Lesbian Athletes Finally Get Their Own Deals


Rosie JonesBednarski said that as a gay woman, she recognizes all of the conflicting messages we still have, and the fear some athletes still live with. Because of this, she realizes the appeal of Olivia’s athletes isn’t just about sports, but is also about them being brave lesbians.

“There are a few places where you live, like San Francisco, where you have a safety bubble, but for some people, where they live is a scary place to be a lesbian,” Bednarski acknowledged.

She sees more and more companies following in the footsteps of Nike and starting to take a stand for equality. This year, 51 percent of the Fortune 500 companies offer domestic partner benefits, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

There have also been changes in mainstream sports and mainstream culture. “Being a lesbian athlete is not sponsorship poison anymore; corporations have caught on to those cultural changes,” said Pat Griffin, the director of the Women’s Sports Foundation’s It Takes A Team project. One of the goals of the project is to end homophobia in sports through education.

Griffin travels to colleges and high schools doing diversity training for coaches, athletes and administrators. She said there are now so many athletes who are out at the collegiate and professional level that it’s hard to keep track of them. “The gay and lesbian sports market is about to explode,” Griffin said. “Many of these athletes are moving up to the Olympic level in his or her sport and will be playing as an out athlete. These women are also getting coaching jobs, and being out there, as well.”

She acknowledged that “You still have the Renee Portlands,” referring to the Penn State basketball coach whose name has now become a catchphrase for a homophobe in the sports world because of her open policy forbidding “drugs and lesbians” on her team. For the past year, NCLR has been supporting basketball player Jennifer Harris in a lawsuit against Coach Portland, who dismissed her from the team because she mistakenly thought that Harris was gay. Although Penn State, in an internal investigation, concluded that Portland had discriminated against Harris, Portland was not removed from her position.

The combination of more athletes coming out of the closet sooner and in higher numbers, corporations becoming more gay-friendly, people speaking out against injustices such as the Portland case, and broader cultural changes that indicate more acceptance of LGBT people, is culminating in an environment that is increasingly supportive of openly gay athletes.

In the case of Rosie Jones, one could argue that being out helped her twice: first with the Olivia sponsorship, second with the Golf Channel. With a glut of golfers below the “Annika line” — Annika Sorenstam being one of the few golfers the general public knows — coming out may have given Jones the publicity that got her the position as a commentator on the Golf Channel.

Though Navratilova and King may never recoup the money they lost in endorsements after they came out, they are catching up. Navratilova released a book this year, Shape Your Self, that shows people how to attain those very muscles that many felt hurt her image decades ago. In April 2006, King was the subject of an HBO documentary, Billie Jean King: Portrait of a Pioneer, that examined her historic role in battling sexism in women’s sports.

As for Swoopes, Olivia gave out 30,000 red buttons at games, Pride parades and the Gay Games this past year. If the WNBA ever doubted whether or not there were lesbian fans, now they knew — half of the fans in many of the games were wearing the buttons.

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