Homophobia in College Sports: An (Un)Addressed Issue
By Camilla Hill,
Lesbian Collegiate Athlete, VCU Office of Multicultural Student Affairs
Upon completing five years of varsity athletics at the College of William and Mary, I’ve had a lot of reflection about my experiences and I would like to share with you some of my thoughts about being a lesbian athlete.
Through my experience as a varsity athlete, I understand the need for LGBT diversity training in varsity athletics. Speaking from personal experience, varsity athletic departments could possibly be some of the most homophobic organizations on college campuses today.
In an article over ten years old Kay Hawes, a NCAA employee wrote, “It’s difficult to imagine any issue in intercollegiate athletics that is more taboo than homophobia. Unlike racism or sexism, homophobia in sports is not an issue where you find high-profile athletes, coaches or politicians willing to take a public stand and call for change. Even the average athletics administrator and the average student-athlete are reluctant to talk about homophobia — publicly or privately — for fear of having their name associated with homosexuality in some way.”
I could not agree more with this assessment of the problem. I know there were people who were uncomfortable being out at my and other colleges; some people worried about their jobs, donor support, their teammates support, or their team’s cohesion. If a coach came out, would their team’s success or failure be accredited to their sexuality? If a player came out, would their teammates still welcome them into team locker rooms or showers?
In a message from the 2011 Inclusion Summit, The NCAA clearly stated, “As a core value, the NCAA believes in and is committed to diversity, inclusion and gender equity among its student-athletes, coaches and administrators. We seek to establish and maintain an inclusive culture that fosters equitable participation for student-athletes and career opportunities for coaches and administrators from diverse backgrounds. Diversity and inclusion improves the learning environment for all student-athletes, and enhances excellence within the Association”.
This may be the NCAA’s official take on homophobia, but that does not mean much has changed in the lives of collegiate LGBT athletes or coaches today.
My mom, an open lesbian division I volleyball coach, started coaching just after title IX pasted, she loves to tell me how “we didn’t have scholarships when I started”, “we shared uniforms with other teams”, and “we had to drive ourselves to matches”. I grew up on stories of seasons of non-air-conditioned gyms and car wash funds. (that many club sports today would laugh at) These memories included national or conference championships.
I have been trained to acknowledge and thank my foremothers for their hard work fighting against the patriarchy that was varsity athletics. Yes, we can sit back and laugh thinking about how much has changed in varsity athletics, but persistent and damaging homophobia is still rampant. If old stories make us laugh about how unprofessional and amateur varsity athletics was, stories about homophobia that are still happening should make us cry.
After my mom was hired, a coworker warned her about being public with her sexuality; that was over 30 years ago. I know for a fact coaches are still being told the same thing. It is true that many more coaches are able to be open about their sexual orientation today than in the past, but this does not mean they don’t feel repercussions from this openness. Job security issues aside, many coaches spouses are not awarded spousal benefits or even recognition, some lose recruits who don’t want to be coached by gay people, are subject to political and emotional homophobic slurs, etc. The list can go on.
Homophobia is just as damaging on the player’s side of varsity athletics, but more often worse as players have no control over their circumstances. As an openly gay athlete, I was incredibly lucky that both my teammates and my coaching staff supported my sexual orientation, and I think I was a better teammate, player, and citizen of William and Mary because of this acceptance and the freedom to be myself.
Hill from her college Field Hockey days
It is sad to say that I believe my story is unique. I know a lot of people involved in varsity athletics both at William and Mary and at other colleges and universities that were not as fortunate. I’ve had female friends who had been chased off of teams by homophobic coaches, or who have been told (both by teammates and coaches) they weren’t allowed to have homosexual relationships while on their teams. What was worse was the deafening silence of male athletics on the issue. At least being gay was mentioned on female teams, even if in a negative connotation.
Out of my long involvement in college athletics I have only known two gay men who were also involved in athletics, one coach and one player. That’s it. Two brave men; both of which are part of male non-dominant sports. The worst part about all of this is that most people would be perfectly happy keeping with tradition and maintaining varsity sports as incredibly homophobic institutions.
I call on other teams to create such loving and cohesive atmospheres as my team did for me. The culture of varsity athletics must change, and the only way for this to happen is for teammates and coaches to love each other and for teams to care more about social stigmas associated with sexuality.
After leaving field hockey, I can say that the best thing about my team was that we love and accept each other for who we were. From the minute I joined my team everyone, from parents to players to coaches, had loved and accepted my family for who we were. It is so sad to me that not everyone’s athletic experience is as accepting and loving as mine was.
On the athletic departments and NCAA side I call for mandated diversity training pertaining specifically to LGBT issues in athletics. A mandated program would help explain the archaic attitudes and change the treatment of LGBT athletes and ultimately make happier and healthier athletic departments. I believe this would make athletic departments more successful. Institutional and historic prejudice and discrimination does not change over night. The change I’m asking for takes hard work on the part of everyone involved in varsity athletics.
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