Quest, 2009, 61, 289-305
© 2009 Human Kinetics, Inc.
The Lesbian Stigma in the Sport Context:
Implications for Women of Every Sexual
Melanie L. Sartore and George B. Cunningham
The lesbian label exists within sport’s heterosexist and heteronormative context as a
means to subvert women’s status, power, inuence, and experiences. As such, there
exists a lesbian stigma that contributes to sport’s documented gender disparities.
While acknowledged that some women may manage their gender and sexual identi-
ties to evade prejudice and discrimination related to this stigma, research has yet to
fully address the full breadth of the stigma and its potential consequences. The pur-
pose of this paper is to provide an integrative model that identies specic compo-
nents of the lesbian stigma and its potential consequences as they pertain to women in
sport. Further, as a great deal of previous literature has focused on the lesbian woman,
an additional purpose of this paper is to extend the literature to women of all sexual
orientations. The authors present implications for the proposed model and offer ave-
nues for future inquiry.
Heterosexuality has long served as the taken-for-granted norm within Ameri-
can society. (This would be a great place for a laundry list of in-text citations. I
support this claim based on a variety of texts/publications in the sport studies lit-
erature, but am not sure the authors can start off without substantiating the claim
with relevant citations). More specically, research suggests that the rigid, socially
constructed denition of heterosexuality serves as an organizing principle and a
mechanism for regulatory control for both men and women of all sexual orienta-
tions (Connell, 1995; Jackson, 2006; Rich, 1980). While general attitudes toward
homosexuality have improved over the past three decades (e.g., Avery et al., 2007;
Yang, 1997), the stigma associated with being, or perceived as being, gay or les-
bian is one of the most powerful and pervasive stigmas in society. Informed by
historical beliefs of immorality and perversion, the stigmatization of gays and
lesbians (i.e., undesirable and devalued differentness; see Goffman, 1963), pre-
sumed or conrmed, has led to instances of (negative) prejudice and discrimina-
tion across numerous contexts (Anderson, 2002; Herek, 1991, 2000, 2007).
According to Herek (1992), societal heteronormativity (i.e., the assumption
that there exists only two sexes with dichotomously afxed gender meanings that
substantiate heterosexual attraction and relationships as the norm) has permeated
Sartore is with the Dept. of Exercise and Sport Science, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC.
Cunningham is with the Dept. of Health and Kinesiology, Texas A&M University, College Station,
290 Sartore and Cunningham
the mores of cultures, organizations, group settings, and interpersonal exchanges
(Jackson, 2006; Messner, 2002). As a result, many societal institutions reect not
only gendered hierarchies but also the power and status differences that exist
between heterosexuals and nonheterosexuals (Connell, 1995; Herek, 2007). Sport
is one such institution (Barber & Krane, 2005; Grifn, 1998; Messner & Solo-
mon, 2007). Messner (1988, 2002), for instance, identied sport as a site which
produces and reinforces masculine and heterosexual dominance. Similarly, Grif-
n suggested that sport constructs and reinforces traditions of male superiority,
female subordination, and norms of heterosexuality. Fink, Pastore, and Reimer
(2001) have identied sport’s contextually privileged, in-group, high-status
member relative to these norms (i.e., White, Protestant, able-bodied, heterosexual
male) Men and women often perform hyper-masculine and hyper-feminine behav-
iors, respectively, and hyper-heterosexual behaviors, collectively, as a means of
gaining acceptance in relation to this prototype (e.g., Anderson, 2005; Krane,
2001). Individuals not performing such behaviors may be subjected to scrutiny
and stigmatization (Anderson, 2005; Grifn, 1998). This is particularly true for
women in the sport context.
Drawing upon the social categorization framework (Tajfel & Turner, 1979;
Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher, & Wetherell, 1987) and status characteristics
theory (Berger, Cohen, & Zelditch, 1972; Berger, Fisek, Norman, & Zelditch,
1977), the purpose of this paper is to propose an integrative conceptual model that
addresses the potential causalities and consequences of the heteronormativity
within sport. Specically, we identify how women’s out-group membership and
low status leave them particularly vulnerable to stigmatization. From there, we
identify some potential effects of the stigmatization and the impact these effects
may have on women’s personal, social, and work-related outcomes. Moderators
or boundary conditions that may circumvent or exacerbate these effects are also
offered. Taken as a whole, we suggest that the lesbian stigma contributes to the
gendered nature of sport and the continued marginalization of women. Finally, we
offer suggestions for assessing the model. An illustrative summary is presented in
Figure 1 and the theoretical framework and specic propositions offered below.
