Even though women and LGBTQ rights are undermined in many countries around the world, and both women and LGBTQ members were not welcomed in sports, as well as their participation to sport was not seen as a professional career but hobby. LGBTQ community has been gaining more acceptance while women have acquired relatively “equal” rights in North America and most of the European countries.
Growing presence of characters belong to LGBTQ community and women portrayed ‘almost’ equal to men in television and cinema, increasing number of openly gay or lesbian musicians, gay and women politicians, professional athletes, proves that they we have been progressing positively towards accepting women and LGBTQ in all aspects of life. For example. there were 56 openly gay/lesbian athletes and 3 coaches while the numbers were only 23 in 2012 and even less in 2008 which shows the progress of accepting LGBTQ community considering even their presence in sports was an issue not long time ago (Outsports, 2016). Even Obama has included three famous athletes who are gay and lesbian to 2014 Sochi Olympic delegation of United States, in order to show United States’ support to LGBTQ community. Moreover, while there were only 16,000 female collegiate athletes in 1968, today, there are 180,000 female athletes who participate on over 9,000 intercollegiate teams (Paule-Koba, 2012). According to Hall, “the history of modern sport is cultural struggle. Privileged groups in our society are able to establish their own cultural practices as the most valued and legitimate, whereas subordinate groups have to fight to gain control over their own experiences, and at the same time have their alternative practices and activities recognized as legitimate by the dominant culture.
For example. even though I have raised bymy parents to see everyone equal in all aspects of life, because of the male hegemonic society I grew up in, I was seeing myself above other girls when it comes to physical activities. I was really successful in sports when I was young, I was the captain of my school’s basketball team, had gymnastics and skiing medals, and so on. However, one day all of my ideas towards women’s ability to participate sports had changed when I lost to a girl in a one on one basketball game. The experience I have had showed me that sports can be used to create change towards equality between all members of society so I will use Billie Jean King, well known professional tennis player and activist, who has helped both feminist and LGBTQ movements by using sport, as site to explore and uncover power dynamics between dominant and subordinate groups through sport by looking at two important events in her career, Battle of the Sexes and her coming out as a bisexual.
Who/What Made Possible for Women and LGBTQ Members to Gain Equal Rights:
Even though women and LGBTQ members has been gaining relatively equal rights in almost all aspects of social life, those achievements have accomplished through the struggle and sacrifice of people such as Billie Jean King. Because of her successful career in tennis and long struggle for gender and sexuality, King might be one of the most important person that helped women to have a real place in sports. King was a pioneer in women’s tennis, early games scope uncovered conventional perspectives of female competitors and states of mind toward femininity. Outside of the Olympics, couple of roads were accessible for female competitors in extensive scale rivalry, and even in those where women competed, they were relied upon to keep up their femininity and not play “like men”. However, Billie Jean King neglected to fit in with desires, was known as a “chatterbox” on the court for always conversing with herself, and was thought to play a “man’s amusement” by forcefully playing the ball (O’Connell, 2013, p.45). According to Paule-Koba (2012), “because of her [King’s] relationship to second-wave feminism, she came to embody the aspirations and dreams of the modern women’s movement in her role as popular heroine from the world of sports” (p. 10). Billie Jean King was the rare athlete who brought together sport and feminism, and, in doing so, she put a human face on the ideals of liberal feminism” (Paule-Koba, 2012). However, even though King had an amazing career which encouraged and inspired many people around the world and helped feminist movement through her career, maybe the turning point that made her the face of liberal feminism was her tennis match, “Battle of the Sexes” against Bobby Riggs, who repeatedly made sexist comments about King and other female tennis players and see female tennis inferior compared to men’s game. According to King, winning this game was important because losing it “would ruin the women’s tour and affect all women’s self-esteem”, and set us the feminist movement back 50 years, but King triumphed by beating the self-proclaimed “male chauvinist pig” in front of thousands of spectators at the court and millions of people in front of their television (Schwartz, 2012). Morever, the statistics provided by Paule-Koba shows the increasing number of female athletes between the years of 1968 and 2010, while there are only 16,000 female collegiate athletes in 1968, there are 180,000 female athletes who participate on over 9,000 intercollegiate teams (Paule-Koba, (2012). Yet, even though there are more women athletes and equality in sports, in his movie “Not Just a Game”, Dave Zirin mentions about the dropping coverage rates of women’s sports on television news which went down from 9% in 1989 to 1.6% in 2009 (Zirin, 2010). Similar to Zirin’s movie, Figure 1A also shows the dropping numbers.
Moreover, After the legendary Battle of the Sexes, Billie Jean King had also experienced another event that affected and jeopardized everything she had achieved when she had forced to come out about her lesbian relationship with Marilyn Barnett during her marriage with her husband Larry, after Barnett threatened her to go to press after their dispute over one of the King’s houses (Birrell, McDonald, 2012, p.347). Even though she has accepted her sexual identity over the years, and became an active LGBTQ activist, when questions raised about her sexual orientation in 1981, she denied her relationship with Barnett, then accepted it by saying, “I did have an affair with Marilyn Barnett. It’s been over for quite some time. I made a mistake and I will assume responsibility for it”, at a press conference (Birrell, McDonald, 2012, p. 348).
