When the National Basketball Association’s Jason Collins came out as gay in a Sports Illustrated article Monday, he became the first active publicly gay male athlete in major American sports. That he was the first publicly out man is important to note, since female athletes have been open about their sexuality since at least 1981, when pro tennis player Billie Jean King was outed in a court case and another pro tennis player, Martina Navritilova, came out on her own. Since then, a number of female athletes — the WNBA’s Sheryl Swoopes, Chamique Holdsclaw, and Seimone Augustus, soccer player Megan Rapinoe, and U.S. Women’s National soccer coach Pia Sundhage, to name a few — have come out of the closet.
Brittney Griner, the top pick in the WNBA Draft, joined that list last week in an announcement that was as nonchalant as Collins’ was bold. Griner had already been open about her sexuality, she said, and it seemed that the reason the public didn’t know that was because nobody had bothered to ask. The separate comings out of Griner and Collins were telling for their differences, both in how they were received but in how they were covered in the media. That Brittney Griner was gay didn’t seem to shock anyone — as far as we’ve come in questioning gender roles, if a woman is interested in sports, tall and physically powerful, or both, those are considered indicators that she might be a lesbian. But when Collins came out, people were shocked, and they likely would have been shocked by any other male athlete coming out, even as we’ve become more accustomed to the idea that there must be gay men in professional sports.
The reason for those differences says a great deal about the way society views sports, masculinity, and sexuality. A man who excels at professional sports and has relationships with women has his work, his body, and his sexuality in alignment with norms of traditional masculinity. He’s seen as physically strong, heterosexual, and athletically gifted. A man who is physically strong and athletically gifted but is sexually attracted to men challenges the notion that there’s a relationship between traditional masculinity and heterosexuality. Being gay, it turns out, doesn’t make a man physically weak and passive.
That assumed relationship between masculinity and athletic ability is precisely what changes the equation for women. It isn’t feminine, in society’s eyes, to excel at sports. Where a man who pursues athletics as a career is conforming to gender norms, a woman—straight, gay, or bi—who goes into sports is defying them. And because heterosexual women are assumed to be feminine, women who excel in male-dominated fields, or who exhibit strength normally associated with men, find themselves subject to having assumptions about their sexuality made on the basis of their bodies or their skills. And the ways in which they diverge from gender norms risk becoming more important to the public than the things those divergences let them accomplish.
When a man like Jason Collins comes out as gay, it challenged every preconceived notion we have about what it takes for men to excel in sports, namely, strict adherence to masculine gender norms. But when a woman like Brittney Griner does the same, it only confirms the idea that a woman who succeeds in athletics does so because she’s breaking with expectations for women, both physically and sexually.
That helps explain why we waited so long for an openly gay man in major American team sports: the fears that he wouldn’t fit in a lockerroom, that he would be perceived as “soft,” and that he would be mistreated by fans were all tied to the perception of masculinity. It explains why Collins pushed back on those in his coming out statement, telling Shaq that he wasn’t flopping because he was gay and that he would still set hard picks and commit tough fouls. He clearly feels he has to affirm that there isn’t a relationship between his sexuality and other signs of masculinity, including physical toughness and aggression.
And it explains why there was so little shock when Griner came out as gay — “she looks like a man!” social media users screamed — but it also highlights a totally different set of problems in women’s sports. Where men’s sports have been slow to see gay athletes come out because they challenge the perception that professional athletes are predominantly heterosexual, women’s sports continue to have problems with out gay women because they fear reinforcing the belief that female athletes are predominantly gay. And while male athletes may face censure if they fall out of conditioning and their bodies fail to live up to the sculpted standards for traditional masculinity, female athletes who get themselves in the shape required to do their jobs get criticized for failing to conform to beauty standards.
What brings Collins and Griner together isn’t that they both came out of the closet in April 2013, but that they are both swimming upstream against the skewed notion that views sexuality and athletic prowess as inextricably linked. For men, that means that being gay makes it impossible to be an athlete. For women, that means that being an athlete, gay or straight, makes it impossible to be a woman. Neither could be further from the truth.