“Golden rule of softball:“No bow, lesbo” Needles to say, I will never be caught without a ribbon in my hair again. Thanks (teammate),” — FGCU softball player, March 8, 2012
“… to all the random girls I most likely will be dancing wit(h) #NoHomo … ” — FGCU women’s basketball player, March 29, 2012
“ … NationalBestFriendDay … bball (best friends) since the beginning. I love you faggot,” — FGCU women’s basketball signee, April, 2012
When Joyce Iamstrong was considering joining the FGCU women’s basketball team last year, she wondered whether the school offered her desired degree program, not whether the team was accepting of lesbians.
Once she was established on campus last fall and had begun dating her now-girlfriend, it was her teammates who enthusiastically pressed her for details.
“When are you going to make it (the relationship) official?” they giddily asked Iamstrong.
Poll: Are gay men or women more accepted in athletics?
Even when faced at times with insensitivity toward her sexual orientation, Iamstrong was the one practicing tolerance.
“I know some teammates would try to watch what they say around me out of respect,” said the 20-year-old physical therapy major from Chicago, a junior college transfer who will be entering her senior season as an FGCU reserve this fall.
“From the years I’ve played basketball, I’ve never really had any discriminatory language (directed) toward me. I have never had a bad experience at all. I have nothing but positive experiences.”
Heartening as Iamstrong’s story may be to gay-rights and social-equality advocates, it is not necessarily representative of women’s athletics, a world in which, contrary to public perception and mainstream media attention, homophobia routinely provide a pervasive undercurrent in many day-to-day elements.
“Absolutely progress is being made. I think there’s no question about that. And at the same time, it does still happen every day,” author Pat Griffin, one of the nation’s foremost advocates of women’s sports and gay rights issues, said of the pervasiveness of anti-lesbian attitudes in women’s athletics. “It is a huge issue.”
Homosexuality in men’s sports remains a headline-making topic, especially as a highly visible barrier still not crossed by an active athlete in a major U.S. sport. But despite limited visibility, homophobia in women’s sports may affect a far greater number of lives.
Impacts range from major blow-ups, such as lawsuit settlements by U.S. universities for discrimination, to more insidious, daily occurrences, such as ostracism, negative recruiting, hiring (and firing) inequities and simple fears to play or coach sports.
“If you’re an athlete and you’re a man, nobody thinks you’re gay,” said Griffin, professor emeritus of the Social Justice Education Program at the University of Massachusetts and the director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s Changing the Game project, which targets homophobia in K-12 athletics.
“If you’re a women athlete, the stereotype is you are a lesbian, or you must be playing on a team with a bunch of lesbians. As long as that is the stigma, women’s coaches are much more defensive and fearful about that kind of label. And as long as it has that kind of power, it makes it more likely that coaches and parents will use that (against women).”
"NO BOW, LESBO"
Each statement taken on its own could be rationalized in some manner, perhaps as absent-minded products of immaturity, insensitivity or long-standing cultural bias.
Collectively, though, the three tweets coming from three FGCU athletes in the span of only a month this spring arguably corroborate the existence of a broad culture of homophobia in women’s athletics.
“Golden rule of softball: ‘No bow, lesbo,’” an FGCU softball player tweeted in March while thanking a teammate for the advice. “Needles to say, I will never be caught without a ribbon in my hair again.”
“To all the random girls I most likely will be dancing (with) #NoHomo,” an FGCU women’s basketball player tweeted, also in March, before clarifying in a tweet a day later. “But I don’t discriminate.”
In a tweet to a friend in April, an FGCU women’s basketball signee celebrated their friendship with a slur.
“Basketball (best friends) since the beginning,” the player tweeted. “I love you faggot.”
Despite obvious logistical flaws with the “unwritten” softball credo — gay players wearing ribbons to hide being gay; straight players foregoing bows because of the impractical nuisance — the homophobic saying is readily known in softball circles at many ages.
“I understand the phrase,” said FGCU softball coach Dave Deiros, who tells his players to be accountable for everything they say publicly, a point he said he reiterated after the recent homophobic tweet. “I’m not going to censor my players.”
As with any potential conflict, Deiros said the emphasis is always on what best serves the team.
