For years we in the LGBT sports movement have tried to curb the use of anti-gay language in sports. As well we should. The root of using terms like “fag,” “sissy” and “queer” in sports is the idea that gay men are weak and unable to succeed in sports. It’s a message rooted in sexism as well, the notion that women cannot compete with men.
Yet the root of these gross terms isn’t entirely applicable to how they are used today. Straight athletes using this abhorrent language often don’t mean to send messages of rejection to gay athletes, even though that’s exactly what’s received.
The presence of homophobic slurs in sports does not indicate a deep rejection of gay athletes.
I’m a football official. I am in the middle of some of the most heated moments in sports. Of course I know there are gay slurs being used casually and directed at people on the field. I hear the language, though I hear it very rarely. I know it’s there.
Beyond my experience, gay athletes tell me they hear it too. Less so today than 10 years ago. High school athletes hear it more than college athletes, and college athletes hear it more than the pros. But it’s still there.
Yet these gay athletes have a much more powerful story to tell than just hearing gay slurs. What happens beyond the slurs, and most importantly after they come out to the same people using them, is eye-opening.
The story of Tony Covell is indicative of countless gay athletes. He heard gay slurs — and the worst of them — before he came out. After he came, some of his teammates who had used the slurs apologized. They voted him team captain, as an openly gay athlete.
Then... they kept using the slurs. Around him. Their out gay captain. That they had voted for. Accidentally, but they used them.
They caught themselves most of the time, often apologizing for slipping.
Despite the slurs, Covell said he “wasn’t shunned by any means for being gay.” While he heard the gay slur as just that — a gay slur — his teammates just didn’t emotionally connect what they were saying with homophobia. They knew there was a connection — Like he wrote, they usually caught themselves. But their intent wasn’t to hurt him or any gay person.
They did not hate or dislike gay people. The word just meant something different to them than it does to Covell.
Years ago Kobe Bryant called a referee a “faggot.” I was incensed. Bryant claimed his use of the word didn’t reflect his feelings toward gay people, and I was having none of it.
Then I started to listen to him. I listened to other people in sports. What I found were two truths that seemed increasingly universal.
First, many straight guys don’t equate using that slur — or others — with being anti-gay. They just don’t. It’s a word they heard their Little League coach use, it’s a term they’ve thrown at each other for years, and it’s increasingly become synonymous with “stupid” or “weak.”
Of course we all know the root of the word is homophobia. Of course. Gay men are weak, and if you call someone a “faggot,” you’re linking them to gay men. At its roots, that is where gay slurs come from.
Yet that’s simply not how many straight men view the word. As they become more aware of it and educated about it — and watching NHL player Andrew Shaw get suspended for a playoff game for using it — they are intellectually linking the word to homophobia more and more and curtailing its use because of that.
Second, the gay athletes, coaches and fans hearing the slur connect these slurs directly to homophobia. The messages we send aren’t always the ones that are received, and this increasingly is the case here.
While the straight guy may think he’s just calling someone “stupid,” the gay person hears, “I hate you because you’re gay.”
Covell, Bryant, and so many others’ experiences tell the same story of misunderstood homophobia.
The most telling view into this dynamic is how, like Covell, gay athletes are received by the very people who use these words. Outsports stories are covered in examples of athletes who came out to their teams and were met with apologies by the very people who had used gay slurs, like Covell.
College runner David Gilbert got a text apology from a teammate for accidentally using “gay” as negative in the locker room. Teammates and coach expressed sincere regret for using homophobic language around former Southern Maine baseball player James Nutter after he opened up about his suicide attempt.
This isn’t to let anyone off the hook. If you use gay slurs, the message you are sending is damaging and hurtful. It eats at the core of your gay teammates and cuts at their ability to perform at their highest level. It undermines your ability to succeed as a team.
No championship was ever won because a particular team used gay slurs more effectively. Ever.
The use of gay slurs, or any damaging language that eats at someone’s identity, needs to stop. Leagues need to continue to suspend players for using the language. Coaches and captains need to address the language proactively and stop it at every turn.
Yet our movement does youth and gay athletes a disservice by claiming that the language they hear automatically means “I hate you.” I have gotten taken to task on social media for saying — 100% accurately — that homophobia in sports is overblown. It exists to be sure, but claiming that the presence of this language on a team means the team would reject a gay teammate is overblown.
The slurs we hear from teammates often do not mean “I hate you.” And for the most part, the people using those slurs are remorseful when they realize the pain they cause their gay friends and teammates. Believe it or not, in 2017, they just don’t realize it.
We need to stop equating the use of homophobic slurs with the presence of actual rejection of gay people. Again, the root of the word ties to homophobia and sexism. But the use of the word has no such connection for so many of the people using it.
If we can start to separate these two elements of homophobia — while at the same time trying to eliminate the language all together — we will open the lives of more and more gay athletes and crush the true roots of homophobia in sports once and for all.