignored me or were downright rude; again the younger players seemed not to be bothered by my sexuality, nor did the majority of female players.
As he says, there were two major issues involved in this reaction: those who responded in this felt there was a threat to their masculinity; and secondly, the assumption that he was a paedophile simply because he was a gay man.
The second issue is sadly one that any gay person in a position of responsibility over young people will have to face. Sadly, the people who raise such an issue, in this way, are also the least likely to be able to get engaged in sensible dialogue about the issues. Is it any wonder that a lot of gay people in positions of responsibility like this feel afraid to be out, as they are aware that the local media and parents tend to jump on the band wagon and support this viewpoint?
Once You Are Out
It may have been the hardest thing to do especially in such a testosterone-driven environment, where some people may not know another gay person except from television. Is it worth it?
85% of the people in the locker room that found out I was gay just treated me like everyone else. The rest just left me alone. One asked me, and I accepted, to be the best man at his wedding after we had known each other for almost ten years! Some become close friends and chat with me about who I'm dating, etc.
The people who will support you the most are actually those you have played sports with previously. The reason being that they have already judged you solely on your ability to compete and the fact that you are gay does not make it any easier for them to compete against you. If anything it may make you a harder opponent as nothing they can throw at you can be as hard as coming out in your sporting circle.
Some Examples of Top Gay Sportspeople
There are a growing number of top class sportspeople who are now openly gay, lesbian or bisexual. There is no way to keep up to date with a fully comprehensive list but here is just a sample of a few that have come out from a section of different sports.
Greg Louganis - Arguably the greatest diver of all time. Competed in three Olympics from 1976 (when twelve years old!) until 19882 winning four gold and one silver medal.
Martina Navratilova - The greatest women's tennis player of all time. Winning more titles than anyone else, this Czech-born athlete became an American citizen and speaks openly about her sexuality as a role model to many.
Ian Roberts - An Australian Rugby League player, came out as gay in the rugged world of Rugby in 1994 and has been a role model to many gay sportsmen and gay Australians. He retired from professional sport in 2000.
David Gourley - One of the first and certainly one of the biggest names in the world of lawn bowls to come out. Lawn bowls for so long considered to be an old man's game finally achieved the breakthrough when David's boyfriend watched him win the World Bowls from the stands in Preston. Now every bowler seems to know David is gay, and seem to cast aspersions on other's by saying 'is he a Gourley?'.
Billy Bean - Baseball player, recently retired. Realised during his six-year baseball career that he was gay, the first major league sportsman in the USA, active or recently retired, to be openly out and admitting being out while still playing. Like many top sportsmen in team events he had to sit there when homo-bashing and jokes where whirling around the changing rooms from his team mates.
Sue Wicks - Women's basketball player for WNBA team New York Liberty, said in a press interview that 'I think it's important that if you are gay, you shouldn't be afraid to say who you are'. She received the league's Sportsmanship Award for the 2001-2 season.
Déric Peterson - One of the fastest men in the world over 800 metres, winning the US indoor title over the distance in 2001. When he came out he feared he might lose his big sponsorship deal with German company Adidas, but they have stuck by their man. He is the only openly gay or bisexual African-American active in US pro sports.
Alyson Annan - From Australia, one of the greatest female hockey players in the world. She has appeared over 200 times and scored over 150 goals for her national team, the Hockeyroos.