ISSN 1652–7224  :: Published 3 November 2010
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Lesbianism as the Last Taboo in Women’s Football

Tanja Walther-Ahrens
European Gay and Lesbian Sport Federation

It is indeed a shocking experience trying to get a picture of what it’s like to be a lesbian woman in the world. A quick survey of available news initially indicates that the South African post-apartheid constitution guarantees equal treatment for homosexuals – in writing. But in a country where nearly half of all – all! – women will be raped at some point in their lives, an out and proud lesbian woman can hardly expect to go untouched. The former star of the South African women’s football team Banyana Banyana, Eudy Simelanes’ fate bears horrific witness to this fact. In April 2008 she was gang-raped and severely beaten before she was killed with 25 stabs to her body, from face to feet. The threat of “corrective rape”, rape in order to cure young women from the lesbian disease, holds black lesbians in an iron grip of terror, as in Western Cape where nine out of ten live in daily fear of abuse. The police are reluctant to investigate rape, violence and murder of lesbian women; only after more than thirty lesbian women were murdered in one decade, the Simelanes case was the first in which the offenders were brought to justice. Many South African lesbians seek refuge from persecution and discrimination in football, but nowhere are they safe.

Also in Nigeria, female football players are sometimes lesbians, so too in the national team, Super Falcons, which according to team managers has given rise to serious problems – “acts of lesbianism” – which in turn has led to a paucity of triumphs on the pitch. Nigeria Football Federation organized a seminar, “Women Football in Nigeria: Challenges and Prospects”, with the national team and the U-20 and U-17 teams, and afterward announced that the players had vowed to stop such behavior as was detrimental to the game. And quickly we turn our attention to Gretna in the south of Scotland, where Barney Davidson after several successful seasons as the head of Gretna women's football team, which at times topped the Scottish first division, one day, seven years ago, resigned. The reason given was that the team and its game was about to fall apart because the lesbians players, around half of the team, could not keep their personal relationships away from the pitch – couples who broke up could, for example, refuse to pass to each other. The team is now completely outside the league system. – Tanja Walther-Ahrens is active in the European Gay and Lesbian Sports Federation, and her article on lesbianism as the final taboo of women’s football describes the web of prejudice and discrimination faced by the European LGBT athletes, especially in football. She points to the efforts being carried out in order to combat racism in football, and calls on clubs and associations in Europe to mobilize similar resources to fight the equally troubling and injurious forms of sexual discrimination in the beautiful game.

You are just about to read about something that actually does not exist. The president of the French Football Association Jean Pierre Escalettes, recently said in a TV-documentary: “The French Charta against Homophobia in football draws the attention to something, which thankfully is not spread.”

Which shows us: There are no homosexuals in football. And many believe there are no homosexuals in sport at all. But of course they are there: The gays do gymnastics, ball room dancing and figure skating. The lesbians play of course handball and football. So where is the taboo?

Football is the most popular team sport in Europe. The rising number of spectators in professional football demonstrates the high level of acceptance the game continues to enjoy. Football is marketed and successfully sold as an “event.” As a mass phenomenon, football is not a reflection of society – it cannot be, because the women, the migrants and the homosexuals are missing – but football is rather a place where cultural notions influential in society are being produced or reinforced.

While racism is frequently on the agenda, discrimination and abuse based on sexual orientation, homophobia, and sexism are mostly neglected, although they are recurring problems in football as well.

To understand why lesbianism in football is one of the last taboos in women’s football it is necessary to understand how the topics of gender and homophobia are combined. Football continues to be a heterosexual men’s world, on the field and elsewhere.

Football is often seen as a refuge or a protective space for outdated notions of masculinity. Football is the last place where “true masculinity” may be lived and expressed both on and off the field. Female players, fans, board members, and journalists, in contrast, are rare exceptions. The common division of the game into football and women’s football illustrates the idea that it is the men who play “real” or “true” football, very much the way Boris Becker once commented on Steffi Graf in an interview about tennis: “She plays women’s tennis; I play tennis”.

People’s ideas about femininity and masculinity are profoundly influenced by collective notions established and transmitted in society over centuries. According to traditional gender roles, masculinity still represents attributes such as activity, courage, intellect, etc. Femininity, on the other hand, stands for weakness, emotions, and empathy, for example. These two categories reduce the diversity of possible human characteristics and forms of behaviour to a restricted, gender-bound repertoire.

