Heterosexism and Sport

Heterosexism,  homonegativism,  and  transprejudice  are  prejudices  aimed  at  lesbian,  gay,  bisexual,  or  transgender  (LGBT)  people.  These  beliefs and  actions  are  common  in  sport  and  negatively impact  all  participants,  regardless  of  their  sexual orientation or gender identity. This entry discusses common types of prejudices faced by LGBT sport participants, defines related terminology, and notes the effects of biased sport climates.

Heterosexism  is  a  belief  system  in  which  it  is assumed  or  expected  that  all  people  are  heterosexual.  In  a  heterosexist  environment,  heterosexuality  is  viewed  as  the  natural  or  normal  sexual orientation.  This  belief  creates  the  assumption that people are inherently straight (heterosexual), and  that  those  individuals  who  do  not  meet  this expectation  are  deviant.  As  a  result,  nonheterosexuality  is  considered  strange  or  abnormal. Heterosexism  forms  a  climate  where  heterosexuality  is  privileged  or  rewarded  with  high  social status   and   respect   not   readily   granted   to nonheterosexuals.

In sport, heterosexism is common. The prevailing silence about the existence of LGBT athletes or coaches renders them invisible. For example, heterosexual privilege is provided when locker rooms are divided by sex. This separation is based on the assumption  that  through  creating  all-male  and all-female  spaces,  all  sexual  innuendos,  harassment,  or  relationships  among  teammates  will  be prevented since everyone is expected to be heterosexual. That people in sport tend to only imagine and  recognize  male  athletes  as  having  girlfriends or wives and female athletes solely in relationships with  males  shows  how  extensive  heterosexism  is. Nonheterosexuals  participating  in  heterosexist sport climates may feel excluded from or invisible to their teammates, coaches, or other sport personnel. Heterosexism provides the foundation for climates  perceived  as  unwelcoming  for  LGBT  sport participants.

Homonegativism  refers  to  purposeful  negative stereotypes,  prejudice,  and  discrimination  toward nonheterosexuals,  whereas  homophobia  is  an irrational fear of LGBT people. Unlike homophobia,  the  term  homonegativism  signifies  that  the bias  against  nonheterosexuals  often  is  rooted  in personal  belief  systems  and  maintains  social  and political functions. Therefore, the term homonegativism more accurately addresses the social issues embedded in the discrimination that takes place in sport and connects it to other “isms” in sport (e.g., sexism,  racism).  Examples  of  homonegativism  in sport  include  name  calling,  stereotyping  athletes, physical  violence,  bullying,  and  benching  or  cutting  LGBT  athletes  from  teams.  Additionally, coaches may be fired or overlooked for jobs if they are perceived as LGBT.

Often  such  negative  treatment  is  based  on stereotypes  equating  masculinity  in  females  with being  lesbian  and  femininity  in  males  with  being gay. The application of these stereotypes has serious  implications,  including  causing  some  people to avoid or quit sport. LGBT athletes and coaches in  heterosexist  or  homonegative  sport  settings often experience high levels of stress and monitor themselves  to  conceal  their  sexual  identity.  Other consequences of homonegativism in sport include a decline in self-confidence, increased anxiety, difficulty  focusing,  dejection,  and  decreased  athletic performance.

Heterosexism  and  homonegativism  can  only continue to function as long as the gender binary exists in sport. This binary acknowledges only two categories:  male/masculine  and  female/feminine. These categories are considered distinct and opposite  of  one  another.  This  sorting  system  appears throughout   sport.   For   example,   youth   sport leagues  are  divided  by  gender  and  some  sport uniforms and rules change based on the gender of the participant. Boys are often demeaned through phrases like “You throw like a girl,” which further suggests  that  boys  should  throw  differently  (and better)  than  girls.  Through  sport,  boys  and  girls learn  how  to  speak  and  behave  appropriately  in relation  to  their  gender.  Those  who  do  not  conform  to  these  heterosexist  rules  may  encounter homonegative treatment.

One’s  gender  identity  refers  to  the  internal sense of one being a girl or boy, woman or man. For many individuals, gender identity aligns with their outward appearance. However, some people have an identity that is outside of the female–male binary.  For  transgender  individuals,  gender  identity  is  not  consistent  with  their  biological  sex (anatomy),  is  fluid  (changeable),  or  is  perceived as something other than male or female. Intersex individuals  are  born  with  anatomical,  hormonal, or genetic characteristics of both female and male bodies.  Transsexual  people  intend  to  undergo  or have  completed  hormone  therapy  or  sex  reassignment  surgery  so  gender  identity  and  sex  are compatible. They go through a transition period in which they begin hormone therapy to make physical changes to their body while they live full-time consistent  with  their  gender  identity.  During  this time,  their  physical  body  is  not  consistent  with binary  gender  conforming  bodies.  After  surgery, and  with  sustained  hormone  therapy,  transsexual  athletes  can  compete  in  the  gender  category consistent  with  their  reassigned  sex.  All  of  these trans people challenge the gender binary because, instead of following the belief that one is born into a prestructured gender classification system, these individuals move across the boundaries. Yet, there is no place for trans people in a heterosexist sport environment  and  they  often  face  transprejudice (bias  based  on  gender  identity,  also  called  transphobia). Most sport policies do not include trans and transitioning individuals.

Though  the  negative  effects  of  heterosexism, homonegativism,  and  transprejudice  persist,  they do not describe all sport settings. Some organizations  are  working  to  create  more  inclusive  sport climates that do not privilege one particular sexual orientation or gender identity. Many coaches also are  working  diligently  to  provide  inclusive  environments  that  allow  all  of  their  athletes  to  be successful  in  and  out  of  the  playing  arena.  More LGBT sportspeople are coming out, or letting others  know  of  their  nonconforming  sexual  orientation  or  gender  identity  than  in  previous  decades. That more people are feeling comfortable to do so suggests that, at least in some contexts, the climate of sport is becoming more open and welcoming to diverse people.


  1. Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity. Seeing the invisible, speaking the unspoken: Addressing homophobia in sport. Retrieved from http://www.caawshomophobiainsport.ca/e/index.cfm
  2. Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network. (2012). Changing the game: The GLSEN sports project. Available from http://sports.glsen.org
  3. Griffin, P., & Carroll, H. J. (2010). On the team: Equal opportunity for transgender student athletes. Retrieved from http://www.nclrights.org/site/DocServer/ TransgenderStudentAthleteReport.pdf?docID=7901

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