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Playing in the Closet: Homophobia in Sports

Both players and coaches have been victims of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation — an issue that not only affects the LGBT community, but all female athletes.

Like many girls in the United States, Andrea Zimbardi went to college to not only gain an education, but also to play the sport she loved. To be a student-athlete is a full-time job. You run from practice to class to the library, and occasionally you get to eat . . . usually with the team. Your team becomes your new family, players from different backgrounds bonded together by a mutual love for the game. So what is it that could have torn Zimbardi apart from the sport she loved and her softball family?

Zimbardi was a few throws away from setting a school record in March 2003 when her coach Karen Johns cut her from the softball team. She stood up to a coach who used fear as a tool to control her players: homophobia. Homophobia in collegiate sports is an ongoing issue that affects every level of athletics from coaches, players, parents and fans. Not only is it something that has tainted the spirit of what sports stand for, but also it is a reflection of how society views women who have dared to step out of their pre-cut gender roles. If women plan on continuing to succeed in the sports world, then all athletes and coaches must work at respecting one another, no matter what diverse background their teammates or players might represent.

The Gender Issue

“You throw like a girl” is a typical insult that has echoes across time as well as playgrounds across the country. Men and boys have always used that phrase to cut each other down on the field and in the locker room. Sports exist as a sacred pastime where boys become men, and men become indestructible heroes. For a woman to step onto the same field where seeds of masculinity are planted is to trample the future of male-dominated leaders. If a woman can throw, hit and catch as well as a boy of her own age, then what’s stopping her from being his equal in the business world? The submissive role that women have traditionally been forced into is challenged by a successful female athlete, and as a result, also bends gender roles. To combat this, often the most common way to attack a female athlete is to challenge her femininity and question her sexuality. If a woman’s sexual preference is in question, then it becomes a way to control her.

Homo-negativity on the Field

One of the most prominent places that homophobia has been used to control women is in collegiate athletic departments. Over the years, the male college recruiting process has been tainted with scandals involving big athletes receiving cars, money and women to go to certain schools. However, the process for women has been a little different. Opposed to an incentive like a new car, many times parents and athletes are fed lies and false accusations to alter the impression of a rival school. Schools and coaches are labeled as producing “lesbians” in an effort to sway parents’ and players’ decisions. But the problem doesn’t just stop at recruiting. Once at a school athletes are susceptible to being ostracized by other players if they do come out and have been thrown off teams or unfairly benched due to their sexuality. “If you’re an athlete on a team, the coach has all the cards and power in terms of determining what your future is; and if that coach is homophobic, then you’re going to stay deep in the closet,” explained Pat Griffin, author of Strong Women, Deep Closets.

Griffin was both an athlete and a coach who was forced to stay silent about her sexuality, and in her book, she describes her story, as well as several other athletes’ stories about the unnecessary pressure placed on women by the homophobic sports world. Her experiences as a coach in the closet were equally as horrifying as those she had as a player. Many times in fear of losing her job, Griffin was forced to alter her life to cater to what college administrators wanted her to be. Her story is not unique though, in the sense that there are women working in athletic departments across the United States who are forced into putting up a facade everyday. In Strong Women, Deep Closets, one Division II basketball coach talks about her athletic director going to the extreme of following her home to see if she went to her house or her girlfriend’s after work when he suspected her being gay.

Two-fold Fix

The harassment and abuse of players and coaches based on their sexuality is an unnecessary college experience that needs to stop. Two ways to remedy the problem are through education and the law. “Education and legal remedy go hand-in-hand in any social change movement,” said Griffin. “The law has played a huge role here, and that’s where organizations like the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), who look for gay, lesbian or bisexual people in athletics who have been discriminated against, take their case and provide legal council. That is a great avenue for change.”

That change has recently been demonstrated at the University of Florida. Zimbardi now will be known not only for her great arm, but also for her courage to make things a little easier for herself and other players in the (LGBT community. Zimbardi brought to the athletic administration’s attention that Johns created an uncomfortable environment for those who didn’t share her Christian beliefs and claimed that Johns had outed coaches and players. All coaches, athletic directors and staff are now required to attend diversity training in response to a settlement for the groundbreaking case, and the university’s non-discrimination policy now also includes sexual orientation. Johns was also recently fired. This case is important because it demonstrates how the law can correct injustices such as being discriminated against based on sexual orientation and how education can prevent it from happening to a player or coach later on.

Be Part of the Education

Education is the most important key to stopping anti-gay harassment in sports. The law is a reaction to the injustice inflicted, but educational programs help ensure that those injustices never happen in the first place. Some ways to get your own team on the road to accepting players who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender are:

  • Don’t use anti-gay slurs: Saying negative comments or slurs about someone’s sexuality is just as bad as insulting a player about his or her race or religion. Insults don’t belong in sports, period.
  • Speak out against what makes you uncomfortable: The most important agent in educating people about LGBT issues is to talk. If people are being harassed on your team, speak out against it. If you stay silent, then you’re just adding to the problem.
  • Don’t judge others based on stereotypes: Don’t judge people’s sexuality based on how much pink they wear or how short their hair is. Stereotypes are a way for people to classify others without really getting to know who they are. They create a wall between you and your coach or teammate. Respect everyone’s differences.
  • Listen to how others feel: Talking is important, but listening is just as imperative. Take time to listen to what your teammates or coaches. It will make their lives easier to know they have people supporting them.