Historically, sport has been constructed as one of the last institutional bastions of hegemonic masculinity where homophobia stands as cultural norm. Such a perspective definitely pervades in numerous sporting contexts. But times are changing. A recent poll of professional athletes conducted by ESPN found that 61.5% and 92.3% of National Football League and National Hockey League players, respectively, support gay marriage. Some professional athletes are speaking up as individuals and collectively as teams to support marriage equality and admonish homophobia in general. In this article, David Mayeda, examines this critical cultural shift in sport.
If you have not read the phenomenal letter Minnesota Vikings punter, Chris Kluwe, wrote to Maryland state delegate, Emmett C. Burns Jr. this past September, well, it is a must read. In the letter to delegate Burns, Kluwe supports Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo in the movement to legalize gay marriage (i.e., marriage equality). Previously, delegate Burns had admonished Ayanbadejo for speaking out in support of gay marriage. Among numerous other gems, Kluwe writes to Burns:
“I can assure you that gay people getting married will have zero effect on your life. They won’t come into your house and steal your children. They won’t magically turn you into a lustful cockmonster…. You know what having these rights will make gays? Full-fledged American citizens just like everyone else, with the freedom to pursue happiness and all that entails. Do the civil-rights struggles of the past 200 years mean absolutely nothing to you?”
Again, the entire piece is a must read.
Kluwe’s and Ayanbadejo’s support for gay marriage reflects a broader and quite radical shift among male athletes – a declining trend in homophobia and being outspoken about it. Another very informative article by NPR notes that although no player in one of America’s four major professional sports (football, basketball, baseball, and hockey) has come out while still a competitive athlete, support for gay rights in these sports is growing. Unfortunately, the fact that gay athletes who are male typically come out after their athletic careers have ended demonstrates the violent forms of social control they fear from athletic teammates, coaches, management, and the broader fan base. However earlier this month, professional boxer Orlando Cruz came out, an especially significant act given that Cruz is still boxing.
Support for gay rights by male athletes is also happening at institutional levels. Back in April 2011, Sociological Images reported on a Brazilian volleyball team’s public support for their gay teammate. More recently, Major League Baseball teams in the United States have joined the “It Gets Better” project, which aims to tell young LGBT persons that despite having to endure harsh prejudice and discrimination in life, “it gets better.” See for example the Baltimore Orioles’ “It Gets Better” video:
And let’s not forget, a central dimension to sport is competition. The “You Can Play” project pushes to end homophobia in sport, highlighting that homophobia (or discrimination of any kind) is absurd if attempting to field a team with the most athletic and hard working players. A number of male and female teams from the University of Denver have made videos expressing such sentiments, as exemplified is this video made by their hockey team:
Finally, recent empirical research demonstrates this cultural shift in sport is no aberration. Bush and colleagues (2012) define “homohysteria” as “the fear men maintain of being socially perceived as gay” (p. 110) and further theorize that when homohysteria is high, men and boys are more likely to do the following, either in or out of sport:
- express homophobic and sexist attitudes
- raise their masculine capital through sport and muscularity
- raise their heterosexual capital through sexually objectifying women, and
- avoid emotional intimacy or homosocial tactility (p. 110).
With homohysteria declining, these scholars empirically tested whether or not male athletes were becoming less homophobic by surveying 216 male athletes from a British university well known for its highly accomplished sports teams. The study found that male athletes who entered university life in 2006 had very low levels of homophobia to begin with, and that those attitudes supporting gay rights persisted by the time they graduated in 2009.
The exception was among male athletes who identified strongly as an athlete – the stronger an athlete’s identity was tied to his athlete status, the more likely he was to report homophobic attitudes upon university entry. However, by 2009 homophobic attitudes dissolved, even among those university athletes with a strong athletic identity. Though this research does not represent all sporting contexts, it illustrates that homophobia is declining in sport.
With more athletic role models supporting gay rights, we can expect to see homophobia further decline in society as a whole.
- It is far more common for female athletes who are gay to come out while still in their athletic prime than male athletes. Why do you think this is so?
- This article uses the sociological term “social control” when discussing why gay male athletes tend not to come out prior to retirement. What is “social control” and how does it operate in a society with high levels of homohysteria?
- What is your perception of the “typical” male athlete? Does it coincide with someone who is homophobic? Why do you think you have or don’t have this perception?
- While homophobic attitudes in some sporting contexts appear to be declining, are sexist attitudes and behaviors? What do you notice?
Bush, A., Anderson, E., & Carr. S. (2012). The declining existence of men’s homophobia in British sport. Journal of the Study of Sports and Athletes in Education, 6 (1), 107-120.
Photo via Wikicommons.