Queerness and sports have always shared a complicated relationship. From toxic locker room talk to struggling with gendered categories of male and female, we asked you to give us all the deets about your experience as a queer and/or trans person in sports. Here’s everything we’ve understood so far.
Sports and athleticism are construed by society and culture to be a strictly masculine space wherein any exception is a weakness. Thus, sports favours some men over women and subordinates other men. As a respondent recalled, “I was called a ladki because I wasn’t interested in football. Football stories are kinda horror memories,” conventional masculinity has come to be advertised as a quality every ideal athlete, every ideal man, must embody. Another respondent said, “Got called slurs because I couldn’t play like a man.”
Sportspersons with marginalized, non-masculine bodies and behaviours are then subject to scrutiny and disrespect, and are undermined. If I had a paisa for each time I have heard, “Why are you throwing like a girl, da?” from male classmates, my wealth would have rivalled that of Ambani’s.
Rahul’s unfunny one-liner, “Ladkiya basketball nahi khel sakti” from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is not the only time women in sports have been put down, to put it simply, for the absence of masculinity. Not only women, but any individual who doesn’t conform to toxic ideals of masculinity has suffered in PT class. It just goes to show that we have a ways to go before “throwing like a girl” is something that’s okay, and even aspirational.
Sports serves as an institution that reinforces gender binaries. For example, athletes are divided on the bases of social constructions like sex and gender. Ryan S. Rigda, in his dissertation titled ‘Rhetoric, Sport and Queer/Theory: Gender and Athleticism in Queer Sports’, says that male athletes are expected to perform male athleticism and female athletes are expected to perform female athleticism. Every time this exercise is repeated, binaries are cemented. If a boy was caught playing badminton, they were ostracized and called slurs. If a girl wanted to play cricket, they were made fun of because they couldn’t “play like a man.”
However, the introduction of queer and trans sportspersons in the mix disrupts the gender binary because queerness does not conform to the socially accepted performances of male and female athleticism. Putting it simply, athleticism’s patriarchal priorities are rendered meaningless. A respondent stated, “Played golf for the longest time but at the end of the day couldn’t play the men’s tour as a trans man.” Any subversion of physical or temperamental gender expectations is immediately met with doubt and surprise. A testimony we received, captures the essence of this perfectly: “I used to play tennis till before Covid and I had a boycut then. This one time, one of the new boys on the court asked me “are you a girl or a boy?”.
Ultimately, when we move towards a queer understanding of sports, the assumed usefulness of conventional masculinities, problematic binaries and heteronormative structures begin to vanish.
A Man’s Game
Another crucial aspect in sports is the inherent association of some as masculine and others as feminine. Activities like badminton, figure skating, gymnastics, cheerleading, chupa-chupi and ghar-ghar are examples of feminine sports. Feminine sporting activities are classified as so because they are usually understood to be less physically strenuous. Physically intensive sports like cricket and football are considered masculine. Several testimonials we received attest to this. A respondent said, “I was never inclined towards cricket while all my “guy” cousins forced me into it saying “boys” play this.” Femininity is automatically conflated with weakness – both physical and mental. A respondent recalls “Constantly asked by men if my boobs were okay?”.
In conclusion, certain physicalities and intensive sports mustn’t always be understood as antagonists. Each body is different, functions differently and responds differently. It is difficult, even for researchers, to put bodies in boxes and generalising characteristics across genders.
Dekho Magar Pyaar Se
Sports is a dynamic institution made up of sportspersons, audiences and organisations. To understand its complexities, the audience cannot be ignored. Every sport is audience-oriented and oftentimes, what the audience wants shapes what a sport or a sporting event will look like. Think of the IPL or the Olympics. Apart from excellent gameplay, star power and grandeur, there is a tiny, little sliver of a silver lining that makes sure queer audiences sit tight and indulge.
One of our respondents said, “Always thought it is weird female volleyball players have to wear teeny-tiny shorts but my queer ass also thinks they look rly rly great” and I couldn’t agree more!
(Side note: Once, I got so overwhelmed watching Katrina Kaif in an action scene that I burst into tears. So, yes, who am I to deny this? TL;DR: women are great.)
The crux is if you are watching sports to appreciate how amazing your favourite sportsperson looks then you’re not alone. Trust me, you’ve earned the right to voyeuristic appreciation after a hard day of queer and/or transphobia. No need to pretend like you understand how soccer works, everyone knows you are watching it for Megan Rapinoe.
“…and I’m on the bleachers”
A lot of us hated PT class in school, sports days, or athletics of any kind. For a lot of queer persons, the refusal to participate in sports comes from the fear of being ostracized for their choices, of being outed and bullied. One of our respondents shared that they hated sports and they never played at school.
Such examples are a poignant reminder that everyone experiences and lives queerness differently. For some, sports are scary; for others, sports are powerful. Diversity of lived experiences – and the ways in which communal, uncharacteristically gendered strenuous activity challenges or affirms that – is truly what makes the LGBTQI+ community so unique.