Double Standard

05.04.134:45 AM ET

A Brief (Mostly Female) History of Coming Out in Sports

Why is Jason Collins lauded for revealing his sexuality while Brittany Griner is basically ignored?

At last a gay athlete has come out! We’ve all been holding our breath, haven’t we? Jason Collins, an NBA center with the Washington Wizards, was brave to take the first step. And celebrities in major-league sports and politics, to their credit, immediately congratulated him and made it clear that he’s a hero.

A week earlier, women’s basketball phenomenon and number one WNBA draft pick Brittney Griner came out. There was a nationwide yawn. Why no response? “Because, duh!” explained my wife, the jock and 24/7 sports maniac. I mean, just glance at the girl! Does she look straight to you?

Here's the other reason: lesbians have been out in major sports for the past 30 years.

It started with Martina Navratilova, who dominated women’s tennis in her day. Martina won 18 Grand Slam singles titles, 31 major women's doubles titles (an all-time record), and 10 major mixed doubles titles. She won women's singles at Wimbledon a record nine times. Nine! If women’s sports brought in endorsements and advertising deals, Martina should have had her name plastered on every carton of anything. But in 1981, when Martina acknowledged openly what everyone already knew (because, duh!), the reaction was nasty. Back in the Pleistocene, it was just fine to hurl slurs at the homo, and did they ever. She was jeered as queer, as a bad influence on the sport, as the “evil” player versus the “good” Chris Evert, the girly-girl tennis star who stood for sugar and spice and everything nice, just like she was supposed to. Martina’s endorsement contracts added up to zero. Nothing. Nil. Nada. Arguably the greatest women’s tennis player of the 20th century didn’t have her name on so much as a shoelace.

Why is Jason Collins lauded for revealing his sexuality while Brittany Griner is ignored? E.J. Graff on a brief (mostly female) history of athletes coming out.

Navratilova's reaction to Jason Collins coming out

That’s despite the fact that women, then, weren’t supposed to be interested in sports at all. Sports were—even more than now—seen as unladylike. Girl athletes were unnatural, immediately suspect. So wouldn't coming out be no big deal? Nope. With sports coded as profoundly masculine, female athletes were supposed to be extra-femme just to prove they weren’t freaks. One of the other great women’s tennis player of the era, Billie Jean King, kept herself covered with a husband, just for show; although she eventually admitted she was lesbian, it was hardly with Martina’s unapologetic panache. Remember that, back then, the Equal Rights Amendment was going down in flames because—according to opponents like Phyllis Schlafly—it would lead to such apocalyptic horrors as gay marriage, women in combat, and unisex bathrooms.

Lesbians adored Martina. She was our rock star, unapologetically butch, strong, and adorable. We couldn’t get enough of rumors about her girlfriends, however spurious. Eventually, her status as dyke icon did pay off. In the 1990s, a savvy car dealer in Northhampton, MA—“Lesbianville,” for those in the know—noticed how many female couples were buying Subarus. (Don’t ask me why, but it’s true.) He reported his observation to headquarters, which was smart enough to sign her up.

By then the stigma was just beginning to fade. The mid-1990s saw a wave of then-famous women coming out: Melissa Etheridge, k.d. lang, Ellen DeGeneres (who as a result lost advertisers and, soon thereafter, her television show), Rosie O'Donnell, and—no surprise—a pro golfer, Muffin Spencer-Devlin, with Patty Sheehan following soon after. My father groaned at that one; if some Ladies' Professional Golf Association player had to be the first to come out, he said, did she have to be named “Muffy”? Golf was hardly a surprise; for years just about everyone joked about what the “L” in the LPGA really stood for. The tour was so subculturally notorious that the Dinah Shore tournament in Palm Springs was (and still is) a party weekend for the upscale gals, overflowing with alcohol and ladies in bikinis looking to, er, mingle.

Some coaches and managers fought that image of women’s sport as being shot through with homos. When the WNBA started up, the association pressured players to be more feminine, wearing ponytails and makeup and even skirts in public. Rene Portland, former head coach of the Penn State women’s basketball team, was notorious for announcing her lesbian-free policy during recruiting, and for tossing off the team anyone caught violating it. In 2006 one woman finally sued her for that ejection, leading to Portland’s resignation.

But Title IX had brought a generation of girls into playing sports as an ordinary thing, bringing far more straight women into the games. The more general success of feminism has led to far more women feeling free to do and be whatever they like. With fewer gender restrictions on how females had to behave, a soccer star like Brandi Chastain could toss off her jersey in victory, showing off her muscles, even if (heartbreakingly) she wasn’t gay. Paradoxically, as more nongay women got serious about sports, the stigma on lesbians also lifted. During the 2000s, so many female athletes—in basketball, golf, soccer—came out that you can scarcely blame the news media for being bored. Sheryl Swoopes, Rosie Jones, Natasha Kai, three players at once on the basketball team the Minnesota Lynx, Megan Rapinoe, ho hum, another day, another dyke athlete, so what?

Here’s what’s different for men: sports is supposedly a bastion of hardcore masculinity. Lesbians and masculinity get along nicely, but a gay man is supposed to like show tunes and home décor, not bruising competition on the court. That makes a lesbian athlete proof of the sports stereotype, while a gay male athlete is its refutation. If Collins is—as so many expect—the first of many gay men to come out, it will indeed be a big step forward in how our country is to imagine more ways to be both female and male. And that, my friends, is no duh.

E.J. Graff, author of What Is Marriage For? The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution, is a contributing editor at The American Prospect.