The Locker as Closet

Queer activists say, "We are everywhere." So where are the gays in high-performance sports?

by Joe Clark

First published 1992

A few years ago, I did Halloween right for a change. I bummed a hockey stick, a pair of gloves, and a helmet off a friend who was playing the game before he could spell. I put on the flaming red hockey shirt I bought for a pittance at the Goodwill-- the one with the oddly arty logo of "Bronte Family Restaurant, Deli & Tavern" on the front. I couldn't fit shoulder pads under the shirt, and the helmet dug into my temples, but I didn't care. From the hips up, I was all set.

Down below, the madras skirt that my girlfriend-- an actual chromosomal female, I mean-- had pinned into submission around my most unladylike waist set off the hockey s(ch)tick nicely. I was cursing my lousy planning for not having nylons and a man-sized pair of heels, but the point was made, and I looked fabulous. The only problem was the litany of queens who chuckled and asked me, "Are you Wayne Gretzky?" I was the hit of the homosexual mega-dance I attended, and the reasons why have less to do with camp than the troubled relationship gay men have with sports.

The combination of sports and sex hardly dared to speak its name before Magic Johnson (and, to a lesser extent, Wilt "20,000" Chamberlain) came along. Lips are sewn even more tightly shut to the topic of sports and homosex. Even now, Martina Navratilova and Justin Fashanu, a British soccer player, remain the only two active high-level athletes-- and by that I mean a professional, a prominent college player, or a (proto-)Olympian-- who've had the guts to come out and buck the macho strictures of athletic identity. A number of retirees have kicked down the closet door-- David Kopay (pro football), Dave Pallone (baseball umpire), Bruce Hayes (Olympic swimming), and most recently Glen Burke (baseball)-- but doesn't it say something that these guys had to leave their sports before they felt they could be honest about who they are?

Then again, Fashanu (stress on first syllable) is out of the closet and he's still playing-- has been, in fact, for 14 years, on teams ranging from Nottingham Forest to the Toronto Blizzard. He even played for Wimbledon when they won the FA cup, and on the British national team. His coming-out in October 1990 in an interview with the Sun, the London tabloid Fashanu chose specifically for its soccer-mad readership, engendered "a lot of shock and disbelief; then after that there's been a lot of negativity from certain aspects of my profession. The press, of course, have used it to either play one end against another, because I've got a professional footballer as a [straight] younger brother."

Making matters even more delicate was the fact that Fashanu had become the first black footballer to receive a 1-million-pound salary just before coming out, and that he's black and gay (and, for that matter, a devout Christian). The Voice (billing itself as "Britain's best black newspaper!") called Fashanu's coming-out "an affront to the whole black community." But The Voice played a game of musical editors soon after, and the fire-breathing has ended.

Fashanu's teammates don't seem to care. "It doesn't really come up. I've been in the business a long time, so they're not going to be able to level anything against me as a professional, because I've been a professional longer than most of the players. But the situation is that to my face they're fine; it's a case of what people say behind your back. You never know."

Though he had "a lot of offers" from outside England, for a while British clubs wouldn't touch him. "I'm very high-profile, and it's not from playing football that I'm very high-profile; it's with things off the field. And I haven't yet managed to sign a contract and start playing and be accepted, and I think that those fears-- I'm waiting to see if they can be dispelled or not." In December, after nearly going under trying to pay the bills for American arthroscopic surgery without a soccer gig, Fashanu finally signed on with an English team, Torquay United (yes, Torquay, the home of Fawlty Towers).

As Fashanu's experience shows, it's tricky to be out, but in sports it's men, not women, who face the greater sanctions for being queer. Women are resented in the masculine domain of athletics, since the coveted qualities of competitiveness and strength are supposed to be the reserve of men. If you expect women to be soft and passive, you're sure to be threatened to encounter women who outrun the male athletes of the '40s, as the top women runners do today. "Women athletes?" the thinking goes. "They're all dykes anyway, so what difference does it make if Martina really is one?" Women athletes are dismissed, so lesbian athletes are dismissed.

Masculinity, says Brian Pronger, is the root of the conflict in the gay-male interaction with sport. A lecturer in ethics at the University of Toronto's School of Physical and Health Education, Pronger's 1990 book The Arena of Masculinity (St. Martin's Press) is an exhaustive analysis of gay men in sport. Equal parts sociocultural theory and anecdote-- Pronger picked the brains of over thirty gay men in athletics-- the book blames hypermasculinity for the alienation from sports that gay men commonly feel. But Pronger contends that those gay men who do partake of sports are living out a different, ironic form of masculinity, implicitly acknowledging patriarchy while subverting it by being queer. That, in effect, is why I could get away with wearing two kinds of drag to my Halloween party.

"Both straight men and gay men-- men in general-- are fascinated with masculinity," Pronger says. "They live it. Sport is a place where that gets to shine. It's a major part of sport.

"That's why men are so fascinated by sports. People who don't want to be consciously aware of or admit to the homoerotic part talk about the numbers of it, the scores, the salaries. That's because masculinity in our culture is homophilic and homophobic."

Athletes are gorgeous, inviting aesthetic and physical appreciation, but the competitive behaviour central to many sports makes you think twice about showing that appreciation. Take football: Where else could you enter a secluded room full of men, take off your clothes together, don garments that make you look like Superman, and bash other guys on the field? (That's the part they never show in gay porn, which otherwise strip-mines the athletic unconscious.) Later, all those "sweaty football mens"-- as In Living Color's Antoine and Blaine would call them-- strip off the Superman garb layer by layer and shower together in the nude. The homoerotica is obvious, but few are willing to admit it. Silence, when not equalling death, builds up a culture of exclusion for gay men in sports.

