Former Penn State coach Rene Portland was widely known for discriminating against lesbians. / Getty Images
A softball player at the University of Florida, the women’s golf coach at the University of Minnesota, a basketball player at Penn State, the women’s soccer coach at Belmont University … the list goes on.
Lawsuits and grievances from athletes and coaches allegedly fired or thrown off their teams because they were gay or believed to be gay are perhaps the most glaring examples of homophobia in women’s athletics, but many cases never get that far, a testament to the scope of the problem, activists say.
“Rene Portland wasn’t the only one who had a no-lesbians rule,” women’s sports and gay rights advocate Pat Griffin said of the former Penn State women’s basketball coach who resigned in 2007 after being widely known for discriminating against lesbians throughout her 27-year tenure.
“(Other coaches) are more subtle about it. Sometimes it gets couched in terms of providing a family environment. Or they use all the code words.”
To combat such abuses, Griffin said there’s growing sentiment that universities and other organizations need to add penalties to anti-discrimination policies already in place.
“We sanction schools all the time for violating recruiting procedures,” Griffin said. “These are ethical issues that I think coaching associations could take much stronger stands against.”
Passing federal legislation to outlaw sexual orientation discrimination also would greatly discourage such practices and provide greater legal backing when faced with it, advocates say.
Only 16 states — not including Florida — and Washington, D.C., have workplace laws outlawing sexual orientation discrimination. Such cases elsewhere are brought under a patchwork of existing laws.
“Not every court will interpret sex discrimination in the same way,” said Adele Kimmel, managing attorney of Washington, D.C., based Public Justice, which handled the 2008 gender discrimination and retaliation lawsuit brought by two former FGCU women’s coaches.
“If people are told you can’t do it, it might have a deterrent effect. (Or) you would probably see more lawsuits because people would be willing to bring them.”
On another front, activists are encouraged by what they see as the growing tide of national and international support for gay rights, which they believe will be mirrored or perhaps even led by sports.
“We have reached a place in our culture where the majority of people support same-sex marriage. Even if it’s an even-split, that is pretty amazing,” said Griffin, noting the decades-long fight to legalize interracial marriage nationwide, finally realized in 1967. “If you think about the relatively quick progress to change minds and attitudes that I don’t think is going to go backward, it’s only going to get more positive.”
In June, Griffin joined about 30 other leading activists at Nike’s headquarters in Oregon for the company’s first-ever summit to combat bullying and anti-gay bias and discrimination in sports.
“Athletes are leaders of a school and are highly visible role models,” Griffin said. “It’s a no-brainer to take a stand against that kind of thing for most people, certainly not all.”
Last week U.S. women’s soccer player Megan Rapinoe publicly acknowledged that she is gay in advance of growing coverage of this month’s London Olympics. The information added Rapinoe to the notable list of active female athletes who have made similar disclosures.
Griffin noted that the relative lack of coverage for women’s sports and existing biases about female athletes remove much of the impact that the same disclosure would have from an active male athlete in a major U.S. team sport. Still, it’s one more step in the right direction.
“I have more hope than I ever have had that we will change the culture of sport to make it a great place for everyone,” Griffin said. “There are so many more people who think this is an important issue and are actively involved in an effort to challenge homophobia in sport. It used to be a few lonely voices in the wilderness, but not anymore. The rate of change is just accelerating.”