The Arena of Masculinity: Sports, Homosexuality, and the Meaning of Sex

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9780312062934: The Arena of Masculinity: Sports, Homosexuality, and the Meaning of Sex

Sports are perhaps the most visible expression of the ideals of masculinity in our society, and figure as a training ground on which young boys are taught what it means to be a man. Given the involvement of sports with masculinity, the homosexual athlete becomes a paradox, and the recent explosive growth of gay sporting leagues, a puzzle.

Pronger explores the paradoxical position of the gay athlete in a straight sporting world, examines the homoerotic undercurrent subliminally present in the masculine struggle of sports, and explicates the growth of gay sports in the framework of the developing gay culture.

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About the Author:

Brian Pronger is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Physical Education and Health at the University of Toronto.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Arena of Masculinity
I Introduction "The essence of truth is freedom ... Freedom ... lets beings be the beings they are." --Martin Heidegger  
Incongruous and seductive, the combination of homosexuality and sport makes one wonder about the meaning of sex. This book, while exploring the special athletic experience of homosexual men, also speaks of much more. The gay experience of athletics is a lived metaphor for the more general experience of being gay in a straight world, the experience of being an outsider on the inside, of being a stranger in one's own home. By proposing an understanding of our culture's sexuality, a sexuality based on a grossly unjust order of gender, this book offers a substantial criticism of the way in which we all, heterosexually and homosexually, go about our erotic lives. This is not so much a criticism of people as it is a criticism of the culture that has created an ugly gender order, which, through its myths of power, conceals the truth of our humanity by making us see each other always through the filter of gender. I believe in the power of human beings to take control of their destiny, to say no to an inauthentic myth that has oppressed them, to make themselves free. To find that freedom we must first understand how it is that these myths control us. This book is an attempt at such an understanding.  
At least in one's youth, if not throughout life, having homosexual desire goes hand in hand with hiding it. What is it that's apparently so awful about homosexuality that boys with a personal knowledge of it, be it the product of unrequited desire or ambitions fulfilled, feel they should conceal it? Why, when it is revealed, is it often met with stinging silence or vicious attack? Is it just a shallow ignorance of another way of life, or is it a deep sense of the significance of homosexuality that makes people afraid? Why don't we encourage homosexuality in our culture? If homosexuality were simply a variation of a common sexual urge, merely a matter of preference, of personal taste, as is often maintained, it is unlikely that our culture would make such a big deal out of it. Homosexuality undermines, in a positive way, the most important myth of our culture. This is a myth upon which all human relations are based. In many respects, this myth determines the way one lives, by giving power and prestige to half the members of our society and denying the same to the other half. This myth permeates not only the most important institutions of our society, such as religion, medicine, law, history, the arts, and athletics, but it is also deeply imprinted on the psyche of every human being in our culture. This myth has been responsible for many centuries of appalling subjugation, oppression, and exploitation. It is, of course, the myth of gender, a sociocultural form that divides power between men and women. The gender myth endows the relatively minor biological differences between males and females with major social significance. Homosexuality, although it by no means relinquishes this myth, subverts it. In our culture, male homosexuality is a violation of masculinity, a denigration of the mythic power of men, an ironic subversion that significant numbers of men pursue with great enthusiasm. Because it gnaws at masculinity, it weakens the gender order. But because masculinity is the heart of homoerotic desire, homosexuality is essentially a paradox in the myth of gender. In many important respects, the difference between an athlete who is homosexual and one who is heterosexual is nonexistent. Sexuality has no bearing on the hitting of tennis balls, speed of skating, height of jumping, precision on gymnastic apparatus, or any other strictly athletic phenomenon. But in our culture athletics has more than purely athletic significance. And sexuality isnot just a matter of the pleasure of flesh meeting flesh. Both sexuality and athletics draw meaning from our culture's myths of sexuality and gender. Because homosexuality and athletics express contradictory attitudes to masculinity, violation and compliance respectively, their coexistence in one person is a paradox, the stuff of irony. Athletics is traditionally understood as a masculine pursuit. (The evidence for this is overwhelming. For example: women were not permitted in the Olympic Games until 1928 and sixty years later at Seoul they represented only about one quarter of the athletes. There are still many sports in which women are not allowed to participate. Women who do become athletes