Social Categorization Framework
The fundamental premise of the social categorization framework is that individu-
als classify themselves and others into various social categories. The framework
is comprised of two main, and related, theories: self-categorization theory (Turner
et al., 1987) and social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). The tenets of each
theory as well as the relationship between the two are discussed below.
Social Identity Theory. Social identity theory posits that in an effort to make
sense of the social world and one’s own place in it, people classify themselves and
others into various social categories (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). In an effort to
enhance self-esteem and reduce uncertainty, an individual categorizes individuals
with similar characteristics as their in-group, while individuals with dissimilar
characteristics constitute one’s out-group. In-group members receive more favor-
Figure 1 — Conceptual model of lesbian stigma in the sport context.
292 Sartore and Cunningham
able evaluations while out-group members receive less favorable, and perhaps
even negative, evaluations to out-group members (Gaertner & Dividio, 2000).
This differential evaluation is based upon perceptions of in-group and out-group
prototypicality that subsequently inuence relations between members of certain
social categories (Tsui & Gutek, 1999). For example, generally a Caucasian
female would categorize another Caucasian female as being in her in-group on the
basis of gender norms and stereotypes. However, if the second female acted in a
masculine manner and she was perceived as behaving counter-prototypically, the
rst female may no longer categorize her as an in-group member. Rather, on the
basis of prototypicality, she may be relegated to the out-group. This is discussed
in greater detail below.
Self-Categorization Theory. Self-categorization theory, an extension of social
identity theory, suggests that when categorizing oneself as a member of a specic
social category or group, an individual begins to stray from a personal identity and
adopts the prototypical cognitions and behaviors associated with a social identity
(Turner et al., 1987). Existing on a continuum, an individual’s personal identity is
comprised of intrapersonal similarities and interpersonal differences, the likes of
which result in the perceived uniqueness within a given context (Brewer, 1991;
Turner et al., 1987). Social identity, on the other hand, is based on the comparison
of oneself to the level of similarity and dissimilarity of certain social categories or
groups (Brewer, 1991; Turner et al., 1987). This comparison results in deperson-
alization, as one transforms from an “I” and begins to identify as “we” by adopt-
ing a group’s prototypical behaviors, values, and norms (Brewer, 1991).
Taken together, the social categorization framework (Tajfel & Turner, 1979;
Turner et al., 1987) puts forth that the categorization process results in transform-
ing oneself from the “I” to the “we” and making subsequent distinctions between
various “us” (i.e., in-groups) and “them” (i.e., out-groups) categories. This pro-
cess serves to fulll one’s need for establishing and maintaining a positive self-
identity (Rubin & Hewstone, 1998) and reducing uncertainty (Turner et al., 1987).
The categorization process is a necessary antecedent for stereotyping in-group
and out-group members (Tsui & Gutek, 1999), such that in-group members are
positively stereotyped and out-group members are negatively stereotyped. As a
result, prejudice and discriminatory actions toward out-group members may occur
(Major, Gramzow, McCoy, Levin, Schmader, & Sidanius, 2002).
The suppositions of the social categorization framework highlight how con-
textually salient categorical differences between people and groups are relevant to
nearly any setting (Tajfel & Turner, 1979; Turner et al., 1987). Likewise, the status
or statuses associated with different category memberships are of great impor-
tance (Barnum & Markvosky, 2007; Oldmeadow, Platow, Foddy, & Anderson,
2003), as status expectations can inuence group and social processes. Such inu-
ence is at the heart of status characteristics theory (Berger et al., 1972; Berger et
Status Characteristics Theory. While the power and status associated with spe-
cic category memberships may be inferred, such conclusions do not necessarily
convey performance expectations (Barnum & Markvosky, 2007). Status charac-
teristics, however, can and do bear expectations of competence and performance,
as within group and task settings, certain observable characteristics possess higher
Lesbian Stigma 293
social value (i.e., status) than others. A status characteristic is any attribute that is
differentially evaluated at the societal level and linked to specic or general expec-
tations of competence (Berger et al., 1977; Oldmeadow et al., 2003). Status char-
acteristics are specic, connoting aptitude at a specic skill or task (e.g., mathe-
matical aptitude), and diffuse, signifying attributes that elicit generally positive or
negative expectations that are transferable to nearly any task and/or context (e.g.,
sex and race; see Berger et al., 1977). Diffuse and specic status characteristics
infer levels of competence in task completion and allow for the relative ease of
generalization to other task and group settings (Oldmeadow et al., 2003).
