Forget about politics, investment
banking, and engineering. When it comes to career advancement and
opportunities, there's one area in which women are miles behind
their male counterparts - the world of professional sports. When
the world's biggest sporting event, the Olympic Games, kicks into
action this August in Beijing, it will offer a rare opportunity for
women athletes to get as much media coverage as the men. But don't
expect to see anyone waving a rainbow at the opening ceremony;
according to Miriam Wilkens, head of media for the British Olympic
team, sexuality is not an issue. 'It is a private matter for the
athlete. It is of no concern to us,' says Wilkins. Yet with so few
out lesbians in sport, is homosexuality still the elephant in the
room? Women compete equally in all of the Olympic sports (with the
exception of boxing), and their achievements are celebrated as much
as the men's, but outside this 'amateur' tournament they still face
a hard slog to be recognised for their sporting capabilities as
opposed to their bra size. The idea that all successful sportswomen
are lesbians is something that the media has promoted for many
years. However, sexuality seems to be less of an issue nowadays
than moving outside what is an 'acceptable' female gender identity.
According to a recent report, Barriers to women and girls'
participation in sport and physical activity by the Women's Sports
Foundation (WSF), a charity that aims to get more girls and women
involved in sport, 'It is just not seen as feminine or "girly" to
be interested in sport and, for many girls, being sporty is felt to
be at odds with femininity.' It's this perceived 'lack of
femininity' and a dearth of positive coverage of women's sports
that not only stops women getting involved in sport, but also puts
off lesbian sportswomen from coming out.
Huge disparities in salaries, sponsorship and media coverage,
along with perceived negative stereotypes, mean that elite female
athletes face a constant struggle. Reporting on women's sporting
achievements is generally confined to a few tiny column inches
among the acres of coverage on the men's events. The men's football
World Cup attracts billions of TV viewers worldwide, while the
women's barely warrants network TV coverage. The WSF reports that,
'On average, only 5% of sports coverage in national and local print
media is dedicated to women's sport. This is significant because
the media plays a central role in informing our knowledge, opinions
and attitudes about women and sport, which, in turn, influence
participation levels.' The paucity of media coverage is further
exacerbated by the fact that the majority of sports journalists and
sports editors are men.
The proliferation in dedicated sports channels has provided a
bigger platform to showcase women's sports with, for example, the
2006 Women's Rugby World Cup being shown on Sky Sports 2 and 3.
However, these channels are still only viewed by a minority of
serious sports enthusiasts and offer nothing like the coverage of
the terrestrial channels.
It's particularly difficult for women involved in team sports to
garner media interest. Even at the Olympics, most of the reportage
will concentrate on the individual competitors on the track and in
the pool, with team sports such as football, hockey, and volleyball
taking a back seat.
When women athletes do get some media interest, it's very often
for all the wrong reasons. The sexualisation of women's sports is
something the media is only too happy to perpetrate; tennis star
Maria Sharapova has had far more comment about her looks than her
performance on the court. Weekly free sports magazine Sport, which
is distributed around London, rarely gives any serious space to
women's sports. Instead, buried at the back of the magazine, it
features the profiles of women who often have tenuous links to
sports and are nearly always posed scantily clad. Recent profiles
have included a former 'Page 3' model-turned-darts commentator, and
When British sprint cyclist and Beijing Olympic hopeful Victoria
Pendleton appeared naked on the cover of The Observer Sport Monthly
magazine in March 2008, the article was at pains to emphasise her
femininity. It described her as 'lithe, petite and unashamedly
feminine', and praised the fact that she has kept her hair long
even though it 'may be a hindrance' to her performance. The article
made sure to include that Pendleton recently had a 'manicure at the
Lowry Hotel's spa, a little luxury that means a great deal because,
come competition time, she won't be allowed to have nails long
enough to paint.' A Google search of the star's name brings up more
results about 'being a babe' and posing nude for the cover than it
does about her sporting successes. The reader can't help feeling
she hasn't done female sports stars any favours by appearing in
various other glamorous photo shoots.
Far more shocking was a recent article in the Chicago Tribune
newspaper, claiming that the WNBA (the US professional Women's
National Basketball Association) is offering its rookie players
'hour-long courses on make-up and fashion tips' as part of their
induction into WNBA life. The emphasis here is on trying to ensure
that the players maintain as 'feminine' a persona as possible off
the court. 'It's all contributing to how to be a professional,'
WNBA president Donna Orender said of the orientation classes. 'I do
believe there's more focus on a woman's physical appearance. Men
are straight out accepted for their athletic ability.'
In the article, Susan Ziegler, a Cleveland State professor of
sports psychology, says 'No. 1 is, of course, the need for the
image of WNBA players to be seen as real women. That comes from the
lesbian homophobia that surrounds women in sports in general.' She
goes on to say; 'Once you begin to worry about how the person looks
as opposed to how she plays, you've crossed the line into dangerous
play. We're not really focused on marketing them as athletes, but
as feminine objects.'
When talking to DIVA last month, professional boxer Laura
Saperstein spoke about the difficulties of being taken seriously as
a female athlete. 'In all areas of entertainment there is pressure
on women to look attractive, and I don't agree with it,' she says.
She finds the coverage of women's boxing that focuses on how lovely
they look but says nothing about the fight very irritating. 'The
most important thing is what they are wearing!' she says.
