Masculinity and the gay athlete
Some people think that sports make the man. I think that the man helps to make the sport.
The three books discussed in this post have a lot to say about masculinity but little to say about boxing. Yet they do help us understand why, to some people, a gay boxer is a contradiction in terms. Boxing can help gay men get stronger, and gay men can help boxing get bigger and better.
Anderson, Eric. In the Game: Gay Athletes and the Cult of Masculinity. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005.
Billings, Andrew, and Leigh Moscowitz. Media and the Coming Out of Gay Male Athletes in American Team Sports. New York: Peter Lang Inc., 2018.
Zeigler, Cyd. Fair Play: How LGBT Athletes are Claiming their Rightful Place in Sports. (NP: Akashic Books, 2016.
In his wide-ranging book on the gay male athlete, Anderson offers an informative, recent overview of team sports and homosexuality. He includes guidance on how gay men should prepare to come out. Anderson was well-positioned to write this book, being the first openly gay track coach in the country (as of 1993) and also a sociologist.
“Sports is theorized to be one of the last bastions of cultural and institutional homophobia in North America,” Anderson says. Many athletes believe that the hypermasculinity of team sports—basketball, football, baseball, and hockey—“nullifies the possibility of gays even existing in their space” (p. 13). Anderson argues that team sports “reproduce a desire for the toughest form of masculinity” and build significant “masculine capital,” which, for Anderson, is a man’s worth as other men see it (p. 23).
Team sports are not only “a bastion of hegemonic masculinity, homophobia, and misogyny” (p. 7) but are also centers of “masculine production” (p. 135). They shape heterosexual masculinity through disdain for homosexuals, domination of women, and (on the positive side) demonstrated excellence in competitive activities. Sports and masculinity are both examples of “hegemonic oppression.”
Sports also boost the masculine capital of gay men, Anderson says, because teams, although they are homophobic, provide cover for these men. Nobody expects a team player to be gay, so gays on the team can “hide their sexuality from the public” (p. 161). Others agree. Once he is on the team, the gay man “passes,” say Andrew C. Billings and Leigh M. Moscowitz in Media and the Coming Out of Gay Male Athletes in American Team Sports (2018, pp. 23-24).
The sports-loving public is complicit in masculine production. “Undoubtedly our valuing of team sports (which require brute strength and excessive risk) over individual sports (which normally require more endurance and finesse) can also be said to reflect the cultural value of masculinity over femininity,” Anderson writes (p. 131). The phrase “our valuing” implicates fans as well as players. Here Anderson follows Bruce Kidd, who, in 1987, wrote that preferences for one sport over another “are in part statements about what we value in ‘a man’ and what sort of relations we want to encourage between [men] (p. 131).
Team sports build manly connections. But what about individual sports? Anderson offers only brief comments on individual sports. Individual athletes have trainers and coaches, and many form on teams (boxing teams, track teams, wrestling teams), although they are not organized as hierarchically as football or basketball teams. We send teams in individual sports to the Olympics. Any contact sport that involves an opponent, another man, unavoidably builds manly connections.
Yet individual sports are sidelined here. Anderson, Billings and Moscowitz, and others focus on teams, I suspect, because the team serves as a microcosm of society. Like society, the team is an abstraction and can easily been described as homophobic and dangerous—even though, as we will see, and as Anderson often notes, the evidence increasingly contradicts this view. The indictment of traditional society seems to be part of the book’s aim, which is to criticize the larger public as well as the teams the public supports.
In a revealing comment, Anderson notes that some gay men he surveyed played both team sports and individual sports. He found that those who were openly gay felt that they were treated the same in one forum as in another. Anderson discovered no difference in levels of homophobia between team and individual sports (p. 132). The failure to consider individual sports limits this study of “gay athletes and the cult of masculinity,” which rests on a shallow assumption about differences between team sports and other sports and how these differences matter to gay men.
The status of the gay athlete was changing before Anderson began his research. In 1999 he could find only two dozen gay athletes. Just five years later he had heard from so many that he had to limit his study to 60 (p. 44). Nor were most of these athletes swimming upstream. When Anderson asked self-identified gay athletes about their coaches, 58 of 60 found their coaches either “somewhat gay-friendly” or “proactively supportive of gays and gay rights” (p. 123). He also comments that corporate sponsorship does not work against gay athletes; some corporations were already seeking out gay men for endorsements (p. 150), playing today what we would call their “woke” card to get a commercial advantage disguised as coolness. This was the state of things when Anderson published in 2005, meaning that things had begun to change well before that point.
Anderson’s book looks back, not ahead to the changes that he himself was witnessing and reporting. Such data include a 1998 study showing that attitudes in the National Football League were “not monolithically homophobic” (his emphasis, p. 15). Hate crimes against gays “are actually quite rare,” Anderson writes (p. 82). Yet positive evidence is downplayed. An attack by a football player on one of Anderson’s gay track athletes helped to inspire this book (pp. 2-3). Anderson summarizes the stories of male athletes who feared coming out (pp. 39-41). He emphasizes accounts of the homophobia of the sports world (e.g., p. 46) and comments on hazing, even on the homophobia of the Catholic Church (pp. 56-57). He emphasizes the power of hate crimes (p. 85) and notes intentional violence against players known to be gay (e.g., p. 146). I do not discount the truth, pain, or risk described in these accounts. Taken together, however, they reveal a focus on the negative.
