Last fall, Kye Allums, a George Washington University basketball player, made the courageous decision to come out as transgender. As Allums awaits surgery to transition from the female body he was born with, he is making history as the first publicly transgender athlete to play Division I women’s basketball. The response from coaches and teammates was best summed up by the South Florida Gay News’s headline: Kye Allums Is Trans; World Does Not End.
But is this story of tolerance a singular exception or another sign that the sports world is becoming friendlier to LGBT athletes? Of the approximately 3,500 men who play in the big four American sports—football, baseball, basketball and hockey—not one has come out of the closet while playing professionally. Of the 350 women’s Division I basketball teams in the NCAA, Portland State’s Sherri Murrell is the first and only coach to come out as a lesbian (the “no lesbians” edict in college basketball is the subject of a powerful documentary, Training Rules).
A majority of Americans accept gay and lesbian relations. Antidiscrimination and marriage laws are slowly catching up to social consciousness. So why does the world of sports, such a dominant part of our culture, remain fiercely hostile to open participation by LGBT people?
It’s tempting to presume that sports simply reflect the prevailing ideas in society and that athletes and fans make up a particularly homophobic demographic, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. A Sports Illustrated survey among 1,400 pro athletes in the big four sports shows that a solid majority in every league would welcome an openly gay teammate.
With a stunning 80 percent support, NHL players are practically ready to host Lady Gaga on their Gay Pride float, perhaps reflecting the abundance of players from gay-friendlier Canada. In fact, Blackhawks defenseman Brent Sopel accepted an invitation from the Chicago Gay Hockey Association to stand atop its float alongside his team’s Stanley Cup trophy at the 2010 Gay Pride parade.
Even 57 percent of NFL players, emblems of the most orthodox hyper-masculinity, say they would play with an openly gay teammate, despite bugaboos about the locker-room showers.
Media tend to focus on the crassly bigoted statements of players like former NBA all-star Tim Hardaway, who declared “I hate gay people” in response to the 2007 coming-out story of retired NBA player John Amaechi; or the verbal knuckle-dragging of former baseball player John Rocker, who told SI he didn’t want to sit “next to some queer with AIDS” while ranting against blacks, immigrants and multiculturalism.
Far less attention is given to sports figures like ex–New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas, who said he’d “make damn sure there’s no problem” on his team if a player came out; or former quarterback and ex–ESPN commentator Sean Salisbury, who offered this advice to any homophobic football player after retired NFLer Esera Tuaolo came out in 2002: “Get over it…. If you think there aren’t other gay players, you’re crazy. And it takes a lot more of a man to do what Esera has done than it does to threaten someone for being different.”
As for the fans, in a poll published by SI in 2005, an astounding 86 percent said that it’s “O.K. for male athletes to participate in sports, even if they are openly gay.” Given these numbers, which reflect the growing embrace of sexual diversity throughout the population, we need a different explanation for why the locker room remains America’s deepest closet.