Hell, Mary: The Stigma of the LGBT Athlete

Four lesbians on the Gold Medal winning Netherlands Field Hockey Team, Marilyn Agliotti, Carlien Dirkse van den Heuvel, Kim Lammers and Maartje Paumen

Ten gay or lesbian athletes walked away from the 2012 Summer Olympics with medals. Will they open the door for LGBT athletes in all sports?

When Otto Peltzer set off for the 1928 Olympics, the German middle-distance runner had the same dream most athletes have: do his best and possibly bring home a medal. He failed to do so, despite being heavily favored, due to a foot injury from which he was still recovering. At the 1932 games, he failed to medal again when the team brought the wrong shoes for the type of track being used.

One of the world's premiere runners, with eight world records to his name, Peltzer saw his standing as a national hero change with the arrival of the Nazi party; he survived two years in prison and four years in a concentration camp, then was banished from the country he had represented as team captain in two Olympics. Forty-two years after his first Olympics, Peltzer died penniless and forgotten, except by the young athletes he trained in his new home of India. The offense that made him a pariah to the Nazis? He was gay, which also makes him the first known gay man to participate in the Olympic Games.

This past summer, 23 open LGBT athletes participated in the Summer Games, and ten of them walked away with medals (four gold). None of them were big “stars”, ala Michael Phelps and Gabby Douglas, but the fact that more media attention was paid to the volume of gay and lesbian participants than previously means that these 23 could be as influential in the future of LGBT athletics as Peltzer was. Clearly, they serve as examples for young gay athletes in their respective fields, and their presence at the games demonstrates that the LGBT community can compete with the world’s best athletes. However, will the acknowledgement of their existence make things easier for gay athletes in professional sports?

Otto Peltzer circa 1932

Unfortunately, the answer is most likely no, at least in the United States, which has yet to see an openly gay player in one of its three most popular sports: football, baseball, and men’s basketball. This doesn’t mean that those sports haven’t had gay players, but none have been open about their sexuality, at least not while playing. Lesbians, however, have been both out and active players in basketball, among other sports. Overseas, two of the world’s most popular sports, soccer and rugby, have had openly gay players, and there have been openly gay athletes in lesser known sports.

Still, the stigma of machismo associated with professional sports has kept many a gay player in the US shoved deeply in the closet. How long we will wait before a player is brave enough to come out in the professional ranks is uncertain; some recent events indicate that the wait won’t be long, while other signs indicate that some professional sports still aren’t ready. Perhaps this uncertainty is best represented by statements of former NFL defensive back Wade Davis, who came out recently. In an interview with SB Nation, Davis initially advised other gay players to stay closeted, particularly if the player is a free agent looking to keep playing. However, he quickly corrects himself: “Screw it. I don’t want to be in the business of telling anyone they can’t live their life authentically.” (qtd. by Marquise Francis, “Ex-football Player Wade Davis Describes Being Gay in the NFL”)

A 2007 study published in Sex Roles found that male collegiate athletes still have greater negative attitudes towards gays than female athletes or the general public. However, the study also found that these negative attitudes tended to change when the athletes actually got to know LGBT people. (Roper, Emily A. and Erin Halloran, “Attitudes Toward Gay Men and Lesbians Among Heterosexual Male and Female Student-Athletes”, December 2007) As younger people are more apt to know someone who is LGBT and more young individuals feel free to come out, the stigma of being a gay athlete may change.

Already, several gay and lesbian players have succeeded in the college ranks, such as Brian Sims, co-captain of the Bloomsburg University football team, and Sarah Vaillancourt, member of Harvard’s women’s hockey team. As yet, most of the LGBT college players who have moved on to the professional ranks have been in women’s basketball, although lacrosse player Andrew Goldstein of Dartmouth became the nation’s first drafted gay player.

Andrew Goldstein video embed:

Considering that there are considerably more professional out lesbian athletes than gay ones, it would be easy to assume that acceptance of homosexuals is greater in women’s sports. However, just the opposite seems to be the case. During a panel discussion on LGBT athletics at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, experts noted that because male athletes are assumed to be straight, they are less worried that they will be thought “queer by association” should a teammate come out. Because female athletes bear the stereotype of lesbianism, however, there exists greater homophobia in women’s sports, as straight athletes grow weary of being falsely labeled. This homophobia even fosters negative recruiting, with coaches highlighting their women’s programs’ “family atmosphere” – in other words, “lesbians not welcome”. (Allie Grasgreen, "For Gay Athletes, It's Getting Better", 23 April, 2012.)

