The misrepresentation of LGBTQ+ athletes in the media

Written for Comm 315–01, Dr. Reynolds

LGBTQ+ athletes have been misrepresented, misunderstood, and mistreated in mass media for years- maybe even decades. Their sexuality or identity should not ruin their careers or get them shunned out in the locker room.

LGBTQ+ athletes are not a “distraction” or “fearful” for themselves but are simply put: athletes.

The majority of mistreatment starts in their youth for these athletes. In an entry written in the Journal of Sport, Education, and Society, a study formed about LGBTQ+ inclusion in high school sports and found that “LGBQ high school students play sports at a significantly lower rate compared to straight students, and among those who play sports, LGBTQ respondents felt significantly less safe compared to straight and cisgender students.” The stigma of feeling unsafe begins to occur at a young age.

LGBTQ+ individuals have faced setbacks in every possible way, including their collegiate experiences. Facing problems such as homophobia, sexism, peers claiming “discomfort” in the locker rooms, and the reiterating problem of transgender women having “an advantage” against genetically born women, the LGBTQ individuals that participate in athletics are thrown many curveballs.

A study presented by Erin Kelley of the University of Massachusetts, Boston came to the analysis based on eight interviews with LGBTQ+ collegiate athletes that said “This analysis showed that LGBQ+ women student-athletes needed to feel a sense of safety and comfort in their environments to further their growth and develop.” In addition to this, that “external factors, such as family, media, and society, affected identity development and experiences.”

In another study by Hannah Bennett of Middle Tennessee State University, she interviewed a woman named Becky in which she said, “I think I just didn’t want to be known for that. I didn’t want to be — I didn’t want to be, like, oh there’s Becky, the lesbian soccer player. I wanted to be Becky the soccer player and whatever else.” Her sexuality and identity should not impact her athletic ability or her career, but instead, she felt she should just be Becky, the soccer player, the athlete. Another individual, Jessica, said, “I did once in a while feel discomfort and judgment”. Although she did face this once in a while, Jessica added that as a collegiate LGBTQ+ athlete, she felt more comfortable than when she was in high school.

A research project summarized by Channell Barbour of Indiana State University showed that “The results suggested that male student-athletes held more negative attitudes toward gay men and lesbians than female student-athletes.” Male roles in athletics are seen as masculine, and anything that differs from it is considered as battling gender roles, which is why it is perceived negatively.

Stephen Bickford, a former goalie for the North Carolina Tar Heels soccer team in 2004, struggled to play the game without worrying about his sexuality being exposed to his teammates or coaches. “If my teammates knew I was gay, I was sure that I’d be treated differently, and it could possibly jeopardize my success in the game.”

The media itself has portrayed LGBTQ+ athletes in a light that makes them “vulnerable” to harassment and makes them “distractions” for other players on their team. An article in the Journal of Homosexuality, written by Katrin Pariera, Evan Brody, and D. Travers Scott recalled the case of Michael Sam, a 2014 NFL draft pick who publicly announced he was gay. The article discusses how the media portrayal of his coming out ultimately ruined his career, “The brief professional career of Sam is often alluded to as an object lesson in how coming out can ruin one’s career.”

Adding to other athletes coming out such as Jason Collins, Brittney Griner, Megan Rapinoe, and Elena Della Donne, the media portrayal of these athletes has diminished their characters and made it more difficult to be accepted. In the same article, it is written that “News and entertainment focus on the fear-driving conflict with highly scrutinized careers of gay professional athletes and foregrounding negative reactions to non-normative sexualities in sports culture.” Which entails the media has created this fear that LGBTQ+ athletes have to receive negative reactions.

Pariera, Broday, and Scott added, “Even as journalists explicitly condemn homophobic behavior, their coverage of gay athletes can still implicitly marginalize their experiences…” The media can still negatively impact those LGBTQ+ athletes by coercing these “fearful” thoughts into their heads.

In the Quarterly Journal of Speech, Kyle King said, “Initial congratulatory were framed along with conflicting binaries that both celebrated the idea of the gay athlete while also circulating fears over how an out player serves as a distraction for teams and negatively impacts locker room dynamics.”

Here is an example of the use of “distraction” to mask homophobia, as the article states. The media creates these individuals to be heroes in one way, yet causing controversy by using words like “distractions” and that their sexual orientation or identity causes problems among peers.

Eric Anderson and Edward Kian analyzed the media in response to former NBA player John Amaechi’s coming out in 2007. In their article written in the Journal of Homosexuality, they said “Thus, attitudes in the U.S. toward gays are changing, and changing rapidly. It is uncertain, though, if those changes are evident in sports media coverage, since sports media are run mostly by and for men.”

Despite changes being made in acceptance towards LGBTQ+ in the world, the media’s representation and attitudes could hardly be changing due to the masculinity in sports media and the readers in which are mostly men. From the data analysis, the research showed one specific ideal, “Sports reporters maintained that the locker room is still no place for gay men.”

“Those are the sports that, in various ways, would make life uncomfortable for any athlete perceived as a threat, not so much on the field, but in the shower.” The media exhibits this idea that although LGBTQ+ people are not uncomfortable on the playing field (whatever it may be), they are still a threat in the locker room, making other people uncomfortable because of their orientation or identity.

On the contrary, counter-arguments would suggest that media representation is in fact in favor of LGBTQ+ athletes and should more come out, they are entirely supportive. The same article written by Anderson and Kian stated, “However, this research shows that sport, and in particular sports media, is at least growing more accepting of gays and gay lifestyles.”

Andrew Billings, in his book, Defining Sport Communication, followed Amaechi’s coming out moment by stating reporters, “expressed support for Amaech, or at least did not exert overt homophobia.”

After NBA player Jason Collins’ coming out in 2013, Billings said in regards to examining tweets, newspapers, and online articles that “Sports journalists overwhelmingly framed Collins’ coming out as positive and placed it as a historic moment in sports.” In some media, it was shown as a positive in the history of LGBTQ+ athletes, but it does not deny the fact the way the majority of media paints these individuals.

LGBTQ+ athletes have been even more prominent in the coming years, with groundbreaking history in multiple major sports industries. The media’s representation of these individuals in a “fearful” light, or that they make other players “uncomfortable” is dragging down the representation of LGBTQ+ in major sports. The media’s representation of LGBTQ+ athletes must improve to help and guide those who are looking up to these people. Instead of fearful or distracting the media should portray these people as strong athletes. These individuals are first and foremost athletes, and their sexuality or identity should not define their profession; as in any other job.

The stereotypes of being a distraction in the locker room and sports being “masculine” start with the way the media represents these individuals to their readers, and once they are viewed as firstly athletes, their sexualities and identities will be respected and denominated as just a part of who they are. The sexualities and identities of LGBTQ+ athletes should not affect their careers or experiences.

Without the LGBTQ+ tag on these individuals, they are as simply put as can be: athletes. The media should represent them as athletes.

Journalism student. CSUF '22. Sports enthusiast. Disney fanatic. Lover of all things Cinema.