Sexism, LGBT and Sports


James Joyner notes that Brittney Griner, perhaps the greatest women’s basketball player in history, recently mentioned that she is gay and the response was a collective yawn. At the same time, amid reports that as many as four NFL players may come out as gay together soon, gay male athletes face a much different reaction.

Brittney Griner, just picked first overall in the WNBA draft, nonchalantly mentions that she’s a lesbian. Why are female athletes able to do so without controversy but not males?…

Part of the answer is the intermixture of sexuality and gender are different. We’re just barely at the point where extreme athletic prowess—especially in a body that’s unusually tall or muscular—in a women is compatible with general notions of femininity. Indeed, not all that long ago, women who were particularly strong and engaged in traditionally male activities like basketball were presumed to be lesbians. Conversely, while our notions have thankfully evolved tremendously, there’s still a widespread notion that gay males are less than manly. And, of course, male athletes are considered the height of masculinity.

I think this is exactly right, but it’s also part of a broader reality that men and women alike just don’t have as negative a reaction to gay women as they do to gay men. Almost all of the discourse on the anti-gay right about homosexuality focuses on men, not women. When the Bible mentions homosexuality, it’s “men lying with men,” not women. And I’m certainly not the first person to say this, but I think one of the key factors in all of this is sexism.

What is the most common stereotype and insult used to demean gay men? That they’re effeminate, that they’re acting like a woman, that they’re a “sissy.” That’s the way teenage boys taunt one another, by calling each other “pussies” and other such things. And the root of that is the misogynistic idea that there’s something bad about being a woman, that women are subordinate to men and that there’s a strict difference between being masculine and being feminine.

Comments

  1. slc1 says

    What’s so remarkable about this? There have been known lesbians participating in woman’s tennis and golf for 40 years (ever hear of Bilie Jean King or Martina Navratilova?).

  2. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    Another data point here – Sally Ride, the first female astronaut & third woman in orbit. thirty years ago this year. If memory serves, it was only publicly acknowledged that she was a lesbian after she died last year and she was briefly also married to a male astronaut so presumably bisexual.

  3. anandine says

    Men seem more anti-gay than women do in general, and men pretty much drive the national political agenda, so it boils down to the fact that straight men find gay male sex (but not female gay sex) yucky and have the microphone.

    I find gay male sex yucky, too, which is why I don’t engage in it, and I imagine gay men find my heterosexual sex yucky, too, but there’s no reason either of us should care what the other does, as long as we don’t have to participate.

    So why do some men really, really care if other men are gay while other men don’t? So many other behaviors are biologically driven that my first guess would be something genetic or epigenetic. There is really no explaining any sexual taste.Whatever it is that one likes to do sexually, you just like it, that’s all, and you don’t have to defend that preference to anybody (unless it’s a preference for children or causing pain, in which case you would have a lot of explaining to do, but it’s conceptually no different from a preference for, oh, either fat or skinny women).

    The thing is, when you watch TV, or watch a plumber fix a pipe, or see a car accident, mirror neurons activate, and if feels as though you are doing it yourself. This is why we cry at movies, and some get so moved by a football score. Monkeys have mirror neurons, too.

    I think it’s the same thing with gay-haters. The thought of gay sex is so, so yucky to them that when their mirror neurons kick in, and they think of imagine themselves with a dick in their mouth, they just go crazy. God help them, the yuck explodes, and they can do no other.

  4. Hercules Grytpype-Thynne says

    I do think that Romans 1:26 is a reference to lesbianism:

    [26] For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: [27] And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of that error which was meet. [my bold]

    Even so, it appears from verse 27 that the author found male homosexuality to be more objectionable.

  5. Trebuchet says

    But lesbians are HOT!

    Seriously, just look at porn, where lesbian scenes are (apparently) extremely popular among straight men. I’m pretty sure the reverse is not true, especially since porn is less popular among women in general. Men find the idea of lesbian sex exciting for some reason.

  6. regexp says

    So why do some men really, really care if other men are gay while other men don’t?

    Perhaps because I’m a guy but I find that a very odd question. Growing up the expectations were simple. Play sports, break some things, bed some girls, get married, and raise a family. I don’t find it odd in the least that many guys brains can’t grasp that the guy they grew up with is gay. My childhood best friend and later best man in his wedding stopped speaking to me after I announced I had a boyfriend. That was 20 years ago. For many guys – they aren’t given the tools to grow past it. And really I have nothing of fond memories of growing up. My parents raised us as they were expect too and they did a good job. And they were nothing but supportive of me when I wasn’t following their model of what I should be doing. That takes courage and requires you to question long held beliefs. And that’s hard for many people.

  7. D. C. Sessions says

    That takes courage and requires you to question long held beliefs. And that’s hard for many people.

