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Fighting an image

Female athletes must face lesbian stereotype in so-called masculine sports

(This story was published in 2005).

By: Adam de Jong (Daily Bruin Contributor)

Reprinted with permission from the Daily Bruin, the student newspaper at UCLA

The day that Alaina Sudeith began playing water polo, the way her peers perceived her changed.

Before the UCLA sophomore joined the water polo team at University High School in Irvine, her classmates knew her as a tomboy. Afterward, many wrongly assumed she was a lesbian.

"There's a double-standard for men and women in sports because men are encouraged to be strong and competitive, but if a woman expresses any interest in sports, she's labeled as butch," said Sudeith, a member of UCLA's club women's water polo team. "There is a homophobic backlash against straight female athletes, and I find it to be pretty ridiculous."

Sudeith, like many female athletes, has felt pressure from men to conform to traditional stereotypes and stop playing sports. It's a predicament that some female athletes have encountered both at UCLA and other schools, especially on teams like softball, basketball and water polo, which are commonly associated with lesbians.

"There are two types of female student-athletes: those who are lesbian but don't want anyone to know, and those who are straight and feel like they have to prove they aren't homosexual," said Ronni Sanlo, director of UCLA's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Center. "The perception is that they are all lesbian."

Since enrolling at UCLA and joining the club water polo team, Sudeith said that the perception that she is a lesbian has become more pronounced. Fellow students have told her that she will lose her femininity, become too muscular, and no longer fulfill society's concept of the ideal woman.

"I've been told from guys on campus that I shouldn't play sports because everybody would think I was a lesbian, and no guys would be interested in me," Sudeith said. "This was even from gay guys."

Such an unfavorable environment forces many straight female athletes to try to prove their heterosexuality, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs sociology Professor Jay Coakley said.

This phenomenon, dubbed by Coakley as the "female apologetic," refers to the explicit attempts of women to manage their appearance so that they look more feminine and consequently more straight. Coakley said straight female athletes will consciously put on makeup, don a skirt and high heels and tie their hair in a ponytail to fight the perception that they are lesbian.

"Historically, women's athletics has been stereotyped as an area for lesbian women," said UCLA Associate Athletic Director Petrina Long, who oversees life skills and spoke on behalf of the athletic department. "That's a stereotype that has been problematic for all women to deal with."

Sudeith said that she has not consciously changed her own lifestyle to appear more feminine and neither have some of the other UCLA female athletes interviewed for this article.

"Our team is going to bust our butts on the basketball court, not dress a certain way to dispel perceptions," UCLA women's basketball coach Kathy Olivier said. "That's what is sad about elite female athletes. People will look at them and assume."

An easier way out

The perception that many female athletes in some sports are lesbian has been advantageous in at least one way.

It appears to have made it easier for the female athletes who actually are lesbian to come out.

While no current male professional athlete in any of the four major sports is known to be openly gay, a slew of high-profile lesbian female athletes have revealed their sexual orientation. That list includes former world No. 1 tennis player Amelie Mauresmo and the WNBA's Michelle Van Gorp. Tennis legends Martina Navratilova and Billy Jean King were among the first lesbian athletes to come out.

"For gay men, it's a little more risky (to come out)," said Pat Griffin, an openly lesbian professor of social justice education at the University of Massachusetts and the author of the book, "Strong Women, Deep Closets: Lesbians and Homophobia in Sport."

"Part of that is that team sports is the last bastion of heterosexuality and male masculinity. For lesbians, there are different issues."

One lesbian athlete on a UCLA club sport agreed with Griffin, indicating that she did not believe homophobia was nearly as prevalent in women's sports as it is in men's athletics. Though she herself has not told any of her teammates that she is a lesbian, she said it is because she prefers to keep her sexual orientation a private matter so it does not distract the team.

"Straight players are not taking their coaches or teammates aside and telling them they are heterosexual," said the athlete, who spoke on a condition of anonymity. "I honestly don't think there should be a difference, and I want to be treated the same."

The athlete, echoing the sentiments of most UCLA female athletes who were interviewed for this article, indicated that openly lesbian athletes are not victimized by homophobia nearly as much as their male counterparts. In fact, none of the lesbian athletes interviewed said they were victims of homophobia – a far cry from the several male athletes who already voiced their concerns.

"If I were to come out, it would not be a big deal, and I would most likely be treated the same," the anonymous lesbian club-sport athlete said.

"I am not really afraid of being ostracized by my teammates. I know that girls (at UCLA) have come out to their teammates or coaches, and it was nice for them to get it off their chests."

An open atmosphere

Lesbian athletes at other schools haven't always enjoyed the support that they seem to receive at UCLA.

At the University of Florida in 2003, former softball player Andrea Zimbardi was allegedly dropped from the team in her senior season because she is a lesbian. More than one decade earlier, Penn State women's basketball coach Rene Portland admitted to having a team rule, banning all lesbians.

But at UCLA, lesbian athletes don't seem to have too many complaints.

"Every girl I know that's a lesbian out on a team has had no issues," said a straight female athlete at UCLA, who wished to remain anonymous.

The athlete said she knew of a varsity team at UCLA with a considerable number of lesbian members, most of whom have come out and none of whom have experienced any problems. The explanation for this, she said, is that women's teams are more tight-knit.

"For girls, we're a family," she said. "We make everyone a birthday cake and take care of one-another when we're sick. Guys teams', it's manifested a bit differently."

Since there is no specific policy related to homophobia at UCLA, the best way to handle issues of sexual orientation is left up to the coaches themselves.

Olivier said she will only intervene if her team comes to her with a problem. UCLA softball coach Sue Enquist said she prefers to stay out of her players' private lives.

"I've instilled a foundation of respect in my team, and I've told everybody to understand the differences they have between each other, whether it be sexual preference, religion or race," Enquist said.

"Hypothetically, if I ever came across a case of homophobia, I'd speak individually to both parties, figure out what the perceptions were, try to come to an understanding, and direct them to the appropriate resources."

With reports from Jeff Eisenberg, Gilbert Quiñonez, Andrew Finley and Seth Fast Glass, Bruin sports senior staff