Who can play?

LGBTQ+ athletes have been in the news a lot lately. From controversies surrounding transgender women to spotlights on high-profile athletes coming out as gay, there has been a steady drumbeat of media coverage—and at times, misinformation. With politics oftentimes substituting for fact-base knowledge, it can be challenging to know who—or what—to believe.

To get a more accurate understanding of issues pertaining to LGBTQ+ athletes, it’s useful to explore how current affairs have been shaped by the history of sports. Dating to the 1800s, the modern sports era was profoundly influenced by Victorian interpretations of gender and sexuality. The legacy of that history lives on, presenting challenges to many of today’s athletes—including LGBTQ+ competitors.

Exalting Men

For most of history, sports have been a male arena. In fact, the development of athletics was intimately connected with the exercise and display of masculinity, including heterosexual virility. President Theodore Roosevelt, who tirelessly promoted sports to toughen up American men, was a particular fan of the knockabout game of football. “I believe in rough games and in rough, manly sports,” he famously declared (Klein 2019).

What about women? Their place was in the bleachers, cheering on male contestants to ever-greater feats of strength and speed. The founder of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, summed things up neatly when he described the purpose of the games to be the “exaltation of male athleticism” with “female applause as reward” (Mansky and Wei-Haas, 2016)

As envisioned by de Coubertin and other early sports promoters, strong, active men would rise to ever-higher levels of athletic performance while being cheered on by admiring female fans. In other words, a binary interpretation of gender and the glorification of male (hetero)sexual prowess are deeply embedded in the origins of modern sport.

Early female athletes
Not surprisingly, women tread carefully when venturing into athletic activity, sticking to decorous sports such as lawn golf, tennis, croquet and walking contests, while avoiding the appearance of overt competition. Historian Bonnie Morris describes the approach to female athleticism in the late 1800s and early 1900s, “Healthful beauty, not aggression or the . . . desire to triumph over competitors, remained the watchword for active women.” In this spirit, intramural sports, informal athletic clubs and “play days” gradually expanded venues for women to engage in exercise and athletic pursuits while retaining the field of overt competition for men (Morris 2016).

‘Real’ women
Over time women edged into competitive arenas, blurring the lines between men’s and women’s roles. Critics took note, cautioning that the gender transgressions of female athletes would upend relationships between men and women. After all, what man would be attracted to a strong and muscular woman, an actual contestant rather than a cheerleader?

In the 1950s and 60s, warnings that women athletes were making themselves unattractive to men were increasingly coupled with an association between female athleticism and lesbianism. Existing stereotypes about lesbians—that they rejected femininity and sought out masculine pursuits—readily translated into assumptions about female athletes. In other words, gender non-conformity—inherent in women’s pursuit of athletic excellence—was presumed to go hand-in-hand with homosexuality.

As a result, promoters of women’s sports went to extreme lengths to secure female athletes’ femininity and attraction to men. Take the “All-American Girls Professional Baseball League” that was celebrated in the film, A League of Their Own, for instance. The league was premised on the notion that “girls could play like men but look like ladies.” Players had to follow strict rules regarding dress, curfews and hairstyles or risk being dropped from the league. Other female athletes took similar measures, such as wearing make-up and dressing in ultra-feminine clothes to reassure the American public that they were ‘real’ women—despite their athletic accomplishments (Morris, 2016).

The intended message of the “All-American Girls Professional Baseball League” and similar endeavors was crystal clear: Female athletes were acceptable if they acted the part of ‘ladies,’ a loaded term if ever there was one.

A (somewhat) level playing field
Over time, women gradually chipped away at barriers to sport. But it wasn’t until Title IX became law in 1972 that women’s athletics really took off. Historian Richard C. Bell explains that Title IX essentially “required American society to recognize women’s right to participate in sports on a plane equal to that of men” (Bell, 2008)

In fact, Title IX has been so successful in legitimating girls’ and women’s sports that today we’re at risk of forgetting just how limited the opportunities were before its passage—or how hard female athletes had to work to be accepted. Here are some numbers to put things into perspective. Prior to Title IX, there were just 295,000 girls participating in high school athletics across the U.S.—by 2002, that number had jumped to 2.8 million, an increase of more than 840% (Bell, 2008). Recent studies show that women today comprise 42% of all athletes at the high school and college levels, and both college and professional women’s athletes regularly perform for large and enthusiastic audiences in the U.S. and around the world (Mansky and Wei-Harris, 2016).

Coming Out
The hard-won success of female athletes is cause for celebration. But women’s gains haven’t necessarily translated into more flexible understandings of gender and sexuality vis-à-vis sports. In particular, the association between athletic achievement and heterosexual virility has had lasting implications for gay and bisexual male athletes. As one scholar puts it, “The stereotypes surrounding sport and sexuality would dictate that no gay males and an extremely high number of lesbians are athletes” (Maurer-Starks 2008). Thus, the announcement that a prominent male athlete is gay or bisexual—especially in a high-profile ‘rough’ sport like football, basketball or hockey—garners extreme attention.

