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Playing in the Closet: Homophobia in Sports

By RealJock Staff

Richard Lustberg, a leading sports therapist and insider in the world of athletics, talks to about homophobia in sports and what we should do to combat it.

Why do you believe homophobia in sports is still so prevalent?

There are three factors. First, it's a lack of education, sophistication, and awareness. Secondly, a lot of people are afraid of their own homosexual tendencies, that when they see these traits in someone else they get reactive. And third, I think organized religion has contributed in a way that has been very detrimental, and prevented us from coming together. I think when you put those three things together you have an awful situation.

There's been much more growth in the entertainment community [than in sports]. Coming out doesn't seem to hurt entertainers' appeal so much now. Rosie O' Donnell, for instance—I don't care whether she's gay or not: If I like her, I like her, If I don't I don't.

As an insider, do you think there's a high percentage of closeted athletes in the sports world?

I've certainly worked with gay athletes in my practice. Personally, I've been approached by gay athletes who've wanted me to have a [romantic] relationship with them, and it's fine—I'm comfortable being approached, even though I'm not going to accept the invitation. The way I look at it, it's just one human reaching out to another,

Is there a trend toward more acceptance of gays and lesbians in the sporting world? For instance, out gay tennis legend Billie Jean King just had a stadium named after her.

Many people love her. I love her, and not necessarily because she's a leader in the gay community, but because of what she's tried to do with her life and ultimately what she's done to enlighten people. But do I think there's more tolerance of gay people in sports? Yeah, I there's been growth, but I think it depends on what part of the country you live in, and who you're dealing with. It's individual-specific and situation-specific. We're far behind where we should be. I hope in my lifetime things will change for the better—in every area, whether it be religion, your sexual orientation, your color, your race, everything. The fact that we still haven't had a woman president or a gay president—these are things I'd like to see happen.

Is it still unsafe for a gay or lesbian athlete to come out?

I think it depends on who it is. The very prominent athletes are frightened about losing endorsements. A lot of [straight] sports fans and athletes are still uncomfortable with homosexuality, and it creates a stigma. For some reason, in people who can't relate to their own sexuality, homophobia kicks in.

Is there a difference in the safety level for male athlete than for female athletes?

Yeah, I think females are much more accepting. Because of their socialization, women are allowed to hug and kiss each other. You'll see two school chums, young women, walking down the street and holding hands and you think nothing of it. But if you see two men walking down the street hand in hand, people still think there's something wrong with that. That translates significantly into the sports community.

Has coming out for some athletes, say Martina Navratilova or WNBA superstar Sheryl Swoopes, hurt their careers?

Obviously, it doesn't seem to have. It seems to be old hat by now for them. Navratilova is one of the greatest tennis players ever. Gay, straight, I never look at her beyond the entertainment value and athletic prowess. I think it's personality as well. Navratilova seems to be carrying herself in a way that's a little bit more endearing than someone like Rosie [O'Donnell], who seems to be alienating a lot people—but that's not because she's gay, it's just who she is.

It seems hard for athletes in sports such as ice-skating to come out, even though the sport has great gay appeal.

You're still in danger of losing endorsements, losing some of your audience. Athletes are very afraid. They're scared, and they have a right to be. It's a sign of the times we live in. Everybody is frightened. And I don't think that's specific to homosexual people. But people have yet to feel comfortable with themselves.

How do we combat homophobia in the sports world?

A number of steps have to be taken. We need to bring in speakers [from the gay community]. We need education, which isn't valued in this society—that's why we're flying behind. Sports management should be brining in people to demystify this issue. Athletes need to know there's nothing to be worried about.

Do you think being in the closet damages athletes' performance?

That depends. When I deal with people who are homosexual, I tell them to be as comfortable as possible with who they are. But you have to look at the individual situation. There are gay people who are in the closet who are comfortable there; they're as comfortable as any heterosexual would be who has secrets. So if a person, whether homosexual or heterosexual, feels the pressure to keep a secret, it's going to affect their performance, isn't it? Ifs someone can reconcile that in his life, they should be fine, whether they're homosexual or heterosexual.