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Sports: Lesbian  
 
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Lesbians and athletics have been identified with each other since long before the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion alerted mainstream straight America that there was a large minority in its midst.

The relationship between women and sports has traditionally been problematic. Members of the dominant society have often tried to keep strong women in their place by labeling women of great achievement in any field "mannish" and "unnatural." Especially in sports, women have been encouraged to curb their competitive instincts and physical prowess by the fear of these labels.

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From Babe Didrikson in the 1930s and Billy Jean King in the 1970s to college athletes in 2000, outstanding female sportswomen have been rumored to be lesbians, even when they claimed to be straight and were married to men. While these rumors were usually intended to hurt and stigmatize, quite often they happened to be true.

Athletics and Lesbian Culture

The connection between lesbianism and athletic achievement is complex and many-faceted. It may be that young lesbians are drawn to athletics because they are attracted to women-only environments or because sports give young women an opportunity to take themselves seriously and to push their physical limits and develop their skills in ways that more traditionally "feminine" activities do not.

Whatever the reason, sports are undeniably a central part of lesbian culture.

A telling example of the importance of sports to lesbian culture is the fact that softball teams are cherished institutions in many lesbian communities. Indeed, joining a lesbian softball team is often the first move a new lesbian in town makes to meet other like-minded women.

Almost every major city has its own softball league (often with unmistakable marks of lesbian "processing," such as allowing team members to take turns coaching or softening rules according to players' individual strengths and weaknesses and needs).

More generally, whether it is participating in a community softball team, cheering on the local university women's basketball team, or watching Martina Navratilova smash a serve over the net on television, many lesbians love identifying with "jocks." Unfortunately, and discrimination have prevented many jocks from identifying themselves as lesbians.

Dragged Out

Those who have done so have usually been dragged out of the closet unwillingly. In 1981, Czech-born tennis star Martina Navratilova confided to a reporter that she was bisexual and involved in a relationship with lesbian writer Rita Mae Brown. She soon found her secret published in newspapers across the country. Even then, she was reticent about her sexual orientation until 1991, when a breakup with a subsequent lover, Judy Nelson, resulted in a highly publicized "palimony" suit.

Another tennis great, Billy Jean King, was also "outed" by an ex-lover's lawsuit in 1981. Even after the widely publicized legal battle, King continued to deny that she was a lesbian until 1998.

The Discrimination against Lesbians in Athletics

The pressure on female athletes to avoid the appearance--and taint--of lesbianism is enormous and fueled by discrimination. Discrimination against lesbians in athletics has been like lesbian participation in sports in that both have been, in the words of Liz Galst, "simultaneously blatant and hidden."

Because many colleges and universities have policies of non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, attacks on lesbians (or supposed lesbians) within athletic departments are usually indirect and veiled. However, in the hostile environments that often exist in athletic programs, mere rumors are often sufficient to affect negatively the career of a lesbian athlete or coach.

It is not uncommon for a coach to lose her job after rumors of her lesbianism surface, and recruiters sometimes spread rumors to disparage the coaches of rival teams. Even on college campuses that have active gay and lesbian associations and openly lesbian and gay faculty members in other departments, lesbian coaches and athletes are often afraid to come out to members of their own teams.

The Roots of Homophobia in Women's Sports

Perhaps the roots of homophobia in women's sports lie in the cultural assumption that sports are for men. While women who excel at athletics are frequently suspected of abnormality, the reverse is true for men: those who don't choose to participate in athletics and those who have no interest in sports teams are considered unusual, unnatural, perhaps even queer.

While participation in sports is a required part of the socialization of boys and young men, girls and young women who are drawn to athletic competition are perceived as stepping outside their acceptable sphere of socialization. They are often regarded as claiming something that belongs to men.

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