'The culture of sport that assumes that a woman can't be feminine
and still have muscles, or be strong and fit, is one
that needs to be changed. We need more images in the
press of successful, happy sportswomen - both straight and gay
- not just the "culturally accepted" good-looking
female athletes,' says Chris Lillistone, WSF insight and
Of the tiny proportion of high-profile female sports star that do
come out, such as cyclist Judith Arndt, tennis player Amélie
Mauresmo, golfer Rosie Jones and, of course, queer pioneer Martina
Navratilova, the vast majority of them are involved in individual
as opposed to team sports. It's still considered 'easier' for
individual athletes to come out. When DIVA interviewed Navratilova
in 2005, she concurred: 'I'm lucky that I was in an individual
sport, because in a team sport being gay can really get in the way,
even for women.' The most obvious example is in women's football.
The FA steers clear of making any reference to its lesbian players,
and when DIVA spoke to England coach Hope Powell in October 2005
she said, 'There's always been that stereotyping of female
footballers as butch, dykey and unattractive, so maybe it's just
best left alone.' She then refused to be drawn into any further
debate about lesbians in the game.
There are no 'out and proud' lesbian football stars on the current
English team or any of the other prominent teams. As the most
popular sport in Britain, there is plenty of lesbian participation
at grass roots level, but the continuing negative lesbian
stereotyping of sportswomen today means that, outside of their
teammates and friends, they remain tight-lipped about their
So how do lesbian footballers feel about homophobia? Goalkeeper
Andie Worrall from Manchester, who has played for Stockport County,
Everton, Liverpool, Leeds, and the Welsh national team, and who
will be playing with Manchester City's women's team next season, is
critical of the way the FA has promoted the English Women's
Football team in the past. 'If you look at the England team, they
only use the pretty girls on [promotional] posters, the ones that
don't look like lesbians. They want to advertise the sport as not
being associated with lesbians, when they should be doing more to
make people feel comfortable about being gay.
'It's ridiculous that some people think playing football will make
you a lesbian, she continues. '[If you're gay,] you're going to be
gay whether you play football or tiddlywinks.'
However, she does think it's easier to come out these days: 'I'm
out and I've never had any problems. In the teams I've played for
recently, everyone is out.'
The FA recently launched a campaign to tackle homophobia in
football under the Football for All programme but, to date, it has
largely focused on reducing abusive chanting on the terraces and
pitches of the men's Premier League clubs. It mentions nothing
about the specific problems lesbian football players face, although
the FA's website states it 'will work to ensure every door is open
for members of the gay and lesbian communities to participate and
progress within football.' The FA's equality manager, Lucy
Faulkner, is eager to point out that the FA wants to support its
lesbian players. 'If women in football are receiving homophobic
abuse, then I would encourage them to report it direct to the FA.
We will investigate all incidents and take action where homophobic
abuse is proven,' says Faulkner. She also says that 'any player
that choses to come out would be fully supported by both the FA and
the Professional Footballers Association (PFA).'
What advice would the FA give to younger lesbians about how to
deal with discrimination they might face when playing on football
teams? 'Any young woman who has an issue with discrimination can,
and should, report it to the FA. We have a clear equality policy
that includes sexual orientation. No-one should be discriminated
against because of their sexuality,' adds Faulkner.
Of course, these issues aren't just confined to the UK. US gay
sports site Outsports.com has reported on the homophobia that
exists in all levels of American team sports. However, the US has
the benefit of having some 'out' high-profile team sport stars,
such as three-times Olympic gold medallist Sheryl Swoopes of the
WNBA, who came out publicly in 2005.
With the absence of coverage, negative stereotypes and reduced
access to many sports, it's no surprise that women's sports are
also hugely under-funded. Despite football being 'officially the
biggest female team sport in England', elite women's football is an
amateur sport played at a professional level. While professional
male footballers lead a charmed life, driving large cars and
wearing designer clothes for a few hours a week's training, the
women are lucky if they get expenses. Some of the Arsenal Women's
Football team earn their money by - literally - cleaning the men's
teams' boots. Their coach, Vic Akers, said in a recent OSM article,
'Finances for women's football are precarious at best, and even
those teams informally tied to professional men's clubs are reliant
on a goodwill that is often lacking.'
There is talk from the FA of a summer league, to avoid fixtures
clashing with the men's league. As with any team, the lack of
facilities, equipment and regular competitive matches makes it more
difficult to compete at an international level.
The problem of funding is experienced worldwide, with Sweden being
the only European country with a professional women's team, Umea.
The situation in the US is only marginally better. WNBA players
receive only a fraction of the salaries of their male counterparts,
and in 2003 the professional Women's United Soccer Association
collapsed. However, a new league called Women's Pro Soccer is set
to return next April.
It seems that the only way forward for lesbians in sport is to be
brave, to come out and be themselves. A lack of openly-lesbian role
models allows the outdated negative stereotypes about sportswomen
to prevail, which, in turn, affects the coverage and accessibility
of women's sports. Openly-lesbian sports commentator Clare Balding
says, 'I would love to see an honest study of how many gay women
are involved, either playing, coaching or officiating in sport. I
feel it would produce a very positive result, in that sport does
tend to attract gay women, just as the arts does gay men. Lesbians,
as a group, shouldn't be defensive about this. It is something to
be celebrated, and the sooner that happens, the sooner the world
will get over themselves.'
For further information, visit www.wsf.org.uk
To report any homophobia in football, contact the FA on 0800 0508
0805, or email FootballForAll@TheFA.com
THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN DIVA 147, AUGUST 2008