Sports are competitive athletic games. Due to a strong connection between sports, feminine/masculine identity, competitive team identity, and positive moral principles, many societies discriminate against openly Gay people on the playing field, in the arena, anywhere in which the pride of a group is projected onto a team. Homophobia is especially pronounced in sports that involve physical contact between opposing men’s teams.
Although homophobia in sports is markedly more pronounced and violent for men’s team sports than for women’s team sports, individual sports such as men’s diving, or competitions judged on aesthetic grounds such as men’s ice skating, are not free from bias against LGBTQ people. Homophobia has been a mainstay for athletic competitions since the resurgence of athletic competition in the nineteenth century. This bias has inspired the creation of Gay sports leagues since Stonewall.
Societies around the world have engaged in a number of sports, some for men only, some for women only, others open to participation for men and women. Competitions are often means for young men to prepare themselves for the battlefield, and may even be a means to reduce the need for open conflict. As such, there is often a strong link in a people’s understanding of virtuous masculinity and sports inasmuch as men’s teams represent the community’s masculine fighting spirit. This also includes the denigration of one’s competitors as weak, talentless, and unmanly. Folk language of insult will often compare men of an opposing team to women or weak, effeminate men.
Although the ancient Chinese, Egyptians, and Persians had horse/chariot races, contests of strength, acrobatic competitions, wrestling, footraces, etc., the origin of modern sports is often traced back to the competitive games of the ancient Greeks, which culminated in the pan-Hellenic Olympic Games. For the Greeks, sports were a means of worship as well as entertainment, and competition became much more than simply the preparation of young men for war. Both women and men competed in their own respective events. Greek understanding of sports was the basis for Roman sports as well.
Evidence for ball sports played in teams has been found in several ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman archaeological sites. but the oldest team ball sport in a well-defined court may not have been in Eurasia or North Africa. In ancient Mesoamerica, ulama (from the Nahuatl term, ullamaliztli) was a predominantly men’s team sport played with a solid rubber ball in an I-shaped court, and had its origins in 1400 BCE or earlier. This sport was also closely linked to warfare, masculinity, and religion, although pre-Contact artwork includes images of women as ball players.
After Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 CE by order of Emperor Theodosius I, homosexuality was outlawed. In 390, a popular charioteer was arrested for homosexuality in Thessalonika, which led to a riot by his fans. Theodosius responded by inviting the population to a chariot race, trapping them in the racetrack, and massacring 7000 people. Theodosius (or his son, Theodosius II) also outlawed the Olympic Games.
The Middle Ages saw the resurgence of tournament sports such as jousting and the melée as means for preparation for war, but women were no longer given the same opportunities to compete with each other as they had in ancient Greece and pre-Christian Rome. During the eighteenth century, however, there was a growing movement to link sports with health, chastity, and the moral strength of the community based somewhat on Greco-Roman ideals. Children’s schools, high schools, and colleges began to emphasize physical education for girls and boys, and the muscular male body was seen in what was imagined the classical Greek way as a reflection of a man’s moral and intellectual strength.
Homophobia and Gay Pride in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries
With the rise of sports worldwide in the twentieth century, and the politicization of competitions in intercity, interstate, interregional, and international tournaments such as the resurrected and internationalized Olympics, it became important for the fans of sports teams that their athletes be appropriately masculine, thus making it impossible for openly Gay male athletes to compete in team sports until after Stonewall, and possible for only the rare exception in the early twenty-first century team sports.
Many male athletes in violent team sports who came out years after playing their sport say that they feared for their personal safety if they revealed their orientation while competing. For Lesbians, there has been an implicit assumption that any woman who excelled in competition had to be mannish. Although the censure of openly-Gay women has been just as pervasive, it tended to be less potentially life-threatening.
Because of the sex-segregated nature of most sports, both team and individual, transpeople and intersex people have had the most difficult situation of all. If their status were known, the typical result would be rejection from competition.
Due to the difficulties faced by LGBTQ people, Gay teams, competitions, and sports festivals have become a common feature of Gay urban communities in countries that are more accepting of gender/orientation difference. Gay bowling leagues, softball teams, rugby clubs, rodeos, volleyball tournaments, and many other sports organizations have formed, including the international Gay Games. One outstanding feature of LGBTQ sports is a strong ethic of inclusiveness so that Straight people may also join. Many Gay male and Lesbian teams also strive to be Bisexual and Trans-inclusive.
Gay sports involving animals may also differ from their Straight counterparts in terms of empathy and compassion. Sensitivity to cruelty and abuse has led the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA) to be vocal in its call for more humane treatment of animals during competitions and demonstrations.
During the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, the Pride House was opened for Gay athletes from all competing nations. Pride House was modeled after the various national houses set aside for athletes (Canada House, France House, Swiss House, USA House, etc.). It functioned as a place in which issues concerning homophobia in sports could be voiced, LGBTQ athletes could socialize, and those whose countries outlawed homosexuality could seek help from the Rainbow Refugee Committee.
Dinah Shore Golf Tournament
The popularity of women’s sports among Lesbians has led to the creation of at least one Lesbian festival. The Dinah Shore women’s golf tournament in Palm Springs, California has become the site for the Dinah Shore Weekend, a Lesbian dance weekend unaffiliated with the tournament. It was originally chosen as the weekend and the site for the festival because so many Lesbians were attending the golf tournament in the first place. Held one weekend before Easter, thousands of women come to Palm Springs, many with no interest in the tournament despite the festival’s name. The success of the Dinah Shore Weekend was the inspiration for the creation of the White Party-Palm Springs, a Gay men’s Circuit event held every Easter weekend.
Turkish Oil Wrestling
Considered the longest-running competition in the world, Turkish oil wrestling (Turkish: yaglı güres) can be traced back to ancient Persia, and has spread eastward into India and westward into Turkey, where the Kirkpinar tournament has been held since the fourteenth century. The sport involves male wrestlers who strip down to a pair of leather breeches, apply oil all over their bodies, and grapple in a field of grass. In order to gain leverage, wrestlers will reach into each other’s breeches.
The sport is considered the national sport of Turkey, and competitors are idealized as heroic examples of manhood. The popularity of Turkish oil wrestling with Gay men in Turkey and abroad, however, has led to significant controversy. A group calling itself the Turkish Bears has been vocal in being allowed to attend Kirkpinar as legitimate fans of the sport.
Sports and Drag
In Gay festive folklife, cross-dressing during sports competitions has become a folk tradition. For example, Columbus, Ohio has the annual Bat ‘N’ Rouge softball game during Pride, and the IGRA has included cross-dressing competitors in goat dressing (putting men’s jockey shorts on a goat). The IGRA also sponsors the wild drag race, a team event with a cowboy, a cowgirl, and one person in drag (sex unspecified). A steer is released, the cowgirl attempts to pull in the steer, and the cowboy holds the animal for the person in drag to climb on. The individual in drag must then ride the steer across a finish line.
The Iron Ladies
In 1996, a male Thai volleyball team that called itself “Iron Ladies” (Thai: Satri Lek) that had six players that were Gay male or Trans won the national championships. They gained national attention, not only for their playing skills, but the effeminate behavior, pony-tail hairstyles, and women’s makeup worn by some of the team members. The Iron Ladies were not allowed to compete in the name of Thailand outside of their country, neither were their non-heteronormal players allowed to join the national team, for fear they would humiliate the nation. Two movies, Iron Ladies and Iron Ladies 2 were made in Thailand about them.
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