Sexual stereotype decried Homophobia yet another obstacle

December 23, 1992|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Staff Writer

The assumption is unspoken, but it never goes away.

The administrators perceive it. So do the coaches and players.

It is the stereotype that many women athletes are homosexual. It is one obstacle women in sports encounter that male athletes don't.

"There's definitely a perception that there's a higher percentage of women with that sexual preference that are athletes than the regular population," said Pam Shriver, a 14-year veteran of the professional tennis circuit who lives in Lutherville.

"It's a stereotypical pigeon-holing of women athletes," Shriver said, adding that many younger pros on the tennis tour now travel with their husbands or boyfriends to counter the perception that they are gay.

A 1988-89 study commissioned by the NCAA showed that many women in intercollegiate athletics have felt they are being stereotyped as homosexual.

Of the women in the study who said they were aware of existing stereotypes, 54 percent of administrators, 51 percent of coaches and 46 percent of players indicated that their involvement in sports led others to assume that they preferred a homosexual lifestyle.

"I don't run into it a lot, but there are people who think that there are people who prefer women over men in women's sports," said former Virginia guard Dawn Staley, a two-time national Player of the Year.

"There are lots of women who choose not to play college softball, or basketball or other sports, because they don't want to be associated with that stigma, the lesbian label," said Pat Griffin, an associate education professor and former physical education professor and swimming coach at the University of Massachusetts.

"I think that labeling women athletes lesbians is an excuse to denigrate our participation and to keep women out of sports," said Mariah Burton Nelson, a former basketball player at Stanford University and author of "Are We Winning Yet?: How Women Are Changing Sports and Sports Are Changing Women."

There are no estimates for the number of lesbians in women's sports, but Nelson, in her book, theorizes that the figure is likely more than the 10 percent figure that is estimated for homosexuals in the general population. Nelson also writes about her experiences as a gay athlete.

The issue has bubbled under the surface for years, kept quiet by many lesbian athletes who feared reprisals if their sexual preference were made public.

In recent years, however, with tennis stars Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova acknowledging their bisexuality, the matter

has gotten a more public forum.

"You learn to understand a great deal being around Martina," said Shriver, who teamed with Navratilova to win 79 tournament titles in doubles. "I've seen her [image] come a long way. She's a fascinating person to have watched over the years. To see her evolve into a pretty well-respected spokesperson for gay rights is really something."

But Shriver added that Navratilova's openness had cost her some endorsement opportunities.

Said Griffin: "Martina may not fit the image of the small, young, cute woman athlete that we prefer in our culture, and people may object to her lifestyle, but Martina's the kind of player that's a good role model. She does a lot of philanthropic work and she's a terrific athlete."

Some officials in athletics aren't that open-minded.

Last year, Penn State women's basketball coach Rene Portland was forced to state that she was abiding by the university's new regulation that bars discrimination against homosexuals.

Portland's statement came after local gay and lesbian groups had picketed Penn State games in an ongoing dispute after the coach told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1986 that she did not allow lesbians to play for her.

"She [Portland] is not the only one," said Griffin, who conducted a mandatory seminar with Penn State coaches and athletic officials over the issue of homophobia. "There are other coaches who have that policy. She's just the one who sort of got caught out in public with it."

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