Prof. Dr. Annelies Knoppers

Changing sport culture? Gender, sexuality and sport
Prof. dr. Annelies Knoppers
Utrecht School for Governance
U. of Utrecht
Let me begin by expressing my appreciation to the conference
organizers for working hard to make this conference a reality. Why
are such a conference and its results so important? I believe that the
uniqueness of sport in society requires attention because it is
different than many other voluntary and nonvoluntary sectors and
• At the participation level, sport is primarily a homosocial
activity and constructed as a physical activity
• Sports are assigned meanings associated with gender and
sexuality masculine/feminine, gay or straight (as well as race,
ethnicity, ability and age)
• Sport and its culture are organized around a two-gender (and
two sexualities) model and challenge that; its practices can
question or disrupt societal definitions of masculinity and
femininity; historical example from women’s sport; up until the
middle of the 19th century, women, especially those from the
middle class, were assumed to be physically weak and unable
to withstand the rigors of many things including education;
now 150 years later, thanks to women’s participation in sport,
we know that the assumption that femininity means physical
weakness is not true
I understand culture to consist of: social rituals, images, cultural
signs, symbols, and social practices and that to change culture we
need to pay attention to all these facets. I cannot do that in the
allotted time and will focus primarily on meanings we give to images.
• We (society) assign meanings to what we see, what we
foreground /background. I will try to make visible that process
of foregrounding/ backgrounding today since it influences
what we see and the meanings we assign
I also assume that men and women may experience society and sport
differently especially with respect to coming out. For example,
according to, at the 2012 London Olympics: 23
Olympians were publicly out; 3 gay (2 equestrian; 1 diving) and 20
lesbians ; two gay Paralympians plus two coaches. Many more
women than men came out! This is possibly because society assigns
different meanings to men’s and women’s sports; men’s sports may
be used more often for supporting a heroic masculinity whereas
participation in women’s sports tends not to be used to sustain
privileged femininity although certain female athletes are valued due
to their heterosexual image (as opposed to their sport
accomplishments). We say to boys that sport will help them to
become real men, that is, acquire a desired masculinity; we do not
urge girls to become athletes so that they may become feminine
A good example of this difference between men’s and women’s sports
was evident in the content of radio talk shows in the USA with
respect to the coming out of a female WNBA player (Cheryl Swoopes)
during her career and NBA player (John Amaechi) when he retired.
John received a great deal of attention: some negative and some
positive. The comment that best shows the complexity of meanings
assigned to sexuality was made by a player: “John is gay? I thought
he was just British”.
Cheryl, the best female basketball player in the USA, received little
attention when she came out. When an announcer was asked about
this, he explained that everyone assumes females, especially those in
team sports, are lesbians, so that when one comes out it is not news.
In men’s sport therefore the assumption is that everyone is straight
unless proven differently while in women’s sports, especially those
characterized as masculine, the opposite is often assumed to be true.
I argue that although homophobia can be reduced with each athlete
that comes out publicly, these examples show the situation is more
complex than it seems because gender and sexuality interact to
produce homophobia. Sexism and homophobia need to be addressed
Let me summarize what I said earlier: A dominant societal gender
assumption is that only two sexes exist. Meanings are attached to
each sex that complement each other (femininity and masculinity)
These are assumed to be parallel and together support/create
heterosexual attraction and relationships as the norm. Later I will
argue that the situation is much more complex than this.
The usual association gender and sexuality usually goes like this
 Male = perceived masculine activities and behaviors =
• Male = perceived feminine activities and behaviors = gay
• Female = perceived feminine activities and behaviors =
• Female = perceived masculine activities and behaviors =
• Bisexual?
• Transgender?
In this way gender and sexuality are assumed to act together to
define athletes but the meanings extend beyond individuals to sports
• “Femininity”: associated with sports constructed as graceful;
for women this is a privileged femininity; heterosexuality;
“Masculinity”: associated with sports seen as requiring
strength and power; for men this is a heroic masculinity which
connotes heterosexuality;
• I will try to show how some of these dynamics work
Men’s sports
Historical perspective: During the middle of 19th century in England
there was a concern that boys were growing up to be effeminate
because they were brought up and taught primarily by women.
Femininity in boys and men was not valued! Consequently sport was
seen as a necessary instrument to masculinize boys. It was during
this time that many sports were codified and institutionalized. ?
Since then, sport has become the place for many men to shore up
their masculinity; they can identify with heroic masculinity even if
they cannot be an outstanding performer themselves. Messner
(1992) describes how in one of his interviews, a man pointed to a
tackle made in football and exclaimed: See, women cannot do that.”
The respondent ignored however the fact that neither could he do so.
