Homophobia will thrive in sports as long as hyper-masculinity prevails

When Edmonton Capitals Manager Brent Bowers went on a homophobic tirade against a gay umpire, the sports world hardly took notice. It took the courage of the umpire's heterosexual colleagues to denounce Bowers's hate speech by threatening a league boycott before North American Golden Baseball League management took significant action and ultimately suspended Bowers for the remainder of the season. Bowers reportedly resigned, before being fired by Edmonton Capitals management.

This event stands in marked contrast to a recent U.K. survey, as reported in the Guardian on Aug. 8, which stated that eight out of 10 football fans (soccer to those of us in North America) thought an openly gay player would have a similarly positive impact as black players had on racism in football in the 1980s and 1990s. In the same survey, 25 per cent of the coaches, players and referees surveyed stated they knew a gay player; yet there are no "out" premier league footballers.

In 2006, Sports Illustrated surveyed just over 1,400 players, from all four major professional North American men's team sports (hockey, football, basketball and baseball), and asked the question: "Would you welcome an openly gay teammate?" NHL hockey players were the most progressive, with 79.9 per cent saying "Yes," followed by baseball (61.5 per cent), basketball (59.6 per cent) and football (56.9 per cent).

If we believe these surveys to be accurate reflections of changing societal values, why are there no "out" gay male athletes within these professional team sports? And why do we still have such shocking displays of homophobia from public sporting figures such as Bowers?

It has frequently been argued that the sporting world is the last bastion of tolerated homophobia in our society. In a CBC television interview, Brian Burke, the Toronto Maple Leafs' president and general manager, when speaking of the trailblazing legacy of his gay son Brendan, described homophobia as the "toughest wall and the last one to break down" in sports.

Some people suggest that, just as it took Jackie Robinson to break the colour barrier in baseball, it will take an elite athlete to come out and break the sexuality barrier in professional team sports. If we believe we are in a post-race sports world, what's keeping us from becoming a post-gay world, too? The comparison to race and sexuality may not be that easy to make. For example, race is generally a visible difference, while one's sexuality remains invisible. Hence, the need to "come out" and declare one's self as non-heterosexual. With this invisibility, homophobia is allowed to thrive, as few people directly challenge it within the sporting realm. This enforced invisibility leads to the belief that, "there are no gays on my team."

This complicity of silence creates a toxic environment that keeps many athletes from coming out. Silence and invisibility often lead to stigma and shame -- another sad legacy of homophobia.

Today, in contrast to the 1980s and earlier decades, positive athletic characteristics are often attributed to being an African-American or African-Canadian in sports. Regardless of the accuracy associated with the equation of race and athletic prowess, it is a commonly perpetuated stereotype. Today, though, being seen as gay still remains stereotypically equated as being effeminate and weak -- a distinct negative in sports.

Here is where we see sexism and patriarchy directly at play. To be feminine is to be considered weak and vulnerable, which is a characteristic we are often taught to despise, attack or exploit. How many times have we heard the playground sayings: "Fight like a man," "You hit like a girl," or "Don't be a sissy?" These are telling examples of how the masculine is always privileged over the feminine in our society. Think about how men's team sports are privileged over women's teams in terms of status, funding and prestige. The exclusion of women's ski jumping at the 2010 Winter Olympics provides another very recent example of this gender-role privileging.

The core issue at hand requires society to think hard about how homophobia is used to sustain heterosexual male privilege and how sports is used as a powerful cultural tool to uphold this gender bias. Perhaps, this is one significant reason why we don't see any "out" male athletes in North American professional sports. The problem, as the surveys mentioned earlier remind us, may not be the individual athlete, the athlete's teammates, coaches or fans as individuals, but instead the adherence to a dominant hyper-masculinity that prevents a major shift in sports culture from occurring.

Unfortunately, we cannot leave the responsibility to try to change this (hetero) sexist culture to the gay or lesbian athlete, coach or referee on his or her own. After all, they are in the most vulnerable position as they fight to protect their own employment, let alone to defend their sexuality. Is it fair to ask those who are most affected to liberate themselves?

Just as Jackie Robinson's teammates eventually developed the courage to speak out against racism in baseball, we need heterosexual men in sports -- the coaches, players, general managers, team presidents and owners -- to publicly speak out against homophobia.

This is about society addressing our legacy of sexism and gender discrimination. Until we get serious about the question of gender, we will never get rid of homophobia -- in sports or in our society.

Perhaps, Brent Bowers and others who perpetuate homophobia in sport, should heed Robinson's famous words, when thinking about gays in sports: "I'm not concerned with your liking or disliking me ... All I ask is that you respect me as a human being."

Kristopher Wells is a PhD doctoral scholar at the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services, University of Alberta.

© Copyright (c) The Edmonton Journal. Reprinted with permission.