Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Reflections on Caster Semenya’s Return to Competition

The IAAF has declared that South African runner Caster Semenya can resume competing in international women’s events. After an 11 month wait for this clearance Semenya has competed in three track meets in the past several days. She won two of her 800m races and finished third this past weekend.

The problem is that some of her competitors in the 800 meter race are complaining publicly to the press about her participation. Clearly this grumbling is not likely to go away soon and I am sure other competitors who are not speaking publicly share the perspectives shared by two particularly vocal athletes, British runner Jemma Simpson and Canadian Diane Cummins.

Two themes run through their comments. Their comments reflect the belief that Semenya, despite her clearance to participate, is not a “normal” woman. As Diane Cummins opined, "Even if she is a female, she's on the very fringe of the normal athlete female biological composition from what I understand of hormone testing. So, from that perspective, most of us just feel that we are literally running against a man."

Commenting on the perception that their comments are just sour grapes because they were beaten by Semenya, Cummins adds, “Jemma and I have been beaten tons of times by athletes who we feel are doing it in the realm of what is considered female.” Cummins also said, "There are guys who can challenge Usain Bolt but nobody can challenge Caster Semenya. She is four or five seconds better than any of us and that's incredible.” They do not consider Semenya in the “realm of what is considered female” even though Semenya was beaten by two other women last weekend.

The second theme in their comments is that they feel that their rights and voices are being ignored and that Semenya’s participation threatens the “level playing field.” It’s just not fair from their perspective. Jemma Simpson commented, "It's obviously a human rights issue but human rights affect everyone in the race, not just one person. The rest of the field just gets ignored." Cummins added, "As athletes we feel frustrated because everyone is allowed to give their opinion except us. If we give an honest opinion, we're either seen as bad sports or we're not happy because we're being beaten.”

Simpson notes a PC element to the conversation that she obviously feels silences the voices of the “normal” women, "No way is it a personal issue but it's a debate about what is right and fair for everyone. It's a really tough subject and a lot of people are very careful about what they say. You have to be.”

Simpson again, reflecting some conflict in her perspective, “She's just been allowed to come back on the scene and we're expected just to get on with it. It's fair to an extent but I think we all just want a fair level playing field out there. It would be nice to just – I know it's really none of our business – but it would just be nice to be reassured more than anything."

To be fair to these women, this is a challenging issue. Gender is way more complicated than the nice neat little separate boxes we are invited to check off on forms. Nonetheless most of us operate as if it were just that simple. Certainly the sports world does. You have your men’s sports and your women’s sports. Unfortunately, it isn’t so simple and never has been. It is not surprising that some of Semenya’s competitors are confused and feel that they are being asked to accept a competitive situation that puts them at a disadvantage. They train hard and rely on having a “level playing field” on which to compete and apparently no one has provided them with any information to challenge the prejudices they have about Semenya.

It is interesting to note that outstanding performances by women athletes throughout history have opened these athletes to gender criticism that, as in Semenya’s case, focused on whether or not they were ”normal” women. Babe Didrikson was vilified as an “unfeminine muscle moll.” Sports writers commented on her “masculine” appearance all the time. She intimidated her competitors too and won most of the golf tournaments she entered. In her prime, some of her opponents characterized the experience of facing Martina Navratilova’s powerful game as “like playing a man.” The legendary rivalry between Navratilova and Chris Evert was called “Beauty and the Beast.” Guess who was the beast. Amelie Mauresmo was called “half a man” by rival Martina Hingis. Though Serena Williams was not compared to a man, racist perceptions of her muscular black body created similar reactions that she was somehow not a “normal” woman and had a physical advantage over her less muscular white opponents.

Of course, it wasn’t just about femininity, it was about sexuality too. Babe, Martina and Amelie played their sports too well. They did not conform to feminine and heterosexual expectations. What does it say about women’s sports that we vilify our outstanding performers who do not easily fit in the gender and sexuality box they were assigned at birth?

The problem is that Semenya’s competitors’ comments reflect belief in a gender/sex binary that doesn’t exist. The two separate boxes most of us check off to describe who we are do not reflect the realities of gender as it is lived by many people or the bodies that some of us inhabit. Determining who is eligible to compete in either men’s or women’s sports is a matter of drawing a line somewhere along a spectrum of gender. Where that line is drawn must be based on the best information we have about gender and athletic performance. That is the only way to maintain the integrity of a sports model that is based on separating most sport competitions by sex. The alternative is to eliminate sex as a sports participation category altogether: A step I am not ready to take. I believe more girls and women have opportunities to participate in sport when sports competition are divided by sex, at least starting in high school, than would so if we eliminated sex as a participation category in sport.