    That’s hard for anyone. Some of us just find the alternative unacceptable. (What was the old line about the “unexamined life?”)

    Props to your parents.

  8. marcus says

    Hey, I’m all for equal rights and all that stuff as long as it doesn’t require me to change my long-held beliefs, expectation or preconceived notions. Oh, and my prejudices? They’re sacred!

  9. lofgren says

    Re Gay sex is icky: Most of us straight people at some point had to get past the idea that male/female sex is icky, too. We got past it because our natural urges mean that we have to in order to not go insane. People who never get past the idea that their own sexual urges are icky become priests or serial killers. If you don’t know any gay people when you pass through puberty, it may well be too late by the time you are trying to make this adjustment.

    I think another source of anxiety over gay men is that authoritarians see the world as inherently hierarchical, with men on a higher caste than women. For a woman to want to “act like a man” makes sense. She violates the social order, but in a way that maintains its structure. Wanting to move higher in the hierarchy makes sense. When a man wants to “act like a woman,” it not only violates the social order, it throws the entire system into question because the man is aspiring for something that should be beneath him. Gay men are therefore much more threatening to their worldview than gay women.

  10. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    @anandine, #3

    So why do some men really, really care if other men are gay while other men don’t?

    Oh, yeah. In the context of the NFL I definitely think it’s epigenetic: Somewhere in the vicinity of their genes, a coach has been screaming, “you weak woman, you tackle like a sissy queer” to the worst performing members of their teams.

    Therefore, if an NFL player came out as trans or as gay/bi/queer other players would see that as tantamount to admitting that the person was not really capable of playing at a high level. Whether they perceived this as “giving up” (an admission that they didn’t think they could hack it going forward) or whether they perceived this as befuddlement at dumb luck (an admission that the player made a lot of plays by luck and not skill – and thus couldn’t be counted on going forward), there would definitely be reasons to mistrust that player and want that player off the team. Reasons that have to do with things going on in close proximity to DNA, even.

    ===========
    @SLC1, #1

    If you can’t tell the difference between a team sport where having the trust of your fellow players is important and an individual sport where their distrust of you simply spurs you on to prove yourself more, then you would definitely not have any clue why this is a big deal.

  11. lofgren says

    If you can’t tell the difference between a team sport where having the trust of your fellow players is important and an individual sport where their distrust of you simply spurs you on to prove yourself more, then you would definitely not have any clue why this is a big deal.

    Yes, I’m sure the collective freakout over gay football players is all about this subtle nuance.

  12. says

    If you can’t tell the difference between a team sport where having the trust of your fellow players is important and an individual sport where their distrust of you simply spurs you on to prove yourself more, then you would definitely not have any clue why this is a big deal.

    Well known lesbian tennis players played doubles and mixed doubles. And women in college team sports have been playing with “out” teammates for a long time. It hasn’t been an issue.

  13. says

    It will be interesting to see the reaction if the 4 or 5 NFL players “in talks” to come out, do so. I think it will be a bit like the military situation: some idiots will fuss about it, but in the end it will be no big deal. I think we’ve already seen evidence that any bigoted player who opens his mouth publicly, will have to hire a reputation repair person because of the public thrashing they’ll take.

  14. says

    lofgren,

    You might be interested in something I wrote something I wrote about disgust and homophobia. The link in the first sentence of that post, looking at the more general conflict between sexual desire and disgust, might also interest you. The idea is that sexual excitement suppresses disgust reactions.

    Seems we’re pretty much on the same page, though I think homophobia is quite modifiable by later experience. Watching porn–not even gay porn, just porn–may, for example, might diminish disgust reactions to homosexuality.

  15. says

    lofgren,

    I do disagree with you about people going insane over inability resolve the conflict between sexual desire and disgust reactions. I’ve seen no evidence that anyone goes insane over this or that priests are too disgusted by sex to experience sexual desire, though I think there have been some sexual killers who have troubles resolving the disgust-desire conflict.

    In any case, I think the resolution is less of a conscious, cognitive matter and something that occurs at a non-verbal level, non-conceptual level. It may be the case that lower levels of desire fail to offset disgust reactions or that individuals higher in disgust-sensitivity have more difficulty experiencing sex without feelings of revulsion. I think that rather than become priests, these individuals simply live with varying degrees of sexual dysfunction. An interesting recent study found, for example, that women who experience vaginismus have higher levels of general disgust sensitivity than other women.

    http://drx.typepad.com/psychotherapyblog/2013/02/disgust-sex.html

    Of course, it’s well known that conservatives are on average higher in general disgust-sensitivity than liberals. Though I haven’t seen anything about comparative rates of sexual dysfunction among conservatives, we certainly know they tend on average to be far more homophobic.

