Just two days before the 2013 National Day of Silence, college basketball star Brittney Griner casually and publicly came out as lesbian. At 6 feet, 8 inches tall, Griner is one of the few female basketball players who can reliably dunk a basketball. She draws a crowd of fans, including those who believe watching women’s sports is worthwhile only when the competition rivals its male counterpart. Not surprisingly, she was the first draft pick of the Women’s National Basketball Association WNBA.
Nor was it surprising to most people that Griner is gay. When it comes to athletics, elite physical status is still associated with masculinity. Women’s sports cannot escape the aura of machismo. Athletes, no matter their gender, are supposed to be tough. The sport demands that they show strength in spite of physical or emotional injuries.
Within the context and culture of the athletic world, the pressure to remain silent about sexual orientation is immense. I am certain that’s why several of my high school basketball teammates never admitted their homosexuality. It also explains why we whispered conjectures about the sexuality of our assistant coach. We dared not ask or speak about it publicly for fear she would be banished from the locker room or deemed unsuitable as a coach for young women.
Less than two weeks after Griner’s announcement, National Basketball Association NBA center Jason Collins announced that he is gay. Just as men’s sports get far more attention than women’s, Collins’ admission received more attention than Griner’s. The fact that he is the first active male athlete in one of the country’s most-watched professional sports leagues to come out is telling. If the ruffling of the National Football League NFL at the threat of a coming-out party is any indication, the climate of homophobia and machismo in sports must be overwhelming.
Collins’ courage to speak up for who he is has given him the chance to challenge the notion that being gay is a choice. More importantly, his admission has the potential to teach both boys and girls that people who are gay can be physically strong and competitive.
Sadly, though, a female athlete who comes out confirms the stereotype. The double standard is alive and well.
While Collins’ bold move should not eclipse Griner’s, it is my hope that these truths will begin to shift the culture of athletics in this country. From my point of view, this is a boon not only to homosexual athletes but to women athletes who have had to “play like men” in order to be recognized.
Thomas is an English teacher in California.