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Sexual Non-Conformity In Sports: Are All Men Straight And All Women Gay?

Images of strong, muscular, unsmiling, determined sportswomen in action were rare when I started researching gender and sport issues in 1980, and they remain rare today. Sex sells sport - or, specifically, heterosex sells sport - with sport bikinis and nude calendars supplanting authentic coverage of women's impressive sporting achievements, whether at the recreational or elite levels.

Similarly, media images of men playing non-traditional sports, or exploring and embodying alternative images of athleticism, are overshadowed by those of testosterone-fueled gladiators in the big professional team sports. The priorities and demands of the mainstream media and commercial sponsors are reflected in the narrow range of sporting bodies - both male and female - that are accepted as "normal" in western society, leaving no room for those who are seen as non-conforming.

I first explored these ideas in my 1986 book, "Out of Bounds: Women, Sport and Sexuality," then again in my 2003 book  "Out on the Field: Gender, Sport and Sexualities," and, most recently, in my new book, "Gender Politics and the Olympic Industry."  Sadly, I've seen very little change over the last three decades, despite gains achieved by the political movements of women and sexual minorities in most western countries.

Two recent examples - Caster Semenya and Johnnie Weir - demonstrate how the media treat non-conforming or sexually ambiguous athletes.

Caster Semenya

Semenya was an eighteen-year-old Black South African runner when her gender identity was called into question in 2009, in part because of her improved performance, but largely because her physical appearance was considered "not woman enough." So-called gender experts, along with other medical personnel, eventually labelled her "intersexed," and subsequent rules introduced by the International Olympic Committee gave coaches a green light to report women like Semenya, solely on the grounds of their appearance. In order to continue participating in women's events, these athletes had to agree to a range of medical and pharmaceutical interventions, even including surgery to correct their "condition", however imprecisely defined.

Figure skater Johnnie Weir was similarly non-conforming, even in the flamboyant world of men's figure skating. It was disturbing, but unsurprising, to see homophobic media commentary about Weir during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, in the wake of a campaign organized by Skate Canada to bring more boys into the sport. Macho figure skater Elvis Stojko, a key spokesman, called for more "masculinity, strength and power," and a less "effeminate" style in male figure skating, even claiming that gay men should "take themselves out of it" for the alleged good of the sport. Apart from the blatant homophobia, such comments ignored the fact that gay skaters, coaches and choreographers deserve recognition for the international popularity of the sport.

The homophobic and heterosexist climate of sport announces itself in the newspapers, on television and on the playing field, just as it does in the wider community. Prejudice and discrimination against sexual minorities and assumptions that heterosexuality is "normal" and "natural" shape societal attitudes and practices.

Heterosexism concerns "keeping up appearances" as much as athletes' actual sexual orientation. For girls and women in sport, rules and regulations concerning clothes, hairstyles, comportment, and personal narratives, established and enforced by female as well as male coaches and sport administrators, are designed to convey "femininity," a concept that for over a century has served as a code-word for heterosexual attractiveness.

Presidents of international sport federations, who surely have more significant governance issues to consider, routinely weigh in on matters of dress codes, calling, for example, for "shorter shorts" in women's soccer and skimpier sport bikinis in women's beach volleyball. There was even a move, before the London 2012 Summer Olympics, to require female boxers to wear skirts, on the grounds that the audience needed to be able to differentiate between men and women in the ring.

Why this concerted effort to emphasize gender differences and to establish girls' and women's heterosexual credentials? Because, female sporting achievement tends to be viewed as a threat to feminine/heterosexual identity as well as a threat to male sporting dominance.

Sport is not an essential ingredient of growing up female, while the situation for boys and men is very different. With the important exception of a few male sports seen as "gender-bending" - figure skating and synchronised swimming, for example - male athletes do not need to put much energy into presenting a heterosexual image or proving their heterosexual identity. Most boys and men who play sports are assumed to be heterosexual unless otherwise specified, because sport has long been viewed as a stepping stone to manhood. For example, a mentoring program for American and Canadian youth titled "Boys into Men" relies extensively on sporting participation, using coaches as "role models." Such initiatives are unlikely to be welcoming places for those boys who are uninterested in sport, have little athletic ability, have body types that do not fit the requirements of speed- and strength-based sports, and have suffered teasing and bullying because of these perceived limitations.

While "athletic masculinity" almost by definition connotes heterosexuality, ironically, male figure skaters are less likely to serve as icons of gay masculinity than so-called metrosexual athletes like soccer player David Beckham, whose semi-naked poses regularly appear in ads in gay and straight magazines. Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe falls into the metrosexual category as well, but has made a point of repeatedly "coming out as straight" in media interviews, a practice that does little to challenge homophobic stereotypes.

Perpetuating sexual stereotypes 

The widespread invisibility of lesbian and gay athletes is perpetuated by the mass media. During the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, for example, an NBC interview established US swimmer Michael Phelps' heterosexual credentials, but failed to mention that Australian gold medallist diver Matthew Mitcham was (openly) gay.

On a more positive note, some recent American commentaries have critiqued homophobic practices, such as "negative (anti-gay) recruiting" in women's college sport and the blatant heterosexist messages in women's college basketball media and recruitment guides. And most mainstream journalists gave supportive accounts of US soccer player Megan Rapinoe's public "coming out" as lesbian at the time of the London Olympics.

Many of the issues for young LGBT athletes stem from the emphasis on gender conformity and gender differentiation in the organization of sport and in the resulting media coverage. According to this traditional way of thinking, some sports should be off-limits to girls and women, or should be modified so that their "femininity" is not compromised. Conversely, boys and men should stick to the sports based on strength and endurance, and avoid those based on aesthetic components. Traditional parents, concerned about their non-conforming children, are likely to steer "sissy" sons towards martial arts and team sports, and "tomboy" daughters to ballet and figure skating; a plan unlikely to have a happy ending.

The struggles over single-sex vs. coed sport began decades ago, but even today, we see unnecessary sex-differentiation in sport. In 2012, when the Toronto District School Board held a cross-country race for elementary students (up to grade 5), there were separate boys' and girls' races. As I stated in a letter to the Toronto Star, "There is no valid physiological or social reason why children of this age should be separated ... Were the kids divided by gender just because it's easy to do? Surely it's just as easy to divide by surnames - the first half of the alphabet and the last? Is this an attempt to ensure that boys aren't beaten by girls? Is it an effort to ‘accommodate' the religious right?" Whatever the rationale, most children and youth, regardless of gender and sexual preference, would be best served by having a range of choices: boys-only, girls-only, coed, recreational and competitive sporting opportunities. 

Supporting LGBT athletes 

What do these trends mean for young LGBT athletes and their parents and coaches? The short answer: we are unlikely to see positive, validating coverage of sexual minorities and sexually non-conforming athletes in the mainstream media, and support and positive examples for young LGBT athletes will need to come from other sources. Parents and coaches can access information from pflag.org (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), OutSports.com, gaygames.org, and others. Young adults who live in urban centres will be able to find LGBT leagues in softball, soccer and other team sports, as well as swim clubs, outdoor/camping organizations and other activities. Options for children and adolescents are limited, although the growing number of Gay-Straight Alliances in Canadian and American high schools offers possibilities for organizing nontraditional sports and providing support for LGBT athletes.

Helen Jefferson Lenskyj is a Professor Emerita at the University of Toronto, Canada who writes frequently about gender and sexuality in sport.

Posted March 5, 2013