Given his own data, the air of crisis that surrounds Anderson’s book seems manufactured. Some of his most important arguments likewise prompt skepticism. Let’s look four of them: first, his basis for differentiating team sports from individual sports; second, his decision to assign gender significance to this difference; third, his understanding of how coming out is structured for the athlete; fourth, his apparent acceptance of the idea that the homosexual not only is unmasculine (in the conventional sense) but should be unmasculine.
Basis for differing types of sports. According to Anderson, team sports require brute strength and excessive risk, whereas individual sports “normally require more endurance and finesse” (p. 131). A boxer will be quick to disagree. Team sports require brute strength and excessive risk, no doubt. And boxing does not? Endurance and finesse are normally required in individual sports. But what about basketball? Doesn’t it require endurance and finesse? Boxing is an individual sport that requires “brute strength and excessive risk” as well as “endurance and finesse,” and it is not the only one.
Masculine vs. feminine sports. Equally arguable, not to say quaint, is Anderson’s decision to assign gender significance to these qualities in order and link masculine to the value of the team and feminine to the value of the individual sport. Anderson thinks that sports with a strong aesthetic angle (figure skating, gymnastics) tend to the feminine, and those with “rigidity of time” to the masculine (p. 132). Rigidity of time is masculine? Anderson never met my mother!
Men gravitate to team sports because these sports embody hegemonic masculinity, we are told. Team sports make the man manly and can give the gay man a manly (i.e., heterosexual) front. Team sports “reflect the cultural value of masculinity over femininity.” Anderson does not pursue the unavoidable implications of this view for men who play individual rather than team sports. Do those who play individual sports shun the “brute strength and excessive risk” of team sports because they are afraid of strength and risk? What happened to the value talent, natural ability, bone structure, and other qualities that make an athlete an athlete?
Coming out vs. passing. Griffin argued that “the hypermasculine atmosphere surrounding team sports is more likely to permit gays to come out in individual sports where the attitudes are not so macho” (qtd. Anderson p. 131). I had to untangle the logic here; for Griffin’s “permit” I had to substitute “encourage.” I take Griffin to mean that the homophobic atmosphere of team sports drives some men away. They take up less macho—i.e., individual—sports in which coming out is said to be easier. The hypermasculine aura of team sports inhibits coming out; that barrier does not exist in individual sports because there is no team—no surrogate for society as a whole—to deal with. However, as I point out above, individual sports have their own versions teams, even though men play the sport itself one or two at a time.
The unmasculine homosexual. Anderson likes the idea that the homosexual man is related to the feminine. Some might consider association of the homosexual with the feminine to be homophobic, since it is always used to shame gay boys and men (as he notes, p. 28). But Anderson finds the association useful because it aligns the homosexual with feminist forces, so that together these two stand against patriarchy (pp. 14-15). The only reason a homosexual can’t be masculine in Anderson’s world is that the masculine is defined entirely in term of negative attributes—patriarchal, homophobic, misogynist, sexist, and so on.
I find no positive discussion of what Anderson calls “the tenets of orthodox masculinity,” which are “bravery, fortitude, independence, willingness to commit violence against others, and willingness to sacrifice himself for the sake of victory” (p. 104). For Anderson these values are simply there to be used by the closeted homosexual to gain acceptance by the team; like team members, he is brave and willing to sacrifice. Anderson does not see that these values have proved necessary to a wide range of cultures for centuries and remain so today. For him, a gay man can’t just be homosexual. He has to be anti-masculine, anti-patriarchal, and even feminine, so that he can be a useful pawn in the gender war that Anderson wages.
Anderson isn’t entirely inflexible. He glances at exceptions to his ideas and does not minimize evidence that contradicts his claims. He notes an important difference with Griffin, who argued that emphasis on winning as a team increases homophobia. Anderson, like other writers, notes instead that pressure to win increases chances that a team player will be valued for his contribution to victory, without consideration of his sexual preferences (p. 122). Moreover, Anderson and others emphasize that many coaches are supportive of gay athletes. The fact is among those that contravene the suppositions of his book.
It is disappointing but not surprising that Anderson sees only one side to “masculine capital.” He takes no account of competition or competitive behavior that accounts for so much that is positive and creative in life and work. His book could have widened the framework for the discussion of gay athletes, looking at gay men in individual sports such as boxing. He says in his conclusion that when we think we have things figured out, things change. He thought he had the context of the gay athlete figured out—the team athlete at least—but things had already changed. Anderson missed a good chance to contribute to the transformation that was taking place before his eyes.
Anderson seems to think that sports define the men who play them. I think it also works the other way around. In some ways my boxing workouts with my coach define me. I am tough enough and no doubt foolish enough to get in the ring and spar with a highly experienced coach who knows me and my limits. But I also think that, at least at my boxing club, I help define boxing. I’ll bet that there are plenty of gay men, as well as men of a certain age, with stories at least somewhat similar to mine. Boxing has stretched me, but I like to think that I stretch boxing, as well as traditional ideas of the gay man.