Lesbian athletes just can't win

The world of women's sports harbors rampant homophobia, especially toward female basketball players

Published April 23, 2010 11:01AM (EDT)

Stanford's Nnemkadi Ogwumike shoots against Connecticut's Tina Charles  and Maya Moore. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Stanford's Nnemkadi Ogwumike shoots against Connecticut's Tina Charles and Maya Moore. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

If you go by the official record, Sherri Murrell of Portland State University is the only lesbian coach in Division I women's basketball. She is, after all, the first and only coach to come out. The first and only, out of more than 350 teams.

One lesbian coach. Do you believe it?

Coach Murrell herself said that fear is thick for other gay coaches. "There's a lot of negative recruiting going on right now," she said in a recent interview. That is, coaches competing for the best talent will dismiss another program as being a haven for dykes, playing on the homophobia of prospective athletes and their families, and so make their own program supposedly more appealing. Says Murrell: "You may not lose your job because of discrimination, but you may lose your job because all the sudden people are saying, don't go to that program because coach is a lesbian and then boom the program goes downhill. You lose your job because the program is not successful."

Murrell is featured in the 2009 documentary "Training Rules," which tells the story of Penn State University's Rene Portland, the former head coach of the Lady Lions basketball team. Portland is the stuff of legend, with 27 seasons and a 606-236 overall record. But "Training Rules" focuses on an uglier part of Portland's legacy: her infamous, written-down "No Lesbians" policy, which she curiously defended as a strategy to take the stigma of lesbianism out of women's sports. Jen Harris was kicked off Portland's team in 2005, despite being the team's leading scorer. She filed a lawsuit, alleging that she was cut for her perceived sexual orientation; the suit opened up decades of stories about Portland's pattern of intimidation and was later settled out of court. Harris' exit from the team, incidentally, came the same year that Sheryl Swoopes became the first WNBA player to come out of the closet -- eight years after the league's founding. She remains an exception; few gay athletes followed in her footsteps.

So if you think it's easy out there for lesbian and bisexual women in sports, think again. Homophobia is rife at every level: pro and collegiate, coaches and athletes, in the box seats and in the bleachers. Despite (or because of?) the use of "lesbian" as a denigrating label for women in sports, almost no athletes or coaches are out. Whether or not policies are explicit as Coach Portland's, many are compelled to shut up about their orientation for fear of losing their scholarship, their place on the team, their endorsements, or their job. Coach Murrell is blunt when asked if other schools employ the "no lesbians" rule: "Yeah. Unfortunately. I do know of programs that say we will not tolerate this in our program." Campus nondiscrimination policies, be damned.

The culture of closeting continues with the Women's Basketball Coaches Association refusing to show "Training Rules" at its annual convention in San Antonio this month, despite the filmmakers' hope that it would spark conversation among the league's leaders. Beth Bass, the WBCA's CEO, contends that, "Our job is to protect the coach and the profession. The coach that is the subject of the Training Rules documentary is no longer in the coaching field and the situation has been handled by the institution." No reference to the fact that the WBCA twice awarded Portland its Coach of the Year award, or that Portland served as the WBCA's president in 1989-1990, when her "no lesbians" policy was in full effect.

If Bass thinks that the settled lawsuit and Portland's subsequent retirement put an end to homophobia in women's sports, she is either paying no attention at all or she is willfully obtuse. Even for female athletes who aren't gay -- like Portland's Jen Harris -- homophobia shapes their experience in the game. Harassment and bullying follows any woman who doesn't conform to gender norms, and for an extraordinary number of people, the very fact of women playing sports is considered deviant from gender norms. And god forbid you catch a female athlete in bad behavior, as in the YouTube viral videos of University of New Mexico soccer player Elizabeth Lambert brutalizing opponents or Baylor University superstar Briteny Griner punching another player. As appalling as their behavior is, the tenor of the response to it makes clear how uncomfortable the public is with female aggression; such physicality, it seems, is too masculine to be believed in these women. Public pressure demands that, in order to be worthy of attention, female athletes must play sports exactly like men while not acting like (or looking like) men.

Homophobia is not particular to women's sports; the machismo of men's sports, too, offers precious little room for gay and bisexual athletes to be out. The brave and few who have come out tend to do so after they are safely retired. Ed Gallagher, an offensive lineman for the University of Pittsburgh in the late 1970s, attempted suicide in 1985 by jumping off a dam -- twelve days after his first sexual encounter with a man. He was left a paraplegic and has said that before his suicide attempt, he simply couldn't reconcile his gay desires with his image of himself as an athlete.

But what is particular to female athletes is that they bear an additional burden of having to constantly justify their game. Women's sports are compelled to prove again and again that they are worthy of attention, fans, and funding. As Kate Harding pointed out in Broadsheet, female athletes can't win for winning: even as the University of Connecticut women's basketball team pounded its way to its 78th consecutive win and the NCAA championship this season, it was criticized as actually being bad for women's sports. The contention was that UConn's dynasty somehow proved that women's sports aren't competitive -- a notion that elides the profound impact of dynasties in developing men's sports. UCLA's men's basketball team had a legendary 88-game winning streak between 1971 and 1974 and cultivated a fan base that feeds March Madness to this day. Nobody argues the UCLA streak was evidence of men's basketball being weak. Indeed, it is celebrated as one of the greatest achievements in all sports.

With such absurd day-to-day defenses foisted on women's sports, it seems that few gay athletes and coaches are inclined to meet additional backlash by coming out. It's hard enough to validate women's sports; to embrace women's sports that include out lesbians seems to be too much to ask. Indeed, validating LGBT people may be viewed as an affirmation of the epithets used to denigrate women in sports.

In such a hostile realm, some over-compensate for the public's discomfort with women who don't conform to gender norms by issuing promotional campaigns that glam up the athletes. For its women's basketball team, Florida State University screened a "straight-girls-going-to-prom" photo shoot this season, as Broadsheet previously reported. The WNBA has more than once dipped its toes into commercials that push the "our-players-are-sexy-and-classically-desirable!" line, which embarrass everybody. And Robin Pingeton, the new women's basketball coach at the University of Missouri, went out of her way to emphasize her (straight) marriage and her value of (traditional) family at her press conference at the public university. Said Pingeton: "I'm a Christian who happens to be a coach … This is something very unique for Division I women's basketball. A staff where the entire staff is married with kids. Family is important to us. And we live it every day." One wouldn't be off base to wonder if Pingeton wasn't taking the opportunity to promote Missouri's team as heterosexual to potential recruits. As sports writer Mechelle Voepel points out, Pingeton can't be so naïve as to not realize the code she's working in.

Challenging that code is extremely difficult. The pioneering project It Takes a Team! was tasked with challenging homophobia in sports through public education, but it was eliminated this winter because of budget cuts. So too was the sports media position at GLAAD cut just last February. Together, this leaves an alarming void in LGBT sports advocacy. 

People like Coach Sherri Murrell who come out in an arena rife with homophobia are profoundly influential in changing the game. But the need for collective action remains. Homophobia is so endemic to women's sports that it calls for nothing less than endemic action, pulling together fans, boosters, coaches, owners, athletes, funders, trainers, athletic directors, sportswriters, administrators, parents, elementary school gym teachers and small-town softball coaches --everyone. In the vacuum left by It Takes a Team! and GLAAD, these voices resonate. These voices, after all, helped build this crippling homophobic culture in the first place.

By Anna Clark

Anna Clark is a freelance journalist in Detroit. Her writing has appeared in The New Republic, Grantland, the Columbia Journalism Review, and elsewhere. She can be found at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter: @annaleighclark.

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