Perhaps more than any other social arena, competitive sports have been inextricably linked with a particular interpretation of masculinity, one that celebrates physical prowess and aggression and is strongly associated with male heterosexual virility. Little wonder, then, that the world of men’s sports has been a stronghold for both homophobia and misogyny, with locker-room talk featuring frequent boasts of (hetero-)sexual exploits and coaches’ admonitions not to play like girls or ‘sissies.’ Homophobia and sexism go hand in hand in men’s sports, states former NFL player Wade Davis, “It’s so insidious and pervasive, it’s everywhere.” Being gay is falsely stereotyped as being “weak and like a woman”—the opposite of what it takes to be a “tough man” and successful male athlete. Given this environment, it’s easy to see why relatively few LGBTQ+ male athletes have run the risk of coming out (Hine, 2016).

Lesbian and bisexual women have faced a different set of challenges. The stereotype of the lesbian athlete bred its own version of homophobia in women’s sports, with athletes, coaches and the media going to great lengths to showcase female athletes’ femininity and heterosexuality. Lesbian and bisexual athletes consequently had to hide a key aspect of their identity or run the risk of alienating straight teammates, being eliminated from a roster to protect a team’s image or losing out on scholarship and endorsement opportunities. Not surprisingly, some of the earliest and most prominent athletes to come out did so in individual rather than team sports, such as the long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad (Bindel, 2014).

Recently, women’s sports have become more welcoming and inclusive vis-à-vis athletes who identify as gay, bisexual, or some other sexual identity. Somewhat paradoxically, sociologist Bryan Dunham credits the longstanding association between women’s athletics and gender/sexual non-conformity, as well as the relative inattention to women’s sports by the media, as helping to create spaces where LGBTQ+ female athletes can feel safe and thrive, away from the spotlight that shines much more brightly on male athletes (Dhar, 2019).

Studies also show that younger women—the age cohort most active in sports—are on the forefront of embracing a wide range of nonbinary gender and sexual identities. This loosening up of gender and sexual identity, with the attendant understanding that individuals can express their gender and sexual identities in a variety of ways, is a far cry from mandatory ladyhood (Hammack, 2019).

Certainly, the numbers of female athletes coming out as LGBTQ+, including high-profile stars like Brittney Griner of the WNBA and soccer megastar Megan Rapinoe, have eclipsed their male counterparts. Female athletes also report an increasingly supportive environment among teammates, coaches and fans.

Progress for male athletes has been harder to achieve. Perhaps current NFL player Carl Nassib’s recent announcement that he is gay, coupled with growing awareness and inclusivity around LGBTQ+ identities, will help spur momentum, making it possible for other LGBTQ+ male athletes to feel safe coming out and helping to dismantle stereotypes around masculinity and sexuality. As Nassib put it, “I just think that representation and visibility are so important.” Nassib, who says that he “agonized” for 15 years over the decision to come out, looks forward to a day when athletes and others in the LGBTQ+ community don’t have to go through a “whole coming-out process.” Until then, he pledges to do his part to “cultivate a culture that’s accepting, that’s compassionate” (Harris 2021). That’s what LGBTQ+ organizations like the You Can Play Project and SportSafe have been working to do for years.

Beyond the binary
The history of sports—and especially the uphill climb of establishing legitimacy for female athletes--also sheds light on recent controversies surrounding intersex and transgender athletes. Unlike other areas where women have made progress, such as education and employment, sports have been an area where creating opportunities for girls and women has required separate fields for male and female endeavor. Scientist Joanna Harper explains, “In order to make women’s sport meaningful, women must compete only against other women, as they are outmatched by men at the highest levels of most sports” (Tucker, 2016).

Seems simple, right? Except—as it turns out—human beings don’t fit easily into neat little boxes. Harper, who is herself transgender, explains, “In reality, biology does not neatly divide human beings into two sexes . . . there are two main groups of people who fall outside the binary division that most people have not historically considered: intersex and transgender people” (Tucker, 2016) Intersex refers to individuals whose biological sex characteristics aren’t easily classified as male or female, while transgender individuals are persons whose gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth.

Far from straightforward, the creation of a separate category for female athletes raises a challenging conundrum. As Harper puts it: “Precisely who should be allowed to compete in women’s sports?" (Tucker, 2106).

More specifically, when it comes to setting boundaries around women’s sports, questions are raised by transgender women and women with specific intersex variations that result in exceptionally high levels of functional testosterone. Although the science around athletic performance is still developing, current studies point to testosterone as the number one factor separating post-puberty male and female athletic capacity, with higher testosterone levels correlating to bigger and stronger bones and muscles, as well as higher hemoglobin levels, resulting in a massive performance advantage.

Harper neatly summarizes the consequent dilemma: “How do we support and protect women’s sport and at the same time, honor the rights of a marginalized segment of humanity?” (Tucker, 2016).

