Editor’s note: A TV commentator’s reported remarks about lesbians in the LPGA ignites a storm of controversy. A gay major leaguer’s death from AIDS revives allegations of homophobia in baseball. Homosexuality in sports is gaining acceptance, albeit more lowly than in the fields of entertainment and politics. Amid gay pride celebrations in New York this week, the issue still evokes passion, fear and ignorance among athletes, spectators and sponsors.
Two young women lay languidly in the sun along the 18th fairway, T-shirts rolled up above their bellies, arms and legs braided in a casual embrace.
Beth Daniel, and the gallery that followed her at this LPGA tournament, paid no attention to the couple. On a Sunday when about half of the 27,000 spectators were lesbians, walking around together, holding hands, hugging and kissing, nothing about this couple seemed unusual.
Half a century after the color barrier was broken in baseball, a social shift of no less significance is occurring on playing fields and in locker rooms, in corporate offices and in public debate: the acceptance of homosexuality in sports.
It is happening slowly, with anger and denial on all sides of the issue, but the movement to end this most secret and powerful taboo in athletics cannot be stopped.
“We have to start talking about it,” said Dr. Dee Mosbacher, a psychiatrist and producer of a documentary about homophobia in women’s sports. “There are too many gay and lesbian athletes in sports for this to be ignored or hidden much longer. Ultimately, it’s a question of justice and freedom and fairness.”
Three of America’s most famous male athletes - an NFL player, an NBA player and a track and field star - have been talking to The Advocate, a national gay and lesbian magazine, about coming out, according to its editor. As more and more gay and lesbian athletes follow, propelled by the scourge of AIDS and a younger generation’s openness, the initial shock is certain to shatter the stereotypes of athletes and homosexuals.
Tennis player Gigi Fernandez came out when she appeared on stage with Martina Navratilova during the gay rights March on Washington in 1993. Fernandez’s relationship with defending Wimbledon champion Conchita Martinez has been an open secret on the women’s tour among other players, writers and fans. So, too, have been the sexual orientations of at least half a dozen other players among the top 50, though none have talked about it.
When asked if she’s a role model for other gay athletes to come out, Navratilova turned around and said, “I don’t see any line forming behind me.”
Daniel, the LPGA player of the year in 1994, has a huge following among lesbians, but refused to discuss her sexual orientation when asked about it in a recent interview at the Oldsmobile Classic. She carried her own tape recorder to the interview, saying she had been misquoted before.
“I would just say that that’s my personal business and it’s no one else’s business at all,” Daniel said. “And I would feel that anyone would have the right to say that.”
The possibility of losing endorsements was not a concern, she said, adding, “I just don’t feel like whether I’m gay or not should be an issue to people. I want people to watch me play golf for my golf skills, and I want to be able to give that to them. I find it hard to believe that someone is standing on the other side of the rope, going, ‘Is Beth Daniel gay or is she not gay?”’
No one expects a flood of coming-out announcements right away, despite the fact that there have been more gay men and lesbians in entertainment and politics revealing their sexual orientation in the past two years than in the previous two decades.
“Coming out is one of the best ways of fostering understanding inside and outside the gay community, because if people know that gay people are everywhere it becomes less of an issue than if they’re only in certain arenas,” said Jeff Yarbrough, editor of “The Advocate,” which has a readership of 250,000.
“The sports world and the film industry are the two final frontiers - the sports world because it’s the last bastion of heterosexuality in this country, and the movie industry because it’s built on image.”
The call for discussion and education about homosexuality in sports has been embraced by the Women’s Sports Foundation, especially after the flap last month over CBS golf commentator Ben Wright’s reported remarks that widespread lesbianism on the LPGA Tour was hurting sponsorship. The debate that ensued illustrated the passion, fear and ignorance that the topic of homosexuality in sports engenders.
“The issue in women’s sports has been kept under the table for a long time by physical educators and athletes who fear the allegation of lesbianism, and by leaders of women’s sports who would rather not be controversial,” said the foundation’s executive director, Donna Lopiano.
Yet Lopiano denied that lesbians appear to make up a large part of the crowds at many women’s college basketball games, at LPGA tournaments, and in women’s softball leagues throughout the country.