The coupling of the social categorization framework with the status characteris-
tics theory suggests that in certain instances group members may call upon cate-
gory membership to infer relevant competence and abilities of fellow in-group
members. Thus, category membership may couple with salient statuses to exacer-
bate generalizations of competence, in turn accentuating the level of inuence that
a high status, in-group member may have over others (see Barnum & Markvosky,
2007). The model proposed here suggests that within sport the contextually salient
in-group (i.e., the White, Protestant, able-bodied, heterosexual male; Fink et al.,
2001) possesses the highest amount of contextual status and exerts the most power
over others. As a result, high status in-group members are able to maintain their
ideals as well as exert power over low status out-group members (e.g., females,
African Americans, homosexuals) to do the same. Such is the case with regard to
sport’s male-dominated atmosphere, as females are viewed as less capable (Knop-
pers, 1992) and often forced to uphold socially and contextually acceptable stan-
dards of femininity (Hargreaves, 1993; Krane, 2001). Consistent with the social
categorization framework and status characteristics theory, the following proposi-
tions are made.
Proposition 1a. Male’s in-group membership, coupled with their high soci-
etal and contextual status, allows for the maintenance of sport’s masculine norms
and patriarchical ideals.
Proposition 1b. Female’s out-group membership, coupled with their low
societal and contextual status, allows for the maintenance of sport’s masculine
norms and patriarchical ideals.
Women, Sport, and Stigmatization
Crocker, Major, and Steele (1998) identied the process of stigmatization as link-
ing attributes and/or characteristics of social groups with societal and contextual
devaluation. Working from this denition, Link and Phelan (2001) highlighted the
social processes and power relations that shape the stigmatization of particular
social groups in certain contexts. Link and Phelan note that “stigma exists when
elements of labeling, stereotyping, separation, status loss, and discrimination occur
together in a power situation that allows them” (p. 377). This denition of stigma
emphasizes the importance of the categorization process as well as status charac-
teristics. Further, it calls attention to the inuential nature of status hierarchies and
294 Sartore and Cunningham
stigma’s dependence on power. Applying this concept to the sport context, as it
relates to gender, we propose that women may be subject to stigmatization (See
One’s gender communicates group membership and social status and power,
inuences perceived orders of prestige, and dictates the societal and interpersonal
perceptions and behaviors of and between the sexes (Berger et al., 1977; Ridge-
way & Smith-Lovin, 1999). Gender also carries with it numerous societal expec-
tations. For instance, women are expected to be warm and nurturing while men
are expected to be strong and authoritative (Eagly & Mladinic, 1989). Men and
women are also expected to be sexually attracted to their dichotomously opposite
(i.e., heterosexual) counterpart (Hargreaves, 1993; Herek, 1991; Johnson, 1995;
Krane, 2001; Renfrow, 2006). Deviating from gender expectations crosses accept-
able boundaries, challenges dominant norms, and has the potential to elicit nega-
tivity (Bosson, Taylor, & Prewitt-Freilino, 2006; Herek, 2000, 2007; Renfrow,
2006). This is particularly true within the gendered sport context (e.g., Anderson,
2005; Kauer & Krane, 2006; Krane, 1997, 2001; Messner, 1988, 2002; Shaw &
Despite achieving great gains in sport, women are viewed as trespassers. The
result of their differentness, some females in sport are ascribed negative stereo-
types the likes of which can result in further separation, status loss, and discrimi-
nation. Thus, they are stigmatized (Link & Phelan, 2001). Women must not behave
or as too feminine for fear of being sexualized and trivialized, nor must they act
too masculine for fear of being demonized (Grifn, 1998; Kauer & Krane, 2006;
Krane, 2001; Shaw & Hoeber, 2003). While both consequences relinquish women
to keep them in a subordinate position (Grifn, 1998; Kauer & Krane, 2006;
Wright & Clarke, 1999), it is the latter in which the current model focuses. Spe-
cically, the current model puts forth that as a result of their out-group member-
ship and low status, contextual norms may lead to ascription of the lesbian label,
the likes of which may result in a substantial separation, status loss, and discrimi-
nation (i.e., stigmatization; Link & Phelan, 2001). As such, we offer the
Proposition 2. Women are susceptible to the lesbian stigma within the sport
For many female athletes, the gendered nature of sport has required them to
contend with the “image problem” or the tacit belief that female participation in
the masculine domain of sport will encourage and cultivate homosexuality and/or
deter females from their stereotypical feminine roles (Grifn, 1998; Krane, 2001).
