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Wednesday, June 21, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Homosexuality In Sports Now Impossible To Ignore

AP

ALTHOUGH THE ACCEPTANCE of homosexuality in sports has been a slow struggle, the movement to overturn what once was a powerful taboo is growing, albeit with growing pains. -----------------------------------------------------------------

EAST LANSING, Mich. - Two young women lay languidly in the sun along the 18th fairway, T-shirts rolled up, arms and legs braided in a casual embrace.

Beth Daniel, and the gallery that follows her at this LPGA Tournament, pay no attention to the couple. On a Sunday when some estimate that about half of the 27,000 spectators are lesbians, walking together, holding hands, hugging and kissing, nothing about this couple seems unusual.

Half a century after the color barrier was broken in baseball, a social shift of no less significance is occurring on playing fields and in locker rooms, in corporate offices and in public debate: the acceptance of homosexuality in sports.

It is happening slowly, with anger and denial on all sides of the issue, but the movement to end this most secret and powerful taboo in athletics cannot be stopped.

"We have to start talking about it," said Dr. Dee Mosbacher, a psychiatrist and producer of a documentary about homophobia in women's sports. "There are too many gay and lesbian athletes in sports for this to be ignored or hidden much longer. Ultimately, it's a question of justice and freedom and fairness."

Three of America's most famous male athletes - an NFL player, an NBA player, and a track-and-field star - have talked to The Advocate, a national gay and lesbian magazine, about coming out, according to its editor.

As more and more gay and lesbian athletes follow, propelled by the scourge of AIDS and a younger generation's openness, the initial shock is certain to shatter the stereotypes of athletes and homosexuals.

Tennis player Gigi Fernandez came out when she appeared on stage with Martina Navratilova during the gay-rights March on Washington in 1993.

Fernandez's relationship with defending Wimbledon champion Conchita Martinez has been an open secret on the women's tour among other players, writers and fans. So, too, have been the sexual orientations of at least half a dozen other players among the top 50, although none have talked about it.

When asked if she's a role model for other gay athletes to come out, Navratilova turned around and said, "I don't see any line forming behind me."

Daniel, the LPGA Player of the Year in 1994, has a huge following among lesbians, but refused to discuss her sexual orientation.

"I would just say that that's my personal business, and it's no one else's business at all," Daniel said. "And I would feel that anyone would have the right to say that."

The possibility of losing endorsements was not a concern, she said, adding, "I just don't feel like whether I'm gay or not should be an issue to people.

"I want people to watch me play golf for my golf skills, and I want to be able to give that to them . . . I find it hard to believe that someone is standing on the other side of the rope, going, `Is Beth Daniel gay or is she not gay?' "

No one expects a flood of coming-out announcements right away, despite the fact that there have been more gay men and lesbians in entertainment and politics revealing their sexual orientation in the past two years than in the previous two decades.

"Coming out is one of the best ways of fostering understanding inside and outside the gay community, because if people know that gay people are everywhere, it becomes less of an issue than if they're only in certain arenas," said Jeff Yarborough, editor of The Advocate, which has a readership of 250,000.

"The sports world and the film industry are the two final frontiers - the sports world because it's the last bastion of heterosexuality in this country, and the movie industry because it's built on image."

The call for discussion and education about homosexuality in sports has been embraced by the Women's Sports Foundation, especially after the flap last month over CBS golf commentator Ben Wright's reported remarks, which he later denied making, that widespread lesbianism on the LPGA Tour was hurting sponsorship. The debate that ensued illustrated the passion, fear and ignorance that the topic of homosexuality in sports engenders.

A generation gap exists within the gay and lesbian communities. Those in their late teens and 20s, in general, are more comfortable with their sexual orientation than their elders.

More established, older gay athletes and coaches, meanwhile, fear that coming out will result in terrible consequences. Despite all the sympathy and understanding expressed toward diver Greg Louganis, and all the popularity that Navratilova has gained in recent years, gays and lesbians worry that coming out would threaten their jobs, scare away sponsors and alienate teammates.

"It would destroy my career if people knew," confided a gay member of one of the NFL's most successful coaching staffs.

"I've got eyes and ears, and I'm sensitive to what goes on. I could tell you some names of players on our team that are very homophobic. I don't talk to anyone on the team about it, ever."

The three athletes in the NFL, NBA and in track and field who have been talking with The Advocate are worried about different problems if they come out.

"The basketball player and football player are really terrified, more of the reaction from their team than the reaction from the media," said Yarborough, who did not disclose their names. "They're afraid of walking into the locker room and getting called a fag. That will hurt them. In the sports world, they're household names. With the track-and-field star, the issue is endorsements. He doesn't know what will happen if he comes out, but that conversation is very active."

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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