“I think that’s where you’re playing into the stereotype,” Lopiano said. “You’re talking about appearance. You cannot stereotype by looks.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said Tami Banovic, an “out-and-proud” 37-year-old lesbian from Lansing. “You can tell by the way we dress and the way we look. But even the ones that don’t look it, you can tell. There’s a camaraderie here. It’s an uncommon, unspoken thing. I’m not saying I have radar on, but I can pick them out. I’m sure lesbian golfers can, too. They just can’t talk about it.”There is a generation gap within the gay
and lesbian communities. Those in their late teens and 20s, in general, are more comfortable with their sexual orientation than their elders, a trend that is likely to carry over to young athletes in colleges and the pros.
More established, older gay athletes and coaches, meanwhile, fear that coming out will result in the same terrible consequences that befell former Green Bay Packers and Washington Redskins running back Dave Kopay in the 1970s. The first pro athlete to acknowledge his homosexuality publicly, Kopay has felt blacklisted from the NFL. Instead of coaching in the league, he lives in West Hollywood and sells linoleum.
Despite all the sympathy and understanding that the public had for Greg Louganis, and all the popularity that Navratilova has gained in recent years, gays and lesbians worry that coming out would threaten their jobs, scare away sponsors and alienate teammates.
“It would destroy my career if people knew,” confided a gay member of one of the NFL’s most successful coaching staffs. “I’ve got eyes and ears, and I’m sensitive to what goes on. I could tell you some names of players on our team that are very homophobic. I don’t talk to anyone on the team about it, ever.
“There are some players who I wonder if they might be (homosexual), like the quarterback. I’ve heard things about him. But nobody talks about it. We’re all too afraid.”
Olympic women’s basketball coach Tara VanDerveer, formerly head coach at Stanford, said one of the reasons lesbian coaches are afraid of coming out is the fierce recruiting process.
“There are definitely people out there who will trash you, say things like, ‘What’s this person’s lifestyle?’ It’s used by men, but also used by women against other women coaches,” VanDerveer said.
The late Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland Athletics outfielder Glenn Burke, the only major leaguer to acknowledge his homosexuality, wrote in his soon-to-be published autobiography, “Out At Home,” that he knew of many gay ballplayers - both when he played and currently in the majors.
“There is no sport that accepts gays less than baseball,” Burke wrote. “Some of those (gay) contemporaries of mine were superstars… . Football seems to be a little more open about homosexuality than baseball, but not by much.”
Burke claimed that of the four major team sports, the NFL had the most gay players. Some insiders in the gay community estimate that at least 50 NFL players are homosexual or bisexual.
“If all those players came out tomorrow, it wouldn’t change the popularity of the NFL at all,” said Nye Lavalle, president of the Sports Marketing Group in Dallas. “The public really doesn’t care. There would be a ‘Nightline,’ a lot of stories, then we’d get on with our lives.”
The three athletes in the NFL, NBA and in track and field who have been talking with “The Advocate” are worried about different problems if they come out.
“The basketball player and football player are really terrified, more of the reaction from their team than the reaction from the media,” said Yarbrough, who did not disclose their names. “They’re afraid of walking into the locker room and getting called a fag. That will hurt them. In the sports world, they’re household names. With the track and field star, the issue is endorsements. He doesn’t know what will happen if he comes out, but that conversation is very active.”
Since Wright’s reported comments, more people are calling for gay and lesbian athletes to end the secrecy that contributes to the stigma of homosexuality, said Gary Reese, gay author of an upcoming book, “The Uneven Playing Field: Homosexuality in the Sports World.”
“That’s a valid point to make,” Reese said. “On the other hand, if the players don’t feel that they have an atmosphere of acceptance and understanding that they can step into, we really are expecting a lot of them. It’s just as legitimate to ask why their teammates or colleagues can’t say ahead of time, ‘It doesn’t make any difference to me.’ Why does a gay player have to walk the plank, take the leap into the unknown?”
Reese sees signs of change and greater acceptance, noting the Gay Games grew from an event with about 1,200 participants in 1982 to almost 12,000 last year in New York.
For all the lesbians the Oldsmobile Classic brought together here in the heartland of America, and all the late-night parties that accompanied it, it was tame compared to the lesbian event of the year: the Nabisco-Dinah Shore Tournament in Palm Springs, Calif., every spring.
Last March, the Dinah Shore attracted 25,000 women, most of them lesbians, who came to see and be seen, frolic at pool parties at the Riviera Resort, and fill a 68,000-square-foot airplane hangar in the weekend’s biggest bash.
After years of the LPGA trying to distance itself from the lesbian scene by touting its married players with children, promoter Joani Weir of Los Angeles said it was the first year the LPGA asked her to encourage partygoers to come to the Dinah Shore.
“I was shocked,” Weir said, “but that’s a step in the right direction from them.”