In the wake of the Jason Collins story, there has been a lot of chatter about the original trailblazer, Martina Navratilova. This is partly because Collins himself named her as a role model. SI senior writer Jon Wertheim (by far my favorite tennis writer in the world!) posted an excellent piece on Navratilova’s coming out story and the impact she’s had on both professional sport and American culture in general. I won’t summarize it all here, but every time I learn more about Navratilova’s story, I am struck by how remarkable she was and is. She came out publicly in 1981, already one of the world’s top female athletes. A 24-year-old Czechoslovakian defector, Navratilova was about a week away from asking U.S. Immigration to grant her citizenship. She was already a controversial figure, constantly pitted against her friend and rival, Chris Evert, in a hackneyed Cold War dichotomy of Western-vs-Communist/America’s Sweetheart-vs-butch-jock. After Navratilova came out, she lost millions in endorsements and endured ridicule from fans, reporters, and media commentators. In this hostile climate, Navratilova completed three of the most dominant seasons in tennis history, including a span of 6 straight Grand Slam titles (a record). She and Evert put together the most prolific rivalry in tennis (which Navratilova leads 43-37), and they remain close friends. Once reviled, Navratilova is now accepted as one of the all-time greats, with 18 major singles titles (including NINE at Wimbledon!) and 31 major doubles titles.
Martina in 1983. (Photo credit: Martin Iooss, Jr., Sports Illustrated)
For more on Navratilova’s career, read Johnette Howard’s excellent book The Rivals.
Women’s tennis may not have always been welcoming to lgbt athletes, but there have been numerous openly gay players since Navratilova broke through, including Amelie Mauresmo (former world no. 1), Samantha Stosur (2011 U.S. Open champ), and Lisa Raymond (an all-time great in doubles). So I ask what many fans are asking now: where are all the gay male players?
Men’s tennis is not the most macho of sports, like football or hockey. That doesn’t mean, however, that rules of masculinity don’t apply to tennis. Tennis players, like all men, are expected to perform gender in certain, established ways, from the way they throw a tantrum to the way they dress. But several prominent players have recently shown support for gay rights, or at least for gay people in general. Most notably, this week Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish joined Athlete Ally, an organization founded to encourage the acceptance of lgbt people in the sporting world. Another American, Sam Querrey, told the press that “there’s got to be someone who plays tennis who is gay”; doubles legend Mike Bryan recently said “I don’t think anyone would have any issues.” Even Rafael Nadal reacted very sweetly when a male fan rushed the court and planted a kiss on his cheek (“for me it wasn’t a problem … they guy was really nice!” Oh, Rafa.).
So, are there just no gay men playing tennis at the international level? Meh, I find that hard to believe. And if there are, would other tennis players “have any issues” with it? Of course a few would. But I think for the most part, other players would either be supportive or come around eventually. Let’s face it, straight men and gay men have been sharing locker rooms since the invention of locker rooms. Men see each other naked all the time with little fanfare.
I wonder, then, why is it easier for us to accept openly gay athletes when they are female? Why was Brittney Griner’s coming out so uneventful? Why do we assume that many female athletes are lesbians unless proven otherwise? I think much of this has to do with the twin dynamic of misogyny and hypermasculinity in sport. Heteronormativity demands that women and men act according to defined, strictly enforced gender roles; but why, at least in pro sports, does an effeminate man provoke so much more hostility than a butch woman? I believe the answer lies in our cultural obsession with masculinity and the continued supremacy of men in almost every walk of life. Straight men, who still dominate hegemonic discourse, are burdened with asserting and reinforcing masculinity, including the ways a ‘real’ man must dress, walk, speak, and express emotion. As long as the ethos of masculinity dominates our sport culture, subversive types of gender and sexuality (like men who have sex with men) will have a hard time flourishing. More on this later.