Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Pro athletes are already out

I'm not going to go into my "I really do like Dave Zirin, but sometimes..." intro here because, well, that pretty much captures it.
A recent Zirin column asks "Which pro athlete will come out of the closet?"
It's a curious question because, of course, there are already out professional athletes. Athletes who came out or have come out during the course of their professional careers. There's Billie Jean King (forced out but still) who Zirin invokes in his article as a pioneer for women's rights. She was an out athlete. As was Martina Navritilova. As is Amelie Mauresmo. As is Lisa Raymond. But these are all tennis players, you say. Well, ok so: Vicky Galindo (who plays professionally for the Chiacgo Bandits), Rosie Jones, Sheryl Swoopes, Lauren Lappin, Latasha Byears.
But they are all women, you say. Well yes, they are gay women. (Galindo identifies as bisexual.) Gay is not a gender-specific term. The gay liberation movement means gay men and women so when Zirin says we are waiting for a "gay professional athlete" this also means man or woman. When he says this athlete must have courage and will likely suffer for coming out he discounts the courage and the suffering of the athletes who have already come out. What he seems to mean is that we (society) need a male athlete in a sport like football or baseball or basketball to come out. But that's not what he says. And his implication is damaging. It continues the invisibility of female athletes and quite possibly the assumption that female athletes are, by default, gay; and/or that it is somehow easier for a female athlete to come out. Perhaps this belief is based on the fact that women's sports are not as popular or lucrative. Navratilova, who lost lots of endorsements when she came out, might disagree.
And, by the way, Rudy Galindo, a gay male athlete, was out when he was skating professionally. Does figure skating not count as a real sport? Or does Galindo not count as a real man? I guess the athlete Zirin is picturing is one of those butch guys who can pass, who has probably cavorted with a variety of women in an attempt to cover his identity (that's my own stereotyping, of course!).

I think Zirin is right on when he says, essentially, that the sports world is a laboratory for issues of civil rights and social acceptance. And as his piece--a small piece of that laboratory--shows us, we still have a lot of entrenched sexism in our society.

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