Gender and Sexuality in Sport in 21st Century

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Gender and Sexuality in sport are two controversial subjects which have been analysed and discussed over the past centuries. Marginalization in sport is very complex and it is involving multiple power systems and players. The expectation of society for males and females is to adopt and fulfil specific gender and sexual stereotypes that have been already established. When these society demands are violated, it is common that certain individuals are being labelled. While the traditional gender and sexual stereotypes have remained constant over the past century, they have also been challenged and confronted by many women and feminists.

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The same is for sexuality. Already by the early 1900s athletes had begun to cultivate highly sexualized images. As, the main headlines in the sports news were always linked to heterosexuality, according to Jensen (2017), this situation has changed when the first homosexual tennis player came out in 1980s.

Being aware of this facts, the main objective of this assignment is to describe, primarily with qualitative research data, perceived discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity in the contexts of competitive and recreational sports. The research question is:

What are the challenges and prejudices that women and LGBT individuals face in the world of sports, with focus on the United State environment and what solutions that can be implemented in order to encourage a more non-discriminatory mentality within the sports world?

This paper will cover three main subjects that will answer the research question with the focus on the challenges that LGBT athletes, coaches and administrators face in today’s sports world, as well as women, how the society is reacting to them, but also the implemented approaches that encourages openness towards sexual and gender minorities. The paper is also focusing on the situation of LGBT members from the United States. The subjects that are covered in these assignment are: ‘Sex segregation and gender ideology in sport’, ‘Sexual minorities and prejudices in sport’ and ‘Examples of inclusion and exclusion in sport based on gender or sexuality’. After these three subjects are discussed, the paper is wrapping up with a conclusion in which the research question will be answered clearly and definitively.

In today’s world there is a common belief that in the modern sports, the athletic competition is transcending the human social discrepancies which are resulted by the conditions in which an individual was born (class, race, ethnicity, etc.). In competitive sport, the only thing that really matters is the athlete’s performance.

There are multiple areas in sports in which athletes are separated, that actually bring more value in the specific field such as competition fairness and opportunity, for example weight class in boxing or age in football tournaments. However, there are two types of segregation that is highly controversial in the world of sport and those are sex and gender segregation (Shin, 2017).

Before getting into the subject, the difference between sex and gender must be clarified, because, further in the chapter, the topic of gender ideology will also be discussed.

According to Diamond (2002), sex refers to the differences regarding physique and psychic between males and females in which are included primary sex characteristics such as the reproductive system and secondary characteristics such as height and muscularity. On the other hand, gender refers to the socio-cultural distinctions that are associated with being male or female and it is strongly linked to the term, gender identity, in which an individual identifies as being either masculine or feminine.

In the world of sport, this separation between men and women is justified by the fairness of the competition and by the right at equal participation. However, outside of the context of sport, this kind of classifications, are subject to strict social, moral and legal debates (Shin, 2017).

This theory, nevertheless, is relatively actual and compared to the 1980 and 1990 years, women participation in sport expanded very much and in 2019 women sport is more popular than ever, even though, there are feminist activists and people who are fighting for women equality that are still striving for improving their rights to the same level as men’s even in the world of sport where this segregation is ‘justified’. (Shin, 2017).

A great example of sex inequality in sports, that fairly counterarguments Shin’s statement that separation in the world of sport between men and women is justified by competition fairness and the right at equal participation, is the case of coaching in sport.

According to Knoppers (1992), coaching is an occupation dominated by males in which women presence is very small and one of the main reasons is the gender differentiated work behaviour. The discrepancies in the wage of men coaches and the women coaches represents the main reason why sex segregation is the principal cause of underrepresentation of women in this field and not their skills, knowledge and coaching capabilities which are similar to those of men’s. In the time when this research was conducted, 1992, sex segregation in jobs was not a focal point of interest, and because of factors as gender and colour, women worked in the lower positions within an organization hierarchy. This positioning of women was determining their wages and work-related behaviour and it justifies their minority in coaching and not the lack of opportunities, because, in this case, the opportunities existed and even more, women were encouraged to join the field, but they were treated very poorly compared to men in terms of salary (Knoppers, 1992).

