Lesbian Issue Stirs Discussion : Women’s sports: Fear and discrimination are common as players deal with a perception of homosexuality.


It usually happened before the first practice of the year. Some times it was later, but it always happened.

Rene Portland would gather her Penn State basketball team and state her team rules:

--No drinking.

--No drugs.

--No lesbians.

According to former players, Portland told any lesbians in the room that they were not welcome and indicated that if she found any, their scholarships would be revoked.

“She said it the first day of practice in my first year,” said a former Penn State player, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The former player is a lesbian.


“I remember at the team meeting in my second year I was so afraid that it was going to be like the first. She made the point very strongly. It was a very negative statement. No one said anything.

“I just remember it affected me. Of the meeting, all I remember is that one moment. That sticks in my mind. It will be in my mind forever.”

Penn State has since instituted a university-wide policy against discrimination based on sexual orientation. To date, the university has taken no action to censure Portland.

Portland’s stance--reported in March of 1991, by the Philadelphia Inquirer--was the public airing of private, powerful issues in women’s sports: lesbians and homophobia.

It was not an isolated incident. The issues have had a profound impact on female athletes and coaches. Both heterosexuals and homosexuals say they fear for their jobs simply because of the perception of lesbianism. Some have left their teams.

The issue of lesbianism in sport is so controversial that few women, gay or straight, will speak on the record about it. Their fears are not unfounded. Being perceived as a lesbian in the women’s sports world often carries the same stigma as being a lesbian. And the notion that many women in sport are lesbians is widespread.

In 1988-89, an NCAA study was conducted to explore what women in sports believed were barriers in their college athletic careers.


Of those randomly surveyed at 180 institutions, 75% of the female administrators said they were aware of existing stereotypes that might be perceived as barriers to attracting or retaining women in athletics.

When asked to specify the “barriers,” 54.4% said their involvement in sports often led others to assume they were gay.

Those perceptions reverberate throughout athletics:

--At the Women’s Final Four last year, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes distributed a booklet warning about the danger of homosexual relationships.

--At Colorado, football Coach Bill McCartney drew criticism for his remarks in February that “homosexuality is an abomination and a sin against God.”

--At a recent University of Washington women’s basketball game, gay rights advocates protested, holding up signs saying “Support Lesbians in Sports.” A university administrator told the Seattle Times that the perception of lesbianism was “a powder keg that could explode the program apart.”

--In women’s basketball, coaches say a list has been circulated to high school recruits that purports to identify lesbian programs. While no one has produced a copy of the list, even speculation that it exists has stirred fear.


--In the Ladies Professional Golf Assn., an anonymous letter was sent to two tour sponsors, threatening to take action against them because “the players on this professional tour have a known reputation of being homosexual.”

--In women’s tennis, Pam Shriver writes in her book, “Passing Shots,” that “most of the guys on the men’s (tennis) tour have stereotyped the women as a whole bunch of lesbians.”

Some say that lesbians, and the homosexual image, are ruining women’s sports. Others say the stereotype is simply a mechanism to keep women out of sports and it is homophobia that is ruining women’s sports.

What both sides share is fear: fear of talking about it, fear of being accused, fear of those who are different. What Rene Portland did was to articulate what many had been saying in private.

Before Portland’s policy was made public last year, it had been common knowledge not only to female athletes at the school but to basketball coaches around the country.

Portland declined several requests to be interviewed for this story.

For all the national attention and debate her stand has caused, few have placed Portland’s comments in the context of bigotry. However, Arlene Gorton, associate athletic director at Brown University, has.


“If any other noun would be substituted there, like Jew or black, there would be an outpouring of anger,” Gorton said. “I was surprised that the (Penn State) administration did nothing. The sad thing is that in the year that has passed the climate in this country has grown more conservative and oppressive.”

Penn State has since held a mandatory homophobia workshop for coaches and administrators conducted by Pat Griffin, an associate professor of education at the University of Massachusetts. Griffin, a lesbian and former coach, is considered the nation’s leading expert on the issue.

Asked how the workshop at Penn State went, Griffin said, “Not so good.”

To some, it was a beginning.

“You need to start somewhere,” said one lesbian coach who attended the session. “It’s a topic that is still taboo. It’s not spoken about, at least in the open. But at least people are starting to address the issue. You have no idea the fear that exists. No idea.”


What percentage of women in sports are lesbians?

Shriver notes in her book that there is continual speculation on that question. But there are no answers because the issue has been so taboo that no formal study has been attempted. In the general population, studies have estimated the number of gays to be 10%.

The perception that the percentage is higher in women’s sports is not new, and it has been used to affect lives whether lesbianism existed or not.

In her recent book, “Odd Girls And Twilight Lovers,” Lillian Faderman wrote of the lengths to which the military went to identify lesbian personnel during the Korean War, noting: “. . . they also planted informers on women’s softball teams on military bases, assuming that an interest in athletics was practically tantamount to lesbianism.”