The level playing field these athletes refer to in their comments about Semenya is a relative thing. Some would say it is a myth. Athletic competition is about gaining a competitive advantage. It’s what all athletes do to win. It’s just that we have deemed some advantages to be within the realm of fairness and “normalcy” and others not. We recognize and accept as part of the game some genetic advantages that make a few athletes exceptional, but not others, perhaps especially when those characteristics are related to gender.

Just as Babe, Martina, Amelie and Serena challenge normative gender expectations about athletic performance and how we define “woman”, Caster Semenya’s participation in women’s sport is challenging us to acknowledge the reality of a gender spectrum that contradicts the myth of a gender binary. How we respond to Caster Semenya’s self-affirmed identity as a woman and how we make room for her in women’s sports says a lot about how far we have to go in challenging sexism, homophobia and racism in sport. My sense is, judging by the reactions of some of Semenya’s competitors, that we have a long way to go (baby).

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Diana Nyad: Force of Nature at 60

When I was a few months from turning 60 (five years ago), I decided to train for and swim the Provincetown Harbor Swim for Life: A mile and a half distance from Long Point at the tip of Cape Cod to the beach at the Boat Slip. I got myself a new wet suit and dove into the water. I swam every day increasing my distance, doing some intervals, swimming in pools and open water. This swim is a fund raiser for human service organizations in PTown so I enlisted the financial support of friends to help me raise some money by sponsoring my swim. I had completed the swim before several years ago during the triathlon phase of my life, but hadn’t done any real swim training since 1994 for the Gay Games triathlon in NYC. My PTown swim seemed like a great way to welcome myself to the big 60. And it was just that.

On the day of the swim in early September, the sky was overcast. I and 300 other swimmers waded into the waters off Long Point and looked to the roof of the Boat Slip off in the distance. The water was cold and choppy enough that I gave up bilateral breathing to avoid taking in sea water every time I took a breath on my right, but other than that, it was a great swim. I completed the swim in a satisfying 60 minutes and celebrated with friends on the beach.

Fast forward five years. Diana Nyad, a world class distance swimmer; media commentator; motivational speaker; fitness guru and one of the Out 100 of 2009 named by Out Magazine, is 60 and to mark her milestone birthday she is swimming from Cuba to Key West, a distance of 103 miles. Yes, that is no typo…103 miles. The swim will take her 40-60 hours to complete. She will be in shark infested waters and swimming without a shark cage. She hopes to be the first person to accomplish this feat. She tried to complete this swim in 1979 (with a cage), but had to stop as weather and sea currents made reaching her goal impossible. Now at 60 she wants to attend to this unfinished business, this gap in her impressive athletic resume.

Therein lies the difference between Diana Nyad and most other human beings, certainly between little old me and Diana. Me: A mile and a half in Provincetown harbor and beer waiting at the Boat Slip. Diana: 103 miles without a cage in shark infested water. She is a force of nature. Anyone who has ever heard her give one of her motivational talks, drawing on her own experiences as a world record setting distance swimmer knows that she can raise the hair on your neck and inspire you. She can make you laugh and make you cry.

I have spent time with Diana many times over the last 30 years. We’ve been on panels together talking about LGBT issues in sport, I’ve been part of her audience numerous times to hear her speak. I’ve been to Women’s Sports Foundation galas where she was the emcee, I’ve been a guest on her nationally syndicated radio show. On an Olivia cruise, a few years ago, she asked permission to and then rubbed her hand over my spiky short hair and proclaimed that it felt like a “bear’s belly.” I have no doubt that she would know. Sharks, bears, 103 miles – she is fearless.

I will be following Diana’s swim which she is planning to complete sometime this month. I invite you to also. She is a women’s sports pioneer who is setting an example for all of us 60 and over (and those under 60 for that matter). If she can swim from Cuba to Key West, what kind of goals can we set for ourselves?

I just started swim training again last month. I dug my favorite goggles out of an old gym bag and got myself back in the water. I did not make the connection between Diana’s swim and my return to the water until I started writing this post, but I am sure Diana’s audacity inspired me. You go, girl! I’m rooting for you.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Eliminating Homophobia in Men’s Professional Sports: Whose Responsibility Is It?

I have come across several articles lately focused on the issue of gay professional male athletes coming out. This one and this one are examples of the kind of articles I’ve seen. Both articles speculate about why it is that no male professional team sport athletes in the United States have come out while they are still actively competing. Some articles cite the distraction that would undoubtedly be part of the sports media frenzy accompanying this announcement and how gay athletes might not want to become the GAY athlete. Other writers speculate that the loss of corporate sponsorship opportunities and negative reactions from teammates or fans are the factors that keep gay professional athletes in the closet.

