Sexual Orientation Discrimination in Sport

What’s The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) Got To Do With It?

On June 24, 2009, Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank submitted a bill to the United States House of Representatives that, if passed by both houses of Congress and signed by President Obama, would prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), as the bill is known, would ensure fair employment practices by making it illegal to fire, refuse to hire, or fail to promote an employee based on real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Religious organizations, the military and businesses with a small number of employees would be exempt from the law. The first version of this “gay rights” bill was introduced in 1974 by Representatives Bella Abzug and Ed Koch from New York. Thirty-five years later, prospects for passage of this basic civil rights protection into federal law are much better, and reflect changing societal perspectives on lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender rights.

Currently twenty states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws prohibiting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. Twelve of these states also prohibit discrimination based on gender identity/expression. In addition, many cities and towns across the US have similar laws. If it became law, ENDA would be the first federal law extending non-discrimination protection based on sexual orientation.

A version of ENDA that did not include gender identity/expression was introduced in 2007, but was not acted on. ENDA supporters in the legislature believed that they could not pass the bill with gender identity included. The decision to drop protections for gender identity discrimination prompted several gay rights organizations and leaders to withdraw their support of ENDA if it did not include protections on the basis of gender identity and expression.

So, what does ENDA have to do with sports? It is a sad and shameful truth that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (or those perceived to be) are still discriminated against in sports. Prospective women coaches are still not hired because they are (or are perceived to be) lesbian or bisexual. Women coaches thought to be lesbian or bisexual are harassed, stereotyped, fired or targeted for negative recruiting by rival coaches.

Male coaches who are gay or perceived to be gay would also be protected by ENDA. Though men’s sports has traditionally been perceived to be a hostile environment for gay men, more gay coaches, administrators, athletic trainers and other staff are choosing to identify themselves. Negative recruiting against male coaches based on sexual orientation is an increasing problem as gay men become more visible in sport. Until women’s and men’s sports eliminate homophobia, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender athletic employees need legal protections from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, not just in twenty states, but in all fifty states. That is what a federal non-discrimination law would ensure.

Challenging sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination is possible, even without a federal law prohibiting discrimination. (The Women’s Sports Foundation’s It Takes A Team initiative includes information on laws and legal resources to combat discrimination.) However, a federal law would extend discrimination protection to all states and would provide employees targeted by gender and sexual orientation discrimination with a powerful additional legal tool equivalent to other federal laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex, race, religion, national origin and disability.

Passage of ENDA would provide federal protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression for employees in athletics: athletic administrators, coaches, athletic trainers and all others who work in athletics.

Supporters of equality in sport for women have a stake in supporting legislation that protects athletic employees from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity as well. As long as any woman coach, administrator or other athletic staff member is subject to discrimination based on real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, all women are at risk being targeted by this kind of unfair treatment.

The Women’s Sports Foundation supports legislation that provides protection from discrimination based on real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. Women’s and men’s sport will benefit from ensuring that all participants are able to coach and compete in a climate where their achievements are based on their competence and character, not on their sex, sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force are two of several organizations working to secure passage of ENDA.

By Pat Griffin


Homophobia and Sport Policy Recommendations

Athletic Department non-discrimination policies should prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the department and on teams.


The Women's Sports Foundation acknowledges that abuse occurs in athletics and seeks to prevent its occurrence through the development of this policy and position statement.

Negative Recruiting/Slander Based on Sexuality

Negative recruiting tactics are increasingly being used as an unethical recruitment strategy within women's collegiate sports, essentially attempting to give their own programs an un-fair advantage based on perpetuating stereotypes, myths, and misconceptions.


Sign up for our newsletter to receive infrequent updates, news and information.