I got an email this week from a reader named Carol, who was curious about the issue of women's basketball, sexuality, and faith. She wrote:
There are a lot of Christian parents out there who have daughters who aspire to play basketball at the college or professional levels. The publicity over Sheryl Swoopes' coming out and the allegations against Rene Portland at Penn State have drawn attention to the fact that the presence of lesbians in basketball is real, not just a myth. No doubt this causes some parents concern, who are worried about having their daughters having teammates or coaches who are lesbians. What would you say to them?
Their daughters might be anxious about it, too. Some of those girls will have grown up learning that homosexuality is an abomination, and one day they may learn that one or more of their teammates is a lesbian. What would you say to them? If you were talking to a youth group that included girls who play basketball and the question came up, what would you say to them?
And then there are the young women who have been raised as Christians and begin to grapple with issues of sexual orientation themselves, perhaps for the first time. Some of those young women will wonder, realize or decide that they are lesbians. What would you say to them? To their friends? To their parents?
Some of my secular progressive readers may tense up at Carol's questions. What's wrong with lesbians in women's sports, they might ask? Of course there have always been lesbians playing basketball, but what's wrong with that? Well, as far as I'm concerned, there isn't anything "wrong" with it either. As someone who is both a huge fan of women's basketball (more at the collegiate than the professional level) and devoted to gay and lesbian rights, I was pleased that Swoopes felt safe to come out -- and shocked that Rene Portland kept her job despite her well-documented bigotry.
I've heard countless stories from both lesbians and straight women about homophobia in women's sports. The connection between lesbianism and women's athletics is, in the popular imagination, decades old. As a result, many straight coaches (like Rene Portland) have conducted quiet or overt "purges" of their teams. Even now in the 21st century, some "old school" male and female coaches in women's basketball worry that "allegations of lesbianism" will tarnish the reputation of women's sports and turn off prospective players -- and their parents. If this anxiety over the "lavender menace" is found even now at some public institutions, like Penn State University, it is even more common at conservative Christian high schools, colleges, and universities.
I've got a lot of friends associated with a variety of local Christian colleges (like Vanguard and Biola) and Christian high schools. I have at least a nodding acquaintance with a fair number of coaches in the area as well, largely because I do care so much about so many different sports and I often show up to support my youth group kids or my college students in their athletic endeavors. And I've heard the topic of lesbianism come up many times, almost always more often in association with basketball than with any other sport. There's often a racial tinge to these discussions as well; basketball is one of the few women's sports (along with track) where blacks frequently outnumber whites. For whatever reasons, in the coaching circles I hang out in, I hear much less about the "problem" of lesbians on the (usually white) women's swim or soccer teams than I do in regards to basketball.
All of this is anecdotal, of course. Let me try and answer Carol's questions.
What would I say to Christian parents -- or young Christian women athletes -- who are concerned about the apparent "connection" between lesbians and basketball? I'd walk a thin line, being careful not to reinforce their prejudices nor to dismiss their concerns as indefensible bigotry. I'm used to living in two worlds (the progressive/secular and the evangelical/conservative), and if I've learned one thing it's to have enormous respect for the core values of the folks with whom I'm interacting, even when I think they're wrong.
I'd tell these young women and their parents that of course, not every woman who plays basketball is a lesbian. Whether they see homosexuality as a sin or not, I'll be insistent that no one's sexual identity is determined by what sport they play! Sexuality is not so malleable, even in adolescents, that it can be shaped by one's athletic pursuits. I'll point out that historically, many women who already were drawn to other women have found that sports offered a refuge from a judgmental world. But no young woman (or young man) is going to have her sexual identity transformed by her coach or her teammates. On the other hand, a young woman may have her worldview challenged by other women whose sexual identity is different from her own. But that sort of challenge is developmentally a healthy thing, I'd say to parents, even for the most conservative of Christians.
When it comes to racial prejudice, few cultural institutions have done more to overcome hatred than organized sports. Playing on integrated teams in high school, college, and the pros has done wonders for countless Americans. Watching integrated teams, and rooting for black athletes, has done as much to overcome bigotry as anything else over the past forty years. It's hard to sweat and bleed and cry and celebrate and shower and endure endless bus rides and practices with other men and women, boys and girls, and not grow to see them as human beings. It's hard to maintain hatred and misunderstanding in the face of so much mutual sacrifice, teamwork, and camaraderie.
The same, of course, can be true for sexuality. I think about my former student "Margot", a conservative Christian woman who played basketball here at Pasadena City College a few years back. She was my student in my women's studies class, and often challenged the more liberal views of her classmates. Margot had come to PCC from a Christian high school, where she'd been a solid guard (great perimeter shooter, but a bit tentative on defense). She wrote in her journal for my class that a couple of her teammates here at the college were lesbians, and this had shocked her. She had never met a lesbian (that she knew of) until she came to PCC and started playing for our top-ranked team. She admitted that she still considered homosexuality to be a sin, but was wrestling with the fact that she really liked her teammates "Dana" and "Kanita". Margot hastened to make clear that she didn't "like them that way", but she had learned that lesbianism was not some sort of disease that was catching. She'd learned that she could be friends with women who loved other women, even when doing so caused her to re-evaluate some of her prejudices. Margot's theology didn't change -- but her Christian compassion was broadened and deepened.
Though it may well be true that there are a higher percentage of lesbians on women's basketball teams than in society at large, I'll say here -- and to Christian parents of prospective players -- that there's nothing about the sport itself that "turns women gay." Perhaps more than some straight women, many lesbians are hungry for an opportunity to be part of a community of women striving for a common goal. Lesbians, after all, are generally less concerned with seeking out sexualized validation and approval from men and boys. As a result, young women who know that they are drawn to other women may feel more comfortable focusing on their own passions and their own interests rather than those of their male peers. But it doesn't follow that every young woman who would rather shoot hoops and bang elbows is sexually uninterested in boys -- it simply means that she isn't willing to give up her athletic pursuits in order to spend more time with the guys. All things considered, I'd say to parents, that's a very healthy sign.
I'd rather have my hypothetical fifteen year-old daughter working on her rebounding and her "blocking out" than working on making herself more attractive to boys. I think most parents -- conservative Christian or secular feminist or somewhere in between -- would agree wholeheartedly. Basketball, like other sports, offers girls and women the chance to use their bodies for the good of a team full of other women -- not in the service of a man. That's a goal we all can and should applaud.