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The Simultaneous Existence of Homophobia and Homosexuality Within Male Athletics

Male sports teams. An environment where there is seemingly little to no homosexual activity and frankly, rejects it. Male sports teams foster a space for young men to be openly homophobic, racist, ablelist, and hateful to anything that doesn’t meet the idea of what it means to be the ideal man. While obviously this isn’t an accurate description of every male sports team, it is most definitely an overarching theme that is hard to disagree with. Why does this exist? This issue happens at a sociological level, but I will be centering on the ways in which this behavior thrives in the Beloit College athletics department.

To begin I want to break down a concept that is named “The Spectre of the F*g.” This phrase was coined by C.J. Pascoe, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado whose studies focus on the relationships between teenage boys and their definitions of masculinity. Pascoe describes this concept as the way in which straight identifying men target each other with homophobic words and slurs in order to prove that they are not gay. Boys do this because ultimately there is no concrete way of proving that they are not this thing (gay), so they project their fear onto one another through harassment in an attempt to prove their masculinity in a never-ending masculinity Olympics. It’s fair to say we’ve all seen displays of this: whether it’s hearing your older brother jokingly call his friends the f-slur while playing video games, seeing boys at school write it in each other’s notebooks, or maybe even firing these attacks yourself, this behavior between boys and men plagues every corner of our lives. It is this constant, looming part of society that we don’t even give a second thought to because, hey, boys will be boys, right? 

To dig a bit deeper into this issue and try to understand it, I will dissect my own experiences and others’ accounts of homophobic harassment on Beloit College Campus, and more specifically within our athletics department where this behavior seems to flourish. In doing this I am seeking to understand the role “The Spectre of the F*g” undeniably plays in our college lives and just how Beloit College allows it to function. While exploring the operation of “The Spectre of the F*g”, I will also attempt to examine gayness in male athletics and the complexity of it; where it exists, the rejection of it, and how we can make male sports team a healthier and more excepting environment for gayness to exist.

I want to clarify exactly what I mean when I say harassment. It’s a strong word, and when you hear it you might associate it with violence or criminal activity. The type of harassment I am describing might not be perceived as harassment at a glance, and that is why I feel it is important to note. I use the word harassment to emphasize the seriousness of these seemingly harmless jokes, and because, well, it is the correct description of this behavior. 

C.J. Pascoe talks about the seriousness of these harassments in an online microlecture. Pascoe stated, “When we look at homophobic harassment amoung boys, a lot of that type of harassment happens in these joking relationships…and in some ways I would actually say this is more serious than the aggressive taunting we see happening, because the joking itself hides the seriousness of the deployment of these insults.” This resonated with my own personal experiences. It’s very common here at Beloit (especially common around male athletes) to hear to the words, gay, f*g, or homo, thrown around in playful banter between boys and, just as common to hear, “It’s just a joke, chill out”, after being called out. These harassments are seemingly innocent, and I think most people participating in these ‘jokes’ truly believe that what they are doing is harmless. I also want to note that most of the time it appears that people who make these jokes are supportive of LGBTQIA+ rights, so from that we can begin to understand that most of the time these jokes aren’t really about hating gay people. So why, if the boys who deploy these insults have no issue with LGBTQIA+ folks, do they use homophobic slurs as the basis for making fun of each other? The fear of the ‘unmasculine man’ is what fuels them. Manhood and masculinity are pushed by society and have requirements for what does and doesn’t make you a man. If you are a man and don’t meet certain expectations you are deemed to be socially rejected. These insults are the ammo in a constant battle of who is the best man.

 This behavior is especially prevalent on sports teams. This is quite easily explained by the fact that sports teams are obviously competitive settings, therefore fostering a space for a competition of masculinity. Additionally, there is a drive to feel accepted in any social environment. In order to be accepted in a sports environment you need to succeed, to show off your athletic capabilities, to be a winner, to be the star player. The objective of proving your athletic competence is intertwined with proving your masculinity and ultimately proving yourself socially acceptable to your teammates. 

It goes without me even having to mention that it exists within Beloit College’s athletics department. We’ve all seen it; maybe you’ve called it out, maybe you haven’t. Regardless, I have no doubt in my mind that any Beloit College student reading this has been witness to the function of “The Spectre of the F*g”. It’s also likely that you probably find an issue with it, but it is such an integral behavior that there is a feeling of futility in addressing it. There is a larger contributor in what allows this to function and that is the college itself. Coaches hear it, professors hear it, administrators hear it, and so on. I would guess that (hopefully) when this behavior is witnessed by the leaders of Beloit it is addressed accordingly. However, it ultimately doesn’t change it. If it did, I wouldn’t be writing this article. Telling someone something is wrong and to not do it does nothing to change that behavior. For change we need to understand WHY it is wrong and why such seemingly miniscule comments are a contributor to a much larger problem and also a symptom of it.

With all this being said about the persistence of homophobia in sports, it is equally as important to talk about the gay men in these communities. Regardless of how gayness is suffocated and bottled up in these environemnts, it finds ways to appear. It is often projected through male homoeroticism. According to “Homoeroticism in Male Sports” by Carlos Bilan, homoeroticism can be defined as, “The sexual attraction between members of the same sex in environments that may be heteronormative or homophobic in nature.” It isn’t rare to see displays of this in male sports environments: men playfully slapping each others butts, grabbing each others genitals, and mocking sexual positions with one another. Before I continue, It’s extremely valuable to note that, objectively, there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing these things. I don’t point them out to bring shame. I point them out to note the specific manners in which homosexuality is projected in an environment that is unaccepting. Now, while these behaviors are obvious displays of homosexual desires, I guarantee if you were to ask any man participating in these behaviors if they are gay or bi-sexual, you would almost certainly get a response that jumps to the defense of their heterosexuality. A statistic from “Out in the Fields,” a research paper quoted in Bilan’s article, states, “49% of gay men and 80% of bisexual men stay in the closet” in context to “adult team sports.” Bilan goes on to note, “Considering this, one can speculate that some of these male athletes demonstrating homoerotic gestures could be using sports to express their sexuality.” 

My interest in understanding homoeroticism within male sports began with the displays I’ve witnessed of it in our very own Beloit College athletics department. On multiple occasions I’ve witnessed male athletes kiss each other, grab each other’s butts, and borderline force themselves on each other, while simultaneously participating in spewing homophobic slurs and language. Sounds like projecting to me. Initially after witnessing this I sought to understand the coexistence of homophobia and homoerotic behaviors. While quite obviously this behavior is a reflection of the much larger sociological issue of the lack of gay acceptance in male athletics as well as everything I discussed previously, I think that my accounts are how this issue has uniquely manifested on Beloit’s campus. 

Now, if you haven’t gathered this already, this culture is a major issue for so many reasons, but the bottom line is that men are being suppressed by each other from self-expression and destined for a life of confusion and denial of their true selves. Before I conclude, it’s important to note that I am neither a man nor an athlete, so who’s to say my take is the most accurate. Who we really need to hear from about these issues is the men within the communities that partake. From there we can rebuild the system from within.

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