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The Homophobia Problem in Women’s Tennis Is Its Race and Gender Problem Too

BY ON July 11, 2015


If you never saw her play a match, you would think that Serena Williams was an on-court bully.

Today I opened my New York Times app to find this in the sports section: “Tennis’s Top Women Balance Body Image With Ambition” (July 10 2015). As sportswriter Ben Rothenberg mansplained, many of the top women players are willing to sacrifice championships in order to not “bulk up” and — here’s the kicker — risk “looking like men.”

“It’s our decision to keep her as the smallest player in the top 10,” said Tomasz Wiktorowski, the coach of Agnieszka Radwanska, who is listed at 5 feet 8 and 123 pounds. “Because, first of all she’s a woman, and she wants to be a woman.”

Radwanska, who struggled this year before a run to the Wimbledon semifinals, said that any gain in muscle could hurt her trademark speed and finesse, but she also acknowledged that how she looked mattered to her.

“Of course I care about that as well, because I’m a girl,” Radwanska said. “But I also have the genes where I don’t know what I have to do to get bigger, because it’s just not going anywhere.”

For many, perceived ideal feminine body type can seem at odds with the best physique for tennis success. Andrea Petkovic, a German ranked 14th, said she particularly loathed seeing pictures of herself hitting two-handed backhands, when her arm muscles appear the most bulging.

“I just feel unfeminine,” she said. “I don’t know — it’s probably that I’m self-conscious about what people might say. It’s stupid, but it’s insecurities that every woman has, I think. I definitely have them and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I would love to be a confident player that is proud of her body. Women, when we grow up we’ve been judged more, our physicality is judged more, and it makes us self-conscious.”

Needless to say, the only woman Rothenberg could find who was willing to sacrifice her “femininity” for athletic excellence is Black, and the best player in the game. But even the legendary Serena Williams said that she prefers to cover up her arms in public. As Rothenberg points out, Williams’ “rivals could try to emulate her physique, but most of them choose not to.”

Lessons for young women athletes contained in this story:

  • It is better to be feminine than successful.
  • It is better for men to think you are pretty than for women to respect you.
  • It is better to be childlike than to be powerful.
  • If you get big and strong, everyone will think you are a lesbian and/or a transgender person.
  • It is fine for White women to lose to Black women because they aren’t really women.
  • Black women aren’t successful as athletes because they work hard and train but because they “naturally” grow big muscles and aren’t pretty anyway.

I don’t know why I am surprised that The New York Times would publish a piece that supports female body hatred, that a male reporter would support such a narrow beauty standard for women, or that women’s tennis players would be proud of their endless willingness to be gender police each other.

But I am. I guess I am also surprised that one of the women on the Times sports beat hasn’t pantsed Ben Rothenberg by now.

Most of all I am disgusted with the WTA which, for forty years, has been hiding lesbians, encouraging homophobia, and allowing less successful players on the tour to insult and badger gender non-conforming women, straight and gay, who train hard and win. I am also sick of the racist iconography that the women’s tennis establishment accedes to. If they are promoting femininity, why do they produce so many action shots of Serena Williams roaring and pumping her fist after winning a point, a “guy” photo pervasive in baseball and football, and which makes her look like a bully who is barely in control of herself? In contrast, White and Asian women’s tennis players are generally depicted in graceful, dance-like poses, their lovely slender limbs stretched out in mid point; or looking thoughtful and determined as they contemplate their game plan.

Back in the gay 1980s, a friend and I made it an annual event to go to the Women’s Tennis Association championships at Madison Square Garden. The tour was then known as the Virginia Slims. Of all the corporations and brands making money from women’s bodies, the only people who would sponsor women’s professional tennis were the folks at Philip Morris, a company that was also urging women to kill themselves with a dainty cigarette made just for them.

Not unlike the Nabisco Dinah Shore golf tournament, the Slims was dyke heaven. The ratio in the Garden was probably seven or eight women for every man, with we sporty butch types predominating. Yet if you looked at the tournament on TV, you would see none of that: television shots of the crowd always featured close frames of gender mixed groups, and it was rare to spot a masculine woman.


Navratilova’s consciously butch style, her refusal to wear skirts and dresses, and her muscularity all became “proof” for the gender police in the WTA that she was not really a woman.

This was quite a production feat, if you think about it, since the numbers of dyke tennis fans escalated after 1981. In that year Billie Jean King was forced out of the closet after a palimony suit filed by her so-called secretary Marilyn Barnett, and Martina Navratilova voluntarily disclosed that she was a lesbian in a newspaper interview. Navratilova expressed her fear to the reporter that her’s and King’s revelations would have a financial impact on the women’s game, and they did: the following year, Avon dropped its sponsorship of women’s tennis.

King and Navratilova survived, but barely. King lost her clothing contracts (she made a point of wearing some old sequined numbers her mother had made for her in the pre-sponsorship days until she got her contracts back, which I thought was cool.) Navratilova also lost sponsorships, but became so dominant because of a fitness, weight lifting and nutrition program that Chris Evert (a friend, rival and femme crowd favorite) was never able to knock her out of the number 1 spot again. Instead of praise, Navratilova’s success triggered shameful attacks on her gender presentation and sexuality. Players, their parents and coaches complained, often anonymously, to reporters that Navratilova ought not to be permitted to play women any more because real women weren’t that strong. Navratilova was also informally shunned. Only the classy Evert, who also publicly apologized for homophobic statements she had made earlier, would play women’s doubles with Navratilova for a number of years. This nasty form of gender policing has also been aimed at U.S. Olympic rower Chris Ernst, South African track star Caster Semenya, and basketball phenom Brittney Griner. Many other lesser known athletes are routinely asked to take chromosome tests and/or strip to prove that their biological sex matches their stated gender.

As we are all patting ourselves on the back about how cheerful the media has been about Caitlyn Jenner’s gender transition, pay attention to this: no one does anything about the gender-shaming of  female athletes. In fact, it is often promoted by the sports establishment in articles like Ben Rothenberg’s. So it is no wonder that nearly all the lesbians on the women’s tennis tour, and many other lesbian and trans athletes, stay in the closet at a moment when lesser folk with lots of social and economic privilege can be as out as the please. Today, compared to the 18 women the World Cup soccer tournament who are publicly gay, tennis fans would be hard pressed to name an out lesbian currently active on the tour: France’s Amélie Mauresmo, who took a public relations beating after coming out in 1999, is now a coach.

Unsurprisingly, since news outlets pipe the WTA‘s gender policing into our homes uncritically (go here for the pink Hello Kitty line of girls’ tennis wear), players still feel free to make excuses for losing by gender shaming other players. This has been an open problem since 2006 when, following a loss to Mauresmo, The Guardian‘s Louise France wrote that

[Lindsay] Davenport, possibly in a fit of pique at having been knocked out, said playing Mauresmo was like ‘playing a guy’. (She later apologized, but the damage had already been done.) Not known for her friendly diplomacy, Martina Hingis pitched in. ‘She is half a man,’ she told the press.

But the damage is so much more complex: you don’t have to be a queer theorist to understand that Mauresmo’s muscularity and strength, a mannishness which many lesbians and genderqueer folks cherish and many athletes in other sports would kill for, is viewed by the tennis establishment as biologically freaky and sexually pathological.

So here’s the challenge for women’s professional tennis: is it a sport, or is it a modeling agency? If it is a sport, let’s cover these women as athletes, competitors and whole people with real lives and great bodies. If not, let’s move them — and ht sportswriters who want to cover them —  to the fashion section.


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