Such beliefs have led to the stereotypical notion that females partaking in sport are
masculine, butch, and/or lesbians (Blinde & Taub, 1992; Kauer & Krane, 2006;
Veri, 1999). According to Brownsworth (1991), “sports are masculine; therefore,
women in sport are masculine; therefore, women in sport are lesbians” (p. 37).
Indeed, the pervasiveness of these stereotypes does not escape the consciousness
of many females involved in sport. For instance, Krane, Choi, Baird, Aimar, &
Kauer’s (2004) investigation of female athletes revealed that many felt femininity
was the antithesis of athleticism. Further, these athletes expressed feelings of mar-
ginalization as a result of failing to embody characteristics of “normal” women.
Kauer and Krane’s investigation of female athletes revealed similar ndings, as
Lesbian Stigma 295
many athletes responded to masculine and lesbian stereotypes by modifying their
behaviors and appearance. These works, as well as others, suggest that women in
sport may experience some degree of stereotype and social identity threat as a
result of potential stigmatization.
Stereotype Threat and Social Identity Threat
Researchers have investigated what Steele and colleagues (Aronson, 2004;
Davies, Spencer, & Steele, 2005; Spencer, Steele, & Quinn, 1999; Steele & Aron-
son, 1995) conceptualize as stereotype threat, or the risk of conrming situation-
ally relevant negative stereotypes of one’s social group to the self through behav-
ior. Such work, however, has led to the realization that negative stereotypes are not
the only source of social group devaluation and exclusion (Steele, Spencer, &
Aronson, 2002). As such, stereotype threat is but one component of social identity
threat or the fear of experiencing the societal devaluation associated with one’s
social identity in a given context (i.e., stigmatization). Social identity devaluation,
fear of incorrect categorization, lack of distinctiveness, and lack of acceptance are
also sources of social identity threat (Branscombe, Ellemers, Spears, & Doosje,
1999). Steele et al. identied that social identity threat also can occur when one is
at a numerical disadvantage (i.e., minority vs. majority status), in contexts where
specic social groups take center stage, and in settings organized and inuenced
by power relations, contextual ideology, and social identity norms. Consistent
with our suggestions, these sources of social identity threat carry important impli-
cations for women in the sport context.
While recent work suggests that contemporary sportswomen embrace the
duality of physical power and femininity associated with female athleticism (e.g.,
Krane et al., 2004; Ross & Shinew, 2008), a great deal of literature has demon-
strated that women experience aspects of social identity threat within sport. For
example, many women are aware of the lesbian stereotype within the sport con-
text and as a result attempt to “prove” their heterosexuality (Barber & Krane,
2005; Blinde & Taub, 1992; Grifn, 1998; Kauer & Krane, 2006; Krane, 2001; for
exceptions, see Ross & Shinew, 2008). Krane et al. (2004) suggested that female
athletes may respond to gender expectations by developing contrasting female
and athlete identities. Likewise, female coaches may perceive a threat as a result
of their out-group membership, low status, numerical minority, and cultural norms
(e.g., Krane & Barber, 2005; Steele et al., 2002). Consistent with these ndings,
we propose the following.
Proposition 3. As a result of the lesbian stigma in the sport context, women
may experience social identity threat.
Stress and Identity Management
Of the various consequences to one’s own stigmatized identity, the stressors one
experiences may have the most detrimental effects (Crocker et al., 1998; Miller &
Major, 2000). This is particularly true to the extent that a stigma threatens one’s
social identity as well as one’s personal identity, thus requiring an over-abundance
of coping resources (Miller & Major, 2000). The excessive demand for these
resources is consistent with the concept of minority stress or the chronic stressors
296 Sartore and Cunningham
that the stigmatized face beyond their everyday life events and daily struggles
(Brooks, 1981; Goffman, 1963; Link & Phelan, 2001; Meyer, 1995, 2003). Thus,
in response to one’s awareness of possessing a devalued identity, stigmatized per-
sons may possess an inordinate amount of stress as they anticipate prejudice and
discrimination. Applied to females in sport, the current model puts forth that their
out-group membership and low status, coupled with the presence of negative ste-
reotypes, prejudice, and discrimination, may lead them to experience a great deal
of stress. Consistent with this rationale, the following is proposition is presented.
Proposition 4. As a result of stigmatization and social identity threat,
women in sport may experience minority stress.
The result of anticipating threats, prejudice, and discrimination, stigmatized
individuals may adopt identity management strategies (Miller & Major, 2000).
Nonstigmatized individuals at risk for being classied as a member of a stigma-
tized group may also adopt similar coping mechanisms (Bosson et al., 2006).