Given this example, a logical conclusion is that women were and still are underappreciated in the field of sport and this is due also to the genetic characteristics of males that tend to be higher competitive and dominating than females (Donaldson, 1993).

These genetic characteristics, however, are in some cases taken to an extreme by men in different fields, including sport, and it began being reflected in the concepts known as ‘hegemonic masculinity’ and ‘othering’.

Hegemonic masculinity is a term that, according to Connell (2005) refers to the behaviours of men which encourage gender inequality through the male domination over females, and also over other males, that often are part of minority groups. This concept started to be central in researcher’s studies since the 1980’s with the purpose of changing men’s behaviour in order to build gender equality.

On the other hand, othering, is a term that, according to Jensen (2011) refers to the concept of formation of identity in the context of ethnic minorities and is described as the way in which men are perceived as the norm and women and the minorities as ‘other’.

In the context of sport, these concepts of hegemonic masculinity and othering are also present and their harm is presented in a study made by Matthew Ezzel in 2009 regarding women’s rugby. After completing the research, it was found out that females who were highly successful in their sport in high-school, and were not able to continue practicing it in college, and turned their attention to rugby, were stigmatized by outsiders as ‘butch lesbians’ and therefore, discriminated. This situation was determined by the common view that rugby should be a male dominating sport, because of its intensity and physicality. As a measure of caution, the respective female rugby players adopted a defensive othering mentality which focused on the fact that they were the exception to the stereotype. In doing so, without having the intention, they reinforced the heterosexist ideology, which is linked to the dominant orthodox gender ideology, even more.

According to Coakley (2017), the orthodox gender ideology is a broad concept containing ideas and beliefs used by men who created organized sport in the 19th century. These ideas and beliefs promote the fact that women are too week and soft in order to compete in the respective organized sports and sports should be male-centered and male dominated, characteristics which are more and more diminuated in the 21st century compared the the 19th century.

On one hand, as seen in the example above with the women’s rugby, the orthodox gender ideology has influenced sports in a rather negative way, because it created stigmatization among women athletes and discrimination among minorities (Anderson, 2008). On the other hand, Ezzel’s findings were just one example in which females decided to change something within the area of gender ideology in sports and even though the problem of sex and gender inequality is far from solved, through sport, women are making improvements day by day in order to be treated the same as men (Coakley, 2017).

As a conclusion to this chapter, the concepts of sex segregation, masculine hegemony, othering and orthodox gender ideology were far more expanded in the 19th and 20th century when organized sports were designed by men and women participation was considered odd. In the 21st century, women started to be treated more equal as men, even though the problem is not entirely solved and there are still major discrepancies in specific sports between men and women.

In this chapter of the paper, the main focus will move from the discrimination of women and gender segregation in sport, towards the problems that sexual minorities are confronting with in the world of sport and the context in which prejudices are created aiming at these sexual minorities.

To be able to discuss the topic of ‘Sexual minorities and prejudices in sport’ it is necessary that the term ‘sexual minority’ is defined. According to Math & Seshadri (2013), a sexual minority is a group of people with different sexual identity, sexual orientation or practices than of the majority of surrounding society. Examples of members of sexual minorities are, most of the time, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals, that will also be mentioned as LGBT (Math & Seshadri, 2013).

