The day that Alaina Sudeith began playing water polo, the way
her peers perceived her changed.

Before the UCLA sophomore joined the water polo team at
University High School in Irvine, her classmates knew her as a
tomboy. Afterward, many wrongly assumed she was a lesbian.

“There’s a double-standard for men and women in
sports because men are encouraged to be strong and competitive, but
if a woman expresses any interest in sports, she’s labeled as
butch,” said Sudeith, a member of UCLA’s club
women’s water polo team. “There is a homophobic
backlash against straight female athletes, and I find it to be
pretty ridiculous.”

Sudeith, like many female athletes, has felt pressure from men
to conform to traditional stereotypes and stop playing sports.
It’s a predicament that some female athletes have encountered
both at UCLA and other schools, especially on teams like softball,
basketball and water polo, which are commonly associated with
lesbians.

“There are two types of female student-athletes: those who
are lesbian but don’t want anyone to know, and those who are
straight and feel like they have to prove they aren’t
homosexual,” said Ronni Sanlo, director of UCLA’s
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Center. “The
perception is that they are all lesbian.”

Since enrolling at UCLA and joining the club water polo team,
Sudeith said that the perception that she is a lesbian has become
more pronounced. Fellow students have told her that she will lose
her femininity, become too muscular, and no longer fulfill
society’s concept of the ideal woman.

“I’ve been told from guys on campus that I
shouldn’t play sports because everybody would think I was a
lesbian, and no guys would be interested in me,” Sudeith
said. “This was even from gay guys.”

Such an unfavorable environment forces many straight female
athletes to try to prove their heterosexuality, University of
Colorado at Colorado Springs sociology Professor Jay Coakley
said.

This phenomenon, dubbed by Coakley as the “female
apologetic,” refers to the explicit attempts of women to
manage their appearance so that they look more feminine and
consequently more straight. Coakley said straight female athletes
will consciously put on makeup, don a skirt and high heels and tie
their hair in a ponytail to fight the perception that they are
lesbian.

“Historically, women’s athletics has been
stereotyped as an area for lesbian women,” said UCLA
Associate Athletic Director Petrina Long, who oversees life skills
and spoke on behalf of the athletic department. “That’s
a stereotype that has been problematic for all women to deal
with.”

Sudeith said that she has not consciously changed her own
lifestyle to appear more feminine and neither have some of the
other UCLA female athletes interviewed for this article.

“Our team is going to bust our butts on the basketball
court, not dress a certain way to dispel perceptions,” UCLA
women’s basketball coach Kathy Olivier said.
“That’s what is sad about elite female athletes. People
will look at them and assume.”

An easier way out

The perception that many female athletes in some sports are
lesbian has been advantageous in at least one way.

It appears to have made it easier for the female athletes who
actually are lesbian to come out.

While no current male professional athlete in any of the four
major sports is known to be openly gay, a slew of high-profile
lesbian female athletes have revealed their sexual orientation.
That list includes former world No. 1 tennis player Amelie Mauresmo
and the WNBA’s Michelle Van Gorp. Tennis legends Martina
Navratilova and Billy Jean King were among the first lesbian
athletes to come out.

“For gay men, it’s a little more risky (to come
out),” said Pat Griffin, an openly lesbian professor of
social justice education at the University of Massachusetts and the
author of the book, “Strong Women, Deep Closets: Lesbians and
Homophobia in Sport.”

“Part of that is that team sports is the last bastion of
heterosexuality and male masculinity. For lesbians, there are
different issues.”

One lesbian athlete on a UCLA club sport agreed with Griffin,
indicating that she did not believe homophobia was nearly as
prevalent in women’s sports as it is in men’s
athletics. Though she herself has not told any of her teammates
that she is a lesbian, she said it is because she prefers to keep
her sexual orientation a private matter so it does not distract the
team.

“Straight players are not taking their coaches or
teammates aside and telling them they are heterosexual,” said
the athlete, who spoke on a condition of anonymity. “I
honestly don’t think there should be a difference, and I want
to be treated the same.”

The athlete, echoing the sentiments of most UCLA female athletes
who were interviewed for this article, indicated that openly
lesbian athletes are not victimized by homophobia nearly as much as
their male counterparts. In fact, none of the lesbian athletes
interviewed said they were victims of homophobia ““ a far cry
from the several male athletes who already voiced their
concerns.

“If I were to come out, it would not be a big deal, and I
would most likely be treated the same,” the anonymous lesbian
club-sport athlete said.

“I am not really afraid of being ostracized by my
teammates. I know that girls (at UCLA) have come out to their
teammates or coaches, and it was nice for them to get it off their
chests.”

An open atmosphere

Lesbian athletes at other schools haven’t always enjoyed
the support that they seem to receive at UCLA.

At the University of Florida in 2003, former softball player
Andrea Zimbardi was allegedly dropped from the team in her senior
season because she is a lesbian. More than one decade earlier, Penn
State women’s basketball coach Rene Portland admitted to
having a team rule, banning all lesbians.

But at UCLA, lesbian athletes don’t seem to have too many
complaints.

“Every girl I know that’s a lesbian out on a team
has had no issues,” said a straight female athlete at UCLA,
who wished to remain anonymous.

The athlete said she knew of a varsity team at UCLA with a
considerable number of lesbian members, most of whom have come out
and none of whom have experienced any problems. The explanation for
this, she said, is that women’s teams are more
tight-knit.

“For girls, we’re a family,” she said.
“We make everyone a birthday cake and take care of
one-another when we’re sick. Guys teams’, it’s
manifested a bit differently.”

Since there is no specific policy related to homophobia at UCLA,
the best way to handle issues of sexual orientation is left up to
the coaches themselves.

Olivier said she will only intervene if her team comes to her
with a problem. UCLA softball coach Sue Enquist said she prefers to
stay out of her players’ private lives.

“I’ve instilled a foundation of respect in my team,
and I’ve told everybody to understand the differences they
have between each other, whether it be sexual preference, religion
or race,” Enquist said.

“Hypothetically, if I ever came across a case of
homophobia, I’d speak individually to both parties, figure
out what the perceptions were, try to come to an understanding, and
direct them to the appropriate resources.”

With reports from Jeff Eisenberg, Gilbert Quiñonez,
Andrew Finley and Seth Fast Glass, Bruin sports senior
staff


Correction: The print edition of this article
mistakenly referenced Cat Reddick, a U.S. women’s soccer player, as
a lesbian athlete. Reddick was not contacted for the article and
has not identified herself as gay. A reporter unintentionally
included her name, and the error was not corrected during the
editing process.