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Heterosexism in the Sports World

kaiApril and springtime of 2014 are already here. Has your Inner Athlete come out yet?! We’ve all got bodies, as well as minds, that need to be exercised and that love to be engaged and enjoyed. Whether you’re gay or straight, female or male, younger or older, physical activity and fitness are key to your vitality, empowerment and good health. Be sure to get up and out there every day, if you’re not already doing so. Raise your heart and breathing rates. Stretch. Break a sweat. Challenge yourself to go beyond your current physical and mental limits. It’s so worth it and you’ll feel so good!

Speaking of limits, kudos to Michael Sam, the all-American college football star from Missouri who shocked football and the world when he came out while the Olympics were on and before the NFL draft. With his future on the line, Sam has courageously refused to be closeted or be untruthful about his sexuality. At a packed press conference where he stood as the first-ever out NFL-bound player, Sam proudly wore a rainbow pin on his chest inscribed “Stand With Sam.” It’s important that we do!

When a beautifully handsome, talented, articulate, well-mannered 260-lb young man likes to be a mean defensive end, throw blocks and tackles, rush passers, and kiss and sleep with men instead of women, most people’s minds go on tilt. They don’t know what to do when confronted with the reality of such a person (especially when he’s black, thanks
to racism on top of heterosexism). Homophobes typically choose to discredit the individual, seeing him as an aberration, perhaps not really gay or not really a football player. And they rush to defend the supremacy of macho heterosexuals-only space, spewing specious arguments to damn gay people and keep us out of “their” games and the big leagues.

Sensei Jamie teaching Aikido in Jerusalem. PHOTO BY IGOR FARBEROV

Validating the talents, rights, and very existence of individuals such as Michael Sam—who break sex-role molds and fundamentally refute stereotypes—requires that people shift their perceptions and beliefs about both gender identity and who gay people are. Our society hasn’t known what to do with boys who like flowers and decorating more than football or rough-&-tumble competition. They’re name-called sissies, fairies and “girlie” right in line with the denigration of women and of LGBT people. It’s the same narrowly conditioned mindset that makes it so hard for people to comprehend a guy who’s gay and does like football.

That same mindset continues to be surprised by girls who prefer baseball mitts and hockey sticks to dollhouses or frills, and to call them tomboys and dykes. Since when does being athletic and strong mean a girl is male-identified or manly? Who says womanhood or femininity don’t go together with power, competitiveness, excellence, achievement? We saw on television that straight women can be enormously gifted, daredevil Winter Olympians, and that these top women can also be moms. Slowly but surely, perceptions and opportunities have been progressing for women in sports. But not in Sochi, and not in America, is it yet safe for elite female athletes to come out and say when they’re lesbians. And if they publicly married their same-sex partners or had children, their careers would really be done in!

Homophobia in sports seems to be rooted in the patriarchal effort to preserve traditional male dominance, and to continue the subjugation of women and disempowerment of gender-benders. That’s a big statement, about which books have been, and are being, written. Suffice it to say that much of sport glorifies male values, top-dog masculinity and testosterone-driven mentalities. Language that trashes women and bashes LGBT people still flows unchecked in locker rooms, behind the scenes and on-the-field. In the most “manly” sports, high school to high-paid pro athletes commit rape and violent crimes at alarming rates, and with even more alarming impunity from serious legal or economic consequences. That they often retain role-model status and command multi-million dollar contracts is only explicable in a still deeply misogynist and homophobic society.

Meanwhile, salaries, media coverage, and support for professional women’s sports literally pales in comparison to men. I remember watching late-night TV some years ago, when Tiger Woods and Annika Sorenstam were both winning golf tournaments like crazy. Jay Leno was interviewing Annika, whose records rivaled and even eclipsed Tiger’s. Jay asked about practice rounds the two were reputed to be playing together, and if they bet on the golf course, to which Annika pointedly replied, “Tiger makes 7 times more than I do.”

The LPGA, the most enduring (since 1950) and successful professional women’s athletic organization in any sport, is far from on-par with their male PGA counterparts in prize monies, tournament events and job opportunities. It has been resorting more to “sex-sells” strategies to gain fan interest and corporate sponsorships, and has seen only 2 star players feel able to come out through the years (Muffin Spencer-Devlin and Rosie Jones), despite the prevalence of lesbians amongst tour players and teaching pros.

Like music and art, sports are an integral part of our humanity. What images do you have of yourself as a physically active person? What ideas do you carry about boys and girls in sports, about femininity and masculinity, and about gay men and women as athletes, competitors and winners?

Every time an LGBT athlete comes out, entrenched sexist attitudes and heterosexist power structures are challenged. Like marriage equality, strides are being made, the playing field is shifting and strides are being made. Change is happening! Every woman and LGBT person who takes to the field is a heroine and a hero, breaking stereotypes, tearing down walls and shattering glass ceilings. As athletes at any level, we are redefining what have been patriarchically-determined gender “norms.” We are flinging doors open for the next generation, and for ourselves right now, to come out and play beyond limiting sex-role boundaries, to be as happy and healthy as can be, freed from ridiculous restrictions and embodying our own true selves, every moment of our lives.

For more information about Jamie Leno Zimron and her work, please visit  www.thekiaiway.com/