Society Putting the “Gay” in “Gay Athlete”

Meagan F.

Now more than ever, it is crucial that children become involved in physical activity to promote healthy practices for life. The benefits to sport participation have been referenced repeatedly; physical health, socialization to build strong relationships, problem solving skills, etc. Most athletes see sport as a way of life and feel comfortable within that specific environment while enjoying the experience with teammates, coaches and friends. For some gay athletes, it can be more of a challenge to share this same experience. For instance, what if that athlete is not openly gay? Furthermore, what if this athlete wants to be open, but does not have to courage to do so because of the stereotypes or lack of role models within the athletic field? I’ve taken information based on personal reflection, as well as multiple published articles to further explore the mindset of a homosexual athlete.

Megan Rapinoe, an openly gay US Olympic soccer player, believes that many sports still possess a certain “taboo” when it comes to gay athletes, and that there is actually a significant difference in acceptance depending on gender. “I feel like sports in general are still homophobic in the sense that not a lot of people are out,” she said. Still, she added, “In female sports, if you’re gay, most likely your team knows it pretty quickly. It’s very open and widely supported. For males, it’s not that way at all. It’s sad”(Wong, 2012). Rapinoe also delivers her input in regards to the current media attention surrounding Michael Sam, an openly gay NFL prospect. “It seems silly and even embarrassing to listen to people who say Sam being gay is a distraction to the team. There are many more things going on within a team that are much more of a distraction than one team member’s sexual orientation. I applaud Sam and his bravery” (Rapinoe, 2014).

When looking at male athletics, rugby could be considered as one of the most masculine, physically demanding sports in the world. In 2009, a famous Welsh rugby player, Gareth Thomas, came out while still being at the top of his game; maintaining one of the leading positions for the league. Relating to what Rapinoe mentioned in her statement, Thomas felt the pressure of being outcasted by his teammates and fans if deciding to become an openly gay male in a very masculine sport. To cover up his lifestyle, Thomas said that he consciously avoided being seen as gay by overcompensating with straight stereotypes (hitting on multiple women, eventually marrying a woman, drinking the most beer, going out of his way to do more masculine activities rather than feminine ones). Thomas describes the pressure of hiding so extreme, that it one day became too much, resulting in him telling his coach. “It was my coach. He knew that I couldn’t go through this alone anymore and encouraged me to tell my teammates.” Afterwards, a number of Thomas’s teammates came up to show their support saying, “You’re still the same Gareth Thomas” (Doward, 2009). Thomas also advocates other gay athletes to come out in their own time, mentioning that the power professional athletes have on the world is important to the younger generation.

Ellen DeGeneres interviews Gareth Thomas and he talks about his experience.

Obviously, stories and experiences differ based on the individual. With more and more athletes becoming comfortable enough with themselves, and perhaps a shift in cultural acceptance, this gives younger athletes a base to go off of. As pioneering gay athletes, they are not only standing up for themselves, but also for the rights and lifestyles of other gay/lesbian athletes around the world. It is tough enough to be stuck in the limbo of coming to terms with yourself, but to obtain the courage to express this with those you are closest to is a whole other level. Fear is learned, and the way society chooses to portray homosexuals either in film, television or news definitely alters how we fear. Society puts the “gay” in gay athlete, and until it is more comfortable for athletes and fans to accept life as it is, regardless of sexual orientation, we will continue to see “gay athletes” as just that; the “gay” athlete. Living with this label may have its burdens, but also holds empowerment to know that you are creating a conversation.

References:

Doward, Jamie. (2009). Gay Activists Praise Rugby Star Gareth Thomas’s Decision Coming Out.   The Guardian.

Rapinoe, Megan. (2014). If Your Team Can’t Handle A Gay Player? Get Out. The Advocate.

Wong, Curtis M. (2012). Megan Rapinoe Comes Out. Huffington Post Website.

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3 responses

  1. Really well written,

    As the title suggests, you raise a good point about why athletes who are openly gay are referred to as, “gay athletes”, as apposed to just “athlete”. I think this has a wider significance to society, than it does to just sport specifically. I feel that until we as a society tackle stereotyping and discrimination against gay/lesbian people, we will never fully eradicate the fear and “taboo” that comes with coming out as a gay/lesbian athlete. I also like the idea and concept that athletes do hold the power to change the outlook of the community as a whole. As many, young and old both look up to athletes as role models, if they are willing to set an example and take the plunge, maybe it will have a wider outreach to the whole of the community, having the power to change societies negative perception of gay/lesbian people. After all, someone’s sexual orientation should not change firstly, how he/she lives their life, but secondly, how it affects their sporting career. Maybe there is the possibility to create a set of initiatives to help gay/lesbian athletes. It would benefit greatly if these schemes were set up and implemented at grass roots levels of sports to encourage athletes at a young age that being gay/lesbian does not matter.

  2. Great job!
    I agree that society has a huge influence on why we think athletes that are gay are different from other athletes. Society needs to come to terms with the fact that there are people in the world who are gay or lesbian and that you can’t “change” them and their sexual preferences. Just because an athlete is gay does not mean they are suddenly a bad athlete and that they are worse as an athlete because of it. If they were great before they came out they will still be great after. I applaud everyone who has the courage to come out to their friends and family and even more so if they have the courage to announce it to the world. We are the future leaders and we need to start teaching society that there is nothing wrong with being gay.
    Emily Mallett

  3. Great Post Meagan,
    I really love how Gareth ends his interview with Ellen saying “sport is something that can change the world”. I strongly agree with what he is saying, being such a high end athlete he has the power to influence people. Younger minds and more influenceable youth may look at Gareth and think that it is ok to be gay and play sports. It is also interesting how he says there are lots of athletes that have confided in him about their homosexuality. Yet so few are openly gay in fear of negative backlash. I really commend athletes like Gareth and Michael Sam who push to be heard. These are the brave athletes who wish to change the way society views homosexuality as a bad thing, when in reality what does sexual preference have to with sport and performance. Thanks again for sharing your post.

    Great Read.
    Scott

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