are often considered unfeminine.) That a man can prove his masculinity in the boxing ring or weight room, on the football field, hockey rink, track, or basketball court, is a well-known dimension of the myth of gender. As a young gay man, homosexuality and sports seemed like opposites to me. And so for many years I eschewed athletics. My sense of being a gay man had more to do with witty conversations at elegant dinner parties than it did with grunting and sweating in a gym. I had avoided athletics because I didn't want to be part of that straight, masculine world that seemed to me both threatening and inappropriate. Over the years, as I came to accept my homosexuality, to see the many implications of that different sexual worldview, I felt less threatened by straight masculinity and more willing to use traditional masculine forms like athletics in my own untraditional ways. And so I started running, swimming, and lifting weights. This was a wonderful rediscovery of the joys of movement and physical exertion. I joined a swim team, started going to meets, and immersed myself in athletic culture. Now convinced that a physically active life was worth pursuing, I returned to university to study physical education. During that time, I developed an ever-greater appreciation for a paradox at work not only in my own life, but also more generally, for the ironic significance of homosexuality in our culture. The athletic world of power, speed, and pain is an expression of the masculine ideals of our culture. My interest in athletics, although focused on the healthy pleasures of physical exertion,also involved an ironic relationship with masculinity: I had no interest in pretending to be straight or masculine, yet there I was in a world rich in traditionally masculine significance, a significance that because of its erotic desirability, I didn't totally reject. Although I took great pleasure in these experiences, their masculine significance for me personally remained dubious. When I meet my gay friends in the weight room, lifting weights, grunting and groaning like everyone else, there is usually a sense of humor about how "butch" we seem. We may look as masculine as the other men in the room and may even be taken for straight, but we are aware of a deep paradox in our sense of masculinity and of the irony inherent in the appearance and reality of our lives. Not all homosexual men and boys avoid athletics because of its masculine significance. Some, because they have outstanding athletic talent or because they enjoy using their bodies athletically, pursue athletics in spite of its masculine implications. Immersed in that straight world, their experience is one of estrangement: they feel they are alone in an overwhelmingly heterosexual milieu. And the irony of being both athletic and homosexual hangs over them, an incomprehensible cloud. There are also those who pursue sports because it is a traditionally masculine pursuit. For some homosexual men and boys, athletics is a hiding place; as a proving-ground of masculinity, success in athletics is an excellent cover-up. Some will use their athletic ability to convince themselves that they are as masculine as their heterosexual peers. And some, intuitively aware of their paradoxical relationship with masculine gender and the disapproval that our culture has of that violation of masculinity, will become athletes to deflect the hatred and criticism that others may level if their secret is revealed. As we will see in the next chapter, because athletics is one of the major venues for apprenticeship in the orthodox expression of masculinity, it can be intensely estranging for those who understand the gender myth paradoxically.  
My suggestion that homosexuality is fundamentally an issue of gender is at odds with conventional wisdom about it. In 1948, the sexologist Alfred Kinsey and his coworkers published their mammothstatistical study of male sexuality. One of their conclusions was that the stereotype of the homosexual man as effeminate is not born out empirically: many homosexual men behave as "normally masculine" as their heterosexual counterparts. The emerging modern gay rights movement took up that line and argued that homosexuality should be considered acceptable because it is not so unlike heterosexuality; the majority of homosexual men are just as masculine as heterosexual men. When the professional football player David Kopay came out of the closet in 1975, he seemed to be living proof that gay men can be masculine, that homosexuality is not an issue of gender. And so there has been a recent tendency to accept homosexuality because it is perceived as not being that different from heterosexuality: gay people are just like anyone else; they just prefer sexual relations with members of the same sex. That view is seriously misguided. Although the sexual acts may in some ways seem the same as heterosexual ones--kissing, oral/genital sex, and so on--the meanings of these acts are profoundly different. And although homosexual men may seem to behave in as masculine a way as "normal" heterosexual men by playing sports, developing muscles, and so on, the interpretation they give that behavior may be quite distinct. As I will show in Chapter Three (Sexual Mythology), homosexual desire emanates from a reading of the myths of gender and sexuality that is fundamentally unlike that of heterosexual desire; whereas heterosexuality is an expression of an orthodox relationship with gender myth, homosexuality expresses a paradoxical relationship. I will argue that heterosexual practice is an erotic and