Though professional female athletes have yet to catch up to their male counterparts in salaries and media exposure, they are ahead in something even bigger: building supportive environments for the LGBT community.
Most notably, there were over 40 openly gay players and coaches in last year’s women’s FIFA World Cup, doubling the total from the 2015 tournament. At the men’s World Cup in 2018, there were no players who openly identified as LGBT.
“You can’t win without gays on your team. It’s never been done before, ever,” said U.S. women’s national team captain Megan Rapinoe.
So far over the past year, she’s been right. The World Cup championship was a match between the United States and the Netherlands, who each had five openly gay players, making them the two teams in the tournament with the highest number of LGBT members. In basketball, Elena Delle Donne was named WNBA MVP for the second time as she led the Washington Mystics to a championship title. In the NWSL, Stephanie Labbé of the North Carolina Courage got a shutout in the league championship to help her team to their second-straight title. The finalists, the Chicago Red Stars, boasted superstar Sam Kerr, who was crowned league MVP and also achieved the Golden Boot for the third year in a row.
Studies and researchers point out that women’s sports have stronger LGBT-inclusive environments than men’s sports because male athletes are pressured by coaches and teammates to be hyper-masculine, which often gets partly defined by homophobia. Any lack of aggression results in being labelled homophobic names such as “fag.”
Cis women aren’t pressured to stick to their stereotypical gender norms in the same way. Sports are about athleticism and physical prowess, so female athletes are allowed to reject the “delicate” and “flowery” notions they would otherwise be expected to follow.
Very few professional male athletes come out publicly while active in their sport. In 2013, Jason Collins, who played in the NBA, was the first male athlete from a major American sports league to publicly come out. The following year, Michael Sam became the first openly gay player to be drafted into the NFL. Most major league athletes who have come out publicly did so after retiring.
The NHL is the only major league to have never had a gay player publicly come out, active or retired. The league is constantly dealing with players and staff dropping homophobic slurs.
In contrast, the NWHL has already had a number of players identify as LGBT ever since its first season in 2015. The league also created an official policy to ensure a safe space for transgender players after Harrison Browne came out as the first transgender athlete in professional team sports.
The CWHL, which folded last year, was no different. In December 2012, the CWHL became the first league to partner with You Can Play, an organization committed to promoting equality, respect and safety for athletes of all types of sexual orientations and gender identities. The NHL followed the CWHL’s lead in becoming a partner four months later.
“Women’s hockey and women’s sports in general is very accepting of the LGBT community,” Browne told Sporting News. “There’s no question about it. On every team that I’ve been on, there’s been a lot of different sexual orientations and gender identities. If you’re gay, straight, bisexual or transgender, it doesn’t matter. We’re not defined by that in women’s sports and women’s hockey. We’re defined by our skill level, our work ethic, our character and how good of a teammate we are.”
Cheryl MacDonald, a sports psychologist who completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Alberta, conducted interviews last year with former NHL players to try and hypothesize reasons why active players didn’t publicly come out.
“[The players said] it doesn’t matter if you’re gay, or concussed, or you’ve been sexually abused or have mental health issues; none of those are okay because you are a distraction,” said Macdonald. “[…] You don’t want to risk it being not okay, because the perception is someone who is just as good at your job but isn’t gay is going to take your spot.”
For LGBT men players, even the path to making the NHL would be one full of extra obstacles.
“What I now can feel myself, is that if I was gay, I would have quit playing hockey in my teens,” Ottawa Senators goaltender Anders Nilsson told Aftonbladet. His words were translated from Swedish on Reddit. “Team sports are about the feeling of togetherness. It’s just as fun to go there to hang out and have someone to talk to as the actual sports, but if you have a hard time in the dressing room when you’re a teen it’s not as fun to play hockey on the [ice] either.”
It would be unusual for female athletes not to have an openly LGBT teammate in the change room. Women’s pro sports, though not yet perfect and still with a lot of learning to do, have set the bar for all leagues, ages and divisions in that diversity is something to be embraced. It doesn’t matter what your sexual orientation or gender identity is. The only thing that matters is that you play the sport.
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