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Photo raises issue of sexual orientation in softball

Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan is pictured playing the sport, and whispers grow that she is gay. Those who play say they are aware of the reputation, but history of acceptance should be what is celebrated.

June 02, 2010|By David Wharton and Melissa Rohlin

There was nothing complicated about that photograph of Elena Kagan, the one that showed her standing at bat on a playground diamond.

Maybe if she had been kicking a soccer ball or diving off the high board, there wouldn't have been as much fuss.

But the Supreme Court nominee's sexual orientation was already the stuff of rumors, given that she was single and kept her hair short. Her supporters accused conservatives of trying to damage her chances by whispering that she was gay.

Adding softball to the conversation only amped up the volume, all those bloggers and television commentators, and the White House was compelled to reiterate that Kagan was heterosexual.

None of this particularly surprised a sport that has wrestled with the issue — If you play, you're probably gay —for decades.

"I think it's unfortunate," Lisa Fernandez, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and assistant coach at UCLA, said of the stereotype. "It's part of our game."

The situation gets even trickier because somewhere amid the chatter lies a kernel of truth: Softball has long held a special status among lesbians in America.

"It is one of those little touchstone things," said Rosalyn Bugg, an official with the Greater Los Angeles Softball Assn., founded as a slow-pitch league for gays. "Softball has always been a safe place."

The media buzz surrounding Kagan has quieted in recent weeks, but with the season nearing a crescendo — high school teams deep in the playoffs, UCLA playing in the College World Series starting Thursday — softball's reputation still simmers beneath the surface.

Culture lessons

Long before Jessica Mendoza won two Olympic medals, she was a young player learning about her favorite game's reputation.

"There were always comments about sexuality being associated with sports," Mendoza said, "and it caught me off guard a few times."

People who have been around softball for decades say lesbians were a quietly accepted presence back in the 1970s and '80s. Several coaches in Southern California estimate that more than 50% of the players were gay at the time.

The situation became evident to Nicole Drabecki in 1997 when, as a freshman at Western Michigan University, she traveled with her team to a tournament in Florida.

"I've never seen so many gay people in my life," said Drabecki, who now coaches at Burbank High. "I was really shocked.… If anything, it was a good experience to learn to be open-minded."

By then, the game had become a central part of the culture, said Pat Griffin, author of "Strong Women, Deep Closets: Lesbians and Homophobia in Sport." Gay women could feel accepted at the ballpark. Recreational leagues served as a gathering point in major cities across the country.

But at some point image overtook reality, the presumption being that every player was lesbian.

"Softball being a euphemism for homosexual is pretty funny," said Bugg, the recreational league official. "But not so funny to a lot of the women I play with who are not homosexual."

As straight players grew more worried about being labeled gay, the games took on a different look.

"You see a lot of girls wearing makeup, a lot of girls with their hair really pretty because you can definitely tell they still want to look pretty and probably go against those stereotypes that were pinned against them," said Holly Elander, a senior outfielder at Santa Monica High.

That concerns Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, who said: "If you have long hair, if you have makeup and dress in a certain way, then you can't be a lesbian. These are the traditionally female characteristics, which are false."

Stereotypes persisted even as softball experienced significant changes.

Added to the Olympic program in the 1990s — it was subsequently dropped — the game attracted more media coverage, inspiring more young girls to play. With a larger talent pool, the percentage of lesbian players seemed to decrease. Griffin said: "There are a lot more straight women who play."

Next came a bona fide sex symbol.

Jennie Finch had long blond hair, a bright smile and the body to be a model in Sports Illustrated's swimsuit edition. Mike Candrea, her coach at Arizona and on the Olympic team, asserts that she helped change the game's reputation.

"There's no comparison," he said. "The faces of our sport are Jennie and people like that … c'mon."

But Lauren Lappin, a national team player who came out two years ago, does not like that sexual orientation even factors into the discussion.

"I think it implies that, No. 1, most softball players are lesbian," she said. "And that being lesbian is not as good as being straight, or that it's bad or gross or wrong."

If anything, Lappin and others prefer to celebrate the sport's history of acceptance.

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