This past June, as the US women’s soccer team was dominating the FIFA World Cup finals, player Megan Rapinoe offered one possible explanation for their success: “You can’t win a championship without gays on your team,” she said. “It’s never been done before, ever.”
The comment was a hat tip to Pride month, but it also acknowledged something significant: In this year’s women’s World Cup, there were more than 40 openly gay players and coaches—more than double the number who were out in 2015. (Homosexuality is criminalized in several of the participating nations; otherwise, there might have been even more.) At the last men’s World Cup in 2018, however, none of the players were openly gay.
This imbalance isn’t limited to soccer: The NHL, which began its season last month, has never had an openly gay player. The NWHL, on the other hand, not only has a number of out players, but an official policy to accommodate transgender players (although it’s not completely inclusive—it still limits the use of testosterone). When then-NBA player Jason Collins came out in 2013, he became the first and only openly gay athlete in the major US men’s sports leagues; no other NBA players have come out since. But in the WNBA, many prominent players identify as gay—including league star Elena Delle Donne, who helped lead the Washington Mystics to victory in the finals last month.
The trend continues at the Olympic level: At the 2016 Rio Olympics, where there at least 55 out athletes—more than at any Olympics before—44 were women.
In other words: When it comes to queer inclusivity, women’s professional sports leave men’s in the dust.
The lack of LGBTQ visibility in most men’s sports reflects the hyper-masculine, homophobic culture of that world. “In competitive sport, male athletes who appear to lack aggressiveness…may find themselves labeled a ‘pansy’ or a ‘queer’ by their coaches and teammates,” writes professor of sports communication at Clemson University, Bryan E. Denham in the 2010 volume Sociology in Sport and Social Theory. Queerness is wrongly equated with physical weakness: In American sociologist Eric Anderson’s 2005 book In the Game, he quotes a football player who told him, “My coaches try to motivate us to hit harder, crunch more, or throw farther by calling us fags all the time. And if you can’t do something, or mess it up, you get called a fag.”
“Words like fag…are used to belittle players, to weaken and feminize them, because hockey is hyper-masculine, meant for the manliest of men,” wrote Brian McGillis, a gay former semiprofessional hockey player, in a 2016 essay. The Canadian was closeted during his hockey career, and his struggle with his sexuality had serious consequences for both his physical and mental health. “I tried to isolate myself from my teammates,” he wrote. “The depression was constant and I often found myself crying for what seemed like no reason at all…. It started to manifest in my play and I was constantly injured.”
A study by a researcher at the University of Alberta earlier this year suggests that even though more openly gay players could engender a more open hockey culture, professional players not only fear intolerance; they also feel an “overriding threat of becoming a distraction” if they were to identify as gay in public.
The stigma doesn’t affect women the same way: While cis male athletes may be afraid of being feminized if they come out as gay, being gay isn’t seen as a negative for cis women athletes. Given that sports, by their very definition, are about physical prowess, girls and women who play are more welcome to reject patriarchal notions of females as delicate. (It’s important to note, too, that trans and nonbinary athletes are still discriminated against in many sports.)
In 2016, sportswriter Jason Page offered another theory as to why gay women athletes were so much more likely to be openly LGBTQ: because they are ignored. The spotlight on professional men athletes, by comparison, is intense. Page writes that cultivating an image is a crucial part of the agent’s job, which includes a social media presence and endorsements: “Does an agent want the ‘headache’ of trying to represent a player that might be living an ‘alternative lifestyle’?” His educated guess is no, which is largely down to management and ownership of teams that are still “old guard.”
