Homosexuality in modern sports

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Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and other non-heterosexual or non-cisgender (LGBTQ+) athletes have faced intolerance due to heteronormativity within sports culture.

There have been several notable outspoken homosexual athletes, including Sheryl Swoopes,[1] Billie Jean King,[2] and Billy Bean.[3] In the 1980s, Tom Waddell, an Olympic decathlete, hosted the first Gay Games in San Francisco.[4] Since then, many homosexual sporting organizations have been founded along with sporting events that feature homosexual athletes.[5][6]

While overall the trend is towards open acceptance, different sports vary in acceptance widely and homosexual athletes still face many challenges. International sports organizations have come under scrutiny for holding competitions in countries where LGBT equality is out of step with their own policies.

Homophobia in sports culture[edit]

Heteronormativity can be seen as the dominant paradigm in sports culture, stemming all the way into children's athletics in school.[7] Heteronormativity describes "the myriad ways in which heterosexuality is produced as a natural, unproblematic, taken-for-granted, ordinary phenomenon."[8] It is defined as a world/ common view of heterosexuality as the normal or preferred sexuality.[9] This way of thinking has been documented as an emphasis on hegemonic masculinity in sports is often taken to the extreme in sports culture.[10] Arnd Krüger has shown that the history of homosexuality in sports in closely linked to the history of sports and goes back until antiquity.[11] The priority of heteronormative thinking in athletics has led to a traditional view in sports culture that is highly intolerant of homosexuality.[12] This homophobic attitude has been documented in adolescent sports especially, as a recent study by Danny Osborne and William E. Wagner, III showed that male adolescents who participated in football were significantly more likely to hold homophobic attitudes than other peers their age.[13]

In a 2009 study on the well being of same-sex-attracted youth in the United States, Lindsey Wilkinson and Jennifer Pearson found that lower self-esteem and higher rates of depression in same-sex attracted youth were correlated with the prevalence of football in high schools.[14] Sociology researchers Sartore and Cunningham also found a similar stigmatization in the view of homosexual coaches, as high school parents were shown to have an unwillingness to allow their children to be coached by a homosexual.[15] They also found a similar attitude from high school athletes themselves toward participating on teams coached by either gay or lesbian coaches. In spite of the apparent prevalence of homophobic thinking in athletic culture, recent scholars have documented an increasing trend toward openly gay athletes in high school and collegiate level sports.[16]

This trend, however, has not been seen in professional sports, where homosexuality still remains largely stigmatized in the four major North American professional sports leagues. Only Jason Collins of the NBA has come out while active, and only nine players have come out after their careers were over: Wade Davis, Kwame Harris, Dave Kopay, Ryan O'Callaghan, Roy Simmons, and Esera Tuaolo (NFL); Billy Bean and Glenn Burke (MLB); and John Amaechi (NBA).[17] This same trend can also be found in England's Professional Footballers' Association (PFA), as a recent ad campaign devised by the PFA against homophobia failed because no professional football player was willing to associate themselves with the advertisement.[18]

Sociologists who have examined the issue of lesbians in American sport in the 1980s and 1990s normally found overt and covert mechanisms of social discrimination. However, homophobia has been on a rapid decline over previous decades, and studies show attitudes toward female homosexuality in sport have improved since the research conducted on lesbian athletes in the mid-1990s.[19]

There has been an increase in numbers of individual athletes who have publicly come out as LGBTQ. Recent attempts by organizations such as the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) have also been made to break down homophobic attitudes in collegiate and professional team sports. NCLR has worked with the San Francisco 49ers, as well as collegiate athletic departments at universities such as North Carolina, Florida, and Stanford at revising team policies to more openly accommodate LBGT athletes.[20]

Out on the Fields, a survey conducted in 2015 initiated by members of the organizing committee of Bingham Cup Sydney 2014, the world cup of gay rugby, and members of the Sydney Convicts, Australia's first gay rugby union club, is the first and largest study conducted on homophobia in sports. It surveyed 9494 athletes with varying sexual identities (25% of which identified as heterosexual). The survey found that only 1% of the participants believed that lesbian, gay, and bisexual athletes were 'completely accepted' in sport culture, while 80% of respondents said they had witnessed or experienced homophobia in a sporting environment. The rates and occurrences of discrimination based on sexuality in sports are high with 62% of survey respondents claiming that homophobia is more common in team sports than any other part of society.[21]

