Shaking Up the Straight Sports World

Maybe it was because she had a secure job, or because she felt it was time for her to step forward and become a role model. But more likely it was because she couldn’t stand being quiet about her life any longer. Whatever the reason, in 1987, triathlete and educator Pat Griffin told an audience at a national sports conference in Las Vegas that she is a lesbian.

For most people, coming out publicly takes guts, but for Griffin, it was especially risky. Besides being a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, she was also coach of the women’s swim team, and she was afraid her announcement would spark negative fallout from team members or their parents.

But in the end, Griffin’s desire to tell the truth once and for all outweighed her concerns. “The closet gets pretty cramped,” she says now. “Eventually I had to come out in order to make room for myself to grow.”

And Griffin couldn’t have picked a better moment: The sponsoring organization had asked her to give a speech on homophobia and women’s sports, a topic dear to her heart. Using her own career as an example made perfect sense.

“When I first started coaching, I was very closeted, except eventually to a few of my swimmers,” Griffin says, recalling that during her early years as a competitive athlete and coach, she constantly worried that her sexual preference would be discovered and she would lose her job. “As I got older and settled in one place, I made myself known to some of the women on the basketball and lacrosse teams, and told them that they could come talk to me about issues they were facing in their lives. It made me bolder.”

Emboldened by her speech, and buoyed by support from friends and colleagues, Griffin eventually wrote Strong Women, Deep Closets: Lesbians and Homophobia in Sport (Human Kinetics, 1998). The book includes interviews with lesbian athletes and coaches, highlighting the complex relationship between perceptions of female athleticism and sexual preference.

Perhaps because physically strong, powerful women call into question the concept of male dominance, athletic women throughout history have been characterized as less feminine or more “mannish” than their less sporty sisters, Griffin says. In Western society at least, the word lesbian can be a dangerous label, especially for women athletes, many of whom have famously avoided raising questions about their sexuality. Crossing the delicate border between gay and straight can threaten careers (Babe Didrikson), raise hackles (Billie Jean King), or at least limit endorsement dollars (Martina Navratilova).

“In women’s sports, it’s more than just lesbians, it’s about the lesbian label,” Griffin explains. “When you call an athlete a lesbian, the beauty goes out of the game. It’s a way to make a person back down, to keep quiet.”

Griffin, for one, isn’t going to keep quiet anymore. In the years since her announcement, she’s helped produce a video on homosexuality and sports called Out for a Change, and has consulted with the NCAA and the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association about ways their groups can counter discrimination against gay and lesbian athletes. She’s even competed in the Gay Games, winning a bronze in the triathlon in 1994, and a gold in the hammer throw in 1998.

By making herself an example, Griffin hopes to get a conversation going, to provide other gay and lesbian athletes with the inspiration they need to come forward, and to build support among heterosexual teammates. These are high hurdles, she knows, but, like any true competitor, she’s never been able to turn her back on a challenge.

“These are big changes I’m talking about,” she says. “And you can’t put all the responsibility on lesbians and gay men. If we want true athletic equity, we’re going to need more heterosexual allies in this fight. Once that starts happening on a larger scale, we’ll just see one victory after another.”

Part of January-February 2000 cover story section.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.