Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The second tale: Gender identity in intercollegiate athletics

I have been somewhat lax in my posting recently, and I know I promised three tales of gender identity and discrimination a while back. My first tale was related to the Women's World Cup and the accusations against Equatorial Guinea based on--apparently--too much skill and "too much" masculinity in some of their players.
Second tale is one that was recounted to me. Thus, technically, it is hearsay. But I also do not think it is that unusual of a situation. Thus it could be completely hypothetical--which it isn't--and still a valuable thought exercise. So here it is. I changed details, just in case, though I don't believe many know about this specific situation.
An intercollegiate women's field hockey player has decided to use male pronouns and change his name to something more conducive to his identification as a non-woman. The player attends a DIII school in the west. He approaches his coach to ask that his new name be used on the roster, announced at games, and that people refer to him using male pronouns. He is not planning on undergoing any chemical transition.
The coach is a gay woman in the middle of her career. She is not explicitly out, though, about her sexuality. She has never told her players that she is gay, but she also does not try to pass as straight.
Coach reacts strongly and swiftly in her denial of the request. She says that it is inappropriate and she will by no means refer to the player as a he or by his new name. She says he is welcome to leave the team. The player has, for now, opted to stay on the team and conform to the coach's rules.
So here is my assessment of the situation. One, coach acted poorly and possibly illegally. Hers was a very reactionary response to a situation that deserved more discussion and thought than her simple dismissal. Two, I believe the coach's reaction has something to do with her own semi-closeted status that is, at least in part, a result of ongoing and pervasive homophobia in women's sports. Even as more and more female athletes come out while playing--or before they even get there--college sports, coaches remain in awkward positions because of pressure from heternormative athletic departments and the fear that being out will negatively affect recruiting and rapport with players. I feel badly for the position this coach is in. But I'm not sure how aware she is of her own bad situation. This seems to be something that many coaches just accept rather than working to remedy saying things like "my personal life doesn't have any effect on my professional life." First, this isn't really true. It's not true in any other professions. And two, it's arguably even less true in a profession like coaching where a coach is spending significant time with her players--on the road, in practice, games, even in so-called off-seasons.
So not only is she now (not) dealing with the issue of the lesbian stigma in sports, she is approached with a new issue: gender identity, which, as we know, is often conflated with sexual orientation. In other words, a player who wants to express a more masculine identity is surely going to set off (false) alarms about a lesbian presence on the team. And it may implicate her.
When Kye Allums came out, his coach did not have as much at stake because he is a straight man. Male coaches may be able to be more supportive of trans players because their own identity is not in question.
It's a problem that more female coaches are not explicitly out. And, in this case, it has a very palpable and harmful effect.
If I knew who this student was, I would advise him to contact the National Center for Lesbian Rights or Pat Griffin of the GLSEN Sports Project's "Changing the Game." But that places a burden on him to become a public figure and jeopardizes his position on the team. It's an unfortunate situation all around.

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