Podcast Episode 23: “You can’t win a championship without gays”

June 17, 2020
Did you know there’s no openly queer athletes in the majors? In honour of Pride Month, co-hosts Ellen and Steph discuss how heteronormative and gender binary ideals and the societal constructs of what’s “masculine” and “feminine” play a huge — and detrimental — part in the LGBT2Q+ community’s involvement in sports.
Sports NewsGeneral
Podcast Episode 23: “You can’t win a championship without gays”

You can listen to this episode on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

(Edited for clarity)

Ellen: What's up, GISTers? Welcome to The GIST of It, the podcast where two gals and two pals give you the gist of what's going on in the sports world. I'm Ellen Hyslop.

Steph: And I'm Steph Rotz. Thanks for tuning in.

Ellen: Steph, it's Pride Month.

Steph: It sure is, it's June. And while, of course it's pretty devastating that we can't be celebrating in person this month because of Covid-19, a lot of consciousness raising is being done at this point in time about the origins of Pride as a result of being inside of Covid-19, and of the Black Lives Matter protests in this political moment that we're in. So the Pride movement, it's important to note, it began as protests and as a riot. And in recognizing and celebrating Pride Month, we're recognizing the work that Black and Black transgender activists like Marsha P. Johnson have done in the fight for justice. And if you're looking for more to learn, I would recommend looking into the Stonewall riots in 1969 in the US, as well as the police raids and riots that happened here in Canada.

Ellen: Yeah, and I'm so glad that you bring that up, because I think that it's so important to look at that history and to also show that protests and riots and what's happening right now with the Black Lives Matter movement is that it does make change and that the LGBT2Q+ community was a huge part of that back in the 60s. So I'm excited that we're able to talk about how that intersection plays with sports today.

Steph: It's always important to acknowledge the work that's been done before us, too. So I'm happy that we get to do that in this episode. And so to celebrate Pride Month, we're going to spend this episode spotlighting a few stories of what it's like to be a part of the LGBTQ+ community and what it's like to be playing sports because the world of sports sure does not make it easy.

Ellen: Oh, it does not make it easy at all. We've talked about sports with sexism and racism, and sports is not welcoming to people of the LGBT2Q+ community. And while there has been some progress in sports, I'd say because of those hetero normative ideals in sports and how gender binary sports are and also how society has made us think about what feminine is and what masculine is, the progress in sports has definitely been hindered. So let's get to it and talk about it.

Steph: Ok, so first, we're going to dive into the major leagues, NBA, MLB, NFL, NHL, as there are currently no active openly gay athletes in any of these leagues. Keyword open. There's never been an active player that was openly gay in the NFL, MLB or NHL, the first and only gay athlete to come out while playing in the major leagues was NBA player Jason Collins, who came out after the 2012 to 2013 season ended and played for a couple of months in 2014 before retiring. Otherwise, generally, major league athletes that have come out, come out in retirement outside of football player Michael Sam, who is the first openly gay football player to be drafted to the NFL. He was drafted, but he never played a game in the NFL or played a game in the CFL. I was really digging online to hope that this wasn't true. But these are the facts.

Ellen: Yeah, these are the true facts. The fact checker has spoken. This is a very deep and complicated topic, as we talked about at the beginning, it really does tie back to history. And similar to how we've talked about racism and sexism in the sports world, homophobia in sports is also rooted in history, some bullshit laws and some bullshit societal norms and constructs that we live under and live with.

So if we think about it, a societal construct that's placed around gay men is really that they're feminine, whereas for gay women, it's that their masculine, which is for everyone, just not true. And we really hate these constructs. We think that people can be whoever they are, whatever the heck they want to be, that's totally up to them and that's their decision. So if we keep those societal constructs in mind, when we look at sports, a societal construct around sports is that they're masculine. And so because of that, that's why traditionally when women play sports or are into sports, because women are supposed to be feminine, people are like, what? What the heck's going on? You're not supposed to like sports. And the same thing goes for gay men when society says that they're feminine and therefore not supposed to play sports.

Steph: We, the we being society in general, think so much in these binary terms, masculine and feminine, male or female, a man or woman. And in sports, we sort everything into this girl or boy binary construct and gender itself is truly not that simple. We really need to start thinking about this in the sports world, because we haven't talked about it a lot. And we need to start thinking about the ways that we can throw out these rigid ideas and roles that we're supposed to be playing as men or women and also move past the gender binary and acknowledge that there is non-binary identity, and move past these polar opposites of what we think that people should be doing or should be, and we'll all be better for it.