No easy answers
The fact is, there are no easy answers—at least not ones that can satisfy everyone. For those focused primarily on protecting women’s sport, it’s imperative to exclude all transgender and intersex athletes—even if they subsequently undergo hormone treatment to reduce testosterone. At the other end of the spectrum are those who feel that the rights of transgender and intersex individuals to participate freely in sports should trump concerns about fairness. In between are shifting efforts by a variety of sports associations to balance competing concerns for inclusion and fairness. In that regard, a key distinction is made between elite sports vs. recreational and children’s sports, with experts widely noting that the latter should focus on spreading the benefits of exercise and athletic activity as extensively as possible. For elite sports, various sports associations are currently focused on setting parameters for acceptable testosterone levels for athletes who compete as women (Harper, 2018).

Dr. Harper, who experienced a decline in her own performance as a long-distance runner after she began taking hormone treatments to support her transition from male to female, is a steadfast supporter of the right of individuals to define their social gender regardless of the biological sex traits they were born with. But she also believes that the science supports separate male and female categories in elite sports. “The most essential element of women’s sport is that it is practiced by testosterone-challenged athletes,” she asserts (Tucker, 2016).

Athletic Gender
While acknowledging that there’s no perfect solution, Harper proposes a novel approach to balancing concerns for fairness and inclusion: the creation of a distinct identity, which she calls “athletic gender,” based on a standard physiological test such as testosterone levels. In Harper’s view, organizing sports by athletic gender—as opposed to sex assigned at birth or self-identified gender—would help create a sports world characterize by both fairness and inclusion: “The concept of athletic gender can be a powerful idea that resolves many . . . conflicts,” she says. “For instance, the argument that intersex or transgender athletes will necessarily be stigmatized if they are unable to compete in the women’s category due to high testosterone levels loses its vigor if athletic gender is explicitly different from social gender.” At the same time, if “athletes can be sorted based on a standard physiological test such as testosterone levels, then it is no longer necessary to resort to the all-encompassing methodology of sex testing,” which can be undermining and disrespectful to transgender and intersex women (Harper, 2018).

Looking ahead
It’s too early to tell whether Harper’s concept of athletic gender will catch on. These are complex issues with no easy answers, and the science of sports performance is still a work in progress. Hopefully, whatever resolution is reached will be reflective of fact-based research and a desire to make athletic competition as fair and inclusive as possible, without political interference. The benefits of sport are universally acknowledged. Access to those benefits should be universal as well.

About the author--Kathleen Clark is Chief Learning Officer of Identiversity Inc. She lives with her family in Charlotte, NC and writes widely on topics relating to diversity, equity and inclusion.


Bell, Richard C. (2008). A History of women in sport prior to Title IX. The Sport Journal. https://thesportjournal.org/article/a-history-of-women-in-sport-prior-to-title-ix/

Bindel, Julie. (2014, February 12). Sportswomen are stereotyped as gay--but that doesn't make coming out easy. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/12/sportswomen-stereotyped-gay-coming-out-casey-s...

Dhar, Payal. (2019, November 20). When it comes to being gay-friendly, women's sports are ahead of the game. The Nation. https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/women-sports-lgbtq-homophobia/

Harper, Joanna. (2018). Athletic Gender. Law and Contemporary Problems. Volume 80; 139-153. https://scholarship.law.duke.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=4851&context=lcp

Harris, Mary. (2021, June 28). What it would take for more NFL players to come out of the closet. Slate. https://slate.com/culture/2021/06/carl-nassib-nfl-first-openly-gay-active-player-dave-kopay-colin-ka...

Hine, Chris. As LGBT Rights progress, why do gay athletes remain in the closet? Chicago Tribune. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/12/sportswomen-stereotyped-gay-coming-out-casey-s...

Mansky, Jackie and Maya Wei-Haas. (2016). The rise of the modern sportswoman. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/rise-modern-sportswoman-180960174/

Maurer-Starks, Suanne. (2008). Managing heteronormativity and homonegativity in athletic training. Journal of Athletic Training. Volume 43 (3): May-June 2008, 326-36. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2386427/

Morris, Bonnie. (2016). Women's sports history: A heritage of mixed messages. National Women's History Museum. https://www.womenshistory.org/articles/womens-sports-history

Tucker, Ross. (2016, May 23). Hydroandrogenism and women vs. women vs. men in sport: A Q & A with Joanna Harper. The Science of Sport. https://sportsscientists.com/2016/05/hyperandrogenism-women-vs-women-vs-men-sport-qa-joanna-harper/

Gender Identity Gender identity icon Our core sense of who we are as a man, a woman, a mixture of both, or neither.

Gender Expression Gender expression icon How we show up in the world through choices like clothing, hair style, mannerisms or tone of voice.

Attraction attraction icon How we feel toward others sexually, romantically and/or emotionally.

Biological Sex Biological sex icon Physical attributes such as reproductive organs and genitalia, chromosomes, genes and hormone levels.

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