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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Homophobia in sports hurts girls

    When Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner proposed to her girlfriend Glory Johnson (also a WNBA player), the sports world barely batted an eye. SportsCenter did not devote 24/7 coverage to the event, and newspapers did not consider Griner’s engagement worthy of the front page. Nobody suggested that Griner’s sexuality might be “a distraction” for her teammates; nobody questioned whether the Phoenix Mercury should re-sign Griner.

    This apathetic reaction stands in stark contrast to the media storm that erupted when Michael Sam became the first openly gay football player to sign an NFL contract. It further pales in comparison to the publicity directed at NBA player Jason Collins, who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated after announcing that he is gay.

    Perhaps most striking is the fact that Sam and Collins are considered average, at best, in their respective sports. Griner is the face of the WNBA, as famous as any female athlete in the U.S. So why didn’t her engagement give rise to a fury of apocalyptic media attention? She is, after all, marrying another woman.

    The answer lies in the association between sports and masculinity that defines how society views female athletes differently than male athletes.

    We stereotype male athletes as being powerful, tough, manly — and therefore, heterosexual. Homosexuality in male athletics threatens our traditional ideas about the relationship between masculinity and sexuality. When we attribute these same characteristics to female athletes, however, we reach the opposite conclusion: They must be gay. If a woman joins a sports team, it is probably because she likes other women.

    This label has a serious impact on women in sports. Research in the Sociology of Sport Journal has shown, for example, that the lesbian stereotype makes it difficult for female coaches to recruit athletes and operate within male-dominated athletic institutions. The book “Strong Women, Deep Closets: Lesbians and Homophobia in Sport” by Pat Griffin, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, cites additional studies that indicate some girls simply drop out of athletics at a young age for fear of being associated with homosexuality. This stereotype can also explain why female athletes take explicitly sexualized photos, hoping to distance themselves from the stigma of lesbianism, and why girls avoid the weight room to avoid looking “mannish” or, as Emma Watson put it in her recent viral speech at the U.N., “muscly.”

    And it explains why Michael Sam and Jason Collins create a sense of “moral panic” among sports fans, while Griner generates nothing more than apathy. Even before she was “out,” people assumed she was gay.

    Homophobia in sports is a complicated issue. Its effects on men’s athletics are obvious: Gay male athletes have historically hidden their sexuality in order to conform to locker-room culture. But while its effects on women’s sports are perhaps more subtle, they are no less damaging. Despite the success female athletes have enjoyed in recent decades, they continue to suffer from the constant pressure to conform to societal standards for femininity.
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    Elizabeth Hannah is a neuroscience & cognitive science sophomore. Follow her on Twitter @ehannah10

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