Homophobia in sports has been in the news quite a bit lately. Several sports players have been fined in recent months for making homophobic comments or posting homophobic tweets on Twitter, leading some players and others involved in sports to wonder why there are so few openly gay athletes and what can be done about this.
There have also been a number of news stories about how homophobia can be tackled, with claims that if sports become more LGBTQ-friendly, this can have a trickle-down effect, so that society in general becomes more open to queers. Sports, it is argued, are so important to so many people that the various teams and players can potentially have a huge impact on a wide strata of society.
To start to combat the problems, the Football Association has recently released a short film about homophobia in football and not long ago there was the BBC documentary about homophobia and football, presented by Amal Fashanu, niece of Justin Fashanu, thus far the only out gay footballer in British history.
Of course, there are a few brave, out stars in sports other than football, such as tennis player Martina Navratilova (who has been called a bad role model for young tennis players because she is an out lesbian) and rugby player Gareth Thomas. But there are certainly not as many as one would hope.
So far, none of these attempts at change have really extended to literature. In general, when there are LGBTQ characters in novels, they do not play sports. In terms of female characters, the only athlete I have found is Mike, in Julie Ann Peters' novel Far from Xanadu.
Mike is a rather stereotyped butch dyke; besides the typically male name, she also runs a plumbing company and she is a star softball player. Softball is considered a lesbian sport in the U.S., where the book takes place. Another novel with lesbians playing softball is Karin Kallmaker's Paperback Romance, but there the characters are not athletes as such; they simply enjoy spending time with their primarily lesbian team doing a stereotypically lesbian activity.
Gay male athletes are also notably absent. This may be due to the stereotype that gay men are too "effeminate" to be athletic.
When there are gay male sports players, there generally is what I term a "shower scene." What happens in a shower scene is that a gay athlete comes out, or is outed, and then his teammates express fear about showering with him. They worry that the gay athlete will stare at them in the shower or even go so far as to molest them, taking advantage of their nakedness.
For example, in Rainbow High by Alex Sanchez, two of the characters are sports stars who have to deal with constant homophobia from their teammates. The teammates do not want to shower with them or share a hotel room with them on trips to matches, and they call them "fag." Nothing much is done about any of this.
In that novel, Jason even worries that he might lose his sports scholarship to a university because he is gay. He seems unaware that such discrimination actually might be illegal.
And in Robin Reardon's A Secret Edge, Jason is a runner. When he finally comes out to his coach, Jason asks if he is off the team because of his homosexuality. The coach responds, "Not unless you're accosting the other boys in the showers, no." The coach might be teasing, but this a fear that the teammates of gay athletes regularly express.
Actually, though, it turns out that it isn't Jason or his boyfriend and fellow-athlete Raj who do the accosting; rather, it is Raj who gets beaten up by homophobic bullies.
The fact that there are so few LGBTQ athletes in literature and that those who do exist face homophobic bullying and discrimination reflects the greater society. As already mentioned, some people are working hard to change this situation or at least to draw attention to it. Whether through documentaries, newspaper articles, or simply by being proudly out, these people are to be respected and thanked for their efforts.
Athletes such as Gareth Thomas, Martina Navratilova, and Swedish footballer Anton Hysen serve as strong role models for future generations, despite the claims to the contrary from those who are prejudiced.
But as long as gay athletes are scared to come out, because they worry about what their teammates and fans might think or even because they fear for their safety and their future, society will not recognize that it is possible to be both gay and sporty. This may mean that athletic young people who are LGBTQ will choose other careers, because they believe sports are not open to them.
And that will be the sports world's loss.
Follow B.J. Epstein on Twitter: www.twitter.com/bjepstein