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Homophobia is a fear or hatred of homosexuals. Despite the fact that sport provides a wonderful venue for positive and healthy experiences, homophobia exists in sport and is one of a number of reasons that participants in sport are discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation. Sport is a gendered experience, and the sporting context is filled with intimate linkages between sport and masculinity, femininity, and gender exploration. Over the past two decades, many authors have embedded discussion about homophobia in their writings on gender and sexuality in sport. Best known perhaps for identifying homophobia as one of the pressing issues of our time are the following authors: Messner (1992), Tomlinson and Yorganci (1997), Lenskyj (1992), Guttmann (1996), Hargreaves (2000), Pronger, (1990), Griffin et. al. (2002), and Grifin (1998).
Homophobia takes a number of forms. It can be a prejudice or negative prejudgment about those who are homosexual or thought to be homosexual. It can take the form of a stereotype, where an individual or group is thought to have characteristics assumed to be indicative of homosexuality. It can also be a discriminatory behavior toward a person or group being treated differently, usually negatively, on the basis of sexual orientation. Elimination of homophobia is seen by many as an important step in making sport an equitable and safe place for participants.
Homophobia has also been located on the continuum of sexual harassment and abuse in the sporting context (Brackenridge and Kirby 1997). On one end of the continuum, the authors locate discriminations on the bases of, for example, gender, sex, sexuality, and sexual orientation, and on the other end of the continuum are sexual abuses such as assault and sexual violence. Much like the sexual harassment and abuse that participants might experience in other social institutions, victims of homophobia describe it as debilitating, shaming, isolating, and traumatic (Kirby, Greaves, and Hankivsky 2000).
What is homophobia and how does it affect girls and women and boys and men in sport? Rowe (1995,123) writes that there is an intimate linkage between sport and maleness and that it is women’s increasing involvement in sport that has contributed to a destabilization of social categories of relationships and identities. In the sport world, this means that hegemonic masculinity dominates femininity, and heterosexuality remains the organizing discourse rather than homosexuality or any other forms of sexuality. Further, the principle referent in sport is the heterosexual male, followed closely by the heterosexual female and only afterwards, perhaps, by the gay male or lesbian respectively. Heterosexuality is assumed, and persons who are not heterosexual experience active (because they are individually and collectively unable to participate fully in sport) or passive discrimination (because they are made to feel invisible).
However, since sport is so intrinsically male defined and male dominated, it is virtually impossible to write about homophobia without also writing about gender boundaries in sport, hegemonic masculinity, compulsory heterosexuality, heteronormativity, homoeroticism, the gay gaze, and homonegativity. Perhaps this makes homophobia look more complex, but it is essential to understanding the particular discrimination dynamic.
What Is Homophobia?
Here are a few useful definitions:
■ Sexual orientation or sexual orientation identity (S.O.I.) is one’s sexual attraction to another and how one identifies oneself as a result of that attraction (Devor 1989).
■ Homosexuality is a sexual orientation or sexual attraction towards a person of the same sex. “Gay” means men who are sexually attracted to men. “Lesbian” means women who are sexually attracted to women.
■ Bisexuality is a sexual orientation or sexual attraction towards people of both sexes.
■Heterosexuality is a sexual orientation or sexual attraction toward those of the other sex. The assumption of heterosexuality, or normative heterosexuality, determines the experience of most athletes in sport, including gay men and lesbians, as it does in society generally. This means that athletes may need to declare their sexual orientation if they do not want to be assumed to be heterosexual (Anderson, et al. 2001).
■ Sexual discrimination is behavior that is discriminatory towards a person or group based on their perceived or actual gender identity or sexual orientation. This includes a general intolerance toward difference (the “chilly climate”), harassing behaviors, and sexual abuse.
■ The chilly climate in sport is characterized by a thriving sexist environment (Kirby et al. 2000, 46), in which athletes and other participants feel less than safe. The homophobic chilly climate is characterized by verbal abuse that goes unchecked, sexual jokes, showing of pornographic materials, sexual allusions about one’s sexual orientation, use of vulgar language, sexual comments about one’s apparel, tolerance of heterosexist or homophobic attitudes incoaches (even coaches from other teams or other nations), unwanted sexual comments, tolerance of sexual discrimination, and tolerance of sexual harassment or abuse. A chilly climate is sustained by those who tolerate and thus are complicit in such behaviors.
■ Homophobia is harassment when intolerant attitudes and behaviors are expressed toward individuals or groups who are assumed to be homosexual and for whom the behavior is unwelcome. Note that harassment is not what the originator intends with an expressed attitude or behavior, but rather how another, on the receiving end, experiences these attitudes and behaviors. In the sport environment, harassing or abusing behavior includes taunting or belittling of others, threatening them, making hurtful comments or jokes about them, physically hurting or harming them or assaulting them (including sexually assaulting them).
