Different for Girls: Coming Out in Sports

There is a double standard, say experts

When Jason Collins came out last month, Helen Carroll was furious. The longtime sports project director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights had nothing against the seven-foot basketball center, who became the first still-active male athlete in a major American team sport to say “I’m gay.”

But Carroll couldn’t help thinking about something that happened just a couple of weeks earlier. Brittney Griner—the top women’s college basketball player of 2013, number one WNBA draft pick, and quite possibly the best female hoops player of all time—came out as a lesbian.

Collins’ announcement was a major media event. President Obama phoned with congratulations. Griner’s coming-out merited far less fanfare (the president never called).

A day later, Carroll was glad for Collins, but felt badly Griner had not gotten a similar “day in the sun.” Part of the difference in reactions may also arise from the polar-opposite stereotypes surrounding men and women in sports. For years, it was assumed that many female athletes were lesbians. At the same time, most Americans could not believe any male athlete could possibly be gay.

According to Pat Griffin, a former coach and social justice professor at the University of Massachusetts who now directs Changing the Game: The GLSEN Sports Project, those assumptions are not only wrong, they’re dangerous.

“The implication that it was somehow ‘easier’ for Brittney to come out, because she’s in women’s sports, worries me,” Griffin says. “Yes, there are more women out as athletes and coaches. But there are still plenty who are not. There’s still negative recruiting at the college level. The relative silence around Brittney’s coming-out makes some people assume we’ve won the war. Well, we haven’t.”

Griffin agrees with Carroll that the disparity in coverage of the two events has roots in male control. “The mainstream media has never really been interested in women’s sports,” Griffin says. “And when the conversation began about gay athletes, the media was fascinated by the ‘gay men in sports’ story. The overall coverage of women’s sports in general is abysmal. The assumption that there are lots of lesbians in sport is a double whammy.”

But it is true that female athletes have been out longer, and in more sports, than males. Mariah Burton Nelson came out in 1976, as a Stanford University basketball player. She played professionally and has written six books about gender and sports.

Nearly four decades later, though, “being out takes courage,” Nelson says. She commends Griner for living courageously and being a role model. Nelson cites interviews with espnW, the Associated Press and USA Today as evidence that the sports world is not ignoring Griner. In fact, Nelson says, “It would seem prurient if the Washington Post, for instance, after routinely ignoring women’s college basketball, suddenly shouted Griner’s sexual orientation from the front page.”

In addition, Griffin would like to see the focus move beyond professional sports. “College and high school is where athletes—male and female—are most vulnerable,” she says. “I would hate to see this conversation driven solely by ‘the first male pro athlete to come out.’”

Nelson would like to see gay college coaches included in the conversation. “When they start being openly ‘who they are,’ that will be newsworthy.”

In the future, she adds, “who’s gay, who’s straight, who’s bisexual or even transgendered will not be a big deal. That’s my goal, anyway: to create a world where human diversity is appreciated but not surprising.”

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