Sports  The never-ending fight

Queer athletes and the culture of sports

There are people who fight to live and then there are people who fight for a living. Orlando Cruz, a professional boxer who is openly gay, does both. And despite the blood and sweat, the fight in the boxing ring is quite straightforward; you either win or lose (and in Cruz’s case, it is usually the former). But for Cruz and many other queer athletes, the fight against discrimination has yet to be won.

On October 4, Orlando Cruz became the first openly gay professional boxer, and one of the very few queer athletes to come out while still pursuing a career in sports. With his announcement, he also became North America’s only openly gay male active professional athlete. As the story usually goes, the move was described by the media as being a risk to Cruz’s public life and professional career. In fact, his career has been on the rise ever since he became a professional boxer in 2000; Cruz has won 18 fights, lost only two, and was ranked fourth among featherweights last month by the World Boxing Organization.

The fact that Cruz’s sexual orientation made news is telling of a wider phenomenon in professional sports – there are very few openly queer athletes in professional mainstream sports. There is not one reason for this; there is no way to decide whether it is the hostile environment from teammates and fans or the structural basis upon which professional sports events and leagues are constructed. Queer athletes are in a constant state of fight against oppression, against patriarchal forms of homophobia, and sometimes against themselves.

“I’ve been fighting for more than 24 years, and as I continue my ascendant career I want to be true to myself,” Cruz told the Associated Press. “I have always been and always will be a proud gay man.”

My experience with sports has been one of repeated disappointments mainly because of the oppressive and overly masculinized behaviour I encountered. Growing up, I was taught to suppress any and all ‘unacceptable’ feminine manners in every aspect of my life, but it was exacerbated during gym class and in the schoolyard. From a very early age, people other than me defined my role in society as they defined what team I was supposed to play for. I was to play football with the other boys and to learn how to pick (and win) a fight, and whether I was ‘man enough’ was suddenly defined by how hard I could hit and how fast I could run.

With my late teenage years came a craving for rebellion and renewed emotional strength; I needed to prove to myself and others (mostly to others) that I could play sports. Being taller than the average 16-year-old, volleyball seemed like a natural choice. But in my school, volleyball was associated with femininity, and the lack of physical contact and confrontation made it a ‘gay sport.’ Jokes ensued. From within the team, though, it was very different. Perhaps it was my teammates’ necessity to compensate, to be taken seriously ‘as men,’ but every single minute spent as team became a competition of masculinity. At every game, the stench of excessive masculinity – of patriarchal oppression – permeated the court. The atmosphere was heavy and tense, there was no room for deviation: you had to ‘man up’ and show your opponents your brute force and fierceless commitment to bringing them down.

But the hardest moments were those times of fraternal bonding, the moments before and after every game in which my teammates talked sex and street fights, as if it were a masculinity contest. There was a pervasive culture of machismo in my experience with sports, a culture that constantly asked me to try to fit in, to suppress my real urges and act as a man. In the locker room, there is no room for deviation; being gay was the worst sin I could commit. People often say that if you can play the game your sexual orientation should not matter, but on the court you need confidence to win, and the pervasiveness of homophobia destroyed my confidence and in turn my ability to play the game. In the end, you either have to fit in or hang up your gloves.

In contrast to Cruz’s, my story is the story of that kid who ‘gave up.’ The kid who, after always being chosen last in gym class, decided that he did not want to get chosen at all. It took a few years of internal struggle to realize that I need not behave according to society’s definition of masculinity, that it was fine to embrace my femininity and be who I truly am. But this came at a price, this is why my story is the story of a kid who decided to run away, to quit sports, and never look back.

For professional athletes, however, the pressure to stay in the closet is ever present, as appreciation from fans is crucial for their career. The lack of queer professional athletes cannot be examined without dissecting the commodification of sports leagues and its athletes. Treating athletes as walking advertisements is strongly tied to discrimination in sports; endorsements are given to ‘valuable’ athletes, to those who can fill stadiums and look good in front of the cameras. But when you are queer, when you deviate from the norm, then you are no longer valuable to the capitalist system because you can no longer appeal (sell) to the masses. Cruz’s announcement is daring because, in a sense, he could lose his financial security and even physical security. And every fight he has won since the start of his career at the 2000 Sydney Olympics could be obliterated and forgotten. He could become ‘that gay boxer.’

But for many other queer people the possibility of going to the Olympics, or even starting a career in sports, simply does not exist. Most professional and mainstream sports are constructed upon a binary structure of gender. Sports leagues, tournaments, and events separate athletes into two categories – male and female – thus leaving out queer athletes that fit somewhere in between or outside the traditional continuum. Trans* athletes are not given the possibility to compete and even at the ‘pinnacle’ of sports competition, the 2012 London Olympics, controversy was stirred over ‘gender testing’ techniques, which sought to verify whether athletes were ‘truly’ male or female.

Orlando Cruz’s move is inspiring but it should not be seen as a step in a process, because the fights against discrimination in sports should not be seen as processes. I am often told that I should wait, that the next generation will change things and being queer in sports will then be ‘acceptable.’ This used to inspire me. It used to make me fantasize about better moments to come and it used to make me cheer for ‘baby steps’ toward that end. But now it doesn’t: oppression and discrimination happen today and have happened for many yesterdays. We should not have to wait for future generations to solve it. Cruz’s announcement is not a step, but a victory. He has won one of many fights that he (and all queer athletes) will have to continue to fight. He has won a fight I and many others lost many years ago, and this is what makes it inspiring.

Are the fights against discrimination in sports won by giving jabs and hooks or by learning how to block and duck? Should we attack or should learn how to take the punches? I can’t tell; there are as many fights as there are people, but in the end we are all fighting. Personally, I have decided that sports are not inherently homophobic; instead, it is the culture that surrounds them – which is shaped in many ways by a patriarchal society – that denies sports the possibility of being a safe space for queer athletes. Thus, I am no longer fighting to be allowed to play with the ‘big boys’; my fight is to make the big boys realize they are not playing a fair game. And even though I will probably lose, I won’t forfeit this fight.