Sports communities must change to include LGBTQ+ fans

There’s nothing inherent about sports that should exclude people from watching them based on their sexuality. It’s not a sexual experience, and positing such a thing is enough to send most athletes and fans alike into an involuntary cringe. Being gay makes no sense as a factor in whether or not one becomes a sports fan, yet the big four American sports remain one of the few major cultural institutions barely touched by LGBTQ+ movements in the past decade. There have been several instances that should be encouraging, but the reaction to each within sports communities has been extraordinarily uninviting.

The catch-all solutions proposed by the NBA (heavy fines on the f-slur) and the NFL ('we have a gay man!') are exactly the sort of measures that have a two-pronged effect: they cover the nuances of how these issues affect real people and they bring queer bodies to light in a negative fashion, solely the targets of discrimination, easy to brush off. Rather than trying to push a solution from the top down, it is best to examine the problem as it is. This problem is the erasure of queerness in the fan bases of the leagues. This, in turn, leaves little incentive for the league to open its doors to people who identify as such.

With a Super Bowl weekend so devoid of stories we’re talking about Tom Brady’s deflated balls, now seems as good a time as ever to try and understand why it is so hard to fit into sports culture as a queer person.

One problem is a matter of political demographics. Places with very high value for their local sports teams tend to be very conservative as well. There is not really a reason for this, it just happens to be true. Whether athletes fill the classic All-American archetype or people in low population density (and therefore, most likely conservative) areas just get bored, it’s a fact of sports. Much of the talent is generated in ultraconservative pockets of America, and much of the money comes from people who came out of these places and became wealthy because they grew up with sports.

Former Red Sox outfielder Gabe Kapler once famously was the only non-self-described Republican in a survey of the Red Sox. This has two effects on sports. The first is that being openly gay is often considered immodest, self-indulgent, or some other version of arrogant, and such players are often felt to be distractions. Just spend five minutes in some locker rooms, and you will have heard every disgusting and detailed heterosexual act you ever wanted to, but if someone drops the g-bomb, they went too far. A lot of conservative culture — and by extension sports culture — insists that gay people should get over themselves and stop being so loud about it. Causing further damage are incredibly public and seemingly obligatory religious displays that are often part of the dialogue surrounding pro sports.

It feels as if every athlete thanks some sort of deity every time they score a point, and every deity they can pray to condemns being gay. The consistent and direct acknowledgment of something that has been used to devalue queer bodies so publicly and loudly in society is off-putting to many gay fans. These two layers of the pipeline to pro sports make being gay seem like a permanent roadblock to true acceptance. Much of the discourse surrounding Michael Sam confirmed this. While he did not necessarily have the physical skills to succeed in the NFL, him being consistently referred to in chat forums as a “distraction” along with people openly hoping he wouldn't bring his “media circus” to their teams was a reminder that the pro sports fraternity house is coated in rainbow Teflon. It will never let a gay man truly stick.

There are also issues with simply the viewing experience of sports as a gay man. There are three kinds of advertisements that play during a sporting event: ones for making your d*** work, ones for other sports, and ones featuring scantily clad women selling alcohol, soap, or some other thing you don't need scantily clad women in order to enjoy (read: everything). Live sporting events are DVR-proof, you lose the excitement by seeing them late; you already know what will happen. This forces you to watch as the TV tells you that your life after you get up from the TV will involve either women or fixing your defective body to be more attractive to women. It’s hard not to feel rejected when such a deep and common personal preference has been erased from the viewership or ignored entirely by TV executives.

To make things worse, the way athletes are characterized in the mainstream is often upsetting. Players are often shown talking to their wives and girlfriends after games, and while there is nothing wrong with that, it can hurt to never see the couple you dream of while watching. It’s not like on a TV show, where gay characters are forgotten by insensitive writers or erased via a storyboarding trope some exec learned in film school. You’re witnessing a sample of over 20,000 people and, since the retirement of Jason Collins, not one is openly gay.

Factor in the media characterization of many of these players and it can feel necessary to relate to them. However, when your feelings of love have such a dissonant impact from the players you see on TV, the media characterization of them as “everymen” but bigger is highlighting what you've told makes you abnormal your whole life.

There are ways these problems are improving. While we are a long way from truly changing the underlying culture of sports, several recent advents have changed the way we can view and relate to what we’re seeing with sports media. The analytics movement in sports seems to have added a much stronger liberal contingent to sports fandom and also focuses less on players’ personalities.

It is no longer trying to have us conceptualize these people as we relate to them. Now we have a set of data by which we can tell how they will perform as a player. While this seems unimportant, it changes sports from a drama where someone is watching a cast of characters to a sporting event where people are watching athletes. It makes the discourse surrounding player personalities and actions unimportant, and distances a fan from the parts of sports culture that can feel homophobic. It’s a minor step, but certainly a positive one. Campaigns to tackle homophobia, while by and large unsuccessful and met with backlash from bigots in sports communities, inspire hope and prove that there might be some will to change.

However, as the landscape is now, the domain of sports is a straight man’s club. Pretending these things do not mean anything to me, let alone hurt me, I listen to those around me criminalize not just my sexuality, but devalue my body as a person and man. I’m consistently forced to listen to how uninvited I am, the listener oblivious to how this comes off to me. Sports are supposed to be a fun, communal experience that everyone can get drunk and yell about, but hopefully, within next decade, those yells won’t be directed at me.

Editor's Note: The author of this article requested to be kept anonymous, in light of the sensitivity of the topic. The Tartan Editorial Staff has confirmed that the author is part of the Carnegie Mellon community.