The part from this, homophobia itself, manifests in so many ways as we've seen many pro gay athletes wait until after they retire, to come out, cause that's when they feel safe to come out. And for example, in the Aaron Hernandez documentary on Netflix, if you haven't watched it, go watch it. Retired NFL player Ryan O'Callaghan talked about how tough it was to know that he was gay, but not to be able to come out. He talked about the mental health struggles that he had and the weight that this put on him in the sports world, just having to fulfill these roles that we put onto our athletes.

Ellen: Yeah, and with Ryan O'Callahan too, it was the weight, but he also physically put on weight like it was the stress of his truth. Not feeling comfortable being a pro football player also manifested in him physically and his physical side was also his job. And so it's really interesting, and I suggest, you go in and look at everything with Ryan O'Callahan because he's pretty vocal now and he speaks about it in that Aaron Hernandez documentary on Netflix.

Steph: There's so many bodily manifestations of our mental health. When we think about, homophobic and trans phobic language, this could easily deter kids from sports. And there's so much homophobic and transphobic language in the world of sports. And it's going to stop a lot of people from entering the sports world and from living their truth and feeling like they are safe to live their truth.

Think about how many times growing up you heard guys or athletes in sports using this homophobic language to chirp each other, or to make fun of each other or to be competitive in some weird way, 82 percent of athletes have witnessed homophobic or transphobic language in their sport, according to the Outsports survey. Eighty two percent, most people!

Calling people fags, calling people gay in a derogatory sense and there is a coach who's been on record as referring to a team who hasn't been playing well as a bunch of queers. This is not a productive environment. It's not a safe environment. And if you're forced to play sport in that space and in that culture and you are gay, it's no wonder why you don't feel welcome playing in sports or if you're trying to untangle your own relationship with internalized sexism or with toxic masculinity, you would want to distance yourself from the world of sports and you would want to learn how to distance yourself from a love of sports.

I've been having a lot of those conversations with people lately as well. These are all very personal decisions and very personal conversations. A person's sexuality, whether you're gay, straight, bi, trans or pan, it's no one's frickin business. Especially in sports. It's totally up to an athlete how they want to be known.

There is so much pressure when you're in the public eye and there's just so much pressure in general when you come out, you're going to be a role model for other people. Right? Like having that pressure on your shoulders is something that's an extremely personal decision and it's totally up to the athlete. So while I would love for more people to be openly gay in sports, it's one hundred percent that person's decision. And for women, you're also not just an athlete, you're a female athlete. And so depending on your identity, you might be hesitant to be adding another qualifying statement to your identity. And that's totally fair.

Ellen: Yeah, totally up to them. I love what you said. It's none of our freakin business and it's fully their decision. Right now we're talking about the major leagues. So those major leagues, I would say, are traditionally masculine sports. But how people feel about gay athletes doesn't always change when you look at traditionally feminine sports, which, again, I hate these constructs.

But if we look at figure skating, for example, figure skating is considered a feminine sport. And, you know, figure skating is super athletic. It's artistic. If you are creative, you're athletic, you have rhythm and you're strong. You can figure skate. It doesn't matter who you are or what you look like.

Steph: And all sports require a sense of creativity. For anyone who's watched The Last Dance documentary series, you would kind of get a sense of this, that we're moving in more of this direction where there's spontaneous play, there's more creative play making, that's embedded in every sport, too. Right? So it's not just the dance and figure skating. It's basketball, too. It's hockey, too,

Ellen: For sure, I love how you said that. I think you can also think about how many commentators are like, "oh, that's a beautiful play." Or like, "oh, I can't believe you did that. He looked like he was dancing out there." Think about what you're saying.

So anyway, I digress from speaking about that and figure skating, obviously, as a figure skater got to talk about it. But anyway, I wanted to touch base on American Adam Rippon, who's an American figure skater and who's also just one of the best people ever. If you don't follow him on Twitter, please just go follow him on Twitter. He's amazing. He became the first openly gay American athlete to participate in the Olympic Games in 2018. So that was only two years ago that the first American male gay athlete was actually participating in the Olympics, which is absolutely wild to think about that. He was the first one that was openly out. And even though figure skating, you'd think, would be more of a welcoming community he still got so much backlash from the figure skating community.

