In March 2016, North Carolina passed the controversial Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act — more commonly referred to as HB 2 or the bathroom bill, and more accurately referred to as an attempt by homophobic bigots to legally and systematically marginalize the LGBTQ+ community.
HB 2 required transgender individuals to use the public bathroom that corresponds with the gender on their birth certificate and prevented local governments from passing anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.
There was rightly political and moral outrage from celebrities, communities and companies such as the NCAA, which threatened to cancel events in the state. Yet it wasn’t until estimates that the city would lose nearly $4 billion in revenue that the Democratic governor and the Republican state legislature compromised on a repeal.
While the compromise bill repealed HB 2’s gender-based bathroom use policy, the state legislature still had sole control of regulating bathroom access and local governments were prohibited from passing anti-discrimination protections.
The NCAA accepted the government’s new bill, and continued championship planning within the state, heralded as the main actor inciting the change.
The guise of the NCAA threatening to pull out of North Carolina was enough to placate societal norms, but when it comes down to the support and protection LGBTQ+ athletes receive, definitive progress is sparse.
Since Major League Soccer defender Robbie Rogers’ 2017 retirement, there have been no current openly gay professional athletes in any of the five major men’s professional sports: football, baseball, soccer, hockey and basketball.
Sports, especially at the professional level, have always seemed to have a primal relationship to homophobia — there is a culturally sustained oxymoron of LGBTQ+ presence and sports: gay men are perceived as inherently not masculine enough to compete on the same stage (or field or court or rink) as straight men.
In 2011, Kobe Bryant was caught muttering a gay slur after receiving a technical foul and fined $100,000. NHL Chicago Blackhawks forward Andrew Shaw was similarly caught expressing a homophobic slur in an expletive-filled tirade and was suspended for one playoff game in 2016. New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. said that throughout the 2015 season, he was regularly the target of gay slurs from opposing teams.
After the June 2016 massacre of 49 individuals at a gay nightclub in Orlando, it took the NFL nearly two weeks to comment on the shooting and furthermore, the NFL never acknowledged the direct connection between the shooting and LGBTQ+ victims. Only after the Tampa Bay Rays donated to the Pulse Victims Fund did the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Miami Dolphins and Jacksonville Jaguars donate to the OneOrlando Fund.
While the NHL held a moment of silence during one of its Stanley Cup Final games, it never released an official statement. The Miami Heat changed its Twitter cover to a rainbow logo, but never vocally showed support to the LGBTQ+ community.
These organizations’ actions foreshadowed the lackadaisical response to HB 2; the various leagues did the bare minimum to show support to placate traumatized fans, but failed to acknowledge — and therefore institute cultural and systematic protections for their LGBTQ+ fans and players — the direct hatred targeted at the LGBTQ+ community.
There is clearly, however, an undeniable trend toward inclusion and acceptance. The NFL works with former cornerback and now out activist Wade Davis II as the league’s first LGBTQ+ inclusion consultant. Former professional baseball player Billy Bean similarly works as the MLB’s first “ambassador for inclusion.” The NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB and MLS all marched as leagues in this year’s New York City LGBT Pride March.
That’s nothing to say of the contributions women have made toward progress. Billie Jean King bravely pioneered advocacy throughout her career after being outed in 1981. U.S. Women’s national soccer team players Megan Rapinoe and Abby Wambach have long worked for social justice. The WNBA and the NBA became the first leagues to march in the New York City pride parade in 2016.
It’s too easy to blame locker rooms as the culprits of hate speech and homophobia in sports (just ask the president).
According to Davis, the root of the problem lies not only within the hyper-heterosexism demanded in sports, but also an unassuming sexism. Homophobic comments are clearly meant to be emasculating, and the insinuation that a strong male would be ashamed of perceived commonalities with a woman exposes an underlying contempt for women.
It isn’t difficult to realize that this problem permeates culture outside the locker room — from the president’s disparaging comments about women to his administration’s push of policies such as banning transgender individuals from the military—the LGBTQ+ community faces greater problems than in the microcosm of sports.
Only when professional leagues accept the responsibility to directly challenge homophobia, whether from the president of the United States, a North Carolina legislature or their own athletes will LGBTQ+ athletes have the equality to openly play their sports.
Sports should be about athleticism and skill, without the senselessness of gender and sexuality coming into play.