Women in Sport: ‘Out on Instagram: Are Elite Sportswomen Changing What Coming Out Looks Like?’, by Danielle Warby

image

Image copyright Lyndall Irons. Used with permission.

This essay is the fourth in a week-long series exploring women’s experiences in sporting culture.


It’s Valentine’s Day 2017. Chloe Logarzo and Jasmine Peters are celebrating their first anniversary and have joined me for a chat about their relationship over a cup of tea and under the flightpath in Sydney’s inner west.

Chloe is a footballer currently plying her trade in Norway. She’s a member of the Australian national team, the Matildas, and has recently returned from Rio an Olympian, Olympic ring tattoos and all.

Jasmine represents New South Wales in softball and has just started a stint in the national league in the Netherlands.

We’ve come together to talk about a relatively recent phenomenon I have noticed and of which they are a part – elite sportswomen are opening up about being in same-sex relationships.

For some, you need to read between the lines, or pick up on subtle and not-so-subtle cues they’re putting out there. For others, like these two, there is no ambiguity.

image

A post shared by Jasmine Peters (@jaassy), May 2, 2017.

Unless you’re a hardcore women’s sports fan, you may not know about this, because these stories are not unfolding in the mainstream media: it’s all happening on Instagram.

Something you may well have noticed, however, is that the issue of homophobia in sport is gaining more traction. Rightly so, but a lot of the conversation so far is focused on male athletes and the desire, particularity within the queer community, to see them come out. While these are important conversations to be having, it ignores the experiences of female athletes, which are often completely different, more complicated and come with their own set of challenges. (There’s the lack of media coverage, the sexualisation of elite sportswomen, the massive pay gap – and aren’t all women who play sport lesbians anyway?)

If the goal of these conversations is a world where nobody cares about athletes’ or anyone’s sexuality, it could be argued with women’s sport, we’re already there. Almost.

CHLOE: There are still a few people scared that it is going to tarnish their image but for me, if it was going to tarnish my image then it’s not the image I want because I’m not telling the truth.

But let’s step back and take a look at coming out. What is ‘coming out’?

Well, it depends on who you ask. And the situation. I spoke to Dr. Kim Toffoletti, Senior Lecturer In Sociology from Deakin University, who tells me “coming out is the process of one claiming and identifying publicly” one’s sexuality.

KIM: Social media has the potential to make lesbian athletes more visible and that is slightly different I think to the actual process of coming out.

The academic research on how queer, lesbian or just not-straight identified female athletes represent themselves on social media is sparse. Kim is one academic now looking into it. She tells me that the current model—where coming out requires a public media statement—is in need of a reassessment.

I tend to agree.

JASMINE: I read a story about Michelle Heyman being the only gay member of the Australian team at the Olympics…

CHLOE: I was like ‘what about me?’! I laughed.

Chloe considers herself to be out but by our current working definition, she is not. Well, once this article is published, she will be! Confused?

Incidentally, in 2014 when I asked Michelle Heyman why she hasn’t come out, her reply was: “I am out and proud”. And it was my asking her and publishing that conversation, that made her ‘officially’ out.

So there’s a gap. But should we, the media, make assumptions about an athlete’s sexuality without their express permission? Hell no.

CHLOE: I always refer to Jasmine as my girlfriend; I never say I don’t have a girlfriend. But it’s never really been something I’ve sat down and talked about.

image

A post shared by Chloe Logarzo (@chloelogarzo), March 29, 2016.

Do we need to change the definition of what coming out is? Or what it looks like? Probably not. Working in the media, I would never ‘out’ someone. That means not talking about their sexuality unless they have already done so in previous published interviews or have given me express permission to do so.

This is the same standard that most in the media work to as well, but is it leading us to a place where the media are afraid to ask? Or is it just a ‘non-story’ that, yes, lesbians play sport? Or are our women just not getting enough media coverage? All of the above? Is being a lesbian, bisexual or queer woman in sport still the elephant in the room? With a press so nosy about all sorts of ‘sordid’ details, it seems odd that this one is not on the table. Or am I the only one asking these questions because I’m a lesbian myself?

Only an athlete can claim their sexuality; it’s not for me to infer it from their Instagram account. But I’ll always ask.

While the media tries to figure that all out, in the meantime, athletes are on Instagram being visible and in total control.

KIM: So in fact what we’re seeing is lesbian athletes in all facets of their life and we’re not waiting for the mainstream media to present them in a particular way.

Couple this with an increasing desire from a younger generation to to not to be labelled at all rather than be out, and what you have is people living their lives and being visible without expressly talking about it. It’s a non-story to them.

CHLOE: I don’t think it’s necessary [to make an ‘announcement’] because it shouldn’t be a big thing.

By using social media in this way, athletes are curating their own coming out process in a way that better mirrors everyday life and the continuing process of defining yourself and your sexuality. There’s more of a fluidity and ease to it than say, Ian Thorpe’s obviously painful and laborious coming-out, complete with prime-time television interview. Props to Thorpie, but who wants to go through all that?

