Hey, did you hear the big sports news? One of the best basketball players of our time just came out as gay.
I’m not talking about Jason Collins, the journeyman NBA centre who came out Monday. This season, playing for two teams, he averaged just over one point a game. I’m talking, instead, about Brittney Griner, the first NCAA player to score more than 2,000 points and block 500 shots. A three-time All-American, she was the No. 1 pick in the Women’s National Basketball Association draft on April 15. A few days later, she told interviewers she’s gay.
And the world shrugged. “Can you imagine if it was a man who did the exact same thing?” asked one gay blogger. “Everyone’s head would have exploded.”
That’s pretty much what happened after Sports Illustrated published an article by Mr. Collins acknowledging his orientation. The airwaves and blogosphere lit up with praise for Mr. Collins, from sources as varied as Chelsea Clinton (who attended Stanford with him) and Kobe Bryant. Even President Barack Obama called Mr. Collins to offer his support, while Michelle Obama tweeted that she was “proud” of him.
So why didn’t Ms. Griner’s coming out make headlines, too? Call it the double standard of sports sexuality: Male athletes can’t be gay, but females are assumed to be. Far from shocking our sensibilities, Brittney Griner’s announcement confirmed them.
These beliefs go all the way back to the late 19th century, when schools and colleges began to sponsor male athletic teams. According to the era’s doctrine of Muscular Christianity, embraced most famously by Theodore Roosevelt, modern urban society was squelching men’s “natural” energy, vigour and strength. Sports would help men rediscover these rustic virtues and guard against the “feminization” of city life.
So any woman who played sports was also challenging a male preserve. Feminists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton had long pressed for female exercise and athletics to help counter claims of male “physical superiority,” as she wrote in 1850. Half a century later, amid new anxieties over American masculinity, athletic women were forced to demonstrate they weren’t simply acting like men.
The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League – memorialized in the 1992 movie A League of Their Own – required players to follow what league managers called the “femininity principle”: They had to wear skirts and makeup, keep their hair long and attend evening charm school. When one player got a bob haircut, she was promptly fired.
And the most dominant woman athlete of the early 20th century, Babe Didrikson, was ridiculed by newspapermen as “mannish” and “not quite female.” So when she married a pro wrestler in 1938, America breathed a collective sigh of relief. “Along came a great big he-man and the Babe forgot all her man-hating chatter,” one reporter gushed. A headline writer underscored Ms. Didrikson’s new-found “feminine” virtues: “Babe Is A Lady Now: The World’s Most Amazing Athlete Has Learned To Wear Nylons And Cook For Her Huge Husband.”
An Olympic track star and golf champion, Babe Didrickson probably did have a long-term female lover. We’ll never know for sure. It wasn’t until the 1980s that tennis greats Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova could come out of the closet; more recently, basketball stars such as Sheryl Swoopes and Chamique Holdsclaw have done the same.
But that also placed new pressure on female athletes, who are often assumed to be lesbians until proven otherwise. That might explain why the chorus of hosannas for Jason Collins this week didn’t include any prominent straight sportswomen. If they praised a gay athlete, wouldn’t people think they were gay as well?
For male athletes, by comparison, it was a piece of cake. Mr. Bryant and other NBA stars rallied en masse behind Mr. Collins, without anyone questioning their own sexuality. Indeed, the only people who took real flack were the handful of athletes who raised eyebrows about Mr. Collins. When Miami Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace tweeted his initial reaction to the announcement – “All these beautiful women in the world and guys wanna mess with other guys” – the reaction was so swift he quickly deleted the tweet and apologized.
We owe our biggest apology to all of the gay athletes, male and female, who have been harassed, ridiculed and silenced over the years. And we should all congratulate Jason Collins, who has boldly gone where no standing professional sportsman has ventured before.
But we should also recognize this moment as a marker of gender inequality, not just of gay rights. Across our society, the taboo on male homosexuality remains far greater than the one on lesbianism. That makes it more difficult for male athletes to come out as gay, but it also extends the historic burden on sportswomen to prove they’re not. And it makes it harder for all of us to to be what we should be: ourselves.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He’s writing a history of sex education around the world.
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