Understanding the Stigma Behind Being An LGBT Athlete
In a short, five-minute YouTube announcement Monday (video below), cherished 19-year-old British Olympian Tom Daley revealed that he is currently in a relationship with another man. According to Outsports, Daley joins just over 100 openly gay and lesbian summer Olympians, which raises an interesting question: in an increasingly accepting world, why are there still so few openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) athletes?
Daley briefly addresses what is thought to be a taboo topic in his video announcement, reassuring his fans that he is still the same athlete despite his sexual preferences.
“In an ideal world I wouldn’t be doing this video, because it shouldn’t matter.”
“I think people are going to make a big deal of this,” he said of his announcement. “I mean, is it a big deal? I don’t think so.”
“I’m still Tom. I still want to win an Olympic gold medal in Rio 2016 for Great Britain. I’m still motivated as ever to do that.”
“Come spring, this year, my life changed,” he says. “Massively. When I met someone and it made me feel so happy, so safe and everything just feels great. That someone is a guy. And it did take me by surprise a little bit. It was always in the back of my head that it could happen, but it wasn’t until the spring of this year that something clicked. It felt right. Like I said, my whole world just changed right there and then.”
The video reached over five million views in a single day and came as shocking news to an industry where homosexuality seems to be swept under the rug, a forbidden topic. But why is that the case?
The Stigma Behind LGBT Athletes
The stigma behind LGBT athletes comes from two very opposite, but equally crippling stereotypes: masculinity and femininity applied in separate instances to the athletic world and the LGBT community. In our society, strength and aggression represent masculinity, while femininity is associated with feebleness and daintiness. These constructions are incredibly rigid and pose a threat to the social development and acceptance of many, but most notably gay athletes.
For a male athlete especially, the athletic world is an arena in which to proclaim his manhood, to prove his worth through speed, agility, and strength. On the other hand, despite progress in accepting LGBT individuals, there is a persistent, traditional mentality that associates homosexuality with femininity. Gay men are traditionally seen as dainty fellows overly concerned with dress and appearance, who speak in high, overly-exaggerated voices and shy away from anything “manly.” When these two stereotypes overlap, it is difficult for a man to see how he can both be taken seriously as a fierce competitor and as a gay individual in the sports world. The “macho environment” they live and breathe in seems unwelcoming to both facets of their being. It becomes one or the other.
United States Olympic soccer player Megan Rapinoe, who came out just weeks before the 2012 summer Olympics, expressed concerns about the sports world and homophobia in an interview with Out.com in July 2012.
“I feel like sports in general are still homophobic, in the sense that not a lot of people are out,” she said. “I feel everyone is really craving [for] people to come out. People want — they need — to see that there are people like me playing soccer for the good ol’ U.S. of A.”
Founder of You Can Play, Patrick Burke believes that coming out is easier for female athletes because the athletic world is paralyzed by an idea that “there are no gay male athletes, and every female athlete is a lesbian.” And the numbers prove it. Of the 23 openly gay or lesbian 2012 summer Olympians, only four were men. The world is shocked when male athletes come out of the closet, but very rarely does anyone turn their head when female athletes do the same.
“In female sports, if you’re gay, most likely your team knows it pretty quickly,” Rapione said. “It’s very open and widely supported. For males, it’s not that way at all. It’s sad.”
In America, National Basketball Association player Jason Collins became the “first openly gay, professional male athlete playing in a major sport” just this past April. However, since then the Wizards star and his announcement have defied all of the average stereotypes and stigmas believed to stop athletes from coming out. Collins has been “largely greeted with open arms by the sports world,” promoting a new hope that the stigma amongst LBGT athletes is on the decline.
However, despite several initiatives by many professional sports organizations to include and support gay players as they embrace their sexuality, a self-imposed pressure to prove one’s masculinity seems to prevent other male athletes from following Collins’ lead. Daley’s announcement video is a crucial step in starting the conversation about LGBT athletes. As more and more professional athletes come out of the closet, the topic of LGBT athletes becomes less taboo, stigmas start to fade in conversation, and stereotypes vanish into the background, letting an athlete’s skills shine instead.