According to Birrell and McDonald (2012), the reason why King didn’t want to come out as a bisexual was her fear of losing her endorsements, reputation and everything she has done for women’s sport because of the homophobic narratives caused by the patriarchal and heteronormative structure (p.347). Considering even women were not accepted as ‘real’ athletes, it was impossible for athletes from LGBTQ community to participate in professional sports. One of the responses King has gotten from the press shows that how people who doesn’t fit the gender binary have seen as problematic, after King’s come out New York Times journalist Robert Lindsey written an article with a conclusion saying, “although there have been recurrent reports about homosexuality among both female and male professionals, the issue has not been prominent” (Lindsey, 1981). According to Billings, Moscowitz, Raw, and Brown-Devlin (2015), “both news and entertainment media have lent increased public attention to gay civil rights issues. Over the past two decades, as a line of critical cultural work has demonstrated, gay and lesbiani dentity has moved from invisibility in the media and popular culture to that of public spectacle. Gay issues, now routinely considered headline news, were “unfit to print” a mere sixty years ago by America’s widely read newspapers and magazines (p. 144). Moreover, in order to routinize the lesbian presence in sports, “most news outlets minimized the homophobic response of society by making news that routinizes her actions such as, “It is generally agreed that homosexual relations among women athletes tend to be more open, more enduring, and at the top level of certain sports, more widespread than among their male counterparts” (Birrell, McDonald, 2012, p.350). However, when we look at one of the biggest and contemporary come out of the sports history, response of both media and society were so much different compared to Sheryl Swoopes announced her sexual orientation.
According to King (2009), the negative response and loss of endorsements when Billie Jean King and another tennis player Martina Navratilova just made an announcement about their sexual orientation, and the positive response as well as more endorsements, especially from the brand called Olivia, she has gotten because of she coming out as a lesbian shows that the progress we have made during the past couple of decades to accept LGBTQ members in sports (p. 281).However, even after her win against Riggs, sportswriters and commentators strip the event from its revolutionary tone, woman versus man, by reflecting it as, young versus old, active versus retired player or activist versus entertainer in order to protect patriarchy and gender roles.
However, even decades have passed after King’s coming out, according to Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity (CAAWS ACAFS), considering ‘heterosexuality’ is the norm in North American society, the existence of lesbians and gays are usually ignored and when they are recognized, it is usually in a negative way. Moreover, CAAWS ACAFS’ report states that, “for athletes and coaches at the elite level, conforming to the heterosexual norm may be necessary for maintaining team and coach relationships, and for ensuring the continuity of sponsorships or other financial support. And sadly, for most athletes and coaches who are lesbian or gay, ‘coming out’ is only a viable option when their athletic or coaching careers have concluded.
So, considering the fact that, even though we think that we are making huge progress to achieve equality between different genders and sexual orientations, when we look at the dropping media coverage of Women’s sports, lingerie football leagues or fighting sports , as well as, CAAWS ACAFS’ report on how hard it is to be a non-professional gay athlete suggests that there might be something else behind this inconsistency.
What is really going on?
We might understand who really benefits in this situation by exploring heteronorvativity. Nelson explains heteronormativity as; “Heteronormativity, then, is a system that works to normalize behaviors and societal expectations that are tied to the presumption of heterosexuality and an adherence to a strict gender binary”, moreove, Nelson also argues that the strict distinction between two genders without having another alternative cause the establishment of patriarchal gender roles as well as promoting white supremacy (Nelson, 2015). Heteronormativity is a system that helps patriarchal concept, which is a “system of social structures and practices in which men dominate, oppress and exploit women…the use of the term social structures is important here, since it clearly implies rejection both of biological determinism, and the notion that every individual man is in a dominant position and every woman in a subordinate one” (Johannsdottir, 2009, p.1). Considering heteronormativity has been the dominant ideology for a long time in American culture, even though Obama acted like United States has been always supported and tolerated and gave equal rights to the LGBTQ community, in reality United States is at the bottom of the list when it comes to gay rights in western countries, and Boykoff argues that, the real reason of their support is to not protect sexual rights but to gain power in the eyes of other countries by promoting their liberal ideology against Russia’s anti-gay laws (Boykoff, 2014). McDonald (2005), argues, “in the case of post-feminist practices, the very radical goals of feminism may take on a plurality of faces, but its potentially alternative ideological force is channeled into the commodity form so that it threatens neither patriarchal culture nor capitalist hegemony” (p.36).
Therefore, the contradiction between the increasing number of female athletes and dropping coverage rates of female sports suggest that, like Obama’s decision to including lesbian and gay athletes to Olympic committee reinforce United States’ neoliberal ideology and without really threatening the traditional norms of United States society, women’s being able to participate sports professionally was a political decision that compromises little since there is almost no threat to men’s domination in professional sports but, it benefits both United States’ neoliberal and capitalist ideology. Therefore, we could say the accomplishments of equality for women and LGBTQ is not just achieved through the struggle of people like Billie Jean King ,but also, dominant ideologies kind of ‘allowed’ them to use sports to promote dominant ideologies.
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Boykoff, J. (2013). Celebration capitalism and the Sochi 24 Winter Olympics. Olympika XXII, 39-70.
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O’Connell, Elizabeth. “THE WOMAN WHO SHOULD BE KING.” A Locker Room of Her Own. Mississippi, University Press of Mississippi, 2013, pp. 43-71.
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