There is also a gender difference when it comes to the responses to male and female athletes who come out as LGBT. Brittney Griner softened the blowback from announcing her sexuality, by casually announcing her coming out in an interview almost immediately after being drafted into the WNBA. This was a month before Jason Collins came out and there was a media uproar for him while there was barely any coverage over Griner's announcement.[22]

The National Collegiate Athletic Association announced its support of LGBT student-athletes, coaches, and administrators in intercollegiate athletics.[23] Since then, the association has been defending its core values of equality, inclusion, fairness, and respect in regard to all people involved in NCAA sports and events.[24] The defense of these values has very publicly come into play in determining host cities for championship events. The NCAA expressed concern over Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the hosting of the 2015 Men's Basketball Final Four Tournament,[25] and it banned North Carolina from hosting championship events until 2019 after it passed the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act (H.B. 2).[26]

Legal cases in the United States[edit]

The case of Jennifer Harris against Penn State, more specifically their women's basketball coach Rene Portland brought change to the world of sports.[27] In 2006, a gay rights advocacy group, The National Center for Lesbian Rights, accused Rene Portland of forcing Jennifer Harris to transfer because of bias against lesbians. The advocacy group claimed that Portland was biased against lesbians for decades and cited a 1986 interview in which she claimed she talked to recruits and parents of recruits about lesbians stating, "I will not have it in my program."[28] There were also claims of Portland telling key recruits (in order to keep them from going to rival schools) that the other team was "full of lesbians." The lawsuit was eventually settled out of court and Penn State found Portland in violation of policy. She was fined $10,000 by the university in lieu of a one-game suspension and warned that another infraction would result in the termination of her employment.[29] Rene Portland eventually resigned from her position as women's head basketball coach.[30]

LGBT leagues, teams, events, and individuals coming out[edit]

Gay martial artists marching in Pride London 2011.
Gay football and rugby players marching in Pride London 2011.

In the absence of openly LGBT sportspersons, LGBT-focused leagues and events have been created since the late 1970s. One of the earliest-recorded gay sports event organizing committees is the Federation of Gay Games (initially known as the United States Gay Olympics Committee), which was established in 1980 by Tom Waddell, Mark Brown and Paul Mart to organize the first Gay Games (1982) in San Francisco; another organization, Apollo - Friends in Sports, was established in 1981 to organize the Western Cup, a multi-sport event for gay and lesbian athletes in Calgary, Alberta. By 1989, the European Gay and Lesbian Sport Federation was formed to organize the EuroGames for LGBT athletes in Europe.

In 2006, a schism occurred between the Federation of Gay Games and the Montreal organizing committee for the Gay Games, leading to the Montreal committee organizing a rival multi-sports event, the World Outgames, which continues to the present. The sponsoring organization for the Outgames, the Gay and Lesbian International Sport Association, has also organized smaller, regional multi-sports events, including the North American and AsiaPacific Outgames.

In 2002, the first gay rugby world cup games were created called the Bingham cup. These games were created in order to promote the game of Rugby as an all-inclusive, global sport.[31]


The Sydney Convicts Rugby Club were launched in 2004 as Australia's first gay rugby union team.[32]


Canada is home to a large LGBT sports community, having hosted the inaugural World OutGames. Local organizations like Équipe Montréal,[33] OutSport Toronto and Team Vancouver[34] represent LGBT sport within their respective cities.

Canada was also a leader in the creation of Pride House facilities for LGBT athletes at sporting events, having organized the first-ever Olympic Pride House when Vancouver hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics.[35] Similarly, Toronto's Pride House during the 2015 Pan American Games was the first time a Pride House facility was available at the Pan Ams.[36] At the 2018 Olympic Games in South Korea, the Canadian athletes' pavilion also doubled as a Pride House for all LGBT athletes at the games regardless of nationality, due to the South Korean organizers' reluctance to organize a Pride House of their own.[37]

In December 2013, The 519 received Toronto City Council approval to build a sport and recreation centre focused on sport inclusion. Once built, the new centre will provide a home to Toronto's over 6,000 LGBT sport participants.[38]

Canadian media have also often been leaders in covering issue of homophobia in sport; in 1993, CBC Radio aired a groundbreaking hour-long documentary on LGBT sportspeople as a special episode of its sports series The Inside Track.[39] Canadian filmmakers have also produced a number of noted documentary films about LGBT issues in sport, including Noam Gonick's To Russia with Love (2014),[40] Michael Del Monte's Transformer (2017)[41] and Paul-Émile d'Entremont's Standing on the Line (2019).[42] The Canadian drama film Breakfast with Scot, about a gay retired hockey player, was authorized by the Toronto Maple Leafs to use the team's real name and logo in the film,[43] the first LGBT-themed film ever given approval by a sports team.