“I’m not asking you not to be gay, and I’m not asking you to be gay. What I’m asking you is while we’re in the locker room, on the field, as a team, going to class, that’s the guiding principle. As soon as you leave and go out on your own, knock yourself out. Be your own person, represent the university well.”
In 2007-2008, FGCU was hit with a number of gender equity and sexual harassment complaints and lawsuits inside and outside athletics.
The prolonged turmoil cost FGCU its president, general counsel, athletic director and at least four women’s coaches. It also resulted in lawsuit settlements and contract buyouts totaling about $5 million, a bill ultimately footed by Florida taxpayers and FGCU students.
FGCU athletic director Ken Kavanagh, hired in 2009 after 13 years at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., called the three recent tweets from FGCU’s athletes insensitive but not did believe them to have malicious intent or be indicative of a broader problem in FGCU athletics.
“We have a pretty straight-forward policy from the university standpoint (for) all students and all staff members. We don’t tolerate discrimination of any kind,” Kavanagh said. “If somebody is not going to live by that, then there will be repercussions.
“I can’t speak across the board that there aren’t people that don’t have prejudices in any way in our society. But if people have them, they have to keep them to themselves and not allow them to affect their role how we operate as a student-athlete population. Or (as) staff member(s). We all fall under one umbrella.”
Griffin criticized Kavanagh’s response as insufficient in an area where being proactive can be of great benefit in combating homophobia.
“That’s a typical response, to make it an individual problem,” she said. “Part of the solution is to educate coaches and athletes how to respond in ways that are fair and inclusive. How do we change the norm in sport so that it’s not OK to say, ‘No bow, lesbo?’”
CULTURE OF FEAR
Male coaches or married female coaches in women’s athletics can’t say it directly, so they often sell their programs as “wholesome,” “family-based” or steeped in “family values.”
Many say such pitches routinely cross the line from promoting a sense of family on a team to not-subtly assailing other programs as pro-gay, itself used as an epithet.
The tactic is so rampant that it shapes recruiting practices, keeps women’s coaches closeted and contributes to a sizable gender imbalance for coaches of women’s teams, experts say.
According to Brooklyn College professors emerita R. Vivian Acosta and Linda Jean Carpenter, women hold only 42.9 percent of coaching jobs in women’s sports, down from more than 90 percent following the passage of landmark Title IX legislation in 1972. The law, which celebrated its 40th anniversary last month, prohibits gender discrimination in all publicly funded education programs, including athletics.
Men, meanwhile, hold about 97 percent of coaching jobs on the men’s side and more than 99.5 percent of jobs in men’s team sports, the study found. Since 2000, NCAA programs have added 1,774 women’s head coaching jobs, and men have filled 1,220 of the openings.
While old-fashioned sexism is cited as a leading cause of the imbalance, fear of being labeled as gay or losing recruits under the same guise is widely blamed for keeping women’s coaches closeted, driving them from the sideline or keeping them from coaching in the first place.
“I know a lot of good female coaches that have gotten out of coaching because of that culture,” said former FGCU volleyball coach Jaye Flood, 55, who was fired by FGCU in 2008 after nearly 30 years in coaching after raising gender equity issues. “They were afraid of being fired and losing their jobs.”
As recently as last year, there was only one openly gay woman coaching Division I women’s basketball, Sheri Murrell of Portland State.
Ironically, observers say, the passage of Title IX paved the way for more money to eventually enter women’s sports, raising the stakes on winning and widening the door to homophobia.
“As I went along (in my career) they would just fall off,” Flood said. “And they were good. They were ex-Olympians, ex-college players. They were excellent. It’s sad. I just don’t think it’s safe for people to come out right now. (And) I don’t think it’s changed very much.”
Rather than introducing prejudice to the equation, coaches on the recruiting trail can be the ones confronted by players or parents wanting to know whether their programs have gay players.
“Occasionally you’ll have a parent be concerned and want to know the composition of the team,” said FGCU women’s basketball coach Karl Smesko. “I think the parents that have brought it up were hoping that it wouldn’t be many. (I explain that) that’s just not something that we worry about.”
