By Jamie Leno Zimron / LPGA Pro, 6th Dan Aikido
Somatic Psychologist, Corporate Speaker, Peak Performance Trainer

Did you know that female athletes in ancient Greece were not allowed to compete in the all-male Olympiad Games – despite the fact that women ran, swam, wrestled, played ball, rode horses, and drove and raced chariots? Or that only virgins and prostitutes could even spectate? The male body was extolled, with Olympians competing naked to show off their physiques to the patron god Zeus, and to intimidate competitors. Trainers too had to be naked to insure they weren’t women, after a mother entered the stadium disguised as her son’s boxing coach as the only way to watch him compete.

Separate Heraea Games were held, honoring Zeus’ wife Hera, but were associated more with puberty and pre-nuptial rituals than athletic prowess. The Heraea allowed only unmarried women to compete, clothed, in just one event, footraces. Women athletes in Sparta fared somewhat better, with mini-contests in wrestling and running. One Spartan, Kyniska, ran chariot races thanks to a rules loophole that worked in her favor as a wealthy horse owner. Winning the hazardous horse races twice, she became the original female Olympian and champion. Kyniska opened the way for more women chariot drivers to participate, and come in first. But, being female, she was barred from the men’s stadium so couldn’t attend her own prize ceremony.

With aviation in its infancy in 1929 and almost exclusively male, a small cadre of pioneering female pilots – names little known or remembered save for Amelia Earhart - flew in the first women’s cross-country airplane race. Most men were unable to cope with women flying, much less demonstrating amazing aerial skills, feats and bravery that matched or exceeded theirs. The press deliberately belittled these amazing transcontinental female flyers by dubbing their daring air-race The Powder Puff Derby.

In 1950, thirteen pioneering women with unstoppable courage, vision and raw desire to play founded the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA). Amongst them was Babe Didrikson Zaharias, one of the greatest female and all-round athletes of all time. In the 1930s she was a basketball star and track & field Olympian, sweeping 6 of 8 events in 3 hours while setting world records in javelin, hurdles, baseball throw and high jump. ‘The Babe’ was also an expert diver, roller-skater, bowler, ice hockey and baseball player. In 1934 she pitched in several Major League spring training games, and to this day her world record stands for the longest baseball throw by a woman.

The Babe stormed women’s golf, once winning 13 consecutive tournaments, and is one of a rare few Grand Slam titleholders of either sex. She was the sport’s first female super-star, giving the nascent LPGA the boost it needed to take hold as crowds thronged to watch both her power and pizzazz. In 1954 this unbelievable sportswoman won her 10th LPGA Major championship wearing a colostomy bag, just one month after colon cancer surgery. Two years later she died, a sports legend forever, at age 45.

Exemplifying unlimited female and human athleticism, The Babe was as well a singer, harmonica player, traveling vaudeville performer, recording artist, and renowned seamstress who sewed her own sports clothes. Wikipedia notes that she “broke the accepted models of femininity in her time … Although a sports hero to many, she was also derided for her ‘manliness.’”

Athletes and pioneers are still today often seen as manly - even when they are women! Why?? So many questions need more asking, and answering. Who says being physical, brave and strong means a girl is male-identified? Who says womanhood or motherhood don't go together with power, excellence, competitiveness and achievement? Or that masculine and feminine are mutually exclusive, or limited to biology and body parts? What ideas do you carry about boys, girls and gender non/conformity? About yourself as a physical and active person? About gay, lesbian, transgender and non-binary people as athletes, competitors, coaches, champions?

In 2014 Michael Sam, an all-American college defensive end, shocked the world when he came out prior to the NFL draft. With homophobic censure so great in sport, he knew his name and future were at stake. Minds went on tilt confronted by this handsome, buff, articulate black man who liked blocking, tackling and rushing - and kissing and sleeping with men. Sam made it to the NFL but lasted only a year, before the taunts and bullying became unbearable.

A too-little-known story occurred in 1985 when Ed Gallagher, a former college football tackle, attempted suicide 12 days after first sleeping with a man. He survived jumping off a dam but was left paraplegic. Until his passing twenty years later, in 2005, Gallagher worked tirelessly as both an LGBTQ and disabilities activist. Always vocal about having battled depression over his sexuality, and confusion over being a football player and gay, his poignant words yet echo: “I was more emotionally paralyzed then, than I am now physically.”

Epithets of sissy, fairy and girlie continue to be thrown at boys who like flowers, decorating and love more than footballs, trucks and guns. Our society has had a harder time keeping girls out of sport. However, it has likewise labeled as tomboys those who prefer mitts and hockey sticks to dresses and dolls, and often denigrated them as dykes. Sponsors, and fans, are relieved each time they see women athletes look feminine and have boyfriends, husbands and kids.

Why should it be so hard to grock a guy who's gay and does like footballs? Or a woman who is athletic, strong - and straight? Rather than change the faulty thinking arising out of male-dominant hetero-sexist illogic, it is easier to discredit individuals as aberrations. A gay male athlete is either not really gay or not much of a sports-man; or a lesbian athlete is simply a tomboy and manly, not a real girl or woman. It is all too common to defend hetero-sexist norms, spewing specious arguments damning gay people in order to keep ‘them’ out of 'our’ games, ads, and the big leagues.

Ideas about gender must open up and shift so that any talented athlete can be on the team, in the news, and able to pursue their dreams and livelihoods in sports. Michael Sam, now an LGBTQ rights activist and motivational speaker, serves in his words as a ‘sword and shield’ for those daring to break sex-role molds and refute stereotypes. At his NFL draft press conference, he proudly sported a rainbow pin inscribed Stand With Sam. It is critical that we stand up and support all marginalized athletes. Let us all play our part in diversifying every playing field, and ensuring that everyone is in the game.

This is the third in a series of articles on Hetero-Sexism in Sport by Jamie Sensei. For a more personal look at its impact, please read Part I: On Being an Athletic Girl & Sportswoman.

Read Article 2 - Uncoupling Athleticism & Opportunity from Gender
Read Article 3 – Mixing Up 'Manly' and 'Athletic' 
Read Article 4 - The Gender Pay Chasm in Sports

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