Athletes live in a world where time seems to have stood still for the last 30 years of gay and lesbian liberation. Professional and elite sport is one of the few highly visible fields where almost no one comes out — at least not while the stakes are high.
Like people who are part of ethnic minorities, many queer athletes feel that one must choose — be an athlete or gay, but never both. So they stay closeted, regardless of the emotional harm it causes to themselves and to others who might benefit from their visibility.
“It’s still a very closeted world,” says Brian Osler, secretary and treasurer of the Gay And Lesbian Athletes Association (GLAA). The first association of its kind in the world, GLAA aims to provide support services to gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans athletes from every level of sport. Osler says queer athletes have many concerns. “They’re all over the map,” including worries about how they’ll be received by team members and family if they’re outed or come out, the possible loss of lucrative sponsorships and whether it will get in the way of their ability to get ahead in their chosen sport.
Since it launched in October 2002, GLAA has received reports of “blatant discrimination” against gay athletes. In one instance a professional hockey players came to GLAA “ready to give up his place in sport” because of the discrimination, says Osler, who did not name the player because the association agrees to keep the anonymity of athletes who come to it.
Osler says there’s an intense pressure for both male and female athletes to live up to a particular image. For male athletes, this translates into the masculine ideal. Of the thousands of professional team sport players — individual-focussed sports like swimming or skating are a slightly different story — virtually no male athletes have come out. Many feel pressure to do everything that it takes to blend in and that includes dating women.
The journey to the top of professional sports is often done via the minor leagues, where travel to small cities and towns is a requirement. Athletes share quarters in hotel rooms with teammates, not leaving a lot of space to explore one’s sexuality, especially with so much pressure to be one of the team.
Athletes who are gay and lesbian live with a considerable amount of anxiety caused by keeping their sexuality to themselves, says Osler. This anxiety may affect their performance.
“If you’re an Olympic athlete and you are two one-hundredths of a second away [from winning], then you care,” says Osler.
Of the 10,500 athletes who participated in the 2004 summer Olympics in Athens, only 11 were publicly out. One of them was Martina Navratilova, perhaps the highest profile queer person in elite sport, who was forced out of the closet in 1991 by an ex-lover’s palimony suit. Only in 2000 did Navratilova land a major mainstream advertising contract. Other Olympians, like swimmer Mark Tewksbury and figure skater Brian Orser, only came out after their competitive careers had ended or peaked.
GLAA’s main source of support is the peer mentoring program which pairs athletes to give support around gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans issues. The GLAA itself does not emphasize coming out as its main goal, and there is no pressure for athletes who use the service to go public about their sexual orientation.
Still, there are some cases where athletes are being encouraged to come out. Toronto Maple Leafs player development coach Paul Dennis has made it clear that any player on the Leafs team who decided to come out would have the full support of the entire organization.
With the support of other athletes, some queer athletes are slowly coming out into public view. Last October Sheryl Swoopes, Most Valuable Player of the Women’s National Basketball Association, came out — one of the first elite team-sports athletes. Before that was golfer Rosie Jones’s coming out last year and and Billie Jean King in the 1980s.
Swoopes, who had been married to a man, decided to come out in conjunction with a sponsorship from Olivia Cruises, a seller of lesbian cruise packages.