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Sports Literature: Lesbian  
 
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Given the high representation of lesbians in women's sports and the fact that athletes and gym teachers are virtual lesbian icons, it is remarkable that sports and sportswomen have played so minor a role in lesbian literature.

Female Athleticism and Gender Identity

Perhaps the paucity of attention to athletes and sports in lesbian literature is a reflection of the larger society's ambivalence toward female athleticism. Whereas male athleticism symbolizes mainstream culture's construction of masculinity, the female counterpart does not signify society's conception of femininity.

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Gay male authors often portray their gay male characters as athletes in order to demonstrate the normality of homosexuality, but such an option is not available to lesbian writers, for in the popular imagination, female athleticism is often regarded as a sign of confused gender identity.

If the gay male athlete defies the stereotype of male homosexuals as effeminate, the lesbian athlete tends to confirm the stereotype of the mannish lesbian. For all the fetishization of sports in our culture, the sportswoman is somewhat suspect--and what she is suspected of is lesbianism.

Lesbian Athletes and Coaches in Literature

When lesbian athletes and coaches appear in literature, they are frequently depicted as having stereotypically "masculine" athletic interests and values. For example, they tend to be fiercely competitive; for them, winning is the only thing. Such portrayals reflect the period when equal opportunity was the top priority for women's sports advocates.

However, more radical feminist challenges to mainstream sports have influenced some recent novels. These works present multidimensional lesbian characters who compete for reasons of personal fulfillment rather than to beat their opponents. Feminist influence is also evident in the celebration of the physical strength and muscularity of lesbian athletes and in the challenges to heterosexist definitions of female sexual attractiveness.

At the same time, however, a new stereotype emerges in some recent literature, where the lesbian athlete is portrayed as totally apolitical, in contrast to her feminist (and nonathletic) partner. More thoughtful approaches explore the tensions and contradictions experienced by various lesbian characters in relation to women's sports.

Whatever their perspective, most contemporary novelists acknowledge that the mere fact of being lesbian in sports is itself a political issue.

The Literary Association of Sports with Lesbians

The explicit association of sports with lesbians, although not a strongly developed theme in fiction, has a long history. Radycliffe Hall's influential novel The Well of Loneliness (1928), for example, emphasizes the athleticism of its protagonist.

As a young girl, Stephen Gordon is portrayed as strong and muscular, more adept at playing cricket and climbing trees than some of her male peers. She is contemptuous of girls of her age who have been raised to be fragile and delicate, and she dislikes traditional girls' play activities. At a young age, Stephen accompanies her father on horseback on the foxhunt, riding astride when "proper" girls and women were expected to ride side-saddle.

This early portrayal of a lesbian character with so-called masculine athletic interests and talents helped create the figure of the mythic mannish lesbian and foreshadowed many later fictional lesbian characters.

Another genre of fiction in the early decades of the century--the "schoolgirl stories" of novelists such as Elsie Oxenham and Angela Brazil--makes a connection between sports and intimate female friendships. The team sports and country dancing of the English private girls' school are central to many of these novels.

In the United States, to a lesser extent, women's college athletics inspired some juvenile fiction, such as the 1899 novels Vassar Stories by Grace Gallaher and Vassar Studies by Julia Schwartze. At the turn of the century, these all-female school and college contexts commonly gave rise to intense and intimate female relationships.

Such relationships are at the heart of Miss Pym Disposes, a 1946 novel by Josephine Tey, a British author of psychological mysteries. The main character is Miss Lucy Pym, and the setting is 1940s England, at the Leys Physical Training College, a women-only institution dedicated to training physical education teachers.

Only two of Tey's numerous female characters express romantic interest in men, and the notion of "crushes" or "raves" among the young women (or between the young women and their older instructors) is virtually taken for granted.

In contrast, by the 1940s, many authors of British "schoolgirl stories" had succumbed to public pressure to downplay intimate female friendships and to introduce heterosexual romances.

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