Male athletes fight homophobic language
Sports can be empowering and meaningful experiences for lifelong athletes. Certainly all the male athletes interviewed for this article (Patrick Adams ’13, Dave Murphy ’14, Cody McKinney ’11, Matt Carey ’11, Greg McKillop ’13, Tim Corkum ’11) have loved their experiences as athletes and speak passionately about what being an athlete means to them. These athletes speak fondly about their sense of camaraderie with their teammates, and they agree that the work and sense of accomplishment that stem from being physical and competitive lend intrinsic meaning to their athletic endeavors.
However, as many sociologists have noted, sports also function as a realm in which gender and sexuality are highly regulated. This is especially true of male sports, where athletes negotiate their anxieties about masculinity on the field and in the locker room.
These anxieties about masculinity in male sports can lead to an uncomfortable environment, both through heightened heteronormativity (the idea that only heterosexual desire exists and is affirmed) and a general sense of homophobia exemplified by the common use of gay epithets like “fag” and “homo.”
McKinney, who has been a member of the hockey team during his entire college career, explained his previous mentality about homophobic language: “When I [said] ‘fag’, I [didn’t] say it to hurt gay people. But the thing is you do. You don’t realize that by using [the word ‘fag’] you are associating everything that’s bad in your sport with homosexuals, which is inappropriate.”
In many male “contact” sports, being a good athlete—and thus being sufficiently masculine—means playing aggressively and angrily. Therefore, to play “like a fag” or “like a pussy” means playing badly.
Murphy, who runs cross country at the College and has been out as a gay athlete, describes the denigration gay athletes face because of the equation of negative attributes in sports with gayness. “From the earliest days with sports, there is this [undertone]: to be a good, respected athlete, you must be straight, and being gay somehow lessens your ability; it subtracts from everything else,” Murphy said. “No matter who you are as an athlete, you’re still gay and you aren’t as capable as someone who is straight.”
“I had that feeling when I was at the tennis academy,” he continued. “It was almost a special achievement [for me] to beat someone who was straight, as if being gay inhibited my ability to be coordinated, to be strong, just to be a good athlete.”
Adams, who has rowed in varsity crew since his first year at Colby echoes Murphy’s sentiment and wonders about how much of the ease of his coming out had to do with the fact that he was already established as a good athlete. “I wonder how well I would have been received [by my teammates for being gay] if I weren’t a good athlete. When I came out at Deerfield, I was team captain. At Colby I was rowing with the varsity guys in the first week as a [first-year]. If that weren’t the case, would it be the same?” Adams thinks that being a good athlete already established his masculinity and respect among the team, so that his gay identity was irrelevant to his athletic performance.
Education Professor Mark Tappan explains that the use of homophobic language stems from early gender socialization for boys. From a very early age, boys are taught they can only be boys against the feminine—to be a boy is to not be a girl, and therefore any trace of femininity must be purged. This mentality extends to the logic that gay men are in opposition to conventional masculinity. “The pressure in men’s teams is to prove you are a real man,” Tappan concludes, “and whether that is being not a girl or not gay comes as a result of that.”
McKillop, a lacrosse player, acknowledges this sentiment, and suggests there is nothing inherently wrong with toughness and aggression as traits of athletic masculinity. Rather, he suggests masculinity needs to allow for sensitivity and compassion to exist alongside toughness. “There definitely is toughness [involved in playing lacrosse]; and playing hard and being strong and not showing weakness is the nature of the sport,” he said. “[But] I think that people sometimes think masculinity means being insensitive. And that’s not true at all. You can be an extremely strong and tough person. But it doesn’t mean that you have to be unaccepting or cruel or insensitive towards another person who is not like that.”
“It is important to encourage young men and boys to be tough and strong, but you can be a tough, masculine person and cry and still be an accepting and understanding person,” McKillop concluded.Addressing the issue of homophobic language in his many years as a lacrosse player, McKillop said, “Fag is the word that I choose not to use…but I’d be lying if I said people don’t say it sometimes.” He suggests the frequency with which it is used comes from people not understanding the hurtful connotations the word carries. “In order to understand how hurtful and derogatory [the word fag] can be, they need to understand the weight that it carries. And because it’s used so commonly they don’t get that feedback…it’s become a word that is disassociated from its meaning.”
Corkum, who has rowed crew since his first year, but played hockey and lacrosse in high school, observed the use of homophobic language as an indication of a larger inability to empathize with one’s peers. “I think there is a gap between what [people] say and thinking that they could actually be hurting someone—[the mentality of] ‘[when] I say gay, I’m not using it derogatorily, I’m not intending to hurt someone’s feelings, it’s just common parlance.’ So I think there is a huge disconnect and a lack of caring and an unwillingness to admit that it could [hurt someone].”
In point of Corkum’s observation, McKinney attributes his changed attitude towards homophobic language after taking Tappan’s Boys to Men class, when he sat in a room full of people who had been hurt by homophobic slurs. McKinney said the class made him negotiate how such words are used. “In my mind, I always knew it was not right to say those words. I didn’t mean anything by it at the time, but [it wasn’t until]…I [heard] how it affects someone personally…[that] it really caused me to negotiate with the issue.”
“Before I took classes, [I didn’t think] about microaggressions building the [homophobic] culture itself,” McKinney said “Because when you’re in the culture, [homophobia] is so accepted, you don’t even think twice about using the word ‘fag.’”
McKinney and Carey, a varsity soccer player, along with Eric Barthold ’12, a soccer player and alpine skier, founded the club Male Athletes Against Violence (MAAV) after taking Tappan’s Boys to Men class. Among MAAV’s goals are to change the sometimes unsafe culture of locker rooms and recuperate the male teams’ images.
Carey said it was important for the soccer team this year to change the way in which the campus perceives them. “[The senior players and captains] took a stronger stand on what you can and can’t say in the locker room. We focused on [the image we project] to the campus and the way we behave amongst ourselves. If you have one upperclassmen group setting the example, that’s what the younger guys…[are] going to know.”
Because as much as stopping the use of homophobic language and rethinking athletic masculinity in the locker room is about making the campus and athletics safer for students and athletes who are gay, it is just as much about projecting a good image of the team: something each individual athlete can take pride in.
Individual athletes, as the athletes in this article amply show, are wonderfully thoughtful, insightful and sensitive men. Even in a group setting, the teams do charitable work, whether it is the lacrosse team bench pressing to raise money for pulmonary fibrosis research or athletic teams’ participation in the Polar Bear Dip for charity.
But it remains the case that some men’s teams have notorious reputations, some of which is warranted, some of which is not.
The athletes interviewed for this article recognize this fact and find it disheartening. Carey, who plans on pursuing coaching at the college level after he graduates from Colby, said, “I’ve always been an advocate of athletics. But I do feel like there is a stigma about athletes, and I don’t like that. I consider myself an athlete, but I don’t want to be associated [with that stigma]. There are times I’m proud as hell to be an athlete, but there are times I’m not.”
Carey believes it is possible to create a better athletic and team culture if captains and senior team members genuinely hold their teammates accountable. “You feel -knit bond with these guys and a lot of it comes from the older leaders,” he said. “What they say is acceptable and how they behave will dictate how [everybody else will act].”
Corkum echoed a similar sentiment, “To get teams to re-examine how they communicate themselves to each other and to other people is going to be a huge issue in the coming years.” Corkum is hopeful that this critical approach will let male athletic teams help address other forms of sexual violence.