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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

"My straight teammates encouraged me almost more than my gay teammates to speak out," she said. "They're such an example of being open-minded."

Playing the percentages

The intersection of sport and sexual orientation appears to be in flux, with recent polls suggesting that a growing number of young people have more relaxed views than their parents did.

"That's just not something you think about," said Kelsey Hom, another Santa Monica High player. "No one's ever been like, 'I'm not playing with her because she's a lesbian.' "

But as the recent buzz over Kagan proved, old tensions linger.

The photograph, which dates back to Kagan's days as an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Law School, drew response from a wide range in the media, from liberal blogger Andrew Sullivan to conservative television commentator Bill O'Reilly.

Pat Buchanan called the picture "a signal, like two men sunbathing together on the beach or something like that. The immediate indication is that they're gay."

Such talk explains why players still face questions.

"I can't just say, 'Oh, I play softball,' " Elander said. "Then I also have to say, 'But I'm not a lesbian' or 'Not everyone is a lesbian.' "

In Minnesota, professor Kane believes that softball remains marked by what she calls "fear of the lesbian presence."

"It's in the bone marrow of women's sports," she said, "the whole issue that sports will turn you gay or sports have a disproportionate number of lesbians."

This dynamic leads to negative recruiting — college coaches trying to influence prospects by whispering that rival programs are pervasively gay — and concerns among parents.

"Whether someone is lesbian or straight shouldn't have a bearing on anything," said Steve Langenfeld, whose daughter Megan was a finalist for national player of the year at UCLA. "In softball, there are all kinds of girls. There are girly girls and there are not girly girls."

So, with the Bruins in Oklahoma City for their 24th trip to college softball's championship tournament, issues raised by the Kagan photo linger in the background.

Players such as Mendoza and Lappin said they have witnessed progress in terms of acceptance, but realize there is still a ways to go.

Assistant coach Fernandez figures it would be simpler to reduce the entire issue to a number.

Such as batting average.

"As long as you can hit," she said, "I don't care what you do."

david.wharton@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesWharton

melissa.rohlin@latimes.com

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