  16. lofgren says

    Dr X,

    That was hyperbole for the sake of humor. I was referencing the Catholic church’s tendency to encourage those with certain proclivities to join the clergy in order to purify themselves or keep them from sin and the typical depiction of serial killers as men with sexual urges that also disgust them (as portrayed on popular TV shows such as Criminal Minds), as well as the obvious disgust of sex expressed or embodied by many Catholic saints. I agree that these represent extreme reactions to this conflict, and are both funneled through a cultural sieve that encourages people with certain feelings to construct their identities according to popular archetypes.

    You present the possibility that a person might become a priest in reaction to a latent feeling of discomfort or disgust with sex and the possibility that they will “simply” live with sexual dysfunction as if they are mutually exclusive. In fact what I was suggesting was that a person might be drawn to the priesthood in part because of that sexual dysfunction. They would be more likely to be comfortable with the pledge of celibacy, and their insecurities would make them easy prey for the church’s general anti-sex message. A person who feels little disgust towards sex and has a high degree of desire would find that message simply incomprehensible, but the same message would be highly attractive to a person who feels a visceral sense of disgust towards sex.

    You also imply that disgust-sensitivity and lower levels of desire are independent variables. I tend to doubt that our ability to analyze human thought processes has the level of resolution necessary to make that statement with any authority, though of course you are the expert.

  17. says

    An edit function available after we click submit comment would be helpful. Of course, proofreading before clicking submit would be helpful, too.

  18. lofgren says

    I’ve seen no evidence that anyone goes insane over this or that priests are too disgusted by sex to experience sexual desire

    Also, I not only never said this, I think I pretty clearly implied that it was the conflict between experiencing both disgust towards sex as well as sexual desire that leads to what I hyperbolicly referred to as “insanity” (a term I was using in the less rigid colloquial fashion rather than in the legal or technical sense).

  19. says

    Lofgren,

    Too disgusted to experience sexual desire–badly stated on my part. Didn’t want to add yet another comment to restate that and hoped you’d get the idea from the rest of what I’d said. My intent there was to say that I’ve seen no evidence that priests are swamped by the disgust/desire conflict, i.e., that they’re quite able to enjoy sexual expression without feelings of disgust being significantly problematic. Guilt and shame are, respectively, different stories. The differences: guilt and shame both involve much more cognitive mediation and are less immediately visceral than disgust. People frequently do and enjoy things that make them feel guilt or shame. High disgust more immediately inhibits action.

    Perhaps my comment came off excessively critical, when in fact, I actually appreciated your observations and believe we’re thinking about these things in similar terms. I did want to make the point that rather than being driven mad (in the colloquial sense) by immediate feelings of disgust, I believe it’s more likely that the outcome of disgust swamping sexual desire might be sexual dysfunction–itself disconcerting, but it really isn’t madness (again, I use that term colloquially).

    Really, I’m talking about this not too shoot down your comment. I think it was one of the best. I’m talking about your comment because the subject fascinates me and there is a lot to delve into.

  20. says

    Sorry, one more thing to add, which I believe some here at Dispatches might recall from some of my earlier posts. Though to a lesser extent now than up until a couple of years ago, my specialty and a large part of my clinical work has been assessment and treatment of priests–including applicants to priesthood, men studying for priesthood, men active priesthood and men leaving priesthood, some voluntarily and some involuntarily. So I’m not in the speculative realm about their sexual functioning. Sexual dysfunction and disgust doesn’t seem to be a significant issue. Functioning sexually with guilt or shame: yes, that turns up often enough.

  21. suttkus says

    #5 Trebuchet:

    But lesbians are HOT!

    Seriously, just look at porn, where lesbian scenes are (apparently) extremely popular among straight men. I’m pretty sure the reverse is not true, especially since porn is less popular among women in general. Men find the idea of lesbian sex exciting for some reason.

    But that’s a cultural thing, too. In Japan, you get multiple categories. There’s male/male porn aimed at men, male/male porn aimed at women, female/female porn aimed at men, and female/female porn aimed at women. That our culture doesn’t have large numbers of women interested in watching gay porn pretty much reflects how badly we screw women’s brains when it comes to sex at all. Even so, I see it changing. I see more and more western women online expressing interest in watching what Japan calls “Boys Love” media.

  22. Stacy says

    I’m pretty sure the reverse is not true, especially since porn is less popular among women in general.

    For the record, I’m a woman and I enjoy male/male porn, and I know for a fact I’m not a special snowflake in that regard.

    FWIW, I think Ed’s analysis is spot on. Misogyny is a huge factor in the bigotry against gay men.

  23. Uncle Glenny says

    #5 Trebuchet:

    I suspect those same straight men have different images for what they consider a stereotypical lesbian and the “lesbians” of fantasy.

    suttkus:

    I read something recently that the male-male erotica (prose) industry is heavily authored and read by straight women.