This stereotype is not lost on softball players, who are aware that they are often viewed as lesbians.

A lesbian player on a major college softball team said the fact that her teammates know she is gay has caused a problem among some of the heterosexual players.

“I know that softball has that reputation (of lesbianism),” she said. “A lot of people on my team don’t like me being ‘out’ because they think it reinforces the reputation. They say: ‘We don’t like the reputation our sport has. It really hurts us when we walk down the street and someone calls us a dyke.’ I wish they could be more comfortable with themselves.”

To counter the perception of lesbianism, some female athletes adopt compensatory behavior; they wear makeup while competing, they dress in ultra-feminine clothes when not competing, they talk about their boyfriends, whether they have them or not.

Mariah Burton Nelson, a former Stanford basketball player, said one of the first things she and her teammates were told to do when they were hired by the L.A. Dreams, a short-lived pro team, was to attend charm school. Other teams had mandatory makeup sessions before all home games.

Nelson, who is a lesbian, has written a book about female athletes, “Are We Winning Yet?” She says attempts to combat the stereotype are often humorous.


“It’s odd how easily it works, how well camouflage works,” she said. “When someone sees a woman athlete in makeup and heels, they think, ‘Oh, she’s not a lesbian.’ People are very undereducated on the subject.”

Griffin calls it the “hetero-sexy” image. Some college coaches and administrators encourage female athletes to adopt this. Many don’t.

Tara VanDerveer, women’s basketball coach at Stanford, said: “I would never do that to my players. College should be a learning experience, to be accepted for what you are, not that you should be forced to conform. I want my players to be themselves.”

Another coach who doesn’t impose personal appearance rules on her players says it wouldn’t do much to change the minds of some, anyway.

“College is a good time for students to come to terms with their own identity, be it heterosexual or gay or lesbian,” said Sue Rankin, softball coach at Penn State. “My job is to help students through that, knowing that who they are is accepted. That’s what higher education needs to do.”


One of the most ominous trends in women’s collegiate sports has been the manipulation of homophobia as a recruiting tool.


One former Midwest basketball player said that when she was being recruited, several male coaches told her that they did not accept lesbians in their program. “That’s pretty reassuring,” she said, “but I don’t know how I feel about their open-mindedness.”

It is against NCAA rules to “negatively recruit,” that is, for a coach to disseminate negative information about another school. But coaches say privately that is what happened a few years ago, when a letter was reportedly circulated among the nation’s top female basketball prospects. The letter contained a list of what it claimed were gay and straight women’s coaches.

The origin of the letter was never determined. But it underscores the fact that merely the perception of lesbianism is being used as a threat in recruiting female athletes.

“Yes, it is used,” said Gorton of Brown University. “There are coaches who are terrified that it will be used against them. There are athletic directors who are terrified it will be used. I would hope that parents would view a coach who would resort to that sort of recruiting technique as being desperate.”

Griffin views the letter as another form of intimidation.

“It doesn’t even matter if the letter is (accurate),” she said. “The rumor is enough to intimidate the hell out of women in sports. That’s the function of it.”


Because lesbianism is closeted in sports, when it becomes a public matter the cases have often created fear. The recruiting of Chana Perry is the most oft-cited example.


Perry, a 6-foot-4 basketball forward forward from Brookhaven, Miss., was a star at Northeast Louisiana University in Monroe, La. However, in 1986, her recruitment led to the first NCAA sanctions against a women’s program for recruiting violations.

According to a lawsuit filed by Perry’s mother, Ruth Antionette Perry Smith, Joy Shamburger, Northeast Louisiana assistant coach, seduced Perry and lured her into a sexual relationship. Smith’s attorney produced hotel receipts, phone logs and even letters the two had sent each other.

The suit, which also named the school as a defendant, alleged corruption of a minor and sought more than $500,000 in damages. The case was settled out of court.

The case caused a stir in the women’s basketball world, not only for its precedent, but also because it reinforced the stereotype that lesbianism was rampant in the sport.

“It buys right into the stereotype that (lesbians) are particularly unsuited to working with young people, that they recruit and molest them,” Griffin said. “This is one of the contradictions, where stereotypes are more important than the truth. The truth is that women athletes are much more at risk to be raped, harassed or sexually violated by a male coach than a female coach.”

But some heterosexual players say lesbians can make them feel unwelcome, too.

Karen Frawley, a Cal State Northridge tennis player during the ‘80s, transferred to a school in Texas, where, she said, there were homosexuals on the tennis team.


“You are more limited in a college environment, you don’t have a choice who you are on a team with,” she said recently from her home in San Diego. “If you don’t partake, or have an interest, you are sort of an outsider. It was a struggle to maintain your own feelings about who you are or what you are. Parents need to know what’s going on. I have seen some people swayed to go in a direction they never would have gone. If you don’t have a strong upbringing, you’ll fold.

