As Katie Barnes from Feministing wrote about a couple of weeks ago, women’s sports suffer from a kind of “opposite homophobia” from men in sports, wherein lesbianism is considered unsurprising. As opposed to the spectacle and controversy of Michael Sam or Derrick Gordon coming out, professional sports athletes who have come out as lesbians are hardly worth noting. The fact that Michael Sam was lauded as the first professional athlete to publicly come out points to the contradiction of promoting gay rights while rendering lesbianism invisible.
On the US Women’s National Soccer Team alone there are at least four out lesbians, including their coach, yet this will never make news. No matter how fly the tuxedos that Ashlyn Harris and Abby Wambach wear, no matter how frequently Megan Rapinoe tweets about her main slice and being gaaaay, the sexuality of these women are never news.
This is not to say that lesbianism in sports should be newsworthy in and of itself. Yet, there is something insidious about our desire to never talk about it, though we always assume it. Whereas we laud the courage of gay male athletes who are willing to come out, the same is not extended to lesbian athletes who do the same. Despite the fact we are in a current era obsessed with sexuality and gender, from gay marriage to Caitlin Jenner, lesbianism in sports is largely ignored.
This compounded problem is worth repeating—women who play sports are assumed to be lesbians (homophobia 101), so there’s no need to really talk about lesbianism (homophobia 201). This all works to keep lesbianism a mere stereotype of athletic women, while at the same time ignoring the lived experiences of actual lesbian athletes.
One of the reasons for this assumption of lesbianism in women’s sports is that athleticism itself is equated with masculinity in our patriarchal society. The ability to play sports well is considered a masculine endeavor. When women excel, they are often considered “masculine” instead of talented, gifted, or skilled. This gender bias works against men and boys, too, of course, where men and boys who are not athletically gifted automatically labeled p*****s or g**.
For girls, there is a brief time pre-puberty where it’s okay, if not encouraged, for us to be masculine. This is the “tomboy” phase. Tomboys are lauded for being scrappy, adventurous, and brave. We are encouraged to get our clothes dirty, not be afraid to scrape our knees, and basically act “like a boy.”
Yet, as queer theorist J. Halberstam has pointed out, the tomboy phase is regarded as just that: a phase. Young girls who refuse to transition out of it properly into acceptable pubescent femininity are harassed and ostracized. In other words, it’s okay to be boyish when you’re a little girl, but a big problem if you want to stay boyish or identify as a boy when you’re about to become a young woman.
Similarly, women in sports are damned both ways, for either not being tough enough, or being too tough. They either don’t play like men and are punished for it, for not being aggressive or determined enough, if not just outright athletic enough. Or they do play like men and are punished for it, for being “too masculine” to the extent they are accused of using hormones and even sometimes for pretending to pass as a woman.
The hateful barrage against Serena Williams is only the most obvious proof of the ways in which women who are at the top of their game are often undermined based on their sex. In the case of Williams, there’s also a deep racism at play in the judgments of her success as due to an overly aggressive, even “animalistic” nature.
And amidst all of this stands the butch lesbian athlete, killing it on and off the court/field/pitch and red carpet. She is uncompromisingly masculine, in ways that critically challenge the idea that masculinity is the domain of men and femininity the domain of women. Her female masculinity poses a threat to the idea that gender and sex must align, and thus poses a threat to hetero-patriarchal stability. Her ability to not only scramble the gender binary but also to revel in it is why society is so reluctant to draw attention to the butch lesbian. She stands in contrast to the femme lesbian, who is largely lusted after and condone by heterosexual men, precisely because the femme lesbian poses no threat to male masculinity and power.
In a certain way, sports can be a more welcoming space for women who identify as masculine. Yet, this should not be at the expense of underestimating the ways in which the values we laud in sports are structured by our hetero-patriarchal worldview. Instead of falling back on lazy stereotypes, we should view women’s sports as a significant, exciting, and courageous social sphere where the norms of gender, sexuality, and sex are being constantly rethought. And understanding how gender works in the women’s game can help liberate the men’s game, too.
And let’s not forget, in the meantime, to give props to the female athletes who have been vocal and committed to expressing expanded notions of gender and sexuality that benefit us all.
Cover photo via newsflow24.com.
SERENITY JOO | @JooSerenity
Serenity Joo is an educator, thinker, spectator sport fanantic, and nacho enthusiast. She grew up in the Deep South, which explains everything. Her body currently resides in Winnipeg. Serenity is a 2015 Dat Winning fellow.