Thursday, March 5, 2009

College Student-Athlete Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay Teammates

This article is a report of an interesting informal email survey of student-athletes at Bryn Mawr-Haverford College in Pennsylvania about their perspectives on lesbian and gay teammates. A few gay, lesbian and bi athletes also talk about their experiences with straight teammates. OK, granted these are Division 3 athletes at small relatively elite schools and I have found that the climate is generally more open and accepting in Division 3 schools. Nonetheless, their comments, both men and women, are generally positive and thoughtful. They do note a difference in the climate for gay athletes on men’s teams: Women’s teams are generally perceived to be more open. I’ve also noted this difference when I speak to collegiate student-athletes. I think it would be fair to say that I’ve never spoken to a group of athletes where it was NOT the general consensus that women’s teams are more open and accepting than men’s teams are, especially the men’s team sports.

It Takes A Team completed an evaluation project of how viewing our DVD and discussing LGBT issues in sports affected the perspectives of collegiate student-athletes. We developed a 10 item pre-post survey which student-athletes completed before and after viewing the video and discussing the topic of LGBT people in sport. One of the most interesting results was that there was no significant difference in the perspectives of men and women athletes on having a gay teammate or coach. They were all fairly positive before and became more positive after viewing and discussing the video. It is true that we did not do any long term follow up, so it might be that our short-term results were not reliable. However, if we assume that the results of our survey fairly describe the perspectives of the athletes in our evaluation project, what does it mean that the men’s attitudes about gay teammates fly in the face of conventional wisdom about the chilly climate in men’s sports as compared to women’s sports?

I have a theory, untested, but interesting to think about. I wonder if individual men, even football players, who have the reputation of being most hostile about gay teammates whether deserved or not, are more open in private than they are willing to express in front of their teammates. Is it possible that individual male athletes writing anonymous answers are more likely to express their personal perspectives rather than the one they think their teammates would agree with?

If the men’s locker room is a place where “fag” jokes and slurs are commonplace, it would take a strong and independent team member to object to this talk or express acceptance of gay teammates. I could see how some men might join in just to go along. I suspect that to express a different, more accepting point of view in this context might invite a lot of teasing and perhaps suspicion about why he was speaking up. So, might it be that there are lots of guys in that locker room who don’t participate in the “fag” bashing talk and don’t agree with it, but remain silent about their beliefs?

The concept of the “Bystander” is used often when educating about bullying, sexual harassment or other forms of abuse to describe people who are present and observe this behavior, but do nothing to object to or stop it. I’m wondering how many bystanders there are on men’s teams when it comes to creating a hostile or intolerant climate in men’s sports. I’m wondering if the number of male athletes who are actively anti-gay is actually a small minority and it is the large numbers of bystanders who enable the persistence of the perception that men’s sports is a hostile place for gay men.

I’ve also thought that the concept of “social norming” is a useful way to think about changing the climate in men’s sports. Social norming is used a lot on campuses to change attitudes about the abuse of alcohol. Briefly, the idea is to make students aware that it is a small minority of students who drink to excess and that most students do not think it is cool to get puking drunk every weekend. I wonder if this might apply to homophobia in men’s sports. If male athletes knew that anti-gay attitudes were in the minority on their teams and that most of their teammates were open and accepting of gay teammates, would it empower those silent bystanders to speak up more? Would it help to change the conventional wisdom that men’s (team) sports are dangerous places for gay men to come out? Would it make it uncool to be homophobic? Would it silence the anti-gay minority? Would it begin to change their perspectives? Am I a Pollyanna?

I’d be interested to hear what you think about all this.

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