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Out of the Closet and Into the Shower

How Gays are Treated in Professional Sports

During college, I was known first for being gay, and second for being a member of the field hockey team, whether I liked it or not. I loved playing a team sport — the camaraderie, the collective sense of accomplishment after running suicides, the spaghetti team dinners, the coach’s pre- game “inspirational” locker room speech that never failed to pump me up, the mix tape’s songs reverberating out of the boom box during warm-ups, the eerie yet perfectly silent seconds before the game’s first whistle, the comfort of sitting with teammates in quiet reflection after a loss; or, conversely, the exuberant pile-up of sweaty bodies after a teammate scored the game-winning overtime goal. It was all so intense.

I loved everything about participating in team sports. Well, almost everything. There was only one problem: the shower. Let’s face it: Nobody wants to be “the gay” in the shower.

During those angst-provoking showers, I feared my presence in and of itself would cause a teammate to feel uncomfortable, or that one of my teammates would think I was trying to sneak a peek.

Thus, while in the shower, I followed certain rules: (1) choose a shower on the periphery; (2) avoid conversation; (3) utilize a two-in-one shampoo and conditioner to expedite the process; (4) face the wall; (5) if facing the wall is unfeasible, then eyes either straight ahead or fixed to the floor; (6) never reference anything gay, including, but not limited to, Ellen DeGeneres, who was huge at the time; (7) position your towel as close to the shower as possible to minimize your naked time; (8) never retrieve a dropped item; (9) avoid looking creepy; i.e. never be the last one in the shower; (10) never, and I mean never, sneak a non-sexual, comparison peek (a peek to see how your body looks in relation to others).

THE SHOWER DEBATE ASIDE, ATHLETES FEAR RETALIATION FROM OPPOSING TEAMS AND FANS, LOSE ENDORSEMENTS, AND EXPERIENCE DISPARATE TREATMENT FROM COACHES, TEAMMATES, AND REFEREES.

Maybe, I was paranoid. Indeed, when speaking with former, heterosexual teammates, the overwhelming consensus was that showering with a gay girl was no big deal, and/or they also experienced discomfort because being naked around others is unnerving regardless of sexual orientation. Or perhaps, the “gay boy” in the shower is perceived as “more threatening” than the “gay girl” in the shower, because there is no denying that the shower and/or the locker room plays a definitive role in why so few athletes, particularly active, professional athletes have come out.

It does not help that current and former professional athletes use the shower or the locker room in general as a reason to keep gays closeted.

In 1997, former NBA star Tim Hardaway said he would not welcome a gay teammate. More specifically, he stated:

“First of all, I wouldn’t want him on my team. Second of all, if he was on my team, you know, I would really distance myself from him because, uh, I don’t think it is right. I don’t think that he should be in the locker room while we are in the locker room.”

Mr. Hardaway is not alone. In 2002, Jeremy Shockey, who at the time was a decorated tight end with the New York Giants, stated he would not want a gay teammate, in part because he would not want to shower with him.

These concerns or fears imply that gay people are attracted to everyone of the same sex, have no impulse control, are incapable of acting like professionals, and/or (what I suspect is more subconscious) that “gay” is somehow contagious.

More recently, NBA mega-superstar LeBron James reconfigured the “gay” in the shower/locker room debate as an issue of trust. Mr. James stated:

“With teammates, you have to be trustworthy. And if you’re gay and you’re not admitting that you are, then you are not trustworthy. So that’s like the No. 1 thing as teammates: We all trust each other. You’ve heard of the in-room, locker room. What happens in the locker room stays in there. It’s a trust factor.”

I have mixed feelings about his statement. Although I appreciate its departure from the “I don’t want to shower with a gay teammate” sentiment, it is not exactly a ringing endorsement of support for gay athletes who do come out. So, it is not surprising that the insidious “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” philosophy still governs sports. What will it take to shift way from this philosophy?

Visibility. Gay athletes, in particular, current professional athletes need to come out. I recognize this is easier said than done. The shower debate aside, gay athletes fear retaliation from opposing teams and fans, lose endorsements, and experience disparate treatment from coaches, teammates, and referees.

Support from high-profile athletes would help. Can you imagine if LeBron James publicly announced his unequivocal support for playing with a gay teammate? Talk about a game changer.

Finally, there needs to be accountability. As early as little league and in all leagues thereafter, including professional leagues, there can be no tolerance for such slurs as “fag,” “dyke,” and/or gender stereotypebased insults such as telling a boy/man that “he throws like a girl” — which is my least favorite sports insult (but I’ll save that for another article).

With visibility, support, and accountability, hopefully more gay athletes will be coming out of closets and walking into communal showers without fear, without incident, and without following any silly rules.

Tiff Waskowicz is a Civil Rights Attorney. A large percentage of her practice is representing individuals in employment discrimination, retaliation, sexual discrimination, whistleblower, Family and Medical Leave Act, and sexual harassment cases. Tiff received her J.D. from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in 2006 and a B.A. from Amherst College in 2000, where she emphasized her study in creative/persuasive writing. Tiff is a huge Pittsburgh Penguins fan, and, in her spare time, she enjoys cross word puzzles, reading, and jogging.