HuffPost recently cited a report from OutSports on the number of out gay Olympians in the 2012 games: 20 women and three men, roughly 0.2 percent of the 11,000 athletes competing in London. We all suspect that there are hundreds of gay men and women competing — well, maybe not hundreds, but certainly enough for a kiki. Factor in the gay judges, coaches, and volunteers, and the Olympics is practically a circuit party.
The Olympic Games are a high-profile example of the way that professional sports have largely effaced gays and lesbians, by both denying our existence as athletes and doing little to support us publicly. Case in point: There is still not one male athlete I can name who is out and currently playing professional football, baseball, soccer, hockey, basketball, volleyball, golf, or tennis.
“You Throw Gay”
It doesn’t surprise me that many gay men I know grew up with a terrible fear of competitive team sports. Team sports rarely allow space for sexual difference. Out of fear, ignorance, or prejudice, sports, from little league to the Olympics, are often silent on the issue of sexual identity and inclusion.
Young gay people of all ages, especially gay men, continue to be discouraged from pursuing team sports. That’s a shame. Sports need gay players, and, more importantly, gay people, both those who are athletes and those who could be encouraged to be more athletic, need sports. Gay people need sports not only because we like them, or would like them if we felt more welcome, but because sports, especially team sports, have much to offer us in the way of friendships, community, self-esteem, and our physical and emotional health and well-being.
I was lucky enough to grow up with parents who played sports and encouraged my participation in team sports. But I, like many other gay guys, gravitated toward sports like tennis or skiing, where I could coordinate my own outfits — in other words, individual sports. I never felt welcome in the hypermasculine world of team sports, where differences of any kind were quickly stamped out. More than that, I feared the locker room. The overriding message I received, explicitly and implicitly, was that sports and gayness were mutually exclusive.
Luckily, times are changing, and gays young and old are learning how amazing sports can be. There’s an article on HuffPost this week about photographer Jeff Sheng’s “Fearless” project, featuring young gay athletes throughout the country who are out and contributing to their school sports teams. Many of these brave young men and women are out in high school! To me, that is as powerful and inspiring as out Olympians.
For those of us a few years (or decades) out of high school, there are many amazing options. For the past five years I’ve played, captained, and coached in Gotham Volleyball, a gay league in New York City with over 800 players per season. I’ve seen firsthand how gays can thrive when sports and shame are disconnected.
Why Sports Matter
Gay men need other avenues for building friendships that are not based (at least initially) on sexual compatibility and mutual attraction. So many gay men limit ourselves to building friends through online dating websites and apps, or in environments built around sex, dating, and drinking. Gay sports leagues provide the opportunity to meet other gay guys in the real world, and to build friendships and meaningful relationships over time based on shared real-world experiences. And yes, many of the guys are smoking hot.
The most amazing thing I’ve observed is the way sports leagues can enrich the lives of LGBTQ people. We’ve been so damaged by the world of sports that we often come to a gay sports league filled with trepidation and self-doubt. Gay sports leagues like Gotham celebrate difference rather than repressing or judging it. In gay leagues you will find not only competitive, professional athletes who look just like athletes in “straight” leagues but also fabulous ladyboys in short skirts who can finish a mean serve with a high kick. “Fierce” is a word often present on the court. Team names usually include some sort of sexual double entendre or campy humor. “I’d Hit That,” “When Harry Set Sally,” and “Destiny’s Hookers” are some recent team names. In other words, gay leagues combine competitive sports and fabulousness in a way that is nothing short of inspiring.
So although out gays and lesbians in the Olympics may be few, gay sports leagues and tournaments are flourishing, giving gay men and women the opportunity to know the joys of team sports on their own terms. There are dating websites like RealJock.com and content sites like Outsports.com dedicated to the thousands of gay men who play sports. And don’t forget the Gay Games, which this year celebrates 32 years since its founding. All of these are a wonderful testament to the amazing power of gay athletes everywhere.
Before the 2012 Olympic Games end, I hope a few more athletes will follow the lead of South African archer Karen Hultzer and come out. And maybe when the next Olympic Games roll around, I’ll turn on the TV and see a posse of athletes competing to become the next big gay star, hugging their boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, or wives after winning medals. Maybe by then we’ll even see some straight athletes wave to knuckle-biting gay parents in the stands. We will make fun of their trashy mix of patriotic fashion and rainbow rings. We will smile and laugh. And we will all be the better for it.