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Gender and Homophobia in Sport: A review of the Literature

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This review of the literature suggests that women athletes who play traditionally male identified sport are often stigmatized as lesbians because it makes them too “mannish” (Pharr, 1996) or “ugly as a dyke” (Broad, 2001). I chose this topic because I play women’s rugby and I have experienced this “She’s too good to be a girl, she must be gay” label firsthand and decided to do some research on it. The review begins with a brief history of women’s development in sports, an overview of sport in a social context and how it reflects patriarchal structure. It then moves to research and discussions focusing on gender and homophobia in sport, and in particular women athletes playing male-identified sports.

Throughout much of history women have been perceived as inferior to men and have been denied access to equal opportunities in most social institutions, including sport. Recent research has shown that women are not biologically or intellectually inferior to men, rather, they have slightly lower limits of physical potential (McPherson et al, 1998)

Women did not publicly participate in physical activities to any great extent until the late 19th century. Even then, only ‘functional’ activities such as riding horses (side saddle only), skating (on the arm of a gentleman) and cycling (at first as passengers only) were considered appropriate activities for ‘ladies’ (Boutilier & SanGiovanni, 1983)

However, over the past 20 yrs, sporting opportunity and participation by women has increased considerably (Kew, 1997) because of new opportunities, government legislation that regulates equal treatment for women, the health and fitness movement, and increased media coverage of women in sport. (Coakley 1998.)

There has been an increase in the level of women’s participation in types of sport that have been traditionally limited to men (wrestling, body building, kick boxing) and this has been happening in many countries around the world. (Caudwell, 1999, Klomsten et al. 2005) However, many sports have been considered inappropriate for women and women who engage in gender inappropriate types of sports are often perceived as acting outside of their gender role. It can be assumed that the close association between the attributes required for sport and the traditional concepts of stereotypical gender roles contribute to this attitude. The participation of women and men in social institution of sport and the very shape of that institution are partly determined by the definitions of what men and w omen ought to be in society. (McPherson et al, 1998)

Gender refers to a cultural or social definition of what it is psychologically to be male and female. The term gender is used when referring to the process of learning the roles of man and woman and boy and girl. (Koca, 2005) Gender was defined as a social construction, in other words, men learn to be men and women learn to be women instead of such behaviour being innate. The learning of sex roles was assumed to occur through a process of socialization, people learn the role that fits with their gender and internalize that role. (Knoppers et al. 2001)

Boys learned to be masculine in art through their participation and involvement in sport. Girls learned nurturing skills by playing with dolls and taking care of younger siblings. Fears of ‘masculinization’ or femininization arose when girls or boys participated in an activity associated with the other sex. Gender researchers pointed out that these fears implicitly meant a fear of males becoming gay and of women becoming lesbian. (McPherson et al, 1998)

A traditional and still common way of discussing gender is to assume that it is an essential characteristic tied into bipolarity related only to male and female. This assumption of bipolarity means that males are and should be masculine and women are and should be feminine. i.e. so that there is a universal form of masculinity and femininity. (Knoppers et al. 2001)

Spence and Bem argue that men and women are not polar opposites and invented a new category to understand the distribution of characteristics by sex. Traditionally, sex role inventories have been scored on a bipolar scale so that a high masculine score means a low feminine score and vice versa. (cited in Boutilier & SanGiovanni 1983) Spence and Bem assessed masculine and feminine traits separately, and the results confirmed that masculinity and femininity are independent patterns, not polar opposites. Based on this research, they added a new concept to this sex role continuum – androgyny – which refers to the combination of both feminine and masculine behavioural characteristics in an individual. (Boutilier & SanGiovanni 1983)

Due to social constructions of gender roles, myths have evolved concerning the extent to which females should be involved in sport and why they have encountered barriers in sport. Such myths are, females should not participate in sport because:

– It could harm the reproductive system

– It would make her more masculine and affect her attractive appearance.

– It was not important for their social development as they do not need or value achievement, aggressiveness, competitiveness, independence or productivity.

(Mcpherson et al, 1998, Broad, 2001, Knoppers et al, 2001)

The arguments were based primarily on two unfounded sets of beliefs. Firstly, that sport was harmful to women, and secondly they wanted to preserve the definitions of ideal feminine dress and behaviour that women sanctioned. Any social activity that might restrict or interfere with these responsibilities was discouraged or prevented. (Harrison and Lynch, 2005) These beliefs resulted in stereotypes that became part of the informal gender-role socialization process of succeeding generations. These stereotypes governed women’s involvement in sport.

