North America’s “final closet”

Could you name a professional athlete in one of the four major North American sports leagues who is out of the closet?

I’ll give you some help: In 1975, NFL running back David Kopay became the first professional athlete in any of the four major leagues to come out, potentially paving the way for others to follow. While other athletes have come out after retirement in the 35 years since, just two others from the four major leagues, Roy Simmons and Glenn Burke, have taken the plunge and publicly announced their homosexuality during their professional careers (note: though many athletes have come out of the closet, so to speak, it is typically done after their retirement).

Jim Buzinski, co-founder and CEO of, a California-based website that covers sports from a gay sensibility, or “ESPN for homos,” as he calls it, says that sports is the last closet in America.

“You look at the entertainment field, there are a large percentage of gay people out, you can identify openly gay actors and actresses, even if they’re not the superstars, they’re still big enough, like Neil Patrick Harris who’s on a hit show,” Buzinski says. “In all other areas of professional life, you can identify successful gays and lesbians, in politics you could, even in the military in America you could.”

“But when it comes to sports, there are no out athletes in the four major sports, and there’s no-one out in major college sports. So in a sense, it’s still the final closet.”

One of the speculated reasons that this homophobia exists in sports is the idea of pure masculinity that saturates competitive sports, dating back to the days of arena sport in ancient Rome and Greece. That conceptual representation is heavily contrasted with today’s cultural images of homosexuals in popular culture that portray them as being weak and effeminate.

Maggie Manville, a former NCAA Division 1 soccer player and co-president of the Student Association for Gay Athletes (And Allies), or SAGA, a student group at Eastern Michigan University dedicated to promoting education and awareness of LGBT issues in athletics, agrees. She also notes that many athletes who believe in this masculinity may be unfamiliar with anyone who is gay – something that can create a sense of fear.

“I don’t want to say this,” says Manville, “but I feel like there’s this sense of fear with gay athletes on the team, like, people who aren’t educated or aren’t familiar with anyone who identifies as gay or bisexual or transgender or any other title you want to give them, they just don’t know, they’re scared of the unknown, they’re scared of people who are different from them, so I feel that a lot of the discrimination comes from fear, and just not being around anyone who was like that before.”

This is a very real concern for athletes who are not already out. There is a special bond between teammates that comes as a result of spending so much time together in practice and on road trips, and a straight athlete who cannot identify with LGBT issues may feel that bond is broken upon finding out that a teammate has been hiding his or her homosexuality.

Buzinski says that there are definitely gay athletes in professional and major college sports today, but that they have not come publicly out because they feel that there is no advantage in doing so.

“They’re afraid of how they’re going to be treated, they fear they’re not going to be considered part of the team, they’re afraid it’s going to hurt their relationships, they’re afraid of endorsements, so there seems to be no upside in athlete’s heads, like, ‘why should I come out? What good is that going to do me?’”

Despite the homophobia that currently exists in sports culture, there is definitely an ongoing shift making it more realistic that a gay athlete will come out in the near future.

“I don’t buy the idea that it’s impossible to come out, I just think that the fear is there and that until the first person does it and kind-of breaks the log jam, it’s going to be there,” Buzinski says.

Take Mark Tewksbury for example. In 1998, Tekwsbury came the first Canadian athlete to voluntarily state his homosexuality. An Olympic swimmer who won gold at the 1992 games, Tewksbury spent the better part of the decade following his coming out as an advocate for gay rights.

Earlier this year, Tewksbury was named the chef-de-mission for Canada for the upcoming 2012 Olympics in London.

“For me, being gay was such an issue for a while and then it became not an issue as I became more at terms with myself and all that stuff,” Tewksbury says. “I feel like the same is happening in sports, as the chef de mission, I’m not the gay chef, but they know who I am, they’re happy with who I am, I don’t have to shy at all from who I am, and at the same time it’s just not on the radar in any way, which is kind of a good thing.”

Just what will help push that shift over the edge and help eliminate the stigma of gay athletes in sports is still to be seen, however.

Manville hopes that SAGA can work with the school’s administration and athletic department to promote education on LGBT issues in sports and create a better environment for gay athletes to be comfortable coming out.

“We’ve been pushing within the athletic department to get things done, to get ally training done within the sports, like within the coaches, within the athletes, the administration, that type of thing,” Manville says.

“[The coaches] are on the players sometimes 7 days a week in a season, and they hear things within their team, so once they get trained, hopefully, our idea is that they won’t tolerate discriminatory language against anyone, including racial or gender or whatever,” Manville continues. “So, by training the coaches we’re thinking that they’ll be able to set that example and be able to change the mindset of the team, if it has a negative mindset.”

Buzinski agrees with this technique, but feels that it may also require a combination of this education and a prominent name to come out and act as a role model for younger gay athletes.

“You know, the hockey player came out, that would let other gay hockey players see that, ‘Oh this guy plays for the Maple Leafs, and he’s able to play, oh that’s cool, maybe I can do the same thing,’ so I think that’s important,” Buzinski says.

“But I think everything’s tied in, there’s not one great magic bullet that’s going to cause homophobia to disappear overnight.”

Tewskbury on the other hand feels that it will be up to management to help create an atmosphere where gay athletes feel that they can come out, and points toward Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke. Burke walked in Toronto’s Gay Pride parade this summer, in honour of his late son who came out three years ago.

“I used to think it would be the other players, but I realized with Brian Burke at the Maple Leafs, he’s sending a really strong example in a managerial role in creating an environment where it’s okay for people to be who they are,” Tewksbury says.

Though the shift is ongoing, it is obvious that removing homophobia from professional and college sports still has a long way to go.

Jackie Robinson will forever go down in sporting history for breaking the racial barrier. Manon Rheaume will do the same for breaking the gender barrier. Who will be the first to do the same for gay athletes?

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