The experience of LGBT individuals in the context of sport in the 21st century was the main focus of a research conducted by Kokkonen in 2011. The findings of this research show that few times a year, people are still showing behaviour towards the respective individuals labelling them as non-intelligent or abnormal. The LGBT athletes also experienced disrespectful behaviour towards them and avoidance of their company from other athletes or people outside of the field. In addition to this, at least few times a year, a fourth of the LGBT respondents confessed that a prejudice was created towards them as if they had chosen the sport in which they activate, driven by their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The behaviour against sexual minority prejudices is different from minority to minority. For example, gays and lesbians tend to avoid mentioning their sexual orientation when in an antagonistic environment within the sport domain. Furthermore, gay individuals are trying to hide their feminine behaviours and show masculinity in order to avoid being victims of the prejudices towards LGBT members in the field of sports (Sartore & Cunningham, 2009). Unfortunately, even though the prejudices against gays, lesbians and bisexuals diminished considerably in the 21st century, transgender individuals (individuals whose sex assigned at birth does not match their gender identity) are still victims of unpleasant and hostile behaviour from others. For example, in the sport context, transgender persons sometimes experience verbal abuse from the opponent team. Another problem within the sport context and linked to the transgender people is the set of rules adopted by most sport leagues in which transgender participation is often exclusive and in some cases, even restricted (Cunningham & Pickett, 2018).

From a managerial point of view, according to Cunningham (2011), prejudice against gay, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender individuals is still present, as they face discriminatory situations at the workplace. Situations such as being paid consistently less than their heterosexual counterparts and having less chances at a promotion in comparison with them. In the United Stated, these sexual minorities are facing discrimination when searching for a job, as well as they are confronting the issue of low opportunities, due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, in doing so. Regarding this situations, unfortunately, the sexual minorities are not receiving any federal protection from employment discrimination, many organizations being antagonistic towards LGBT employees.

On the other hand, in the United States, the movements of LGBT communities outside the sport settings had sociological implications in the world of sport, pushing people towards openness and acceptance (Caroll, 2016). As Cunningham & Pickett stated in their article in 2018, discussing LGBT prejudice in sport, LGBT athletes are still facing discriminatory behaviour from other people, it does not mean that there were not major improvements in the sport settings from a socio-cultural point of view, regarding LGBT athletes. From 2011 to 2016, the visibility of athletes and coaches, members of LGBT community increased, because of the media, which started to capture and publish more and more stories about their experience in the society and their journey in the field of sport. This unexpected positive attitude of the society and the media coverage represented an opportunity for the LGBT athletes and coaches in order to start movements with the purpose of integrating themselves even more in the society and sport (Caroll, 2016).

The movements of LGBT coaches and athletes were divided in two directions. One of the coaches and members of the administration with the purpose of encouraging the openness about their sexual orientation and gender identity on the way of building careers in the field. As a follow-up of this movement, a Facebook group was created in order to bring together the LGBT coaches and their supporters, called ‘The Equality Coaching Alliance’, and thus they beneficiated of positive peer support that enhanced their visibility and acceptance in the sport field even more. As an example, Becky Hammon became the first female assistant coach in the NBA (National Basketball Association) and in 2015 moved up to becoming the head coach of a man’s team and successfully win the championship in the same year (Caroll, 2016).

The other LGBT movement was initiated by LGBT athletes and sport participants with the purpose of becoming more comfortable participating in their respective sports, opening about their sexual orientation and seeking support from their teammates. To strengthen this movement initiated by LGBT athletes and sport participants, a number of nation groups were created aiming the inclusion of these athletes and sport participants in the world of sport. One of these groups is BTS (Brache the Silence) and it represents a national campaign that aims the inclusion of LGBT athletes and sport participants in the intercollegiate professional athletics. Proof that the LGBT movements of athletes and sport participants were successful, NBA player, Jason Collins, came out in 2013 as gay, becoming the first active player to do so and as a benefit from his action, the tradition of ‘last closet’ in the locker room was ended as a show of support towards LGBT athletes and sport participants (Caroll, 2016).

These type of movements as those of LGBT coaches, administratives, athletes and sport participants are certainly beneficial in the field of sport, as well in outside socio-cultural settings, mainly because their aim for inclusion of the sexual minorities into the society and for the improving the openness mentality of the society as a whole towards LGBT individuals.