Certain characteristics and activities in the sport domain have traditionally been assigned to boys and girls, in fact some sports have been defined as having masculine or feminine characteristics. In essence, these gender differences are the result of generally held images or stereotypes of boys and girls (Connell, cited in Knoppers, 2001 and Krane 1997)

Sports regarded as masculine often consist of one or more of the following characteristics: danger, risk, violence, speed, strength, challenge (Koivula, cited in Klomsten 2005) This presents problems for men and boys who don’t have the interest or ability to participate in sports requiring competitiveness and aggression. These boys become socially excluded because they do not fit the definition of masculinity in society and then they become labelled as ‘abnormal’ or ‘gay.’ This leads gay men to hide their identities and feelings when they play sports, encourages all men to idealize aggressive behaviour so they wont be seen as gay, and it also leads to frequent gay-bashing comments in locker rooms and on playing fields. This is simply one of the ways that homophobia gets built into the structure of sport in a society. (Caudwell, 1999, McGinnis et al, 2005, Harrison and Lynch, 2005)

Feminine sports feature aesthetic qualities such as gracefulness, and sports such as aerobics, dance, figure skating, gymnastics, tennis, and ballet. (Metheny, cited in Koca, 2005) The component of beauty as an element of the sport seems to be an important aspect of the perceived femininity of a sport. Sports that seek to provide beauty and visual pleasure are not only acceptable for women but fit in well with stereotyped expectations of femininity (Metheny, cited in Klomsten 2005)

In order for women to be fully accepted as physically competent athletes, they have had to wear heterosexuality on their sleeves (Coakley, 1998) they do this through femininity insignias, the long hair, the make up, the nails, the clothes, the dress or mini skirt rather than slacks. This is part of the female apologetic.

Griffin’s work in 1987 shows that the female apologetic is not only about femininity, but heterosexuality as well. She explains how sport participation for women is still defined by accountability to the “lesbian bogeywoman.” The assumption is that to be an athlete, a woman must enact a quiet, passive, decidedly heterosexual display of gender/sexuality or risk being labelled as the ‘lesbian boogeywoman’ (Griffin 1998)

Many of the gender stereotypes faced by women who played rugby in the 1990s are hard to differentiate from the typical lesbian stereotypes faced my many women athletes. Clearly, the lesbian stereotype is prevalent in rugby and closely linked to perceptions of perceived gender transgressions

However, according to Price and Parker’s research, women playing rugby do not apologize, but instead unabashedly transgress gender, thereby destabilizing the boundaries between women and men. (Parker and Price, 2003). Players faced strong reactions expressing concern that their femininity was at risk because of the perceived masculinity of the sport and how it would put their attractive appearance at risk (Lenskyj, 1986) Being a rugby player was tremendously fulfilling and part of that fulfilment came with knowing one’s toughness, a meaningful characteristic that countered the passivity assumed in a traditionally feminine, apologetic stance. Women who played rugby were not embarrassed or ashamed of breaking the gender bounds by rejecting the beauty standards and passivity of white, middle-class US femininity, rather they found it deeply satisfying.

Women’s involvement in the sport context frequently has been linked to issues related homophobia and the labelling of participants as lesbians (Griffin, 1987, Lenskyj, 1986). As sport traditionally has been defined as a male activity women who enter the competitive sport context are assumed to violate gender norms established for women. (Wellman & Blinde 1997, Griffin 1987, Dolance 2005)

The application of the lesbian label to women’s sport tends to vary by the nature and competitive level of the sport activity (Blinde 1997) Team sports and activities involving physical and aggressive skills are more likely to be subjected to the lesbian stereotype than individual sports or less physical activities (Lenskyj 1986).

Authors since the mid 1980’s gave greater attention to the topic of homophobia, beginning with analyses of homophobic terms such as ‘mannishness’, ‘butch’, ‘muscle moll’ and ‘amazon’ (Cahn 1994, Harris 2005).

The most common definition of homophobia is an irrational fear or intolerance of homosexuality (Pharr 1988). More recently, Krane (1996) suggests the word “homonegativism” as a more inclusive term which represents more purposeful negative attitudes and behaviours toward no heterosexuals (Reimer 1997).