There’s a sense that today people think of their identities as more than just their sexuality. For a lot of sportswomen, being an athlete is what is front and centre – more than being lesbian, and even more than being a woman. How many times have women in sport had to ask the public to focus only on their athletic achievements?

On top of this, publicly claiming a sexual identity of the LGBQ variety1 is still a very political thing to do and it’s tough enough for women in sport as it is, without adding extra complications to navigating what is still, at times, a hostile environment.

For Chloe and Jasmine, it was never a question of whether or not they were going to post images showing they’re in a relationship. They don’t consider posting as any kind of announcement. It’s just their life.

Whether to post about her relationship or not was never in question. What concerns Chloe more is being seen as a good role model and following rules set down by the her sports’ governing body, the Football Federation of Australia, like not criticising referees. And sticking to her own set of rules like not posting photos of drinking alcohol.

But that doesn’t mean she didn’t think long and hard about the consequences of being so obviously in a same-sex relationship.

image

A post shared by Chloe Logarzo (@chloelogarzo), Jan 10, 2017.

JASMINE: I’m a little bit more expressive with our relationship I think. Chloe’s [Instagram] is very sport-dominated.

CHLOE: I’m more reserved with what I post. I’m not hiding our relationship but I know there’s a lot of young females looking up to me so I have to control it a little bit more. But I’m obviously not going to hide my relationship. I’m not ashamed of it in any way.

I’m in a relationship with a girl and that’s my image – and being in sport.

I always have it the back of my mind that I’ve got little twelve-year-olds following me. I went to an appearance and they were all in year six and below and they wanted to follow me on Instagram. One of the questions was, ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ ‘No, I don’t have a boyfriend,’ and I left it. I don’t want to tell them but they can find out. It’s always in the back of my mind, but at the end of the day, you can unfollow me if you don’t want to see it.

I’ve had young girls comment on my Insta saying that we’re cute and my girlfriend and relationship is really cute but that is just as far as it goes.

image

A post shared by Jasmine Peters (@jaassy), April 4, 2017.

JASMINE: I’m open on my Instagram account. If people follow us they’re going to know that Chloe’s my girlfriend. It doesn’t matter to me. I wish the world saw it as they do every couple. I don’t think it should be a matter of ‘They’re a gay couple,’ or ‘They’re a straight couple’. It should just be ‘They’re a couple’.

I don’t put on my Insta that I’m a lesbian or have to put a little rainbow just to make sure people know.

I think about what I’m posting to a degree. I’m not going to upload inappropriate things. I don’t really ever care about what I’m posting. You’ve gotta be careful because we’re in sport and there’s little kids that look at it. Not that I think that they would be weirded out by it. I’m hoping for the next generation that comes through that it’s just completely normal. But obviously in a sporting environment, especially with Chloe and her sport, it has a lot more media exposure, we worry about that stuff maybe a little bit. We’re not silly to post inappropriate stuff anyway.

CHLOE: Everyone has access to phones and the internet. It’s all over the internet now. Back in the day you were probably sheltered from it. Now I can go on Insta, I’m following a few gay people, I can look on my search bar and all these famous gay people come up on my insta without me looking for it.


image

A post shared by Chloe Logarzo (@chloelogarzo), November 1, 2016.

Social media gives female athletes a choice. They don’t have to make a big coming out statement, they can just be themselves on social media, be public about who they’re in a relationship with and deal with questions from the media if and when the time comes.

CHLOE: If the media asked me, I’d be open to talking about it. If someone asked me, I would say I’m gay.

We still need to recognise that social media has created just another set of challenges that women in sport have to manage and steer through, and they often have to do this on their own.

Chloe and Jasmine have acknowledged their identities and their relationship without making it political, and in doing so they have maintained a level of control and comfort over what they chose to share.

However, the personal is still political, whether they intend it or not, and they’re doing their part to normalise queer visibility on their terms.

Scholarship on social media says that what you’re selling is community, connection and intimacy – so if an athlete can’t share themselves, what’s the purpose of social media to them, really?

CHLOE: I feel like it [LGBQ sexuality/identity] is more accepted now throughout the world. It’s more socially accepted but people are still shy about it. For me, I have a girlfriend and I don’t care who knows, because if I cared what people knew I would not be in the relationship.

The majority of female athletes don’t have a public relations or media team behind them, they’re doing this all themselves. Social media has become the most important tool in their arsenal, and they’re too busy getting on with playing their sport to be anything but authentic.


Danielle Warby is an advocate for #WomenInSport and has been working to promote women’s sport since 2006. She tweets @daniellewarby and is the former managing editor of SBS Zela.


1. Trans and intersex (the ’T’ and ‘I’ in LGBTIQ) athletes also face a range of issues in performing their public identities through social and traditional media. These issues are complex in and of themselves and, as such, are beyond the scope of this article.