Three gold medals, three MVP awards and four WNBA Championships. Perhaps none of these accomplishments took as much courage from Sheryl Swoopes as revealing to ESPN the Magazine that she is a lesbian, becoming the first openly gay superstar in American professional team sports.
In a very revealing interview, Swoopes talked about the hurt and frustration of hiding her true identity. She said that only now could she truly feel free.
Swoopes’s decision to come out was a very brave one. She is a superstar and icon for women’s basketball. Such a well known and admired star who is also gay may help bring more acceptance of homosexuality in professional sports.
Some people might not care at all that Swoopes revealed she is gay. Others might applaud her bravery and admire her courage. But Swoopes will also receive a lot of criticism and even harassment in our society, which is sometimes very unwilling to accept homosexuality.
The decision was hard for Sheryl Swoopes, but publicly coming out might be even harder for a male athlete. There is a stereotype that gay women are masculine and athletic, so a lesbian in professional sports fits into society’s stereotype and is more acceptable.
Gay men are often labeled as feminine, weak and submissive. It is a male ego thing; a gay guy is going to have a much tougher time telling his male teammates that he is gay than a lesbian would have telling her female teammates.
A male who announces he is gay can expect criticism, abuse and the loss of a lot of fans. He may face awkwardness in the locker room or even harassment from teammates. He could lose endorsement deals. If he comes out, he is putting his job in jeopardy.
Homosexuality can be found in all sports, in all cultures, across continents and throughout different time periods in history. What changes is how society defines sexuality and allows for the expression of homosexuality.
The point is that there are gay men in professional sports, probably a lot more than some people would like to believe. Hopefully, an openly gay female basketball superstar will pave the way for other athletes to come out. I know there will always be narrow-minded ignorant people out there who will never accept any gay person, but I like to think that there will soon be a time when players never feel the need to hide their sexuality or fear harassment and isolation for being gay.
Amanda Vollrath is a staff columnist for the DSJ. Her views do not necessarily represent those of the entire staff.