social confirmation of the division of power in our culture through the myth of gender. It is, therefore, a poor standard for the determination of the ethical acceptability of other sexual practices. The legitimacy of homosexuality lies not in its similarity to heterosexuality and orthodox masculinity but in its difference. Because the homosexual interpretation of masculinity in general is paradoxical, the masculine implications of sport may also have a special significance to homosexual men. The notion that the homosexual experience of gender and eros is largely similar to the heterosexual experience represents a decisively wrong turn in thinking about sexuality, one that dwellson the superficial, observable appearance of homosexuality, while ignoring the deep psychic and mythic significance of it.1 Pride of place has been given to the objective observation of homosexuality rather than to subjective experience. The Kinsey researchers studied objective sexuality, that is, they focused on sexual acts, not on the meaning that people find in those acts. A deep understanding of sexual experience, however, will not emerge from statistics that record the objective facts about sexual practice. It is, rather, in the subjective experience of people, in the interpretations that they give their experiences, that a better understanding of sexuality will be revealed. The emphasis in this book on subjective experience rather than on objective behavior is important. Viewed objectively, any sexual act involving persons of the same physical sex can be considered a homosexual act. But the simple physical fact of a man's penis being in another man's hand, mouth, or anus is, in itself, insignificant. In our culture, there is great import attached to our saying that someone has been involved in homosexuality. What's important is the meaning of homosexuality. What the homosexual act might mean to those involved, to someone who has caught them in the act, or to someone who suspects another of being homosexual can be highly significant. To many high-school coaches, the surprise discovery of two male athletes in flagrante delicto would have almost earth-shattering significance. To some, it would mean that the team has two faggots, pansies, boys who are less than real men. Having engaged in homosexual activity, the two young athletes have betrayed the pure aspirations of athletics: mens sana in corpore sano, a sound mind in a sound body. These boys have the potential to destroy the moral fabric of the team and perhaps the entire school. Even more importantly, their characteristically unmasculine behavior could undermine the macho competitive edge that many coaches work so hard to develop among their athletes. For the boys involved, on the other hand, this sexual foray may have none of the significance that might overwhelm a coach's vision. There is every possibility that the two lads were simply randy and were caught taking advantage of a warm and friendly hand in the showers, a welcome but not necessarily significant physical release of sexual energy. It is also possible, however, thatto one or maybe both of the boys, this sexual meeting had enormous personal significance, that it was the young expression of a profound and largely unexplored world of meaning. Boys and men can engage in homosexual behavior with each other, but the content of that behavior depends on the subjective interpretation of those involved. It is actually the subjective meaning of the behavior and not the behavior itself that, from an orthodox view, is considered troublesome in our culture. The source of that irritation should become apparent in the next chapter.a This book differs from many of its recent predecessors in sexual theory, which have focused on the historical and social structures that organize, shape, or make possible people's sexual experience. They have looked from the top down, that is, from the society to the individual. I am looking from the bottom up. This book is, if you will, a user's view of the social construction of the myths of gender, sexuality, and athletics as they appear in contemporary North American and Northern European middle-class culture. My concern is with the interpretation that contemporary people give these myths rather than the "objective" social, historical conditions that brought them about. Essential to this view is the role of the subconscious mind in its intuitive awareness of the workings of our culture. The subconscious consists of thoughts, emotions, and ways of understanding that, for the most part, remain unconsidered. The content of the subconscious is the product of a human being's interactionwith culture from infancy. The subconscious develops as each human being struggles with the consonances and dissonances between himself and the culture in which he finds himself. That developmental process constitutes the personality. As the subconscious develops, so too does a deep appreciation for the significance of the cultural myths that are appropriated by the human being. The myths of gender, sexuality, and athletics operate in the subconscious mind in a prereflective way, their significance is intuitively understood. Most live with these myths, in fact use them daily to understand themselves and their relations to others, without much conscious consideration. In this book, I will reflect on what is taken for granted. Only upon reflection does meaning become apparent. This is a process of recovering a meaning that has been present but hidden; it is a disclosure, a matt...

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