While sexual orientation discrimination wasn’t a formal complaint in her lawsuit, Flood in 2008 was awarded the largest of the settlements from FGCU after alleging retaliation and defamation that related to her sexual orientation.
“I’ll never get a job again,” Flood said. “No one wants to touch you after that. And I had to make that decision when I went after them because I knew that would be the case.”
For athletes themselves, many of whom are in their adolescent and early adult years when confronted with such bias, homophobic attitudes and behavior can derail lives and playing careers.
According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, girls drop out of sports at twice the rate of boys by age 14. One of the primary reasons given is a fear of being labeled gay at an already fragile period of adolescence.
“There’s fear anyway about young teens coming out,” Flood said. “That’s one of the great things about athletics is (building) self-esteem, and then you’re going to tear them down just because they have these feelings? Why would you do that to an 18-year-old?”
While many have the support of family and friends regarding their sexual orientation, girls and young women facing homophobia in sport can be doubly impacted when facing such issues alone.
“It’s unfortunate for younger kids when they’re still in their parents’ household,” said Iamstrong, who said she has learned to live with her own mother’s disapproval of her sexual orientation. “Most parents, especially traditional parents, they don’t really accept it or embrace it.”
Considerable mental energy goes into shrouding sexual orientation for many female athletes, observers say, while even straight athletes find themselves trying to prove they are not gay.
Hair ribbons, the growing use of makeup during competition and even long hair, once far less common in women’s sports, are decried by some as homophobic constraints, even if such traditional symbols of femininity don’t indicate sexual orientation.
“Every athlete should be able to dress and present themselves the way they want,” Griffin said. “The issue is when they feel they have to do that to defend themselves against accusations that they are lesbians, which some women do. Then it’s not really a choice. Having a ponytail and wearing makeup or ribbons in your hair seems to have become a part of the uniform, which has nothing to do with performance.”
At the most tragic levels, gay, lesbian and bisexual youths are four times as likely to attempt suicide as heterosexual peers, according to a 2011 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nine of 10 gay students are harassed at school, said a 2009 Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network survey.
“Kids commit suicide over it,” Barbara Wyatt told East Texas’ KLTV. Wyatt is the mother of a Texas high school softball player who alleges in a lawsuit that coaches accosted her and maliciously revealed her sexual orientation to her mother and other students.
“If we don’t want to continue to lose our children to these types of issues,” Wyatt said, “then we have to do some changing.”
At a minimum, athletes facing homophobic attitudes and behavior routinely contend with depression and disillusionment, advocates say.
“If you’re an athlete, you’re there because you love it. You’re good at it. It’s a passion,” Griffin said. “When that passion is taken away because of who you are, not because of anything you did, that’s devastating.”
When Joyce Iamstrong showed up on the FGCU women’s basketball team last fall, senior captain Courtney Chihil could immediately tell she wasn’t fit to be an Eagle, and not because Iamstrong is gay.
“In the preseason I was the one who came in out of shape,” Iamstrong said. “One Saturday morning, she was willing to go running with me to do some extra conditioning to get in shape.”
Such support was repeated when Chihil learned her teammate — and roommate — was gay.
“We just laughed about it. I think that did help our friendship,” Chihil said. “I never saw Joyce (in terms of her sexual orientation). What defined her was how she treated me as a friend and how she played on the basketball court and how she treated other people.”
During the year, Iamstrong’s girlfriend regularly visited the apartment Iamstrong and Chihil shared with two other teammates.
“I wasn’t sure how people would accept it, but I came to find out everyone couldn’t care less whether I was gay,” said Iamstrong, who watched the NBA Finals at home with her girlfriend and several FGCU freshmen last month.
“(She was) just like another person hanging out with the team. We just had a good time.”
At the same time, Iamstrong sees the broader cultural struggles over gay rights, including the open hatred and physical attacks on homosexuals, and is shaken by the intolerance.
“It kind of gets under my skin,” said Iamstrong, who changed her last name to its current form when she entered FGCU after a tumultuous time in her life.
“I honestly think the gay community is expanding. A lot more people are open about it. You’re still going to have people that aren’t OK with it. But as time goes on, more and more people learn to accept it or learn to deal with it in a positive way.”