So just recently, former Russian figure skating star Alexei Yagudin, who I'll admit, I used to have the biggest crush on when I was younger, but now I absolutely despise him. He found out that Adam Rippon donated one thousand dollars to the Okra Project, which benefits black trans people. And he replied to Adam Rippon saying, "When will you die? You're Earth's mistake?" That's what he replied. So in response, Rippon donated another one thousand dollars to the Okra Project. But this time he put it in Alexei Yahudin's name, which is just the best clap back of all time. And you absolutely love to see it. And as much as Yagudin ended up apologizing, it's just horrible that somebody thinks that they could still say and think these sorts of things just because someone is different from you.

It's horrible to see. So, again, as much as we're talking about the major leagues here, this happens in all sports and just in society in general.

Steph: It's really hard to listen to a recount of some of these situations in preparation for this podcast and hearing you recount that as well. It's hard and it's uncomfortable and it's hard to know that this shit still happens. But, no matter what laws are being passed or policies in our workplaces are being adopted, we have to acknowledge that this work is not over. Homophobia is still here, folks, and it's there. We've still got far to go before we get rid of it.

And to be a little weirdly optimistic here, there's so much potential in sports at this moment in time, like it can almost only get better. I'm hoping it can only get better from here. And there's a lot of really cool work that's being done at the community level. Thinking locally here in Toronto, there is the Toronto Gay Hockey Association, which is an inclusive, gay friendly hockey league that's helping create positive associations with the sport of hockey.

Also here in Toronto, there is a drop in basketball league called SQUISH that supports a game that's welcoming to queer, trans and non binary people, to women and anyone who hasn't felt comfortable in the sports environment before. So there are a lot of really great grassroots organizations and plug into your community and see if there's anything where you live that is doing this work. I'm optimistic about where we're going from here.

Ellen: That's awesome. I love your optimism. And it's so cool to see that there are organizations that exist like this now because Steph, when we grew up there really wasn't. So you're totally right. At least there is progress.

Steph: OK, so we've talked about being a queer athlete in the major leagues and now we're going to speak about transgender athletes. And first and foremost, it's extremely important to stress here that Black Trans Lives Matter. Two Black trans women were killed in the U.S. over this past week. Dominique Remy Fells, 27, of Philadelphia and Ria Milton, 25, of Cincinnati, Ohio. Fatal violence disproportionately affects black transgender women. And before we get into a discussion about sports, it's really important to stress that. And these marches, rallies and protests were held across North America speaking out against the trans misogyny that we have in our society.

Ellen: It's absolutely horrible. And you see that sort of thing in sports, too. We talked about 18 year old track and field athlete Andraya Yearwood in our newsletter this past Monday. And we talked about a quote that she said where she felt so much fear just about competing at track meets in high school and going into college and university.

Ellen: She said "it was very scary being in a position where someone could harm me at any given moment. I felt so numb." And, you know, that's just something that nobody ever should feel.

Steph: Let's call out this bullshit thing that we have in sports, which is the sexism, prejudice and discrimination against trans people. The whole world of sports is built up around this gender binary, which we've talked a little bit about. But the world of sports is a huge perpetrator of trans misogyny and is so quick to try and create controversy around whether or not it's fair, quote unquote fair to have trans women competing in women's leagues or in women's events, whether that's at the Olympics or track and field or wherever.

And the IOC, so the International Olympic Committee has a history of policing women's bodies through extremely dehumanizing gender testing in the name of, again, quote unquote, protecting a level playing field. Pushing that narrative that women are subordinate to men. That femininity is subordinate to masculinity. And it's this messed up way of policing that gender binary in policing or in, quote unquote, protecting femininity. This concept that sex segregation equals fair play is something we need to start marinating with because we already know that assigned sex at birth does not equal gender. Right. So we need to start thinking about how cis-sexism presents itself in our sports.

Ellen: And I'm glad you brought that up, because especially in track and field, like what we were talking about, we've seen a lot of horrible stories coming out of the IOC, especially surrounding an international athlete like Caster Semenya, what are they doing and what are they up to? And so today, we really wanted to celebrate trans athletes as being part of the sports community and kind of listing their names, because I feel like in traditional sports news, and honestly also at The GIST, we don't talk about trans athletes enough and all of the incredible things that they're doing just specifically in their sport too. So we wanted to list off a few here.

