Homophobia and Sports

Today, October 11th, is National Coming Out Day in several countries across the world, including the United States and UK. This is a reminder that, despite some progress that has been made, especially in recent years, there is a large group of people who have been made to feel fear at being open about who they are.  On one hand the US Military has now eliminated Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, on the other, in the world of sports, homophobia is so prevalent that there are no openly gay athletes currently playing in any of the four major sports in America, nor in the Premier League in England.  This is not because there are no sportspeople who are homosexuals, that is as ridiculous a thought as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s claim that there were no gay people in Iran.  While in the West we may have laughed off his claims, the culture and societal norms that have been established around the world of sports is such that people who compete in them who are gay do not feel comfortable being open about it with the wider population.

Week after week, Premiership footballers in the UK are exposed as having affairs, cheating on their wives with their brother’s

Kobe Bryant - Far From Eloquent

spouse, or sleeping with their teammates girlfriends – some of them go so far as getting a Super Injunction from the courts in order to keep their indiscretions a secret, but this is only done in order to ‘protect their marriage’ not because they believe the general public would renounce them for their behaviour.  In the NFL, Ben Roethlisberger is still cheered on by his own fans, despite several rape and sexual assault investigations against him; Donte Stallworth pleaded guilty to a DUI manslaughter charge and continues to play, now for the Redskins.  In the NBA, Kobe Bryant is still adored by Lakers fans, prefer not talk about the incident in Colorado in 2003, especially since he won another title for the team in 2010.  It seems sports fans will accept anything from the players they worship, except being born gay and living an openly homosexual life.

Kobe is a good crossover on this point, given that last season the NBA fined him for referring to a referee who had called a technical foul against him as a “fucking fag”.  In his apology afterwards he said he did not mean to offend anyone and his words did not reflect his views about homosexuals; but this derogatory term was obviously on the tip of his tongue.  If someone is not perceived as acting ‘manly enough’, be it in sports, on the playground, or anywhere, often they will be called “gay” – as if that is the worst possible thing in the world someone can be.  As I mentioned in my thoughts on chanting in English football, Sol Campbell was subjected to homophobic songs by Tottenham fans when he moved to Arsenal back in 2001.  It was not enough to call him Judas, traitor, a wanker or whatever else we shouted at him, the Spurs faithful decided that he must be gay also.  Why?  No racial epithet would be used in this manner – Sol Campbell is black, nobody at White Hart Lane would ever dream of using derogatory language in this regard toward him. Why do we tolerate prejudice toward someone based on their sexual orientation (or the one assigned to them by the crowd in this case), when it is no more their choice than the colour of their skin? What’s more – why is being called “gay” even an insult? It is no different from the US Constitution, which counted African-Americans as just 3/5ths of a person (until later amended), when homophobic slurs are used, people are tacitly (or explicitly) saying that heterosexuals are inherently better and worth more. Thankfully, in English football the clubs are clamping down on chanting that is homophobic, but people’s attitudes need to change along with it. Thus far, only one openly gay footballer has existed in Britain, Justin Fashanu, who came out in 1990 – but was subjected to abuse by fans and his own manager, Brian Clough, who asked him why he “kept going to those bloody poofs’ clubs” after it had been revealed in the tabloids Fashanu frequented gay bars.  He killed himself in 1998 having been accused, but not charged, of sexual assault – according to the note he left behind he believed he was already presumed guilty as he was gay.

As a society we are obsessed with the binary gender code and seem befuddled when somebody doesn’t fit neatly into on or the other. In 2009, Caster Semenya won the 800m at the World Athletics Championships.  Having been briefly lauded for her fantastic performance, she was subjected to the humiliation of the IAAF requesting she undergo a gender test, doubting that she was in fact a woman.  There was no sympathy for Semenya, someone who has lived her whole life with a masculine look and high testosterone levels, but is indeed a woman.  She was accused of cheating, subjected to infantile jokes at her expense, and was unable to compete again for many months while the IAAF determined if she would be allowed to compete as a female.  This was such humiliation for a young athlete to deal with and showed a complete lack of empathy from the sporting world.

It is time for sports to change.  And it is time for society to change – no more should 8 Republican candidates for President stand on the stage and say nothing when the audience at a debate boos a soldier for being gay.  Supporting the troops should mean supporting all of them, supporting your team should mean supporting every player no matter what their sexual orientation.  Haven’t we been through all this before with race?  With gender?  It has been almost 20 years since Sports Illustrated ran this story, saying Magic Johnson should speak for all those with HIV, after he had been cheered on Arsenio Hall’s show when he said he was “far from a homosexual”.  Have we not progressed since then?  I hope that a gay athlete will feel comfortable enough to come out very soon, and all others who want to be open about their sexual orientation will follow, without fear of taunts from small-minded fans or fellow players.  It is time to make National Coming Out Day obsolete, because everyone should be accepted for who they are and there should be no need to “admit” to being homosexual, nor heterosexual, nor anything in-between.