Pressure To Perform: On Queer Athletes And Double Standards

LGBT athletes walk a difficult tight-rope between their identities and their sport. Sometimes they have to pick one.

The debate on the role of athletes in society, of the Athlete-As-Role-Model, will probably not be resolved to anyone’s satisfaction in any of our lifetimes. The question of whether someone whose profession is sport must also serve as a role model and modern hero is contentious.

Yet even if you don’t believe athletes must be role models, there’s no denying that they can be, and that they can perform that function with distinction. Those athletes who do take on that responsibility are rightfully celebrated for the positive impact they have on people’s lives. Impressionable young people see glimmers of themselves reflected in modern-day superheros, singular figures who not only push the limits of what the body is capable of but stand out as pillars of their community. They grow up thinking they can do great things too, and if they can’t, they can certainly grow up to be good people.

Visibility matters. Young queer kids need role models to look up to as they not only figure out who they are, but what they can do. With all the talk about our marginalization and oppression, and the narratives we adopt to both live within a system that keeps us down and challenge it, it can be easy to overlook the fact that there is excellence within our community. Queer people are brilliant scientists, shrewd business leaders, and brilliant artists. Some of us are also exceptionally talented athletes, who push at the very boundaries of what the human body is capable of.

It’s perhaps not a huge surprise that a community known (and often reviled) for challenging social bounds is also capable of pushing the limits of human ability. But it’s worth reminding ourselves and others that we can be powerful, and smart, and creative. That we can, and often must, do the impossible. Being aware of the excellence that can be found in the queer community shows that we are more than our trauma, more than our wounds, more than our coming out stories.

Yet it’s these very traumas, and the need to center our marginalization by way of overcoming it through the Coming Out narrative, that often constrain us by prescribing what is expected of us and how we must fulfill those expectations. It is not enough to be an athlete who is queer; they must be a Queer Athlete. They must bear the twin burdens of excelling in their craft as athletes, and using the glory and fortune won through competition to bring visibility to Queerness. And indeed, the accomplishments an athlete earns in their career- the Grand Slam titles, the MMA weight division belts, the World Cup winners medals- are seen as important only to the extent that it frames the athlete as a positive role model for young queer people.

What’s more, there’s increasing pressure on queer athletes- as if there wasn’t enough already- to remove any choice they have on whether to come out. Your gold medals and your championship titles are nice, but queer kids are dying, and if you do not come out and give them a beacon of hope for them to hone in on, their blood is on their hands.

Never mind that the consequences for an athlete coming out as queer can be debilitating. It’s unfortunate that Robbie Rogers had to retire from professional football in England, and only returned to the game after Major League Soccer practically begged him to, promising him support and protection and good press. It’s unfortunate that Fallon Fox has so few entries in her professional fight record because so many MMA competitors- including, notably, Rhonda Rousey- refuse to fight her. It’s unfortunate that Michael Sam never got to play a single down in the NFL. Tragedies all, but regardless, some critics argue, queer athletes must declare their queerness publicly and center that queerness in their (heavily commodified) public image. Even if costs them their careers.

It presents an impossible choice for athletes. Navigate a treacherous maze of bigotry and erasure in order to pursue excellence, at the risk of not being the hero that some poor kid desperately needs; or potentially throw your career away, and deprive that kid of their hero anyway.

This is an impossible situation. And surely it’s built on a false dichotomy. Surely there must be a way for an athlete to pursue their craft, to chase glory and lucrative sponsorship deals, and embrace their queerness in whatever way makes sense to them. Some of them would make their queer identity a central component of their public image, some would not, but conceivably through sheer numbers there would be enough positive queer role models for our young. How do we create a world where we have athletes who are queer, without the suffocating pressure to be Queer Athletes?

They key is shifting the conversation so that individuals are not held solely responsible for what is, at heart, an institutional and cultural problem. We know that institutional and cultural change is possible because we’re already seeing it happen, albeit along some troubling gender-based fault lines. In women’s soccer, for example, queer professionals have the emotional and institutional support they need to live authentically while they perfect their game. One need only look at the United States Women’s National Team and see the celebrated success of openly queer players like Abby Wambach and Megan Rapinoe. Elsewhere, you see queer athletes accepted and celebrated in the WNBA, tennis, and sports you typically see during Olympic cycles. Yet the athletes who were able to come out while they were actively competing and avoid serious damage to their careers were either cisgender women playing in the women’s divisions of their sports, or else competed in sports that are culturally coded as feminine (such as figure skating). In traditionally masculine-coded athletic spheres, such as the NFL or English football, queer competitors are often pressured to remain in the closet until after they’ve retired from active competition.

Some, like Michael Sam, took the risk to come out and paid for it with their careers. Some, like journeyman English footballer Justin Fashanu, paid with their lives.

For transgender and gender nonconforming athletes, the balancing act between living authentically and being allowed to compete is even more fraught. The gender binary is upheld and enforced at almost all levels of society, but perhaps none as strictly as in sports. One need only look at Fallon Fox (aforementioned), or Chloie Jonsson, who had to sue for her right to compete in the CrossFit Games. Even in sports like marathon running- ostensibly coed and where simply finishing the race is an outstanding achievement- the gender binary presents oppressive barriers to entry, as highlighted by the ongoing activist work of runner and filmmaker Lauren Lubin.

Even the mere suspicion of gender noncompliance can have devastating effects on an athlete’s career, as seen in the utterly shameful treatment of Caster Semenya. Sporting authorities at all levels, from Little League programs to college athletics boards to professional leagues, are on the whole uninterested in or unwilling to approach this problem in any way that doesn’t treat the athletes themselves as cheaters at best and would-be sexual predators at worst. Barring the enactment of something resembling Title IX for trans and nonbinary athletes- something that, in the United States at least, seems highly unlikely given the political and cultural climate- this is a problem that is likely to go unresolved for years, perhaps longer. Goading these athletes into coming out is essentially asking them to end their careers in the name of visibility — something which they would be unable to deliver as they try to rebuild their lives as former sports stars.

Yet it must be said that things are — slowly, unevenly, but inexorably — getting better. The 2016 Olympics featured the largest number of publicly out LGBT competitors in its history. 43 openly queer athletes traveled to Rio, compared to 22 in London and 12 in Beijing. Soccer has its openly gay women and one or two openly gay men, but it also features an openly transgender player who competed in World Cup qualifiers. And while Michael Sam’s career died with a whimper, there was no broad consensus that it was right that he not play football. He still has fans. That wouldn’t necessarily have happened even 10 years ago. It’s a mealy moral victory, but LGBT people, like most marginalized minorities, take what they can get.

Athletes ply their trade under extraordinary pressure. The physical, mental, and emotional demands of honing your body to perform feats of athleticism at the highest levels of one’s chosen sport are nearly inhumane, yet time and again athletes find ways to rise to a seemingly impossible challenge. For queer athletes, the climb is even steeper, the mountain more treacherous. They walk a fine line between the demands of their sport, the need for positive role models for young members of the queer community, and the systemic bigotry that threatens to end their careers should they even consider living authentically where others can see.

There is a lot that can, should, and must be done to make a world where queer athletes don’t have to settle for Least Bad Options. But we should be mindful of the cultural and political burdens we place on athletes and ask ourselves whether we should have them carry more water than they already do.

Special thanks to Jetta Rae Robertson for editing this essay. She’s a freelance writer and editor whose recent project is the excellent intersectional food blog Fry Havoc. You can support her work directly on Patreon.