The term “heterosexist” is used to refer to social systems in which heterosexuality is the established norm. (Lenskyj & Jefferson 1997)

There is debate whether articles discussing masculinity and femininity and traditional role constructions should be included when considering homophobia (Griffin 1992, Lenskyj 1991) Articles on gender relations and social construction of sport and masculinity take on a feminist analysis, stating that sport is conceptualized as a celebration of male values and a reproduction of male culture. (Connell, cited in Krane, 1997 and Lenskyj, 1986)

But there is also considerable attention given to the oppressive implications of traditional gender categories and meanings of terms such as masculinity and femininity (Lenskyj, 1986.) To some researchers, femininity is a code word for heterosexuality (Griffin 1987, Lenskyj,1986) and sport is viewed as incompatible with hegemonic femininity (Lenskyj 1986)

The themes in several of these articles suggest that women’s presence in sport represents a breakdown of male/female power relations and compulsory heterosexuality (Griffin 1998, Lenskyj, 1986) These researchers suggest that women’s presence in sport violates heterosexist assumptions, challenges the female frailty myth (Vertinsky as cited in Caudwell, 1999) and threatens patriarchy (male dominance and superiority. If a masculine style in sport is viewed as the norm, then women in sport are constructed as an emulation of males (Lenskyj) and their bodies are considered contested terrain (Connell’s gender theory as cited in Krane, 1997)

Lenskyj (1992) dealt with homophobia and lesbian stereotypes. She challenged the notion that “unfeminine or masculine” women must be lesbian because they behave or present themselves in ways perceived as inappropriate or unattractive. Equating sport as a masculine activity creates a social construction of women’s participation in sport as inconsistent with the social construction of female heterosexuality. According to Lenskyj, this simplistic link between gender identification and sexual orientation is homophobic.

Griffin (1992) makes similar assumptions to Lenskyj and agrees with Cahn’s (1994) analysis that negative social approval of women participating in sport emerged during the 1930’s. This was the time when it was believed that college sport teams were places where mannish lesbians ‘lurked.’ Hence a social stigma became associated with lesbian participation in sport. Griffin sees homophobia manifested in women’s sport in the following ways (a)silence (a strategy of choice) (b)denial and (c)apologetic, all of which are defensive reactions that reflect the power of the lesbian label to intimidate women.

In one of the few empirical studies of homophobia in women’s sport, Blinde and Taub (1992, cited in Griffin) conducted a study exploring the impact of stereotyping and ‘lesbian labelling’ and to examine how homophobia fosters this label. They found that homophobic labelling discredits women in non-traditional gender role behaviour who challenge the prevailing patriarchal and heterosexist normative system. They identify two products of homophobia that disempowered female athletes in their sport participation (1)silence surrounding lesbianism in women’s sport and (2) athletes internalization of homophobic stereotypes.

Blinde and Taub’s analysis of silence suggest various indicators a)discomfort and lack of ease in discussing the lesbian stereotype; b) viewing sexual orientation as a personal and private issue; c) hiding one’s ‘athletic identity’ to reduce the possibility of being labelled and d) difficulty in discussing, confronting or challenging the labelling. In their discourse on silence, Blinde and Taub consider how internalized homophobia operates among female athletes and within the ranks of coaching and the athletic administration. Blinde and Taub indicate that coaches and athletic directors refuse to confront or discuss lesbian stereotypes in order to protect the image of women’s sport programs and instead actively promote a ‘heterosexual personae’ of their programs. Not only do athletes distance themselves from those most likely to be labelled, but such behaviour has the effect of preventing female bonding. (Pharr 1988, Krane 1997)

While all female athletes are stigmatized by stereotypes, athletes who in fact are lesbians also much contend with societal perceptions about lesbians. Lesbian athletes face the decision of whether to hide their true identity or to act as their peers do and disassociate from the lesbian label. This decision often comes down to facing increased discrimination or to hiding one’s lesbian identity. In the end, many lesbians in sport conceal their identity and attempt to portray an image contrary to who they are. (Terwiliger 1995, Vealy 1997)

The majority of the authors cited in this review agree that the presence of women in sport challenges deeply held beliefs about masculinity, femininity, and sport. Women’s presence in sport represents resistance to patriarchy and makes the social construction of sport problematic. Research is limited on how homophobia and the lesbian label impact experiences of women in sport. Hopefully further research will examine how homophobia and lesbian labels affect women athletes who play contact sports such as rugby and football.

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