3 min

Lesbians are Olympians too

They compete from a closet inside a closet

Credit: Capital Xtra files

The Olympics taking place this August in Athens will be one of the principal occasions for countries across the world to celebrate their national pride. During the two-week duration of the Games, athletes will become the faces of their countries, their personal achievements symbolizing those of their respective nations.

Olympic medals go beyond achievement in sport to serve as a measuring stick of a country’s prowess, both culturally and economically. Idealized images of strong, young athletes with medals around their necks will become the currency of national excellence. They will appear on the front pages of newspapers along with stories about their lives – past, present and future. But what happens when the young Olympian is a lesbian?

From the start of the modern Olympic Games, male amateur athletes of every race, religion and nationality were eligible to participate. The founder of the games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, opposed the participation of women in the Olympics and no women competed in 1896.

At that time, it was widely held that women’s activities needed to be controlled. Energy was to be expended on the household duties of cooking, cleaning, sewing and undergoing natural physical changes to ensure fertility and the production of healthy offspring. Excessive physical or mental activity was even thought to hinder breast development.

Nevertheless, women were allowed to compete in the 1900 Olympics in tennis, golf and croquet. In 1912, female swimmers and divers were admitted, and female gymnasts and track-and-field athletes participated at the 1928 Games.

In the 1940s and ’50s, there was a post-war attitude that all sports were mannish, and that the women who excelled in them were probably lesbians. Women spending their leisure time in the company of their own sex were viewed as a threat to patriarchy. In this milieu, close female friendships became sexualized in the popular psyche.

It was only after the 1976 games in Montreal that there was a large increase in the number of sports offered to women. This has continued with every Olympics. However, female participation in this male domain continues to give rise to allegations of lesbianism.

Some sports more than others are viewed as unfeminine and symptomatic of lesbianism. Yet the characteristics that are viewed as masculine in female athletes range from facial expressions of tension when expending effort to doing a series of rigorous stretches to wiping sweat from a forehead. These actions are defined as masculine because they have traditionally been done by men – not because they are an innate function of male biology. Further, the perceived masculine look of female sport stems from women wearing athletic clothing and having defined musculature. These aspects of athleticism are again not male in nature, but are instead a necessary aspect of participation in sport.

Still, those athletes who do not conform to feminine ideals risk their chances of garnering valuable sponsorships and endorsements from athletic companies and media outlets. The bodies of female athletes continue to be a sought-after commodity for which advertisers pay top dollar. Rather than focussing news stories on the excellence that female athletes achieve in their sport, the media typically profiles female athletes’ heterosexuality. Interviews are focussed on female athletes’ boyfriends, and often accompanied by images of these women in fashionable feminine clothing. Sponsors and high-profile trainers also enforce conformity to a feminine ideal, unrepentant about using sex to sell women’s sport.

Lesbian athletes exist in a closet within a closet. In addition to the enormous pressure for all female athletes to look and act feminine, female sport is still struggling to be given the recognition it deserves. Added to the equation is the fact that the sexuality of all female athletes comes under public scrutiny due to an unspoken rule of compulsory heterosexuality. A female athlete who is not conventionally feminine is automatically considered to be a lesbian until she proves otherwise. Furthermore, there is an inordinate amount of pressure on female athletes to stay closeted if they hope to benefit in any small way from the multi-million dollar advertising and media machine that thrives on their performances.

Homophobia in women’s sport is damaging for all female athletes. It is directed at all women, regardless of their sexual orientation. As long as homophobia continues to be associated with women’s athletics, it will remain entrenched in the Olympics.

It is up to Canadians to support the gay and lesbian members of our country’s Olympic team when they come out of the closet, and to recognize that Canada’s athletes represent our nation in all its diversity.