Lebron James and other pro athletes have opined about the lack of acceptance or downright hostility that they predict would await any teammate who comes out publicly. To be fair a few other pros have, in contrast, expressed the belief that any teammate’s sexual orientation is irrelevant and what counts is the player’s contribution to the team’s success on the field ( Johnny Damon, Detroit Tigers and former Yankee, Mike Mussina, for example). When players talk about their discomfort with having a gay teammate, it usually comes down to the locker room, the sanctity of the locker room. LeBron described the necessity of teammates being “trustworthy” and his belief that having a gay man in the locker room would break this bond among teammates. Other players have expressed the more naked (so to speak) discomfort with the possibility that a gay teammate might look at their penis in the showers. I don’t know about you, but I find it a little strange that these big strong guys, the culturally designated epitome of masculinity are afraid that a gay man might sneak a peek at their wee wees.

I wonder if the whole thing isn’t more that this though. I wonder if the resistance to accepting a gay man in the locker room and on the team doesn’t have more to do with the fragility of masculinity and the illusion of superiority that being a heterosexual male athlete confers on the chosen ones who get to be part of that “band of brothers” sharing that locker room. I wonder if some guys worry that if a gay man is tough and talented enough to make the team and earns his right to be in that locker room, then the whole experience of being a pro team sport athlete is cheapened in their eyes. The whole bonding thing among male teammates becomes suspect.

Perhaps this is all academic clap trap, but it is worth thinking about. It makes sense to me if you take a broader view of the function of homophobia and the role it plays in sustaining heterosexual male privilege. I think homophobia plays a similar role in the resistance to the acceptance of women’s sports. The presence of seriously talented women athletes and equal opportunities in sport for all women in sport also is seen as an invasion on the sacred heterosexual male turf of sport.

But I am digressing. The point I wanted to make is that focusing on when an individual gay male professional team sport athlete comes out is interesting, but places the emphasis in the wrong place. It really isn’t about the brave and pioneering gay man who will come out sooner or later while he is still playing.

Though I will be thrilled to greet his announcement, it alone will not change the homophobic culture of men’s sports. Buried in Scott Gyurina’s Bleacher Report article is the following quote, “The responsibility cannot be laid on the shoulders of the gay athletes, it is not their responsibility to make the culture open and accepting for them. It is the duty of all of us to let go of our prejudice and preconceived notions in order to make it acceptable for people to feel free to open and honest, unafraid of repercussions for being true to who they are.”

John Amaechi took some heat from the gay press a few months ago for cautioning gay male athletes about coming out and tamping down expectations for any who do in the near future. He was accused of contradicting the common wisdom among many gay rights activists that coming out is always a good thing for all LGBT people, the sooner the better. I think many people missed John’s point though. He was trying to put the focus where it belongs – on the culture of men’s sports, on heterosexual male pro athletes and coaches, on athletic leaders. He was trying to point out how unreasonable it is to expect an individual athlete to change a social institution, especially if the individual is unprepared for being a social change advocate.

I am not discounting the power of individuals in social change. I have witnessed some pretty transformative experiences as a result of individual LGBT people coming out. Research also tells us that knowing individual LGBT people as friends, colleagues, family members or teammates does affect heterosexual people’s attitudes about LGBT people in general. However, we cannot place the responsibility of changing men’s sports culture on the backs of individual gay male athletes who come out.

We need more heterosexual men in sport to step up, to be team leaders, to have the courage to speak out publicly against homophobia in men’s sports and in support of gay rights in general. Fortunately we are beginning to see some role models who are doing just that in professional and college sports. Scott Fujita, a Cleveland Browns player; Hudson Taylor, University of Maryland wrestler; Jim Tressel, Ohio State Football coach; and Brian Burke, Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager are a few of these outspoken men. We need more heterosexual athletes, coaches, team owners and general managers who are willing to be public allies to their closeted colleagues and help their gay-challenged brethren to at least show a little more maturity, respect and class when someone sticks a microphone in front of their mouth.

We need to make it cool to speak out against homophobia and uncool and cowardly to speak out against the inclusion of LGBT people in sport and other social institutions. Outsports posted this web site where ordinary, everyday people of all sexual orientations are speaking out against homophobia. We need more role models and opportunities for heterosexual men to speak up for respect and fairness and against fear and prejudice in and out of sport.

That is how we will create the space for individual gay male professional athletes to come out without the risk of sacrificing all they have worked for to reach the professional ranks in order to simply live openly. I’d love to see the next bunch of articles on gay male professional athletes coming out focus on changing heterosexual male athletes’ attitudes and the homophobic culture of men’s sports rather than focusing on how an individual gay man needs to come out into it.