Elling, A., De Knop, P., and Knoppers, A. (2003) 'Gay/Lesbian Sport Clubs and Events. Places of Homo-Social Bonding and Cultural Resistance?', in International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 38/4: 441 - 56.
The social importance of sport has grown in the Netherlands. It has been connected to policies of social inclusion and integration, but there are the usual contradictions and subtexts as well. Thus an increasing presence of male ethnic minority athletes in some sports has not been followed by a general improvement in the situation for ethnic minorities 'nor does it create equal-opportunities for them in the job market' (441). Dutch football might assist in social cohesion between ethnic groups, but 'racist and ethnocentric chants by the crowds are commonplace' (441).
The concept of social integration itself is multi-dimensional, and its precise meaning depends on who is to be integrated and in what kind of sport. This particular paper focuses on integration according to sexual preference, and the formation of gay sports clubs in particular. Mainstream clubs are officially open to all regardless of sexual preference, while 'categorical clubs' cater for particular categories, such as gay and lesbian. Discrimination against gays is illegal in the Netherlands. However, integration into mainstream sport settings is little studied by official surveys as yet. A recent special survey showed 'no large general differences in sports participation between gay men and lesbian women compared to straight men and women with similar educational and social economic background', but there were some differences depending on 'organisational context and the type of sport' (442).
However, participation in specialist lesbian and gay clubs is increasing, and the issue is whether this results from discrimination in mainstream activities or from a more positive choice ['push' and 'pull' factors in the analysis which follows]. An empirical case study of mainstream and categorical volleyball clubs has been pursued to try to answer this question.
There are some specific social factors in the Netherlands. Dutch society is described as a '"pillared society"' (444) -- social order was based on diferent communities (eg Protestant, Catholic, socialist), each with their own 'categorical' associations. As these bonds declined, others emerged based on new identities, including sexual preferences. This tradition may be as important in the emergence of categorical gay clubs as discrimination in the mainstream.
It is still difficult to break with conventional heterosexual identities. Football in particular is associated with heterosexual masculinity in the Netherlands, and so is rugby. It is not surprising to find stereotyping and homophobia in those sports, although paradoxically some lesbians have found such sports to offer a safe haven 'probably due to processes like self-fulfilling prophecies' (443) [I'm not sure how this works exactly -- maybe female participants receive so much stigmatisation that they decide it is safer and easier just to come out in the end?]. The position for male gay sportsmen is different: many quit sport altogether or choose gay-friendly sports and clubs. Masculinity and homoeroticism seem to lead to greater hostility to male gays. An overall '"culture of silence"' is often the result (443), where participants survive through constant covering, pretence, and closeting. Few Dutch gays and lesbians have experienced explicit discrimination, it seems, although more subtle forms are more common, including feelings of unease and not being accepted.
In order to carry out research, social integration is divided into three subtypes: structural (participation and accessibility); cultural (norms, values and acceptance); social-affectionate (measured by social contacts and friendships) (444). These different dimensions can sometimes oppose each other, however, so that increased friendship can also lead to new processes of conflict and marginalization. It is also not wise to assume that integration in sport reflects 'similar degrees of integration in society' (445).
The study itself is part of a larger one covering other groups (Steenbergen et al 2001*). In this particular case, a literature search and discussion was followed by issuing questionnaires and doing interviews at a mainstream and a gay and lesbian volleyball club in Amsterdam. 'Both clubs had male and female members who are mainly highly educated and "white"' (445). [NB the study is based on only 45 returned questionnaires and 11 interviews]. Interviews were semi structured and analyzed using grounded theory, and focused on the more personal and subjective aspects.
The results indicate both push and pull factors in joining a gay club. For males, there was experience of discrimination in mainstream clubs and a feeling of being more at ease and being able to make friends in the gay ones. Being able to play volleyball at a suitable level and at a convenient time was also important. Members seem to have experienced subtle forms of discrimination, mentioning 'an explicit heterosexual atmosphere' in mainstream clubs, sometimes combined with teasing. Even male heterosexual members of gay clubs liked being able to form friendships, and sometimes, to be able to play less competitively (a factor that can increase with age). The pull factors were more important for lesbians, who had been better able to cope with mainstream clubs anyway. There is some evidence that gay activity clusters in the more urbanised areas of the Netherlands, partly because there is less acceptance and more discrimination in rural areas.
What does this tell us about social integration? On the first dimension, separate clubs might stimulate greater levels of participation, but not if they attract active athletes away from mainstream contexts: most of the members of the volleyball club had already been active players. Increased visibility of explicitly gay and lesbian teams might increase social acceptance and thus integration, but this might be less relevant to improving integration in mainstream activities themselves [which the authors regard as 'the hegemonic meaning of integration' (448)]. Specific gay sports initiatives can foster new kinds of separation, and there are often problems of detail, such as how many homosexuals would be required in a mainstream club to count as integrated. Too many heterosexuals would take away the distinctive lesbian subculture, according to one respondent, while for men, few heterosexuals want to join gay clubs in the first place. [Should this be encouraged as well? The authors refer to this as 'reverse structural integration' (449)].
On the second, cultural dimension, events such as the Gay Games [held in Amsterdam in 1998] can help to bring it gays and lesbians together and offer them a '"queer social space" which contests hegemonic sexual relations and social boundaries within public spaces' (449). However, cultural emancipation is not the main interest for actual members of sports clubs. Further, such initiatives can also be seen as a commercial venture connected with 'the developing sport tourism and gay tourism industries' (449). However, cultural emancipation is supported as a possible goal by the respondents, although heterosexuals are more pessimistic -- some even predicted that separate sports club could increase discrimination since it would make gays more visible. This was one fear arising from the Gay Games themselves -- 'Media images of the... Games have shown that visible (separate) sport participation by lesbians and gays can challenge certain stereotypical images, but simultaneously confirm them' (450). The Games were open to heterosexuals in a spirit of reverse integration. [I would like to know how many heterosexuals took part . The one example quoted seems to have been a woman who was particularly indifferent to sex stereotyping.]
On the third dimension -- friendship and bonding -- nearly all respondents emphasised increased possibilities, even for those who had not joined specifically for that reason. However, other social identities also provide bonds, especially higher education and ethnicity. Friendship and bonding between the genders was not very common, compared to the mainstream clubs, although heterosexual relationships were still 'major discussion topics' (451). There is little evidence to suggest that sport itself is a major factor in bonding, compared to other social identities. Nor is it the case that playing volleyball alone led to many close friendships (more like the working friendships with colleagues). As with heterosexuals, some joined in order to find partners, and some respondents (especially the heterosexual ones ) suggested that was a major reason for (others) in joining. This may be just the result of stereotyping, and the authors deny that 'sexually motivated reasons are clearly not the main reasons for most lesbian women and gay men to join gay and lesbian sport groups' (452). However, if integration does proceed, making sexual contacts may become more important in the future as a specific function for clubs.
Social integration through sport is clearly complex and multi-dimensional. Exclusion seems to affect all sports clubs. Pull factors are as important as push ones for gays wishing to join categorical clubs, although subtle forms of discrimination are probably still common. Political cultural implications are contradictory -- more space may be opened for cultural resistance, but the mainstream public might also resist back again! Overall, though, categorical clubs and queer spaces do help to 'contest hegemonic heterosexual sports culture' (453).
*Steenberg, J. Knop, P.de, and Elling, A. (eds) (2001) Values and Norms in Sport: Critical Reflections on the Position and Meanings of Sport in Society, Oxford: Meyer and Meyer.
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