We are, at this very moment in time, starting to see the end of suffering in silence for LGBTQ athletes. This landmark moment is marked by the 2014 winter Olympics in Russia, a country that has life-threatening laws against LGBT existence, and the “coming out” of the first male college football star prior to the American NFL draft – a move that many fear will damage his prospects for success in a career as a professional football player. But Michael Sam has made a proud public statement that many of his friends, and even team-mates, already knew. The controversy over how best to resist Russia’s stance opposing LGBT rights has brought many gay athletes to the forefront of public attention as they speak out on this issue. Greg Louganis, for example, former Olympic diver who has been openly gay to his teammates and opponents for most of his career, has spoken out stating that “the best response to the mounting repression in Russia is engagement.”
These are not the only two historic “events” in the sports world – the National Hockey League is now the first professional sport to have a player who is openly speaking in support of LGBTQ players, coaches, staff and fans. The “You Can Play” project now has a significant presence in high school, college and professional sports, and a growing collection of YouTube Videos that demonstrate the power of equality and human dignity for all, and the end of discrimination against LGBTQ athletes. (Scroll down to see “You Can Play – the Faceoff.”).
This aspect of what we have called “the gay rights movement” has been emerging for decades, starting with just a handful of athletes, mostly after their retirement, finally coming out to claim their authentic identities. It is considered by many to be one of the last hurdles to climb, given the nature of the persona that most sports demand, especially for men. For women, just being an athlete defies dominant “feminine” images, so to resist being seen as “too masculine” women athletes assume ultra-feminine styles of clothing in public appearances off court to assure the public that they are indeed women who conform to feminine norms.
But as important as this movement is for the health and well-being of individual athletes, public awareness of the very existence of LGBTQ athletes marks a major crack in the walls that have persisted to sustain gender and sex stereotypes. These stereotypes do gradually change in subtle outward ways over time … men now adorn their bodies with jewelry formerly reserved only for women, and women now are free to wear pants instead of skirts at almost any occasion. But gender images remain entrenched as part of the deeply felt negative reactions to LGBTQ athletes – a fact that has been widely reported from interviews with Michael Sam’s father who has been quoted as saying “I’m old school. I’m a man-and-a-woman type of guy,” when Michael came out publicly. But to me, the most telling sign of the deeply entrenched gender stereotypes in in women’s sports, particularly women’s basketball, where most of the female coaches and staff on the sidelines of the court are seen in ultra “feminine” attire from head to the spike heeled shoes cramping their feet — a stark side-line reminder to the world that we are all still real women.
So momentum in LGBTQ equality in sports matters deeply – not only for athletes and fans, but also for the potential to break free of damaging prejudices and stereotypes that limit and distort every person’s potential to live their lives as fully authentic, whole human beings. This matters especially for the children .. all of whom need sports and physical activity to grow and develop. When children can flourish in a world free from the constraints of gender and sex stereotypes, they surely will have a healthier future. When they can look to sports figures who model a whole, healthy and authentic self in addition to their athletic capabilities, they see this same possibility for themselves. So whether or not you are a fan of any sport, take note of this sea-change that is happening in the world of sports … it matters!