  24. lofgren says

    Guilt and shame are, respectively, different stories. The differences: guilt and shame both involve much more cognitive mediation and are less immediately visceral than disgust. People frequently do and enjoy things that make them feel guilt or shame. High disgust more immediately inhibits action.

    My objection at this point is rather fine, and probably to a clinical psychologist it will come off as at least a little crankish. Basically (as I have mentioned in these comments before), I tend to be skeptical that we are actually capable of differentiating between such closely related emotions in other people. I often disbelieve that neurologists and psychologists are actually studying what they think they are studying.

    In this case, I agree with you that the words guilt, shame, and disgust have different literal meanings. What I have trouble believing is that you can actually, verifiably identify which one an individual is experiencing – in fact I tend to doubt that a person can even reliably identify which one they themselves are experiencing. It seems entirely plausible to me that guilt and shame could be conscious bulwarks erected over, and obscuring, a more subtle layer of visceral disgust, or that the anxiety created by disgust could get channeled in such a way that it might not be readily identifiable to either the subject or the doctor studying him.

    The problem is compounded by the fact that we are slowly developing what might be called “objective” definitions of terms like guilt, shame, and disgust. That is, in order to study them we are forced to come up with operational definitions of those terms based on behavior, or in some cases even identify through fMRI scans that one emotion is different from the others because it processes in a different place or a different way in the brain. However, until the last century or so, these words were used for hundreds of years without any way of objectively observing them. You just had to take somebody’s word for it that they were experiencing guilt or disgust, and the use of those terms was predictably vague, and continues to be so outside of any setting where an operational definition is required. That is to say, when a person says that they are feeling disgusted, there is no way for me to know what that means to them. I can only reflect on what “disgust” means to me, a link between word and emotion that was formed based on informal observation before I even became conscious of it, and hope that we are talking about roughly the same thing.

    All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I am out of my depth here, and so far out of my depth that I can’t help but doubt that anybody really understands it even if they claim they do. It’s an argument from ignorance, basically. But I can’t just take a person’s word that they have mastered something that seems totally ineffable to me.

  25. inquisitiveraven says

    #23 Uncle Glenny

    Don’t know about male-male prose erotica in general, but that’s certainly the case with fanfiction, where straight women spend a lot time pairing up guys they think are hot whether not there’s any evidence for any kind of sexual relationship in whatever series they’re writing for. The canonical example is Star Trek fanfiction which gave us the term “slash,” short for “Kirk/Spock.” That term later got extended to other m/m fanfiction pairings.

  26. Uncle Glenny says

    inquisitiveraven:

    It’s possible that’s what I’m actually thinking of. I can’t remember when/where/how-I-got-there.

  27. typecaster says

    Sally Ride, the first female astronaut & third woman in orbit. thirty years ago this year. If memory serves, it was only publicly acknowledged that she was a lesbian after she died last year and she was briefly also married to a male astronaut so presumably bisexual.

    That might be true, but it wouldn’t be my first presumption. I know nothing about the specifics of Sally Ride’s marriage, but it’s at least conceivable that she wanted to appear straight, and married for that reason among others.Sexual attraction may or may not have been a factor. Check out “beard” in the Urban Dictionary.

    Most of us straight people at some point had to get past the idea that male/female sex is icky, too.

    This is a really odd concept to me. Possibly I’m just a minority outlier, but sex with girls/women never seemed icky. Not even a little bit. Sometimes unobtainable, but that’s a different issue.

  28. lofgren says

    Possibly I’m just a minority outlier, but sex with girls/women never seemed icky.

    Dr X can speak more authoritatively to this, I’m sure. I believe that there is a pretty wide range of reactions that little kids might have to graphic sex acts that might be considered “healthy.” But if you provide a detailed enough description of even the most conventional sex act to a hundred 6/7/8 year-olds, “Ewwwwwww!” would be pretty solidly represented among the reactions.

  29. Uncle Glenny says

    When I was in 4th grade (at a new school) we had to share lockers. Because my class had an odd number of boys and an odd number of girls, one pair (minimum, obviously) had to be shared (unisex? bisexual?).

    I didn’t see anything wrong with it, but apparently developed “cooties” by association. (Prior to this, “cooties” seemed to be little kids successfully modeling infectious disease spread on the playground.)

    btw, this new school was a private school in Princeton; previously I’d been at a middle/lower-middle-class area public school.

    TL;DR: at some stage, to little boys, girls are “icky.”

  30. says

    I worked with a lot of gay people between 1965 and 1989, a fair %age of them being closeted (but not fooling anyone). It does seem that for a lot of people the closeted gays are seen as less threatening. I never saw any gay persons as threatening unless they were assholes and predators. I spent enough time with a paedophile as a young child to know when I was around asshole predators.

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