As stated in the prior chapter, there have been major improvements in the sport industry towards inclusion of sexual minorities into the field of sport and treating them as equals. On the other side, ever since the ‘LGBT explosion’ in the world of sport in the last 30 years, there have been also numerous cases in which athletes were excluded from participating in sports in the base of their gender or sexuality (Price & Parker, 2003). Therefore, this last chapter of the paper, the discussion will be based on the inclusion of sexual minorities in the field of sport and exclusion of women athletes from sport because of their gender, focused on example from the United States sport industry.

According to Fink (2015), the sport industry is still an environment in which sexism is present at both competitive and recreational level. ‘Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation’ conducted a study in which they support the main reason of this problem being the culture of sport that is male-dominated. This theory is strengthened by Coakley (2017) who describes this conception in which male were dominating sports ever since they created them in the first place, as orthodox gender ideology. Traditional media does not help as well, as Fink (2015) stated in her paper, despite the increase of women participation in sports, the media coverage decreased in the past years. The traditional media, also, did not show any significant improvement regarding focus on women in the Olympic games from 1996 to 2006. According to Dwyer & Kim (2011), money represents a factor of motivation for sport participation, but in the case of women sport, it could mean a way of exclusion and discouragement from getting into a respective sport. As an example of women exclusion regarding salary, according to Saiki (2018), Serena Williams was the only woman in the first 100 highest paid athletes in the world and this situation was highly affected by the stereotypes attributed to the women athletes that are influencing their performances and motivation.

On the other side, De Haan, Sotiriadou & Henry (2016), prove that in the world of sport, there are specific sports that are not covered by the perception that males are dominating the field, such as equestrian sport. According to their research paper, the equestrian sport is an example of sport that it is not associated with sex segregation, therefore, women are not discriminated. Therefore, the people working in the sport industry can consider the equestrian disciplines as examples towards changing the mentality of males as the dominators in sport.

Moving the attention again (the subject was also discussed in the third chapter) to inclusion in sport of the sexual minorities, as the subject of exclusion of women from sport was already discussed, in the United States, especially in the Intercollegiate Sports, sexual minorities are still having difficulties dealing with prejudice (Walker & Melton, 2015). Nevertheless, Cunningham (2015), states that within the Intercollegiate sports in the United States, some departments started to support sexual minorities, LGBT athletes, coaches and administrators trough culture norms and activities. The challenges that sexual minorities are facing in the sport world are proof that the society should be pushed through change towards openness (Cunningham 2015). An example of inclusion that was implemented is the ‘LGBT SportSafe Inclusion Program’ and it offers a cyclical inclusion training for coaches and administrators every two-three years. This program includes updated protection policies for LGBT student-athletes that are participating in Intercollegiate sports and also for LGBT coaches. The mission statement of this program is to ‘set a new standard for inclusion in sport’ and it resonates with Cunningham (2015), theory that similar approaches should be taken into consideration by sport institutions as a solution for encouraging a mentality of inclusion of LGBT individuals in the field of sport.

Reference List:

  1. Coakley, J. (2017). Sports in Society: Issues and Controversies (12th ed.) Boston: McGraw Hill Practical Philosophy of Sport. Human Kinetics Publishers
  2. Cunningham, G.B. (2015). LGBT inclusive athletic departments as agents of social change. Journal of Intercollegiate Sport. 8, 43-56.
  3. Cunningham, G.B. & Pickett, A. C. (2018). Trans prejudice in sport: Differences from LGB Prejudice, the influence of gender, and changes over time. Sex Roles, 78, 220-227.
  4. de Haan, D., Sotiriadou, P., & Henry, I. (2016) The lived experience of sex-integrated sport and construction of athlete identity within the Olympic and Paralympic equestrian disciplines, Sport in Society, 19(9), 1249-1266.
  5. Fink, J.S. (2015). Female athletes, women’s sport, and the sport media commercial complex: Have we really ‘‘come a long way, baby’’? Sport Management Review 18, 331-342.
  6. Walker, N. A. & Melton, N. (2015). The Tipping Point: The Intersection of Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation in Intercollegiate Sports. Journal of Sport Management, 29, 257 -271.”
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Gender and Sexuality in Sport in 21st Century. (2021, May 10). Retrieved from