Women in sports, however, do experience the possibility of expressing aspects of their personalities usually defined as male. They even have to demonstrate supposedly male qualities in order to be successful as athletes. For women, the main problem rather results from having to choose between their identities as women and as athletes.

The world of football is a special part of the world of sport. Football is a sphere of male culture, male bonding, and male power. Only “real” men play football, a game in which any display of “female” qualities will be considered a weakness. Female qualities are unwelcome; they are disrespected and excluded. Bad players are called “girls” or “faggots,” for example. Along the same lines, football-playing women are “lesbians”, with lesbian in this case meaning unattractive and “male.”

Stereotypical images and homophobia are widespread on all levels in football, among players, coaches, referees, clubs, associations, and fans.
Even though football for marketing reasons is about to be turned into a family event, and even if leftist men and gays no longer reject football, the world of football continues to be persistently male. Misogyny, sexism, and homophobia remain ingredients of football. They can be found in fan chants, on posters and photos, in calls to female players and cheerleaders to get naked, and, of course, in the oft-repeated and beloved wisdom that women are constitutionally incapable of understanding the offside rule.

Homosexuality is such a taboo in men’s football that you might think the first gay player would cause the football universe to come tumbling down. This seems strange considering the fact that the game regularly features various manifestations of homoeroticism such as players and fans kissing, embracing, and comforting each other both on the field and on the terraces. These forms of body contact, however, are not perceived as homoeroticism. On the contrary, players and fans may show all sorts of behaviour in the football stadium without being considered un-male.

People in Western and Central European countries live in societies that supposedly do not care who lives or sleeps with whom. Statistically, 5 to 10 percent of the population are homo- or bisexual. Looking at society at large, a lot has changed for lesbians and gays during the past few decades: Their public visibility has increased; many Western European countries have granted them more rights; there are more and more celebrity coming-outs in politics, culture, and the arts.

It is only in the realm of all-connecting, all-integrating, and never-discriminating sport that homosexuals are neither found nor welcome. Sport in general and football in particular seem absolutely resistant to progress in this respect. Working-class sport has been dominated by males and their points of view for so many decades that different life-styles do not have a place.

The amount of ignorance in all of this is quite frightening. Many only know a handful of invectives for gays at best. They know next to nothing about lesbians and entertain only stereotypical notions of homosexual life-styles. Stereotypes are omnipresent and function as mechanisms of exclusion for gays and lesbians. Stereotypical images and homophobia are widespread on all levels in football, among players, coaches, referees, clubs, associations, and fans.

Traditionally, heterosexuality has been regarded as a biological fact and the natural way of life. Homophobia in its various expressions and forms of social behaviour is intended to stabilize the system of heterosexuality by stigmatizing all other life-styles and forms of sexuality as unnatural or pathological. Kari Fasting defines homophobia as “an irrational fear and intolerance of homosexuality, gays, and lesbians – even of forms of behaviour outside of expected gender roles.”

Homosexuality in sport is seen somewhat differently with regard to different disciplines. Gay figure skaters are tolerated more easily than gay footballers, for example. And whereas female football players are bound to be lesbian by definition, female track and field athletes are not. In spite of these differences, however, homosexual athletes may experience discrimination in all sports. It often begins with feeling uncomfortable in clubs and associations because gays and lesbians are not visible. Most discrimination takes the form of verbal abuse. Rather than insulting gays and lesbians personally, people more frequently make general comments.

However, there are more extreme instances of discrimination, like exclusion from clubs after homosexuals have decided to come out. Many people still think homosexuality is contagious, so they won’t take a shower with a lesbian or gay person and do not want their children to do sports with them.

In December 2009 Dyanne Bito and Claudia van den Heiligenberg were removed from the Netherlands national team selection by their coach Vera Pauw for “personal reasons”. A Dutch newspaper spoke with Pauw, who said the duo was removed because their behaviour “was not having a positive influence on the performances,” but many believe they were removed because they were in a lesbian relationship. The coach herself has hinted in that direction by indicating that the decision isn’t based on performances on the pitch. The players aren’t talking.

For all of these reasons, only very few dare to come out and make their sexual orientation public. But they do exist. There is no gay top footballer out in all of Europe. And there are only some out-lesbian footballers, like the Swedish national players Viktoria Svensson-Sandell or Jessica Landström.

The Swiss researcher Calmbach found out that lesbians and gays can also be found in amateur sport, but merely 3 percent of them openly display their sexual preferences, and 64 percent come out only to their closest friends in their clubs.