Women’s sports are indeed neglected. A 2015 infographic created by Ohio University shows that even though women’s sports were becoming increasingly popular, men’s leagues still received a disproportionate amount of the money and media attention dedicated to sports: Even though 40 percent of all participants in professional sports were women, women’s sports only received 4 percent of American media coverage; on programs such as ESPN’s SportsCenter and Fox Sports 1’s Fox Sports Live, less than 1 percent of airtime was dedicated to women’s sports. And the money paid to players doesn’t even come close. While Megan Rapinoe and the rest of her teammates were riding to victory at the World Cup, they were also embroiled in a lawsuit with the US Soccer Federation to get equal pay and working conditions—because the best women’s soccer team on earth was making only 38 cents to their male counterparts’ dollar for some matches.
Being relegated to the back burner can help shield female athletes from the mainstream ideologies of gender. But it is reductive to suggest that less money and less attention make women’s sports a more relaxed space—rather, women’s sports have managed to be nicer and more inclusive in spite of systemic sexism and limited resources. In India, where I live, women’s sports get such a small share of the pie (and media attention) that there is a severe dearth of good coaching and training facilities. Not only that, but when women athletes do capture the public eye, they still risk being judged according to their ability to perform femininity (or perceived lack thereof). Despite the pressures women face, the only openly LGBTQ Indian athlete is a woman, the runner Dutee Chand.
Nevertheless, in being edged to the margins, these relatively unwatched fringes can grow into subversive spaces where girls and women—including those who do not easily inhabit mainstream spaces—can feel safe.
I grew up in New Delhi, India. In the early 1990s, I was in my late teens—part of a generation growing up in a newly liberalized economy, with shiny life choices that our parents had not had. In this upbeat, optimistic milieu were young adults like me, with my short hair and preference for boys’ clothing, who did not fit into convenient gender-based slots. In my early university days, my first taste of independence, my sanctuary was the cricket field. There, I saw other young women who were like me: outwardly boyish, from our haircuts and clothes to our interests and mannerisms. For the first time—if only for a few hours a day—I did not feel pressure to perform femininity. On the field, these peers and older players wore their butchness with an ease that was both intimidating and empowering. While I felt gauche in my skin, being around them was like looking into a mirror and seeing a more confident future self reflected back.
Despite our affinity, though, there was a silence—both in the Indian cricket circuit and in society in general—around the larger questions of sexuality or gender identity. It would still be more than 20 years until gay sex would be decriminalized in India (a ruling that applied largely to men), and almost as long until the judgment that would allow Indians to self-identify as a gender other than the one assigned at birth. (The current right-wing government is now pushing for a more regressive law.) I know now that my fellow cricketers must have suffered the same misgendering and bullying I did, fought the same daily battles with their families and outsiders for the right to be themselves. The field was one of those rare spaces where the conservative values fencing us in fell away. Were we all gay or gender-questioning? Participating in sports gave us space for it not to matter.
Today, even in societies where queer and heterosexual couples have the same rights to cohabit, marry, have children, and receive social benefits, men’s and women’s sports inhabit markedly different worlds. Men’s sports valorize the sort of aggression that often tips over into homophobia and other kinds of exclusion based on difference. In UK soccer, for example, many professional players rise up through club academies that they usually join as teenagers. “It’s not [that] gay men aren’t interested in becoming professional footballers,” one British researcher told reporters about the issue, “but [the] academies are heteronormative environments.” Vancouver Canucks goalie Anders Nilsson—an outspoken queer ally—has been clear about how toxic the hockey world is for gay boys: “If I was gay, I would have quit playing hockey in my teens,” he told a Swedish reporter.
Toxic masculinity needs to be kicked off the field and out of the locker room. Progress has been slower in men’s sports than in other parts of society, and there have been a few token efforts at promoting acceptance, such as a UK campaign encouraging soccer players to wear rainbow laces. But athletes, teams, and coaches still have to make it a priority to call out casual sexism and homophobia at every level—from children’s leagues to professional athletics.
There was an incandescence about the US women’s soccer team in every photo in which they held their 2019 World Cup trophy aloft. And not just because of their win, but also because of the values they embody, in their activism and in their teamwork. These women seemed like a vision of what our world could be: cohesive, inclusive, a place where we have each other’s back.