photo from Peter Clarke
Despite the fact we’ve supposedly progressed into an age where gender, race and sexual barriers are relics of the past, it’s clear many of these hurdles still exist for people who veer outside the norm. Particularly for those in the public eye, whose identity is constantly under scrutiny, bearing the burden of self can often impact a career. Athletics have always been an especially tough turf to redefine the social customs of sexuality. Like the military, sports heroes are considered to be heterosexually sublime, their bodies under the microscope, their strength measured by predetermined models. Sports stars are physically-endowed; they are strong, and rank in status as sex symbols. That is, sex as defined by predominant cultural standards.
The fearless always conquer all, however, and there have been many who’ve broken down such conventional walls. Billie Jean King, known as much for her talent on the tennis court as her role in demanding change for gay and lesbian athletes, is one of those people. In addition to winning 12 Grand Slam singles titles, and 16 Grand Slam women’s doubles titles, she was named one of the “100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century” by Life Magazine. Throughout her professional career, she hit many milestones in reconstructing sexual ideology, founding the Women’s Tennis Association and Women’s Sports Foundation, and most importantly, defeating Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes” playoff challenge in 1973.
As noted in this article from the New York Times, “She became a gay role model unwillingly, forced out of the closet by a former girlfriend who sued her, unsuccessfully, for palimony in 1981, while she was still married to Larry King….But even as a girl she had an innate sense of injustice and an implacable determination to get past it.”
Launched into the spotlight, King embraced it with fervor and helped to make the playing field that much better for gay athletes. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in August 2009 by President Obama.
In her footsteps, others have also forged a brighter path for the consciousness of sports and sexuality. From women’s basketball star, Sheryl Swoops to baseball player, Billy Bean, those with valor have ‘stepped up to the plate,’ attempting to find acceptance in a world unwilling to make the offer.
The journey, nevertheless, has not always ended in light, as some carried a weight greater than they were able to bear.
Justin Fashanu was the first and sole English soccer player to come out of the closet, even to this day. Of Nigerian descent, his professional career began in 1978, playing with several clubs in England before rumors of his homosexuality surfaced in the ‘80s and began to affect his career. He committed suicide in 1998 when a 17-year old American boy falsely accused him of sexual assault, and he lacked much, if any, support from those closest to him to overcome the struggle of both shame and incrimination. He was found hanging from the rafters of his garage in London, with a letter denying all allegations.
His suicide note was publicized by the BBC. “Being gay and a personality is so hard, but everybody has it hard at the moment, so I can’t complain about that. I want to say I didn’t sexually assault the young boy. He willingly had sex with me and then the next day asked for money. When I said no, he said ‘you wait and see.’ If that is the case, I hear you say, why did I run? Well, justice isn’t always fair. I felt I wouldn’t get a fair trial because of my homosexuality.”
Diane Whipple, an openly gay Lacrosse player in San Francisco, met an equally horrific demise when her neighbor’s Pitbull attacked her in a much-broadcast killing in 2001. The dog’s owners were lawyers, notoriously associated with the Aryan Brotherhood and rumored homophobes. There are also those like Tom Waddell, a gay football player and gymnast, who is remembered more for what he did than for his name. As an activist and athlete, Waddell founded the “Gay Games,” a spin-off of the Olympics, held every four years and considered the world’s largest sporting and cultural event for the LGBT community. Waddell retired from sports early on, turning to the medical field and founding a private practice in the Bay before losing his life to AIDS in 1987. His legacy lives on through this remarkable showcase.
As voices behind a growing movement, these leaders have shaped a new understanding of sexual politics in sports. They are athletes, civil rights activists and courageous souls, who’ve thrown out the mold and commanded a better way for the future.