That homophobia exists in sports is hardly surprising. That the history of sports in the past century is filled with LGBT athletes is. An LGBT athlete has competed in the Olympics in every decade since the '20s, except for the ‘40s, when two games were cancelled due to WWII. In fact, in the ‘30s, two “intersexed”, i.e., trans, athletes competed, Dora Ratjen of Germany and gold medalist Stella Walsh of Poland, both of whom competed in the now defunct event “Athletics”. Denmark’s Camilla Andersen and Norway’s Mia Hundvin were the first same-sex couple to have to compete against one another; Andersen won a handball gold in 2000, while her partner had to settle for a bronze.

LGBT athletes have done particularly well in certain sports. Perhaps because of its artistic nature, figure skating has attracted quite a few gay males to compete, ranging from American Ronald Robertson, a silver medalist at the 1956 Olympics and lover of actor Tab Hunter, to Slovakia’s Ondrej Nepela, who dominated the sport in the early ‘70s, to today’s queen on the ice, Johnny Weir. Similarly, women’s tennis has seen a number of lesbians play, most notably the woman who is perhaps the greatest player of all time, Martina Navratilova. When Navratilova came out during the early ‘80s, it caused a stir; in contrast, Amelie Mauresmo’s coming out in the late ‘90s barely registered. So many players had followed Navratilova’s examples in the years in between that few thought another lesbian player to be news.

Stereotypes aside, LGBT athletes have competed in virtually every sport. The Gay Games in 2014 will feature a majority of the sports offered at the summer games, as well as a few sports that the Olympics don’t offer, such as golf, racquetball, and rodeo. The only winter sports offered will be figure skating and ice hockey. The first Gay Games was in 1982, the brainchild of Dr. Tom Waddell who hoped to foster diversity and allow the public to associate homosexuality with sports. According to the History page at the Gay Games website, the first games were referred to as the Homosexual Games by The New York Times in deference to the paper’s refusal to use “gay”.

The Gay Games isn’t the LGBT athlete’s only shot at playing. According to one study, LGBT youth participate in sports at the same rate as their straight counterparts. However, as they grow up, they are more likely to separate from mainstream heteronormative sports to participate in LGBT leagues, of which there are over a hundred in the United States.

Despite our community’s long history with sports, we are still largely on the outside looking in. Initiatives like the "You Can Play" project are working to change that, though. Created by hockey talent scout Patrick Burke, the organization aims to send the message that all players are welcome; so far, over 50 NHL players have signed on and made public service announcements, including Cal Clutterbuck, Brooks Orpic, Jordan Eberle and Brian Elliot. Further, university teams are joining the call, too, including UCLA, UConn, Princeton, University of Ottawa, and Northeastern.

The sentiments of these student athletes and their coaches have been reflected recently by Houston Texans linebacker Connor Barwin. Barwin, who has a gay brother, feels that it will be difficult for the first NFL player to come out, but in the long run, “We’re all so competitive about winning that if there is a guy who comes out as gay in our locker room and he’s a good football player, people aren’t going to care about that." As more athletes adopt Barwin’s position, the road out of the closet will become shorter. (qtd. by Gregg Rosenthal, “Connor Barwin: Openly Gay Player Would be Welcomed”)

Otto Peltzer suffered horrible injustices due to his sexuality. At one time in his life, his sexual orientation wasn’t important, at least not as important to the public and government as the fact that he was an exceptional runner. No doubt, there are athletes today whose sexual orientation forces them to suffer, even if it just internally. Hopefully, thanks to 23 LGBT Olympians, they may not have to suffer much longer.

Cheers, Queers to the hockey players – both professional and collegiate – who have participated in the You Can Play Project. Hockey is a sport steeped in machismo and busting the stereotype of homophobia in the sport is a huge step forward.

Here’s Mud in Your Eye to Joseph Baken of Billings, Montana, who made the national news after filing a false report of gay bashing. The young gay man’s claims were shown to be a sham after video turned up showing him busting his face attempting a backward flip. His lies will make it more difficult for real victims of gay bashing to get justice and provides fodder for those who oppose hate crime legislation.
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