Over the past decade, the shame once associated with homosexuality is nearly an unfortunate relic of the past, and Americans are increasingly acknowledging the legitimacy of a gay lifestyle. Openly gay celebrities in particular have played an important role in overturning the negative stigmas associated with homosexuality as many actors, musicians and television personalities have recently come out of the closet. There is one profession however, where being openly gay remains a taboo — professional athletics.
While some pro athletes have come out of the closet once they've retired from their careers, you could count the number of openly gay current athletes on your fingers. Just after the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, NBA player Jason Collins became "the first openly gay, professional male athlete playing in a major sport." Collins' announcement came after years of being in the closet, and he was even previously engaged to WNBA player, Carolyn Moos. After admitting that he is gay, the Wizards' star was "largely greeted with open arms by the sports world." Why then, have so few professional athletes followed suit?
It is an unsaid rule, inextricably connected to cultural notions of masculinity, that pro athletes should be straight, and if they are not heterosexual in private then they will pretend to be publicly.
According to an article in ESPN, "the athletic world — that realm of all things male, musky and aggressive — is the final frontier of masculinity." Sports competitions are showcases of strength, prowess, speed and agility. If you've ever witnessed a hockey game or a boxing match, you'll see that sports revolve around domination. The most aggressive, most fearless, tireless competitor will be the last man standing. This quest for masculinity sheds light on why so many athletes resort to steroids to enhance their performances; it is not just their legacy, but their manhood that is under attack.
While conceptions of masculinity have radically changed within recent years, there are many who continue to embrace a traditional mentality that associates homosexuality with femininity. Clinging to myopic notions such as that all gay men speak in high voices, pay exaggerated attention to dress and appearance, or shy away from competition feeds "the stereotype that 'gay' equals 'unmasculine' once and for all."
The sports world is crippled by two opposite stereotypes — that "there are no gay male athletes, and every female athlete is a lesbian," said Patrick Burke, a founder of You Can Play. These stereotypes are two sides of the same coin; if masculinity is about strength and aggression, femininity is associated with daintiness and meekness. Whereas a wave of shock surrounded Collins' announcement, almost no one was surprised when WNBA player Brittney Griner came out of the closet.
Despite the fact that the MLB professes to be ready for gay athletes, Glenn Burke is the only MLB players in history to come out during his career and that was decades ago. In addition, no NHL players have come out despite the leagues recent inclusive initiative to support professional gay players. It appears that for male athletes, the greatest pressure to appear straight is self-imposed from the desire to be taken seriously as a fierce competitor in the sports world.
Wade Davis and Esera Tuaolo are two ex-NFL players who came out after their athletic careers. Catalyzed by a request from the Monday Morning Quarterback, Davis and Tuaolo wrote letters to their younger selves when they were still concealing their homosexuality. They were asked to "[share] what they experienced at various life stages and what they wished they had known along the way." Their testimonies were heartfelt and painful; both athletes expressed feelings of self-hatred, depression and a paralyzing fear of being found out. Their advice in retrospect: free yourself from the burden of secrecy and come out of the closet.
It is time to shatter the prevalent stereotype that to be gay is to be feminine, but given that these assumptions are so ingrained in our cultural fiber, to do so will be no easy task. The most effective way to disprove stereotypes is by example. Professional sports organizations have already begun the task of supporting gay players and encouraging more athletes to embrace who they are and come out of the closet. Unfortunately, these actions are not enough.
More professional athletes must be brave and honest, and prove that there is no set of qualities attached to being gay. Aggressiveness, competitive drive and ferocity are all personality traits that all people — gay and straight — possess in a spectrum. Similarly, sexual preference is completely irrelevant when it comes to talent.
Glenn Burke once said, “They can’t say that a gay man can’t play in the Majors, because I’m a gay man and I made it.” This is the valuable lesson that athletes like Jason Collins can offer their peers — gay or straight, he is the same athlete with the same ability to play ball.