Monday, January 18, 2010

Closeted Lesbian Coaches: Chicken Shit or Caught in a Web of Homophobia and Sexism?

Last week while I was in Atlanta at the NCAA convention, I got an alert on my trusty Blackberry that Pia Lundhage, the lesbian United States women’s soccer coach, came out on Swedish TV. I am always excited when high profile athletes and coaches come out publicly. There are still so few who do that it is still a big deal to me. In Pia’s case, it’s not as if she was in the closet anyway, it’s just that she had not talked about being a lesbian in public before. I think it provides an educational moment when the press covers it and people react and have to think about the fact that another accomplished coach/athlete in a position of high visibility and responsibility is queer.

Anyway, at one of the receptions at the convention that evening I was talking to a woman who is a faculty rep working with the NCAA and her school’s athletic department. She is also a very out lesbian. We were talking about Pia’s coming out and I was saying that I thought this news was exciting. She responded that she thought that lesbian coaches should come out because, when they don’t, they are part of maintaining a hostile climate for LGBT people in athletics. Her take on the news was that closeted lesbian coaches are basically chicken shits who could come out if they wanted to and have a responsibility to if we are ever going to change the climate in athletics for LGBT people. I’m sure there are other people who would agree with her. There is a perception out there that it is easier for lesbian coaches and athletes than it is for gay male coaches and athletes to come out. If so, it follows that the lesbians who remain in the closet must be cowards who are holding back the cause of sports equality for all, right?

I respectfully disagree with my colleague at the NCAA convention and anyone else who thinks it is easy to be a lesbian in college athletics or that lesbians who don’t come out are cowards who, by their silence and invisibility, perpetuate the climate of fear. Would I love it if more women did come out publicly? You betcha! Do I think the silence and invisibility of lesbian coaches and athletes perpetuates homophobia in women’s sport? Yessiree, I do. What I don’t like and have a visceral reaction to is blaming closeted lesbian coaches for the perpetuation of homophobia in sport. It feels like blaming the victim to me and it comes from a place of privilege and safety whether the person expressing this perspective is gay or not.

Before we start calling out closeted LGBT coaches and athletes, let’s take a look at the failure of heterosexual coaches and athletic administrators to step up (as they say in the locker room) and take on the outrageous acts of homophobia that are still an all too common daily occurrence in sport. Let’s call to account coaches associations, athletic administrator associations, athletic conferences and national sport governing organizations for their complicity and silence, for their failure to take a stronger leadership role in challenging and sanctioning schools and individuals who actively discriminate or turn their back on acts of bigotry on teams and elsewhere in athletic departments. That is what enables and perpetuates the climate of fear and silence in athletics, not the lesbians and women who are presumed to be lesbians who are targeted by homophobia and heterosexism. Some of whom are also dealing with racism or other institutional and cultural injustices that add to the weight of homophobia and sexism that women coaches and athletes face.

Every one of these organizations is responsible when their leadership has not made these connections or has not recognized that silence equals consent, if not support, for the discrimination against lesbian coaches and athletes that is the reality in far too many schools: The AD who backs a coach who kicks a player off a team for being gay or makes her life so miserable that she quits, the school president who backs an AD for firing a lesbian coach using trumped up or plain false justification to hide the blatant prejudice behind the decision, the silence of a coaches’ association when a member is targeted by negative recruiting by another member, the refusal of an athletic administrators’ association to include programs on LGBT issues in sport on their national conference agenda, the athletic conference that lacks coaching ethics policies addressing anti-gay practices, the school that celebrate the successes of a lesbian coach as long as she hides her sexual orientation and enforces a code of secrecy on her players. This is what maintains the climate of silence and fear in women’s sports, not closeted lesbians who work within this hostile climate.

For every school, conference, athletic or coaching association, or sport governing organization that is working to address homophobia in women’s sport, there are many others who are not. I celebrate the efforts of the schools and organizations who have chosen to address this injustice and I salute the individual lesbian coaches and athletes who come out. That is why Pia Lundhage coming out is still a big deal and any other lesbian coach coming out will remain so until all of us, not just the closeted lesbians, take responsibility for changing the culture of fear and silence that sucks the joy out of sport.


calugg said...

Your colleague has some pretty interesting lives in a fairly expansive glass house, since she's a faculty rep working for the NCAA.

Mayhaps she should look at NCAA's own institutional homophobia. Does she demand that NCAA-related schools have mandatory anti-homophobia/transphobhia training for the entire coaching staffs? Is there a reporting system for homophobic/transphobic acts to be reported to and then investigated by the NCAA, and real sanctions imposed if allegations are substantiated?

*CRICKETS* I hear, chirping CRICKETS.

Talk about dangerous glass houses.

Anonymous said...

It is so easy to want others to do the work of fighting homophobia for us.. Coming out is so personal and much like running a marathon.... if it were easy, then everyone would do it.

Carol Anne (aka Scamp) said...

I am very late comment on this post. I just watched "Training Rules" and the bonus interview with Portland State University head coach, Sherri Murrell. She is an out lesbian, the only one I know of in Division 1.

To my delight, her PSU bio ends with this: "Murrell and her partner, Rena Shuman, welcomed twins Halle Jane and Rylan Patrick into their family on February 24, 2009."

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There is a perception out there that it is easier for lesbian coaches and athletes than it is for gay male coaches and athletes to come out.

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There is a perception out there that it is easier for lesbian coaches and athletes than it is for gay male coaches and athletes to come out.

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