There was nothing complicated about that photograph of Elena Kagan, the one that showed her standing at bat on a playground diamond.
Maybe if she had been kicking a soccer ball or diving off the high board, there wouldn’t have been as much fuss.
But the Supreme Court nominee’s sexual orientation was already the stuff of rumors, given that she was single and kept her hair short. Her supporters accused conservatives of trying to damage her chances by whispering that she was gay.
Adding softball to the conversation only amped up the volume, all those bloggers and television commentators, and the White House was compelled to reiterate that Kagan was heterosexual.
None of this particularly surprised a sport that has wrestled with the issue — If you play, you’re probably gay —for decades.
“I think it’s unfortunate,” Lisa Fernandez, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and assistant coach at UCLA, said of the stereotype. “It’s part of our game.”
The situation gets even trickier because somewhere amid the chatter lies a kernel of truth: Softball has long held a special status among lesbians in America.
“It is one of those little touchstone things,” said Rosalyn Bugg, an official with the Greater Los Angeles Softball Assn., founded as a slow-pitch league for gays. “Softball has always been a safe place.”
The media buzz surrounding Kagan has quieted in recent weeks, but with the season nearing a crescendo — high school teams deep in the playoffs, UCLA playing in the College World Series starting Thursday — softball’s reputation still simmers beneath the surface.
Long before Jessica Mendoza won two Olympic medals, she was a young player learning about her favorite game’s reputation.
“There were always comments about sexuality being associated with sports,” Mendoza said, “and it caught me off guard a few times.”
People who have been around softball for decades say lesbians were a quietly accepted presence back in the 1970s and ‘80s. Several coaches in Southern California estimate that more than 50% of the players were gay at the time.
The situation became evident to Nicole Drabecki in 1997 when, as a freshman at Western Michigan University, she traveled with her team to a tournament in Florida.
“I’ve never seen so many gay people in my life,” said Drabecki, who now coaches at Burbank High. “I was really shocked.… If anything, it was a good experience to learn to be open-minded.”
By then, the game had become a central part of the culture, said Pat Griffin, author of “Strong Women, Deep Closets: Lesbians and Homophobia in Sport.” Gay women could feel accepted at the ballpark. Recreational leagues served as a gathering point in major cities across the country.
But at some point image overtook reality, the presumption being that every player was lesbian.
“Softball being a euphemism for homosexual is pretty funny,” said Bugg, the recreational league official. “But not so funny to a lot of the women I play with who are not homosexual.”
As straight players grew more worried about being labeled gay, the games took on a different look.
“You see a lot of girls wearing makeup, a lot of girls with their hair really pretty because you can definitely tell they still want to look pretty and probably go against those stereotypes that were pinned against them,” said Holly Elander, a senior outfielder at Santa Monica High.
That concerns Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, who said: “If you have long hair, if you have makeup and dress in a certain way, then you can’t be a lesbian. These are the traditionally female characteristics, which are false.”
Stereotypes persisted even as softball experienced significant changes.
Added to the Olympic program in the 1990s — it was subsequently dropped — the game attracted more media coverage, inspiring more young girls to play. With a larger talent pool, the percentage of lesbian players seemed to decrease. Griffin said: “There are a lot more straight women who play.”
Next came a bona fide sex symbol.
Jennie Finch had long blond hair, a bright smile and the body to be a model in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition. Mike Candrea, her coach at Arizona and on the Olympic team, asserts that she helped change the game’s reputation.
“There’s no comparison,” he said. “The faces of our sport are Jennie and people like that … c’mon.”
But Lauren Lappin, a national team player who came out two years ago, does not like that sexual orientation even factors into the discussion.
“I think it implies that, No. 1, most softball players are lesbian,” she said. “And that being lesbian is not as good as being straight, or that it’s bad or gross or wrong.”
If anything, Lappin and others prefer to celebrate the sport’s history of acceptance.
“My straight teammates encouraged me almost more than my gay teammates to speak out,” she said. “They’re such an example of being open-minded.”
Playing the percentages
The intersection of sport and sexual orientation appears to be in flux, with recent polls suggesting that a growing number of young people have more relaxed views than their parents did.
“That’s just not something you think about,” said Kelsey Hom, another Santa Monica High player. “No one’s ever been like, ‘I’m not playing with her because she’s a lesbian.’ ”
But as the recent buzz over Kagan proved, old tensions linger.
The photograph, which dates back to Kagan’s days as an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Law School, drew response from a wide range in the media, from liberal blogger Andrew Sullivan to conservative television commentator Bill O’Reilly.
Pat Buchanan called the picture “a signal, like two men sunbathing together on the beach or something like that. The immediate indication is that they’re gay.”
Such talk explains why players still face questions.
“I can’t just say, ‘Oh, I play softball,’ ” Elander said. “Then I also have to say, ‘But I’m not a lesbian’ or ‘Not everyone is a lesbian.’ ”
In Minnesota, professor Kane believes that softball remains marked by what she calls “fear of the lesbian presence.”
“It’s in the bone marrow of women’s sports,” she said, “the whole issue that sports will turn you gay or sports have a disproportionate number of lesbians.”
This dynamic leads to negative recruiting — college coaches trying to influence prospects by whispering that rival programs are pervasively gay — and concerns among parents.
“Whether someone is lesbian or straight shouldn’t have a bearing on anything,” said Steve Langenfeld, whose daughter Megan was a finalist for national player of the year at UCLA. “In softball, there are all kinds of girls. There are girly girls and there are not girly girls.”
So, with the Bruins in Oklahoma City for their 24th trip to college softball’s championship tournament, issues raised by the Kagan photo linger in the background.
Players such as Mendoza and Lappin said they have witnessed progress in terms of acceptance, but realize there is still a ways to go.
Assistant coach Fernandez figures it would be simpler to reduce the entire issue to a number.
Such as batting average.
“As long as you can hit,” she said, “I don’t care what you do.”