That doesn't mean gay men don't like athletics or aren't suited to them, though Pronger disdains the argument that playing sports "proves that we're just like everyone else"; ever the fifth columnist, he says it "goes against the best things of being gay," i.e., different. Though the ubiquity of weight-training has added words like "pecs," "ripped" and "sets" to the common argot, it was the sport's early base of gay participants striving for a more fuckable bod that put it on the map. (Even today, many "mixed" gyms downplay the extent and influence of their gay clientele.) Gay swimming, running, softball, and volleyball clubs are established enough to run international tournaments and go on road trips, just like the teams so many gays felt unwelcome to join back in high school.

And then there's the Gay Games: While we're waiting for New York to host them in '94, it's easy to forget that the 6,000-odd athletes in Vancouver made the 1990 Gay Games the largest athletic event of that year-- vastly surpassing the concurrent Goodwill Games, which received an order of magnitude more media attention. Canada's national sports network, imaginatively named the Sports Network, ran no specials and avoided even cursory mention during newscasts that the Gay Games were on at all. A spokesperson later told me the network had to accentuate the popular, as if a few million potential gay and straight viewers didn't count.

But, it could be argued, the Gay Games were an amateur competition, and the media love pros, not weekend warriors. Fans, too, adopt pro athletes as larger-than-life heroes, but that entrains another irony, since in many ways a pro athlete's life is not his own. He has to make the team every year, and if he's "lucky," he also has a sponsorship contract, which means appeasing the anxieties of corporate culture. Surrounding a gay pro athlete in money is like dipping him in amber: He's lovely to look at, but once in, he's stuck.

When David Kopay was playing pro football in the 1970s, corporate sponsorship wasn't riding at the GNP-of-an-African-country levels it is now. As the first pro football player to come out, Kopay has been around long enough to witness the effect of commercialization on gay players. "There has been a major star who was a big hit on some of the beer commercials," Kopay says, "and I know, from a personal friend, of his gayness, yet he's getting lots and lots of money from, you know, selling beer, and being involved in a lot of different things and getting paid for it. So he's not going to come out, I guess.

"If you take some of our Olympic stars that did so great and showed so much unbelievable, amazing grace and competitive nature and all that, [they] would realize that `the rumours about them' have kept them from getting that big-time major endorsement, have taken them off the Wheaties box, and the straight world really doesn't give a damn about them. Why not at least get 25 million other people behind him and speak out?"

Well, that's what Queer Nation had in mind when, in the politest way conceivable for that group, it zapped champ-een diver Greg Louganis at a 1990 book-signing. Guy Trebay reported at the time that the purpose was to tell Louganis that "as members of the lesbian and gay community... we would love to have you as an out member." For whatever reason, Louganis has not taken up their offer. (This after Time suggested in 1984 that the easy-on-the-eyes Louganis gained points by just standing erect on the diving board. And aren't diving judges mostly men?)

Presumably a very high-level athlete, especially one with a well-known sponsorship contract, would be in the best position to come out, since any reprisals would be front-page news. Bruce Hayes thinks so. Hayes swam the anchor leg in the 800-metre freestyle relay at the L.A. Olympics, winning a gold medal at age 21. Though he knew he was gay even then-- in a sex-segregated sport whose participants are all but nude most of the time-- the pressures of competitive swimming kept his sexuality repressed.

But after L.A., Hayes retired from swimming altogether (he now swims on gay teams), and freed of the obsession of competition, Hayes began to come out. Perhaps it's hindsight that lets him say, "The more [athletes] that come out the better, and particularly somebody who's still competing, who's still in the limelight, so to speak, and can really be a role model, an example, to other gays and lesbians and also to the straight community, I think, to debunk a lot of these stereotypes that go around about gays and their lack of athletic ability and that sort of thing. I just think that would be invaluable."

In David Kopay's experience, teammates usually don't care one way or another about queer players; it's the coaches and managers who get uptight. "I think it's more to do with management of the teams rather than players themselves," says Kopay, now 49 and a floor-coverings salesperson. "I really don't believe the players give a big hoot one way or the other, and when I was playing, a number of players on our team, after nine years of doing the things I was supposed to do and being the tough guy, I was quite respected by those players, and they never, ever gave me a hard time.

"In fact they used to [treat me] kind of in a kidding sort of way. I remember once me and Jerry [Smith, another gay player] went out and one of the guys said, `Well, if you find something really interesting, why don't you bring it back here?' They were pretty wild guys in terms of maybe just their own fantasies or whatever, you know."

(But try getting athletic organizations to even discuss the topic of gays in sport and you'll gain new insight into the relationship between heads and brick walls. The Toronto Blue Jays, Maple Leafs, and Argonauts-- a CFL team-- wouldn't talk, though Argos spokesperson Peter Grossi did explain that "we don't get involved in issues like that, making judgements like that. We're only a football club." Grossi said he wouldn't comment on a story about racism in sports, either: "We don't make statements on those particular issues." The Major League [baseball] Players' Association wouldn't return calls, and all Doug Allen of the NFL Players Association would say on the record is "I don't think that's a subject that I feel qualified to comment on and do it justice.")

So whoever's out is out almost alone-- yet another case of loneliness haunting the lives of queer people. Gay athletes have a lot to worry about. Is every downturn in their careers due to homophobia? And though coming out may enhance a person's integrity, is it worth the price to be in the spotlight, to give bigots a ready-made reason whenever you trip up? What, in effect, is the price of freedom? Brian Pronger puts it this way: Gay athletes "have to think about what they're doing in sport. Does it really mean only a gold medal? If it does mean something more, it's an expression of what they believe in. By covering up as gay people, what they're saying is they believe in hypocrisy."

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