2 min

Avoiding lesbian innuendo

Putting lipstick on the women's hockey team

In the ecstatic moments after Team Canada won the gold medal in women’s hockey, and our national television broadcaster was falling over itself to say celebratory things, one CBC announcer uttered words to the effect of, “every one of these women have a mother and father, a boyfriend or a husband at home.”

Really? Do they all have boyfriends or husbands at home? Every one of them? We’re talking about women’s hockey. I don’t want to suggest that there are lesbians on Canada’s 2006 women’s hockey team. There may be. There may not be. I don’t know. But there has been in the past and there will be in the future.

At the risk of falling deep into stereotypes about lesbians and women’s athletics, there have always been some dykes at the very top of sports, hockey included.

Several years ago, there was an uncomfortable controversy swirling around the national women’s hockey team. Their coach was alleged to have been involved with one of the players. Everyone denied it, for some fairly ugly reasons. While there was the typical defensiveness that such a relationship would violate the rules of the sport, some of the denials were also deeply homophobic. No lesbians here. Nope. None. We don’t even really like lesbians. Or know what they are. So, Canadian parents, don’t worry about sending your young girls to play hockey. It’s okay. Really.

I’d like to think that a few things have changed since 1998, when these rumours and denials dogged our champions. In 1999, the Supreme Court Of Canada prohibited discrimination against same-sex relationships and, beginning in 2003, same-sex couples were able to get married. Same-sex relationships have become so mainstream, so respectable, so clean, we almost squeak.

But that respectability apparently does not extend into the world of elite sports where being a lesbian is still a problem.

In the US, there are court cases about it. Rene Portland, the women’s basketball coach at Penn State, has for almost three decades allegedly enforced a “no drinking, no drugs, no lesbians” policy for her team. Former player Jennifer Harris claims that Portland repeatedly told her to feminize her appearance and demeanor, told teammates to spy on her dating habits and invoked an “escalating campaign of harassment and humiliation” so she’d quit the team. In 2005, Portland finally told Harris to leave the team, though she was a star player. Supported by the National Center For Lesbian Rights, Harris is now suing the coach and calling on the university to take action against her. Ironically, Harris herself is straight.

We can always take refuge in the fact that things are better in Canada. (It’s a national pastime, after all. No, not the hockey — the Canadian superiority). But even here we can’t seem to escape the lesbian anxiety surrounding women’s sports. Experts in women’s sexuality in sports have shown that despite society’s increasingly liberal attitudes, heterosexuality remains key to promoting and marketing women’s sport and the women in it. Lesbian innuendo is to be avoided at all costs.

Which I guess is why the CBC (and let’s remember, it’s the national broadcaster we are talking about) could not bring itself to say that each of the women has “a partner at home.” (The fact that some women are single, maybe even by choice, is fodder enough for another editorial.)

“Partner” is gender neutral. It doesn’t suggest the sexual orientation of the player. Lots of straight folks use it. Lots of gay folks use it. But when we’re talking about women’s hockey, there’s a sense that it’s important to defend heterosexuality, and so the ambiguity of “partner” must be avoided.

Of course, in the end, those women rock. They rock whether they are gay or straight — I don’t care. I just wish no one else did either.