The delegation selected by President Barack Obama to represent the United States at next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, has been hailed as a “genius” stand for diversity over diplomacy and sends a clear message that America stands for equality – but has yet to achieve it.
The decision to go with Billie Jean King and Caitlin Cahow — two prominent, openly gay athletes — is cause for optimism among gay-rights advocates who have long called for Obama to do more than voice concern over Russia’s anti-gay laws. LGBT groups were understandably frustrated with the president’s foot- dragging on gay rights during his first term, but it appears that Obama is inching closer to fully embracing his chance to be America’s first gay president (because we all know Bill Clinton was our first black president).
King is an especially strong choice, as a pioneer of LGBT rights in both sports and society, and a marker of Obama’s own “evolution” on the issue. She was outed by her former partner in 1981, making her one of the first out female athletes of note, and has long fought for both gay and women’s rights. In 2009, Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The notable absence of any out gay male athletes from the delegation, however, highlights an obstruction on the road to full equality: In our society, lesbians are still more palatable than gay men, especially in the world of sports.
This stems from the double standard for men and women, and isn’t just an issue of straight or gay. Heteronormative notions of gender traits and roles advance the view that gay men, considered “feminine,” have no place in the hypermasculine arena of athletic competition. On the other hand, the stereotype of the butch lesbian lends itself to pseudo-acceptance, which may seem like progress, but is really just the old tune in a new key. If straight women are too girly and thus too fragile to play sports, gay women aren’t because they aren’t really women.
That isn’t to discount the significance of Obama’s decision, nor is it to say that women can’t further the cause for equality as well as men. Rather, it’s an acknowledgment of the unique challenges gay male athletes face in simultaneously maintaining their professional, masculine and sexual identities, which are emblematic of the larger struggle faced by gay men and women and straight women in this heterosexual man’s world. It also explains why, as tennis legend Martina Navritilova notes, gay men have a particularly difficult time coming out in sports as compared to other industries.
Keep that in the back of your mind in the weeks leading up to the opening ceremony. The issue of equality is here to stay, and the president’s announcement Tuesday was an important step for a nation that likes to think of itself on the right side of history and social change. Having King and Cahow represent the U.S. on an international stage will surely send a message to Russia and the world that gay rights is a top priority, but should also remind us how far we remain from the finish line.
© 2013, Bloomberg News