As a result of persistent negation, homosexuality becomes a taboo. The silence of fans, players, coaches, clubs, and associations, and the negation and invisibility of homosexuality in sport, is serious expressions of homophobia.

Because of the public silence on homosexuality and homophobia and its invisibility, the dominance of both heterosexuality and collective ideas on femininity and masculinity remain essentially intact. As a consequence, it is almost impossible for athletes to come out. Young homosexuals suppress their identities and rarely participate in any sport for fear of discovery. This is also true of European countries in which official policies aim to strengthen the rights of gays and lesbians. In these countries, there may be more public attention on homophobia, but problems do exist just the same. It is probably safe to say that the situation in countries with a less supportive political background is similar, if not even more disconcerting.

Women’s football deals less restrictively with homosexuality. It is an open secret that many female footballers are lesbian, even in the upper leagues and the national teams. Being lesbian is tolerated more easily by society than being gay. It certainly is alright for two girls to walk the streets holding hands, for example. There’s even been a growing tolerance of girls interested in football and actively playing.

The German national player Lira Bajramaj writes in her just released biography: “I hesitated for a long time, if I should touch the topic of homosexuality in my book at all. But it is a part of women’s football, as it is a part of life in general and I do not accept, that everything is a taboo. […] Our sport still hangs on to prejudices and stereotypes. Because everyone just talks behind closed doors and never deals with it openly, they all turn something normal into something indecent.” She further rights: “It also bugs me a lot, that women’s football is reduced to a lesbian heavy weight sport (Wuchtbrummensport).”

Football and women have always had a tough time together. Women discovered the game as early as in the 1920s. From the very beginning, however, it was men who stood in their way, arguing that an aggressive and physical game such as football was incompatible with female tenderness. Playing football is seen as part of “male socialisation”; girls and women, in contrast, do not belong on the sports ground. In Germany, women’s football was illegal up until 1970.

Girls and women often love football for precisely the reasons that are put forth to keep them from playing. On the football grounds, they may escape traditional gender roles and stereotypes by acting forcefully, courageously, or dominantly, and by letting off steam. As a result, they are not “real women” in the eyes of many people. Female footballers are active in a male sport, which also happens to be the national sport of most European countries. For their achievements and athleticism in a rather rough game, they are taunted as lesbians. Interestingly, the situation in the United States is different: Association football, called soccer, is regarded as a sport for women and gays, whereas “real” men play American football.

Several studies, unfortunately not new ones, from Hekma, Pfister, Fechtig and Scraton, show that in Europe female athletes experience most discrimination in football. Lesbians feel comfortable and more at home in the world of sports and football than gays do. Since there are more lesbians active in sports and they’re often also pretty straightforward about their being lesbian, they experience discrimination more frequently than gays do. In addition, lesbians suffer discrimination because they are women. Sexism comes in various forms, from sexualised insults and pick-up attempts to all-out denials of women’s skills and abilities. Hard on the heels of sexism is homophobia because, after all, women practising a men’s sport, looking muscular, and moving with force and energy cannot really be “genuine women.” Thus, female footballers must be lesbians.

Hard on the heels of sexism is homophobia because, after all, women practising a men’s sport, looking muscular, and moving with force and energy cannot really be “genuine women.”
Usually women react to these manifold instances of sexist and homophobic discrimination either by taking them calmly and ironically, or by not even registering them as acts of abuse. Discrimination is impossible to ignore, however, when an entire women’s football team is forcefully dissolved, as was the case in Switzerland in 1994. The team was dissolved because the board members of FC Wettswill-Bonstetten were concerned about the players supposedly “acting out abnormal dispositions (lesbian)” (Tagesanzeiger, 2/4/1994).

Associations, clubs, and coaches do not want any lesbian players in their teams. There are tacit agreements not to disclose players’ sexual orientations. Lesbian footballers are strongly encouraged to keep their sexual preferences private. Clubs and associations pay close attention to their teams’ public image, which they aim to keep as “clean” as possible in order not to provide any reason for complaints from sponsors or worried parents. Many people still fear that homosexuality may be contagious or that playing football results in becoming lesbian. Parents do not allow their girls to play football because of their suspicions that the clubs are full of homosexuals.

