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Courting the closet

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OPEN ERA 1 Australia's Olympic medal-winning diver Matthew Mitcham (left) with a drag queen at the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras 2 US women's national soccer team coach and celebrated lesbian Pia Sundhage (right) with gay player Megan Rapinoe 3 Joe Amaechi of England, who retired from the NBA in 2004, was the first pro-basketball player to reveal he was homosexual in his autobiography 'Man in the Middle' 4 Martina Navratilova (left) with Billie Jean King at the Gay Games in 1993 5 NBA star Jason Collins recently created a flutter by announcing he was homosexual 6 Amelie Mauresmo was another women's tennis player who made no bones about being lesbian 7 Legendary American diver Greg Louganis is openly gay. He tested positive for the HIV virus in 1988

Some women's tennis players have had no qualms in admitting a 'different' sexual orientation, but even in this day and age, the same can't be said of the men. Is that true of all sport, especially team games where men fear being ostracized if they reveal they are gay?

It was high tide. Alarm bells resonated through the sporting community. It was a good time to stay in the closet. The year was 1981. She was 24 years of age and three Grand Slam titles old. No. 1? Been there, done that too.

A little before she was granted American citizenship, Martina Navratilova - the most talked-about female athlete of the time - defied the WTA's wishes and announced her sexuality to the world in a column written by sports journalist and television personality Skip Bayless. When asked about her sexual preferences, Navratilova, who was having an affair with author Rita Mae Brown at the time, said she was bisexual.

Years later, Navratilova would say coming out set her free. Whatever she lost monetarily in terms of endorsements, she gained emotionally - stability and strength - and that helped her get her act together, eat right and train hard. In 1982, the first full season after her announcement, her win-loss record was a staggering 90-3. She became the first female athlete to earn more than $1 million in prize-money in a single year. She did one better in 1983, going 86-1.

However, Navratilova's decision to come out cost her millions in endorsement opportunities. Corporate homophobia resulted in brands - ranging from cosmetic labels to cereals - turning the other way.

The argument that it is easier for female athletes to come out - than it is for a jock - holds water given the more accepting nature of women's locker rooms in particular, and the female psyche in general. Martina's admission, however, keeping in mind her station and position in a truly global and popular women's discipline, meant she faced as much of a corporate backlash as any top-tier male athlete may have at that time. In a wider context, though, taking into account the nature of sport, women do have it a little easier when they come out.

Recently NBA player Jason Collins' announcement - "I'm a 34-year-old NBA centre. I'm black. And I'm gay" - made him the first active male athlete playing for a top team to come out. To illustrate a point, retired pros English basketballer John Amaechi and American footballer Wade Davis spoke openly on their sexuality for the first time after quitting competitive sport. More recently, the wiry 6-foot 8-inch top basketballer Brittney Griner pointed out in the course of an interview that she was gay.

Sports psychologist Dr Chaitanya Sridhar noted that professional sport is often linked to strength and masculinity, supposed male traits, because of which there is little inclusiveness when a gay male athlete expresses his sexuality. When a male athlete - the supposed embodiment of physical character - says he's gay, it's perceived as a sign of weakness, turning a much-hyped notion on its head.

Dr Sridhar says, "Sports binds male athletes by the culture of machoism, where they are expected to look and sound strong. " She highlighted that a large chunk of the sports market - fans, connoisseurs and critics - are male. The female segment, though rapidly growing, is still miniscule in comparison. She stressed that heterosexual men lacked practice coping with sexual preferences that were removed from the stereotype and were easily alarmed by such choices. It isn't uncommon for men to ridicule friends or associates who may be gay.

It must be stated here that it's not exactly a walk in the park for women to come out, especially in more orthodox Asian cultures. There can be discrimination in the lower rungs of sport, where everything that doesn't adhere to the straight and narrow is slighted and scorned upon.

Yet by pulling on a tracksuit and swinging a tennis racket by itself, women are thrashing stereotypes. Extreme athletic pursuit - which is what modern sport is all about - isn't marked out as a natural female domain like perhaps the kitchen or the home or the classroom. Sport doesn't cater to the dainty and delicate. So by simply choosing to practice sport, a girl breaks the typical feminine stereotype to start with.

The point is beautifully conveyed in the British comedy-drama flick 'Bend it like Beckham', where an 18-year-old girl's passion for football is difficult to understand, particularly for her immigrant Punjabi parents in Hounslow, West London. They think she should be making round chapatis and aloo gobi instead of kicking a football which marks her friend (Jules) and her (Jess) out as lesbians.

Jules, the young English footballer, shocked by the accusations, says: "Mother, just because I wear trakkies and play sport does not make me a lesbian!"

Sandra Harwitt, a sports journalist who besides writing for top publications in the US and Europe has also served as media mentor for young tennis players both with the International Tennis Federation and the WTA Tour, says, "Coming out is a less of a factor with women, largely because they're unconcerned with issues that are not related to them personally or directly. There's enough on a young player's plate as it is, so why would you bother about something that maybe of no concern to you?"

In a recent interview, Navratilova pointed that out that it was most likely that there were professional male tennis players who were gay. She said: "In the entertainment industry guys have an easier time coming out than women. In the sports world we have had a lot more women coming out than men. It is more difficult in team sports as you may not get to play. But that does not explain why there are no gay male tennis players at all. We know they are there, but they are so far in the closet. I don't know who they are."

Happily there has been a subtle shift in the way the young heterosexual man looks at gay athletes. When Collins came out, the retired American top gun Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish, who lives close to Collins' twin brother Jarron in Los Angeles, tweeted their support. Topranked doubles pros Mike and Bob Bryan attended Stanford University at the same time as the Collins brothers. Bob wrote: "They are both cool, nice, and smart people. I respect Jason for coming out. I admire his courage to be who he is and not be afraid or ashamed of it.

Despite this, tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality will become a universal feature in professional sport only when a male athlete can simply state his sexual preference over a cup of tea, like he was talking about the weather. When coming out doesn't make it to magazine covers and newspaper headlines;when sexuality is what it is, not a label.

As Navratilova wrote in her 1985 autobiography 'Martina', "Some people label me a defector. I have loved men and women in my life; I've been labelled 'the bisexual defector' in print. Want to know another secret I'm even ambidextrous. I don't like labels. Just call me Martina."

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