So Patricio Manuel started boxing professionally as a woman in the early 2000s and made a name for himself becoming a USA national amateur boxing champion, which is huge. When he transitioned, he said that he lost everything. He lost his gym, he lost his coaches. And that was a really big deal for him because as a boxer, your gym and your support group is literally everything to you. But he came back with a vengeance in 2018 to fight Hugo Aguilar in a professional match. And he won. So he became the first openly transgender boxer in the U.S. to actually win a match, too, which is just an amazing story and I think speaks to everything that we've been talking today about. It doesn't matter.

Fallon Fox is the first and only openly transgender professional in MMA. Jessica Platt, too. I think we've both had the pleasure of seeing her speak and also play before. She's a professional hockey player. She played for the Toronto Furies of the now defunct CWHL, so the Canadian Women's Hockey League that folded last year.

And Harrison Browne became the first publicly transgender pro hockey player in history when he was playing for the National Women's Hockey League. Growing up, Browne said that of anything, only hockey felt like home to him. And it was a rare comfort zone where he just felt like he was an athlete. He didn't feel like he was a girl that wanted to be a boy.

And then I guess probably the most popular and familiar name is Caitlyn Jenner. So she came out as transgender almost 40 years after winning the golds. I believe it was in the decathlon at the Olympics. So shout out to all of these trans athletes for everything that they've accomplished and for everything that they continue to do in the sports community too.

Steph: To end things off, we want to celebrate gay and lesbian female athletes. And as we've mentioned before, because of these, you know, quote unquote, societal norms placed around queer women and around sports, it's a bit safer for queer women. So, for example, 41 women were out as gay or as lesbian or bi in the women's FIFA World Cup in 2019, which is huge four women on the Canadian team, five women on the U.S. team and their coach, Jill Ellis. Also, when you look at leagues like the WNBA and the NWSL, they are fully in support of their LGBTQ+ athletes. They celebrate Pride, they elevate the voices of their athletes and they enact and back up really great policies.

Ellen: Yeah those leagues are definitely doing it right. And, you know, as much as we're talking about this, it is still so freaking hard to be a gay or lesbian female athlete. And again, I think we need to look back at history here. So, for example, back in 1991, Penn State University's women's basketball coach had a policy of forbidding lesbians to play on her team, like forbidden. Like, as if that was a rule.

And then actually, just 10 years earlier, in 1981, that's when Billie Jean King and everything with Billie Jean came out. So with her story in 1981, she was actually outed as being gay and a lesbian when her ex, Marilyn Barnett, sued her for alimony while she was married to Larry King. And so I can't even imagine for someone that was on such a global stage and was such a prominent athlete, how frustrating that would be to not be able to come out yourself and to be outed.

And then I would say more recently, Sheryl Swoopes, who's just an absolute legend, in the WNBA. She's a GOAT. I mean, we put Diana Taurasi as our number one on our WNBA list of all time. But like Sheryl Swoopes is up there for sure. But anyway, she came out in 2005 saying that she was at a point in her life where she was tired of having to pretend to be someone she wasn't and that she was basically living a lie for seven or eight years and was just waiting to exhale until she could come out.

And so as much as we're talking about the WNBA and the NWSL and women's sports being a little bit of a safer place, it's in thanks in part to all of these amazing women that have gone through it beforehand. And that really made their mark on history so that athletes now can feel like they're safe.

Steph: We have a lot of work to do. It's important to acknowledge the work that has been done and we've got to move forward from there. But to end things off. Let's pass it off to U.S. Women's National Team star. One of my faves, Megan Rapinoe, who during the FIFA Women's World Cup said "You can't win a championship without gays on your team. It's never been done before. Ever. That's science right there."

All right. That's The GIST of It from Ellen and I. Thanks for tuning in. If you like what you heard, tell all your friends and subscribe to The GIST of It on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play or Stitcher. And while you're there, rate us five stars and leave a review.

Ellen: And in case you missed it, The GIST creates sports content experiences and community that's by women and for all sports fans. If you like what you heard today, you have to check out our free twice weekly newsletter where every Monday and Thursday morning we give you the gist of what's going on in the sports world. If you haven't yet subscribe at thegistsports.com

If you want to get in touch with Steph and I or you have any questions that you want answered on the podcast. E-mail us at pod@thegistsports.com or DM us on Instagram at @thegistnews.ca or @thegistusa