On October 23, 2002, a column about women’s hockey caught my eye. Hayley Wickenheiser, one of the stars in the Canadian women’s hockey firmament, is having difficulty finding a team to play on because of institutional rules about playing with men. One comment in particular was noteworthy:
“There is, and long has been, a simmering hostility against women in hockey. The more boorish attitude is… that they’re just a bunch of lesbians anyway — a sad prejudice only reinforced when former hockey Olympian Nancy Drolet married her partner, Nathalie, in a Quebec civil ceremony.”
Now, I appreciate (I think) the spirit in which that was written. The writer is commenting on the various types of official and unofficial discouragement women face when trying to play sports, especially sports which aren’t ladylike. However, there is a piece which is missing here, and it has to do with that L-word which everyone seemed to like to say a few years ago when Ellen was big news.
One of my previous workout partners, a former hockey and national-level softball player, told me that as she was growing up in rural Canada, the stigma of lesbianism in sports was one which all the athletes and coaches openly rejected. Which meant that the players and coaches who actually were lesbians (like my friend) had to stay in the closet and keep their dykey mouths shut. Rejecting the stereotype of athletic women as a bunch of lesbians is one thing, but often, doing so with such unequivocal enthusiasm merely serves to perpetuate the homophobia that constrains women’s activities. The righteously indignant battle cry of “We’re not lesbians!” contains the implicit message, “Cause lesbians are bad!”
Think about it a bit more. Why are lesbians seen as bad in this context? Because they are thought to transgress gender norms. They are supposedly masculine, butchy, unfeminine, aggressive, hairy, etc., basically everything good girls are not. So, the message is not only that women who play sports are lesbians, but since lesbians are masculine, then women who play sports are masculine. Good girls, then, do not play sports. QED. Homophobia does a nice little tango with sexist norms, and the end result is that the straight grrls have to practically get married on the field to prove their heterosexuality, and the queer grrls are made to feel ashamed for letting down the team. Who the hell cares if Nancy marries Nathalie? Why is it their responsibility not to “reinforce a sad prejudice”? The people reinforcing the sad prejudice are the ones who are discouraging girls from playing sports, not the dykes who are brave enough to be themselves.
It’s time to stop pushing sportdykes into the closet just to make everyone feel better about their femininity. It’s time to stop protesting too much, to stop worrying about “our image” and our connection to athletes who happen to be queer. Lesbian issues are women’s issues, and intolerance against some hurts all of us. It’s time to start saying, “Hell yes, some of us are lesbians, and that’s okay!”
More reading: Strong Women, Deep Closets by Pat Griffin