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Sexism and Homophobia in Sports: A Co-Dependency That Needs Our Attention

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MATT BIRK
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With every week, "homophobia in sport" grows as a common talking point in mainstream media, a vague catchphrase to explain specific and convoluted problems in athletics, problems like the lack of openly LGBT athletes and the use of anti-LGBT insults. The phrase cropped up just this week when NFL Ravens center Matt Birk wrote an opinion column against marriage equality in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Rarely, however, do the media or advocates in this space address the complicated nuances of homophobia or flesh out its relationship to other biases, like racism and sexism. Sexism in particular sustains homophobia, and vice versa. The two operate co-dependently to oppress victims of all genders and sexual orientations. With no part of our culture exemplifying this pathological relationship better than sports, it becomes clear that tackling homophobia in sport requires a simultaneous, equally vigorous effort to tackle sexism in sport.

Athletics is a gendered space. Sports value traits traditionally and prejudicially associated with masculinity, like physical strength, prowess, and athleticism. Though these traits are valued across all sports by both genders -- from football to horse racing to competitive cheerleading -- male and female athletes manage their associations and develop cultures around these traits very differently. Specifically, men's sports pursue and embrace masculine associations, while women's sports struggle to curb them. That difference can be largely explained as a reaction to and an attempt to mitigate the wrath of homophobia.

LGBT individuals are subjected to stereotypes that conflict with traditional gender norms. Gay men are often stereotyped as uniquely feminine, and lesbians as uniquely masculine, compared with their heterosexual counterparts. As a result, gay men are unfairly perceived as less athletic. Female athletes, on the other hand, are often assumed to be lesbians because they are athletic. This prejudicial assumption in women's sports creates a hostile environment for athletes perceived as lesbian, who might be shunned for "perpetuating" or "validating" the stereotype that women athletes are masculine or gay. Perhaps an attempt to compensate for lesbian stereotyping is a surprisingly high use of sexist language (often used interchangeably with homophobic language) among female athletes. I learned that brutal lesson the moment I heard a well-respected female strength coach tell one of my teammates to "take his tampon out" when she felt he wasn't lifting sufficient weight.

This year's Olympics exemplified the leaps and bounds that sport goes to in preserving gender stereotypes -- in feminizing women's sports, masculinizing men's sports, and heterosexualizing the experience at large. For example, women gymnasts performed to upbeat music to add femininity, cadence, and grace to their performances, while male gymnasts launched into the air against an intense silence, showcasing strength and austerity. Female athletes were often subjected to skirted uniforms with no utility other than to feminize, and men were excluded from sports like synchronized swimming, which has a strong male following but employs stereotypically feminine choreography.

The media and marketing industries perpetuate this problem. Sexist advertising, offensive beer commercials, and the like are nothing new to sporting events, but media coverage of sports encourages gender stereotypes therein with much more subtle and insidious practices. A common example: Post-competition coverage of sporting events look very different depending on the genders of the athletes featured. In women's sports, a newly medaled athlete is often shown rejoicing with her spouse or children. Seeking support and celebration from her family, she is represented in relation to them as "girlfriend", "wife," or "mother." The same footage of male athletes in winning moments shows them jolting their trophies into the sky and celebrating with teammates. They are depicted in relation to their sport as iconic victors for their audience and leaders for their teams.

The fact that it's national news when an athlete uses an anti-LGBT slur makes most seasoned activists take pause in celebration and, in some cases, revelation over how far we have come. Mainstream media are finally recognizing and challenging homophobia in sport, which is an incredible advancement resulting from decades of courageous work. But this kind of improvement simply does not exist in the battle against sexism. How often does Yahoo! or ESPN cover stories where an athlete mumbles a sexist slur on air? And further, how often do we notice it and rally for an apology? Not often enough.

Volunteers, advocates, and leaders in the LGBT advocacy space: We must demand such coverage, challenge sexism when we see it, and highlight its relevance to our larger purpose. To amplify this effort, let us dig deeper to dismantle anti-LGBT prejudice in sport, from all angles and in all its incarnations, sexism being chief among them.