Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Homophobia in women's athletics

One of the great tragedies in lesbian culture is homophobia in women's athletics. Athletics is the one place in society where young women are celebrated for being physically strong (and with each other, no less), and, therefore, there is the accompanying heterosexist pressure to feminize them and make them attractive to men. For example, look at this promotional photo for Texas A&M women's basketball. Looks like a strip club advertisement.
I have no doubt that any lesbian who has spent any time involved with organized sports can attest to the fact that homophobia in women's athletics is acutely present and especially destructive due to a mix of factors, including:
• Sports is often the only safe haven available to young lesbians (or perhaps tomboy girls who have not yet developed a sexual identity) where their unfeminine manners and physical strength and speed are celebrated. But this safe haven is yanked away from these young athletes when they are inevitably given a direct or indirect message that lesbians are not celebrated—and are, in fact, rejected.
• Sports is where young lesbians often find their only confidence-boosting experience. If the arena in which you built your self-esteem during adolescence becomes the very place from which you receive the strongest anti-gay message during post-puberty, the destruction of your self-esteem is almost inescapable.
• Sports is where young lesbians often develop their first crush—often on a coach or teammate. A first crush is a special thing in anyone's development. But for young lesbians on sports teams, the message usually is: "It's wrong." I actually had a coach in high school who, when referring to gays, said, "Take 'em in the back yard and shoot 'em." Inexplicably, I had a crush on this coach. And I'm happy to say that part of me believed she was revealing her own pitiful closeted self-loathing. But, you know, I was also only 16, so the clearest message I received was that being gay was something to be hated. I was expected to hate myself. Thankfully, I have a rebellious streak, and I was like, hell no. But many young lesbians are not as fortunate.

As an adolescent and teenager, my primary sports were basketball and field hockey. A highlight of my middle school years was attending summer basketball camp for girls, where I was coached by women who played for top college teams. In high school I played three varsity sports. I was no where near good enough to play at the Division I university I attended as an undergrad (however, I did play racquetball on the club team, and I have a distinct memory of getting my ass kicked badly when we played the gals from West Point.) In all these settings, there were a lot of lesbians. And in none of these settings did I ever receive one positive message about being a lesbian.
I recently saw an important film that documents the destructive force homophobia has played in women's athletics. "Training Rules" by Dee Mosbacher examines the infuriating policies of discrimination practiced without restraint for thirty years at Penn State under women's basketball coach Rene Portland. Her training rules? No drinking. No drugs. No lesbians. Coach Portland's ban on lesbians wreaked destruction on the lives of young women under her guidance. The film will make your blood boil, but it will also make you proud of the brave women who faced Portland's wrath and either walked away, endured, or—finally—stood up for justice.

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