Types Of Discrimination
Homophobia is expressed in direct and indirect ways. Direct discrimination is the treating of oneself (internalized homophobia) or others in less favorable ways because of homophobic attitudes. It includes keeping one’s sexual orientation secret, taunting self or others for their “homosexual manners,” excluding oneself or others from sport participation, creating reasons for exclusion of self or others that have nothing to do with performance but do have something to do with sexual orientation, refusing to hire someone because of his or her sexual orientation, and abusing self or others for being homosexual.
Indirect discrimination happens when organizational systems (rules, policies, and practices) negatively impact those of one group (e.g., homosexuals) more so than those of other groups (e.g., heterosexuals). It includes having rules that differentially and negatively affect gay or lesbian athletes or same-sex couples; for example, family membership criteria in clubs where families are defined in traditional ways, lack of access to spousal pensions and benefits because of homosexual orientation, or scheduling of social events which appeal only to those who are heterosexual. Messner (1992, 371) wrote that “homophobia and misogyny were the key bonding agents among male athletes, serving to construct a masculine personality that disparaged anything considered ‘feminine’ in women, in other men, or in oneself.”
So boys and men in sport are encouraged to develop homonegativity or negative attitudes and discriminatory behaviors towards nonheterosexuals. For girls and women, homophobia takes on many different forms including internalized homophobia (fear or hatred of one’s own homosexuality) and a disparaging of the “masculine” in women or in oneself.
So too, eroticism, and in particular, homoeroticism, are part of sport. While we can admire the athletic body, sport also gives us the opportunity to admire the sexual body. Rowe (1995) also suggests that lesbianism in sport attracts much more media attention, and negative attention at that, than does homosexuality among men.
The research on imperatives in sport by Kirby, Greaves, and Hankivsky (2000) provides a useful, though perhaps quite-difficult-to-read, starting place, with a description of homophobic attitudes and discriminatory behaviors of athletes in sport. They write that the pattern of enforced secrecy (or “dome of silence”) over athletes on this issue suggests that the quality of sport experience for all participants suffers because of an environment of intolerance.
Role Of Heterosexism
Of the seven negative undercurrents in modern sport that may contaminate the experience for some participants, identified by Kirby, Greaves, and Hankivsky (2000), heterosexism/hypersexuality is the one that has particular importance in understanding homophobia. Kirby et al. (2000) report that modern sport reflects, in its organization and functions, the patriarchal nuclear family model, including its norms and values. These include heterosexism (and its accompanying feature of compulsory heterosexuality [Rich 1980]) and hypersexuality. They regard sport as a gendered experience in which participants learn “appropriate” gender roles but also where forms of sexism (in particular, heterosexism) are tolerated.
Heterosexism is discrimination based on heterosexual privilege, where heterosexuality is seen as the social and sexual norm for all sport participants and sport participants are directed into heterosexuality. This applies equally to women and to men and can take overt and covert forms. Overtly, heterosexism can be seen as officially sanctioned discrimination. For example, where sexualization of sporting events occurs, sport is glamorous but in a heterosexual way (see figure-skating pairs competition or ice dancing). Female and male athletes compete together in a form of ritualized heterosexuality displayed to the judges and the audience. The athletes are evaluated according to gender-specific and heterosexually appropriate yardsticks. So too, sport cultivates “feminine” and “masculine” positive (read heterosexual) images through careful orchestration of performance requirements and marketing. As Kirby et. al. (2000,114) state:
It is the androgynous woman or lesbian, the “not quite masculine enough man” or gay who provide obvious contradiction to the heterosexual imperative (Bracken-ridge, 1993). For example, strategic marketing seeks to ensure that successful male athletes, often with a pretty young woman on their arm, are portrayed as masculine, heterosexual stars who are competitive, tough minded and can be counted on when the going gets tough. Successful female athletes are often portrayed as “the girl next door” or with a boyfriend or husband, an assurance to the public of the heterosexuality of these athletes.
Hypersexuality is present primarily in sport for males. It is a phenomenon in which the ideal image of a successful male athlete presumes also characteristics of great virility and superactive sexual (and heterosexual) appetite. There is abundant sex and, by assumption, promiscuity and a tendency to sexual violence of some athletes. It may be that some coaches actively contribute to a sporting environment that is supportive of the hypersexuality of younger athletes when these coaches provide stories of their own experiences, condone and sometimes participate in initiation and hazing rituals, and encourage sex talk among male, and sometimes female, athletes (Kirby et. al. 2000). While the existence of such imperatives may be difficult to accept for those of us who participate in sport, many are well aware of the negative and homophobic undercurrents that taint sport. It is through confronting these that we can reduce or eliminate their effects. Sport will then be able to guarantee a positive and healthful experience for all.
In sport, if we discriminate against one group of marginalized people, then we are not offering an equal chance for all, and the promise of sport is so much greater than the “chilly” version we have been offering up to now. The challenge is to offer nonhomophobic sport.
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