Arguments like this are supported for example by the Austrian sports sociologist Otmar Weiß. He knows that the high percentage of homosexuals in women’s sport is a big problem and he said in a newspaper article in 2009. “A lot of young girls can not deal with these experiences: they are overstrained by this and left alone.” He even found discrimination against heterosexuals. Both of this could be true at some point and shows again how important it is to talk about homosexuality.

The top-level players could be role models, but there are only a few of them out. In Germany we do not have any out-lesbian players. There are a lot who are out in their teams, families and with their friends, but not in public. They are terrified of being “the lesbian football player”. Lira Bajramaj writes in her book: “I am sure that a coming-out would take away the basis of unconventional suggestions”.

This is probably true and it would be an important and big step forward in the right direction if more news like the one below from a German women’s football website would be published on a regular basis in between the news regular football news: “Victoria Svensson-Sandell is pregnant. The Swedish national player Victoria Svensson-Sandell and her wife Camilla are expecting their second child. Two years ago Camilla gave birth to daughter Moa, now Victoria is pregnant. The birth is expected in August.”

It also would be helpful to read or hear more about when sports and stereotypes collide with “coming out” on the playing field, like Rebecca Beyer, a former college football player wrote: “I let my best friends think that I was asexual and uninterested because I didn’t want them to think I was looking at them in the shower. All my life I had avoided stereotypes and stereotyping successfully. Although I was a tomboy, I wore skirts. Although I was smart, I sat at the “cool” lunch table. Nobody could quite nail me down. I wish I had allowed myself to be “the lesbian soccer player,” if only to prove that not all lesbian soccer players are the same. But I waited until I could avoid that very stereotype before coming out. And when I did come out, those who knew me — including all of my former teammates — found a louder, freer, more intimate version of me.”

In contrast to the few out top athletes, the high numbers of lesbian footballers in gay-lesbian events such as EuroGames, Gay Games, or the Gay-Lesbian Football World Championship are impressive. The number of women kicking the ball regularly is three or four times higher than that of the men.

Lesbian-identified sports teams provide a challenge to the heterosexing, and heterogendering, of sport. An ‘out’ lesbian football team can be understood as offering resistance to compulsory heterosexuality.

All in all homophobia in football is expressed by invisibility and silence. Discrimination happens first and foremost by ignoring homosexuality. In the entire world of sport, clubs and associations with few exceptions choose to ignore homophobia and discrimination of gays and lesbians on all levels, for the simple reason that homosexuals supposedly do not exist in sport.

Homosexuality continues to be regarded as a taboo and a provocation. Young people are less and less prepared to deal with homosexuality. Among male youngsters in particular, homophobia is more widespread today than it was a few years ago.

Coming-outs are not the only way of liberalising football and freeing it from its taboos. While we keep waiting for a coming-out of a top gay player and more lesbian players, a lot of work can be done. By transforming established structures of male bonding into a new form of solidarity, a new atmosphere may be created in which the decision for diverse life-styles is entirely up to the individual, who will not be left alone with possible unpleasant consequences. In order to reach that point, everybody involved in football first needs to recognise that lesbian and gay players exist and that not all players in a team have to be heterosexual. Even if there aren’t any homosexuals in the team, they may still be among those who provide for the team’s medical needs, report about the game, or maintain the football grounds. It needs to become clear in this context that homosexuality is as normal as heterosexuality.

The power and influence of football need to be mobilised to create public awareness of issues such as homosexuality, gender, homophobia, and sexism. As a first step, it needs to be illustrated that you don’t have to belong to a discriminated group in order to be affected by racism, sexism, or homophobia.

Lesbians and gays themselves will continue to work hard on raising their visibility in sport and in football, for example in huge international events such as the EuroGames or Gay Games as well as in smaller, regional tournaments. These events also provide countless opportunities for demonstrating respect for lesbians and gays, by actively participating, by publicising the events in articles for the journals of clubs and associations, by announcing them on websites, by providing funding, or by forming partnerships with participating teams and clubs including joint media appearances.

In addition, existing anti-racist projects and campaigns may provide a good starting point for creating an awareness of homophobia. We need to begin by pointing out homophobic behaviour each time it occurs and demonstrate that it exists on many levels and in various forms. Those already active in anti-racist projects need to be made aware of homophobia as much as everybody else, since the issue is not necessarily already part of their work. Furthermore Clubs and associations have to assume a leadership role and shift the atmosphere on and off the field in a more positive direction.

Copyright © Tanja Walther-Ahrens 2010.

All rights reserved. Except for the quotation of short passages for the purposes of criticism and review, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the author.