When we think of an athlete, we think of someone who leads two lives. An athlete constantly works in a framework of trade-offs: sleep for practice times, partying for weight training and academics for his or her team.
The rules of the game, though, don’t apply to the LGBT-identifying athlete. Too often sexual identity and gender identity skew what it means to be an athlete. In our minds, we’ve fixed sports along gendered lines — it’s the reason we have boys play football instead of equestrian and why we have girls swim and dance rather than do kickboxing. As much as we’ve gendered sports, sports have gendered us; it’s not “womanly” for a girl to play basketball, and it’s not “manly” for a man to take up synchronized swimming.
LGBT-identifying athletes face the problem of having their athletic achievements passed off as something expected for their sexuality. That’s why it was so momentous when Michael Sam was drafted into the NFL in late 2013 — it was a case of an LGBT identity not matching its sport. Meanwhile, another LGBT-identifying athlete, Johnny Weir, 2008 world bronze medalist and three-time US champion, was told that “he should take a gender test … and skate against women” from Olympic commentators in reference to his effeminate ice-skating costumes. The latter story received much less publicity than the story of Michael Sam, and we have to ask why.
Underlying the remarkable breakthrough of Michael Sam into American pro football is the assumption that an LGBT individual and something as masculine as football are two completely incompatible things. A gay man in football? Unthinkable. A gay man in figure skating? Well, that’s just normal for the course, isn’t it?
We don’t have to look to the Olympic level though to find problems for LGBT individuals in the sports world: LGBT-identifying Stanford athletes are asked to make a decision between their LGBT identity and their athletic identity. Toni Kokenis, four-year member of women’s basketball and co-founder of Stanford Athletes and Allies Together (StAAT), recounts that, “On the basketball court, I was one person. Outside of basketball, it felt like I was living two different lives. In a sport where we are often stereotyped as lesbians, we took pride in being the ‘prettiest’ and inherently ‘straightest’ on the team; my insecurities came from not wanting to be the one to ruin this image and just be another stereotypical lesbian basketball player.”
At a school which was just voted the most LGBT-friendly campus by the Princeton Review this past year, we run the risk of thinking that there’s no more work to be done for LGBT advocacy. The gendering of sports not only determines who should play each sport but also imposes a burden on our athletes. Athletes whose gender or sexual identities match their sports are passed off as nothing special. But athletes who play a sport which doesn’t match their sexual or gender identity face the continual challenge of maintaining an outwardly gendered appearance — the feminine woman or the manly man — in order to not reinforce a stereotype.
Being an openly LGBT athlete comes with the pain of questioning your place in the sports world, energy which could otherwise be spent on the actual game. We are not the nation’s LGBT utopia; there’s still work to be done.
Corey Garcia ’16
Corey Garcia is a correspondent for Stanford Athletes and Allies Together. He can be reached at coreygar ‘at’ stanford.edu.