A story in the Globe and Mail yesterday bemoans the fact that only 10 Olympic athletes are openly gay in a public enough way to be counted by the website Outsports.com (don’t ask me about their methods–not much on that over there). This includes nine lesbians and one gay man, and for whatever reason does not count one bisexual woman.
Given that there are about 10,000 athletes, the story reasons, ten gay athletes is so small that many more athletes must be gay and closeted…but how many? They venture a guess:
Outsports said this must be way short of the real figure and argued that a more accurate estimate could even reach 1,000.
Hmmmm…this seems very high to me. The Outsports people are basing this estimate on shaky premises.
The first premise:
Researchers such as Eric Anderson of the University of Bath in England (and a longtime Outsports contributor) say that the percentage of gays in sports mirrors the percentage in the entire population (estimated at between 2% and 10%).
A quick check of Anderson’s CV doesn’t indicate that he’s published anything on this topic, and I don’t know why we’d assume that this would be the case. There is substantial anecdotal evidence that sports can be either hostile to or relatively welcoming of gay men and lesbians. I think it would be hard to argue that, for example, boys’ baseball and girls’ softball are equally safe spaces for gay men and lesbians. This difference is emphasized by the gender imbalance of the out athletes–10 women and 1 men. I think women’s sports have long been a place where some lesbians have found safe spaces, but men’s team sports have been a very different story.
The next shaky premise is the 10% issue, which brings up some interesting problems with sexual identity and survey data. The link in the quote above points to the National Survey of Family Growth study that shows that about 90% of people claim heterosexual identity, but only about 4% claim a gay, lesbian or bisexual identity. It is a substantial stretch to claim that the remaining people are closeted gays and lesbians. Then, of course, you would have to extrapolate these U.S. data to the global population, and then assume that in those countries, there are also no barriers to lesbians and gay men participating in sports.
So, even if you take the conservative estimate of lesbians and gay men in the U.S. population (and count bisexuals–why not?), you would expect 400 LGB Olympic athletes, as opposed to the 1,000 mentioned in the article. Much higher than the 10 or 11 of whom they are aware, of course. However, it is strange to me that the same article that claims that gay men and lesbians are forced into the closet by the unwelcome nature of sports doesn’t even consider that these forces might be barriers to entry to sport as well. My guess would be much lower.