A new study indicates that the use of homophobic slurs by athletes doesn’t always mean gay athletes wouldn’t be welcome.
I know, that doesn’t sound like it makes sense.
The study, led by Erik Denison at Monash University in Melourne, Australia, looked at attitude and actions of teen rugby players age 16 – 20 towards gay athletes. The research team surveyed 329 athletes (one was gay).
The new study focused on the perspective of non-gay athletes and what they felt the true intentions were for using anti-gay language.
The results show that most young athletes who use terms like “fag” don’t necessarily mean to reject the idea of gay teammates, or express homophobia.
Here’s what Denison found:
• 77 percent of respondents said they’d be comfortable with a gay teammate
• 83 percent of respondents thought a gay player would be welcome on their team
• 87 percent said they believe diversity makes a team stronger
That said, the respondents also admitted they used or have heard language like “fag” or “poof.”
• 78 percent had heard teammates use those terms in the previous two weeks
• 59 percent admitted to using those words themselves in the previous two weeks
• 47 percent said they had been called those terms
So, the majority of those surveyed believe in diversity and think a gay player would be welcome, but they use and hear those words.
Denison wrote in his study:
“This language is likely self-perpetuating, with boys picking up the norm around this language from a young age. Equally, unlike with racist language, where their victim is visible, the lack of openly gay players in male sport means it’s impossible to see the harm of homophobic language.”
In other words, most of the athletes view the anti-gay slurs as general putdowns learned at a young age, and not specifically homophobic attacks.
And, since there aren’t any gay athletes on the team (because gay athletes are afraid to come out), no one sees any real harm in the use of the words.
Outsports’ Syd Zeigler uses the example of NBA great Kobe Bryant, who in 2011 called a referee a “faggot” during a game.
At the time, when folks became upset, Bryant reportedly rolled his eyes because the word had been tossed around for so long. He later admitted he didn’t mean the word in a homophobic manner. To him, it was a just putdown.
But, for the first time, the NBA took the use of the word seriously and slapped Bryant with a six-figure fine.
A short time later, another player used the term, got hit up with a big fine. It soon became clear the NBA wasn’t going to tolerate the use of the word anymore.
Now, this study doesn’t mean to dismiss the harm of anti-gay language. These words need to be removed from everyone’s vocabularies.
But Denison’s research does seem to indicate that closeted athletes might not be met with as much opposition as they imagine.
And, we know visibility breaks down barriers.
Gay/lesbian athletes need to hear a message of support, as well as see homophobic language called out, before they can feel truly comfortable in coming out with confidence.