Springtime is upon us once again. For many of us, spring is more than sunshine and tulips, green grass and the end of a long, dreary winter. Spring is track and field; spring is basketball finals, soccer, volleyball, softball, field hockey! Spring is sports.
Do not misinterpret me here - I am not athlete myself. I was a pom-pom girl, and while dancers certainly are athletes in their own rite, they are still athletes concerned with looking pretty while they kick ass. What I am talking about are sporty athletes– hot, sweaty bodies in competition – jock chicks. Even just thinking about it excites me.
A few months after I came out I found myself very close to an ancient lesbian pastime – softball. Of course I was not playing softball (though, to be fair, I balanced softball and ballet every single summer of my childhood.) Once a week I would go watch my girlfriend play on a church-sponsored team that she had been conned into playing on by a work friend. I would come straight from my summer internship in my business-casual summer skirts and sandals, and watch the games. Of course when I say, "watch the games," I mean, "eavesdrop on the dozens of lesbians in the stands."
I looked forward to game nights all summer; I was attending a conservative college in a big Republican state and I had no sense of community whatsoever. The beer-drinking, beater-wearing dykes at the softball field were the first actual lesbians I had seen close up and in person (other than me, of course.) Looking back, I wish I had not been silenced by the religious foundation of my girlfriends team, wish I had said something to these women, maybe asked them for a beer or whispered "I'm sleeping with the shortstop," something, anything, to give them a sign and let them know that I needed this ritual, this pastime, as much as they did.
The lesbian team ended up nearly undefeated at the end of that summer. That is no surprise; yet, I am not quick with an answer when asked why it is no surprise. Lesbians have a history in sports, and in her book Strong Women, Deep Closets: Lesbians and Homophobia in Sports, Pat Griffin explains exactly how that history came to be, how sports have shaped the lesbian community (and vice-versa), and how even today, locker rooms are often centers of subversion and fear, and not the sports-bra, cleat-wearing stomach-baring sexy flesh fests that they are in my fantasies.
Athletics has long been the one place where men can openly express affection and appreciation for other men. In the 1920's and 30's, when a few female athletes requested uniforms with shorts rather than skirts and began living their lives as strong, non-feminine women, the entire world perceived those women as threats both to the male-dominated tradition in sports and the institution of the feminine, domesticated woman. Griffin starts before Babe Didrikson, the "muscle moll" of the 30's and 40's and brings us through the International Gay Games of today to shed some light on the ways in which lesbian athletes have, and continue to, struggle to either do what they love, or be who they are.
Strong Women frequently examines the fear that many female athletes, hetero and homosexual alike, have of being called lesbian. According to Griffin and her extensive bibliography of researchers, calling a female athlete a lesbian is often a way to "limit her sport experience and make her feel defensive about her athleticism." In a way, calling a strong woman a lesbian is like calling a sensitive man a fag – this negative socialization makes people feel bad about what they really are.
Griffin clearly outlines the strong impact that negative socialization has on young people. For many young girls, athletics is the first vehicle that takes them to their strength and power. For many lesbians, also, athletics was the first place they connected with other lesbians and felt at home with their strength and their image. Some of those women share their stories in Strong Women and Griffin includes portions of interviews; use of stories in the first person transforms the nature of this book. At once, Strong Women, Deep Closets is both an academic work and a personal narrative. This book is informative, interesting, and a fast read.
Sports is more than just an activity or a hobby, it's a lifestyle, it's family, community, culture. So, while at first glance a non-athlete reader might think "so what, what does being a lesbian have to do with being an athlete?" Griffin reminds us that when you devote your mind, your body, and your time to an activity, that activity has an effect on all you do and all you are. She discusses the politics and the sexual double standards in the athletic world thorough history, with relation to religion (and the infamous Fellowship of Christian Athletes), and from the perspectives of athletes, coaches, and fans.
Strong Women, Deep Closets is an enriching read, and a great reminder that stereotypes, limits, and speculation are keeping all of us down. This book also left me flush with admiration for lesbian jock chicks everywhere – cleats, sweat, shorts, determination, sports bras, muscles, and most importantly, strength.
Strong Women, Deep Closets: Lesbians and Homophobia in Sports by Pat Griffin was published in 1998 by Human Kinetics.
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