Vikki Krane

(WOMENSENEWS)–The fear of being labeled lesbian continues to distort the lives of many female college athletes and coaches, according to several speakers at a recent conference on issues facing women in college sports.

Female coaches and athletes, straight and lesbian alike, believe that they must prove to their colleagues and community that they are not lesbians or face isolation and discrimination. These are the research findings presented by several speakers at “Women in the Zone” held at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

“I think we force our young females to be promiscuous before they’re ready-because they’re so worried about being labeled gay that . . . they’re finding themselves in situations where they’re pressured into sexual relationships with men even though they don’t want them,” one coach told a researcher.

Speakers reported that that those coaches and athletes who are lesbians take extraordinary measures to keep their sexual orientation secret and many women athletes, lesbian or not, often act as if they must actively dispel suspicions.

In fact, the intense publicity following the 1999 World Cup Soccer victory, which dramatically increased the number of girls with dreams of soccer balls dancing in their heads, appears to have actually increased the pressure on women athletes to appear and act heterosexual, said the conferences keynote speaker Mary Jo Kane, a professor at University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sports.

The result, Kane said, is that much of the publicity surrounding many celebrity athletes emphasizes their heterosexuality either through suggestive photographs or a focus on their marriages and motherhood.

Some coaches told the researchers that they could lose their jobs if it were believed they are lesbians; others who know of coaches open about their sexual orientation reported that these coaches lost career opportunities because of their frankness. In addition, the coaches told researchers that some rival recruiters disparage their colleges by broadly hinting, with a wink and a nod, that lesbianism was rampant there. Coaches also reported that parents of prospective students often ask college coaches about lesbianism in the athletic department.

As for the athletes, many arrive at college with a negative view of lesbians and have that attitude reinforced by what the coaches described as a pervasive atmosphere of homophobia.

Vikki Krane, associate professor at Bowling Green University, Ohio, said her interviews with 12 college coaches who are lesbians revealed that all had kept their sexuality secret in fear of losing their jobs. She found instead, she said, that “the primary social norm for lesbians in sports is silence.”

This apprehension also causes the lesbian coaches to take extraordinary measures to keep a physical and emotional distance from their players, she added. These coaches reported saying their performance as a coach was compromised as a result.

“One coach, through all of her years, never entered the locker room,” Krane said. “When another coach was approached by athlete wanting to talk about sexual issues, the coach encouraged her to talk to the university pastors instead.”

Another coach told her: “When I was in high school or junior high, it was like `if you’d love me, you’d do it’. . . .Well, now the line is, `If you don’t do it, you must be gay.’ ”

In this setting, many women athletes are either reluctant to express interest in gender issues or are ill-informed and openly hostile toward women’s rights.

Lisa R. McClung, an assistant professor at Bowling Green, said that she interviewed many of the 20 top-ranked women college athletes and found that that these women believed the definition of feminist was someone who looked down on women.

“In general, sportsdid not appear to be an effective context for socializing or exposing women athletes to gender issues,” she said.