His identification with heroic masculinity made him masculine. I will
now show several slides that show although the dominant image of
heroic masculinity comes from the most popular sports such as
soccer there are many variations in men’s bodies and sports (and
what we associate with them). When we see a male figure skater we
usually associate him with qualities assigned to femininity such as
gracefulness, flexibility, soft and for men, gay. But are figure skaters
weak? No, they have to throw (and catch) women in the air, twirl
them around and do many other acts that require a great deal of
strength. That strength tends to disappear in the background. At the
same time, when they skate with women they strengthen
Obviously then, what is foregrounded/backgrounder depends on
why people identify with a sport/men’s sports.
Women’s sports.
In contrast to men’s sports, which initially were developed to
develop heterosexual masculinities, women’s sports were developed
more for fitness/health (and legal) reasons. In women’s sports,
slender white heterosexual bodies tend to be foregrounded (social
class also plays a role; the sports played by the privileged social class
were/are seen as acceptable feminine sports). Whether or not
activities are labeled as feminine or masculine depends on the
context. In the USA soccer, for example, is seen more as a sport
associated with privileged femininity while in Europe it is associated
with lesbians.
Another assumption that plays a role in the definitions of boundaries
of gender and sexuality is about excellence in women’s sports:
Women who excel /set new records are assumed to be male
/masculine/ lesbian or take performance enhancing substances; in
other words, they are not assigned meanings associated with
femininity because women are assumed not opt be able to perform
so well. For example, the South African athlete, Castor Semenya is an
outstanding performer in track; her looks plus performance meant
some questioned her gender. What happened to her is a good
example of how the gender binary controls all female athletes hope
the dynamics of these binaries are clear. Let me now move on to their
intersection in heteronormativity although I have alluded to it
several times already.
I contend that heteronormativity is made invisible in sport, especially
in men’s sport:
It is an ideology that assumes heterosexuality is the only “normal”/
natural sexuality. It is often backgrounder in men’s sport and
therefore invisible although it conveys a sense of rightness/privilege
• e.g. Matthew Mitcham, was a gold medalist in diving in 2008
and 2012. NBC was criticized for not mentioning that he was
gay. NBC replied: “In virtually every case, we don’t discuss an
athlete’s sexual orientation.” (source: But the
narratives about many straight athletes and the cameras often
focus on the spouse/ girlfriend of an athlete. Heroic
masculinity assumes heterosexuality
The uniqueness of sport plays a role here. In sport the emphasis is on
physicality, which perhaps suggests why homophobia has such a
strong grip on sport. I show several slides of male athletes hugging
each other and/or congratulating each other in an intimate physical
manner. Touching and pleasure in each other’s bodies among male
athletes is acceptable as long as nobody is called or labeled gay in
that context; assumes heterosexuality; outside of sport it receives
another label
Although men enjoy this male bonding, the boundaries of what is
acceptable are shored up through misogyny:
• Misogyny (denigration of what is associated with femininity):
this plays a large role in homophobia; sissy, fag (odd, loser),
locker room climate; throw/play like a girl; sexist jokes;
remarks by coaches
• “fag” : is used as a “motivational” tool in sports and the military
to suggest male athletes and soldiers who do not perform
“adequately” are “feminized men”
The use of the word ‘fag’ (or similar words) is a good example of how
gender & sexuality binaries intersect to produce and sustain
homophobia and why not only sexuality but also gender needs
attention if homophobia is to be reduced.
So given these binaries, how do we challenge them and diminish
homophobia and heteronormativity/binaries? I give a few
suggestions but assume many more will emerge during this
• Blurring them: lesbians and gays do that all the time especially
when they are out and do not fit neatly into the binaries:
bisexuals and transgenders can play a special role as
outsiders-insiders with respect to sexuality and to gender.
• gay games: these can blur boundaries because they can cause
us to question the meanings we give to bodies in sport. How
can competitors of the same sex compete in figure skating?
ballroom dancing? korfball?
But more is needed. Individuals need to make a concerted effort to
challenge the binaries and bring about change. We need people to
move from being tolerates to becoming champions.
• Acceptors: “as long as they do not come on to me”; keep them
at a distance; “as long as they behave normally”
• Allies: “I say something if people make fun of you”
• Champions and trailblazers (out athletes)
What can champions and trailblazers do?
 Challenge sexist and homophobic behavior, language and jokes
by athletes, coaches, media, parents and all those who make
such comments (including in the work place)
• Challenge heteronormative rituals, policies, images, cultural
signs, symbols, and social practices as exclusive practices; by
making them visible (needs transgender and bisexual athletes
for this too)
• Form an alliance with those working in the areas of race,
ethnicity, abledness and age and thus use a politics of
difference/diversity to blur boundaries
• Use sport as a means to educate “straight” men about
variations in masculinity
• Transform physical education since all children must take this.
Result: a transformation of culture
• Blurring gender and sexual binaries  inclusive for all
(including the straight boy who is very unhandy and the
straight girl who loves softball)
• Transformation of sport  reduce role of sports in structuring
heteronormativity and homophobia outside of sport
• Influence work, recreation and school
In short, we need to tackle both gender and sexuality to erase
homophobia in society including sport.
Thank you for your attention.