Many Canadian sports teams are active partners in You Can Play, an international initiative to combat homophobia in sports.[44] The initiative was launched in 2012 by Brian Burke while he was general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, but is active in both Canada and the United States. The Canadian Olympic Committee also organizes #oneteam, a speakers bureau for LGBTQ identified and supportive athletes to speak on homophobia in sports.[45]


Paris Foot Gay was established in 2003.[citation needed]


Dutee Chand, a prominent female Indian athlete, came out in 2019, telling the national daily Times of India that she is in a same-sex relationship. This was met by protests from her hometown and was declared an outcast. In the Universiade in Italy on 2019, she claimed the gold medal and found some acceptance in her sister.


The first gay rugby team in Ireland, Emerald Warriors RFC, was established in 2003.

United Kingdom[edit]

The first openly gay football team formed in the United Kingdom is Stonewall F.C., which was formed in 1991. The next year, Gay Football Supporters Network was formed; a GFSN National League was formed 2002 among GFSN members who wanted to participate in amateur competition as well as support major professional teams.

The first openly gay rugby team in the world, the Kings Cross Steelers, was formed in 1995 in London. The first openly gay rugby team in Northern Ireland, the Ulster Titans, was formed in 2007, and the first Scottish gay rugby team, the Caledonian Thebans RFC, was formed in 2002.

In 1996, Graces Cricket Club was organized as the first gay cricket club in the world.[citation needed]

Ishigaki Ju Jitsu Club began in 1994 and pride's itself on being the "Only LGBT Ju Jitsu Club in the World'.[citation needed]

The first decade of the 21st century saw two high-profile Welsh rugby union figures come out while active. First, in 2007, international referee Nigel Owens came out.[46] Then, in 2009, Gareth Thomas, at the time the country's most-capped player (and later a rugby league international), came out. Thomas was believed to be the first professional male player in a team sport to come out while active.[47]

In 1990, Justin Fashanu became the first openly gay British footballer. He died eight years later in 1998.[48]

The world's first LGBTQA inclusive lacrosse team, the Rainbow Rexes were founded in 2018.[49][50][51]

United States[edit]

In 1974, the LA Union Thursday Pool League was established as the first gay competitive pool league in the United States.

The Big Apple Softball League (initially known as the Manhattan Community Athletic Association) was initially formed in 1977 for gay softball players in the New York City area. That same year, the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance was formed for future gay softball teams.


The New York Ramblers was started in 1980 when an ad was placed in the Village Voice to gay men who wanted to play soccer as a team called the Rambles.[citation needed]

In 1980, the International Gay Bowling Organization (IGBO) was formed.[citation needed]

In 1991, the Gay and Lesbian Tennis Alliance was formed at the July 1991 San Diego Open. The first local gay tennis organizations were formed in Dallas and Los Angeles in 1979. The San Francisco, Houston and San Diego followed through 1983.[citation needed]

In 1982, the West Hollywood Aquatics was formed as a swim and water polo team. That same year, the West Hollywood Wrestling Club was organized as the first gay competitive wrestling team in the United States.[citation needed]

In 1985, the Los Angeles Blades was organized as the first gay hockey team in the United States.[citation needed]

In 1986, following the second Gay Games, Tony Jasinski organized the San Francisco Gay Basketball Association by organizing basketball games at the Hamilton United Methodist Church's Earl Paltenghi Youth Center Gymnasium.[citation needed]


In 1998, the Washington Renegades RFC was formed as the first gay rugby team in the United States.[citation needed]

In 1999, the New York City Gay Hockey Association was organized.[citation needed]


The National Gay Flag Football League comprises 26 teams,[52] including the DC Gay Flag Football League founded in 2010.[53]

In 2013, soccer's Robbie Rogers and basketball's Jason Collins each publicly announced their homosexuality.[54]

In 2014, football's Michael Sam publicly announced his homosexuality at the NFL draft.[55]

Further reading[edit]

  • Beasley, Neil (2016) Football's Coming Out: Life as a Gay Fan and Player. [London]: Floodlit Dreams Ltd. ISBN 978-0992658564
  • Magrath, Rory (2016) Inclusive Masculinities in Contemporary Football: Men in the Beautiful Game. Abingdon: Routledge. ISBN 978-1138653610
  • Rogers, Robbie; Marcus, Eric (2014) Coming Out to Play. London: The Robson Press. ISBN 978-1849547208

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]