“If you hung out with men, you’d get so much flak for it. It was frowned upon. It took me about a year to get back on my feet, to figure out who I am. You either stay in the fold, or you leave. I left.”

Frawley says the situation was especially charged at the Texas school and that at Northridge there was no hint of harassment from lesbian players.

But a lesbian softball player at Penn State said that many heterosexual players believe, without foundation, that their gay teammates will make a pass at them. Because of this, the player said, finding a roommate for team trips was a problem.

“No one wanted to room with me,” she said. “They thought I would hit on them or that someone might assume they were a lesbian, too. I felt terrible that they would think that. It was a terrible feeling, coming from your teammates. I think it was out of ignorance.”


Far beyond Portland’s policy, lesbians say they have been sent clear signals that they are not wanted in women’s sports.


The LPGA is no stranger to that.

An anonymous group recently sent letters to Lucky Stores and J.M. Smucker threatening demonstrations at the stores and boycotts of the product if the corporations continued to sponsor an LPGA tournament held annually at Los Coyotes Country Club in Buena Park.

“The thought of Lucky (Stores) sponsoring an event for gay women turns our stomachs, especially when it is with our money,” stated one letter, signed only as a “fledging and growing consumer group who opposes your actions.” There was no return address. There was no effect, either.

Robert Hermann, executive vice president of Lucky, read the letter and said he threw it away. Charles Mechem, commissioner of the LPGA, also said he threw out his copy of the letter. Smucker’s has since committed to the tournament. There have been no demonstrations.

But, whether accurate or not, the perception that the tour is predominantly lesbian is not so easily discarded.

Mechem doesn’t deny that a perception of lesbianism exists on the tour, but doesn’t see where LPGA is different from the rest of society.

“We are not ignoring a problem or turning our back on it. . . . I can honestly say in my 15 months as commissioner, there have been no problems with this subject from sponsors or within the tour itself,” said Mechem, who has increased the number of TV dates by five, increased the prize money by 15% and brought in a handful of new sponsors. “It is not an issue and I don’t know why people (in the media) are trying to make it an issue.”


It is an issue to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

At the women’s Final Four last year, a booklet warning about the danger of “dependent relationships” among female athletes was distributed at a breakfast sponsored by the FCA.

The booklet, entitled, “Emotional Dependency, A Threat To Close Relationships,” told the story of Mary and Sarah and how their close friendship unwittingly developed into a homosexual relationship.

According to Debbie Lloyd, FCA’s acting director of women’s programs, the booklet was offered to augment the breakfast’s speaker, a woman who “shared about her experience leaving the homosexual lifestyle, recognizing that it was not God’s will,” Lloyd said.

Lloyd said that while “absolutely everyone” is welcome in FCA, the organization holds that homosexuality is “a sin and an abomination to God.”

Some athletes say they are also uncomfortable when the coach is a lesbian.

“A female coach is supposed to be a mother figure. She is supposed to help,” said one West Coast college basketball player. “I’m not putting down lesbians, but how is she supposed to help me grow doing things I learned were wrong when I was growing up? And I’m a Christian, so that doesn’t help.”


Women have heard for decades why they should stay out of sports. Yesterday it was: Sports aren’t good for you. You’ll get big muscles. You won’t be able to have children.


Today’s bugaboo is the lesbian label.

Heptathlon world record-holder Jackie Joyner-Kersee is quoted in Burton Nelson’s book as saying: “It used to be, you couldn’t play basketball or any sport without, ‘Oh, she’s a lesbian.’ Now it’s a little better. But it’s something they do to keep you from playing sports. That’s all it’s about.”

Gorton, who also teaches a class called “Gender Issues In Sport,” agrees.

“The central issue of masculinity and femininity in sport is really just a technique used to keep control over women,” she said.

“It’s all about power. I don’t think there has been any issue that has been more effective at drumming women out of sports.”

Griffin says that lesbian coaches fear they might be fired if their sexual orientation is discovered. Heterosexual coaches fear the accusation, too.

Said VanDerveer of Stanford: “A lot of different things have been used to keep women out of athletics and to gain acceptance. This is one of them.”

Gorton said she knows of cases in which lesbians have married men, simply to keep their careers.


“Can you imagine the kind of power at work that would make a woman get married just to save her job?” she said.

Griffin and Gorton stress that what is needed is not an embracing of homosexuality, but simply a tolerance for it. Why not apply the live-and-let-live policy to sports? Stop making lesbianism an issue, Griffin says, and use that energy to solve other problems in sport.

“We have to talk about it,” Griffin said. “The problem is not that there are lesbians in sports. The problem is that there is homophobia. Women in sport have got to stop being silent or denying it or making apologies. What we need to have intolerance for is the homophobia and discrimination.”

Without open discussion, Griffin says, the problem of intolerance won’t go away.

But many in women’s sports wish the discussion would go away.

Times staff writers Maryann Hudson and Theresa Munoz contributed to this story.