Strategies used to evade stigmatization include overcompensation, reservation,
and withdrawal (Crocker et al., 1998). These are consistent with strategies women
may adopt when in the sport context as they face stigmatization (Grifn, 1991;
Krane & Barber, 2005; Krane, 2001; Shaw & Hoeber, 2003). Lesbians, for
instance, may come out of the closet and identify as such or adopt identity man-
agement strategies to hide or detract attention from their sexual orientation (Grif-
n, 1991, 1998; Krane & Barber, 2005). As numerous authors have demonstrated,
the likelihood of the latter occurring is far greater than the former as the prevailing
norm for lesbians in sport is that of silence (Grifn, 1998; Krane & Barber, 2005).
Closeted lesbians and heterosexual women may also feel pressure to evade the
lesbian stigma and subsequent prejudice and discrimination by “performing femi-
ninity” (Krane, 2001, p. 120) and thus, prove their heterosexuality (Grifn, 1998;
Krane, 2001). Consistent with Crocker et al.’s (1998) reservation and overcom-
pensation strategies, respectively, we suggest the following proposition.
Proposition 5. As a result of stigmatization and social identity threat,
women in sport may adopt identity management strategies.
Effects of Minority Stress and Identity Management
While encompassing the “psychic costs” to which Steele et al. (2002) refer, the
effects of minority stress extend beyond the psychological to also include poten-
tial negative emotional and physical repercussions. Indeed, research has demon-
strated that membership in a stigmatized social group may threaten not only one’s
personal well-being, but also one’s physical and professional well-being (Beatty
& Kirby, 2006; Crocker et al., 1998; Meyer, 2003; Ragins, 2008). Nonstigmatized
individuals may experience similar outcomes, as the risk of being inaccurately
classied as a member of a stigmatized group (i.e., “falsely accused deviant”; see
Becker, 1963, p. 20) can result in cognitive and behavioral interruptions (Bosson,
Prewitt-Freilino, & Taylor, 2005). While the specic experiences of stigmatized
individuals and nonstigmatized individuals at risk for being classied as such cer-
tainly differ, the current conceptual model suggests that both can suffer conse-
Lesbian Stigma 297
quences as a result of minority stress. Further, our model suggests that adopting
identity management strategies may exacerbate these negative consequences as
they require additional resources and create more stress (Miller & Major, 2000).
Perhaps best articulated by Allport (1954, p. 142), who penned that “one’s
reputation, whether false or true, cannot be hammered, hammered, hammered into
one’s head without doing something to one’s character,” a copious amount of
research suggests that the consequences of stigma can be detrimental to one’s over-
all physical and mental health and well-being (Allport, 1954; Brooks, 1981; Major
& O’Brien, 2005; Meyer, 1995). Likewise, stigmatization can adversely affect
one’s task performance and professional outcomes (e.g., Davies et al., 2005;
Ragins, 2008; Waldo, 1999). Throughout much of scholarly research, Krane (Kauer
& Krane, 2006; Krane & Barber, 2005; Krane et al., 2005) suggests that women’s
stigmatization within the sport context may result in similar negative outcomes.
Among girls and women, Krane et al., (2005) identied the strain of meeting
the established standards of heterosexual femininity within sport as increasing the
likelihood of depression, low self-esteem, an increased risk of suicide and sub-
stance abuse, and unhealthy sexual, exercise, and eating behaviors among girls
and women. The resources allocated to the near-constant identity negotiation that
female athletes and coaches perform also suggests the presence of additional
stressors and the potential for negative psychological consequences (e.g., Blinde
& Taub, 1992; Krane & Barber, 2005). Consistent with sport psychology research,
these additional stressors may also impair performance. For example, researchers
have documented that negative life stress and daily hassles put athletes at an
increased risk for injury, thus impeding their performance (see Williams, 2001).
Athletes may also sacrice performance through conscious behaviors. For exam-
ple, athletes who avoid necessary strength training in fear of acquiring unfeminine
musculature may limit their full athletic performance potential (Krane et al.,
2005). The gender stereotypes and expectations that inform these unconscious
and conscious behavior changes are also present within sport organizations.
The gendered discourse that shapes the structure of sport organizations (see
Knoppers & Anthonissen, 2008; Shaw and Hoeber, 2003) suggests that women
may suffer professionally from the lesbian stigma as well. This is particularly true
to the extent that gendered power and male privilege continue to be shape the
hiring and organizational practices within the cultures of sport organizations such
that women experience discrimination (Cunningham, 2008; Shaw & Frisby,
2006). These gendered practices include expectations for sexuality and sexual
desire, the likes of which may also inform organizational practices. For example,
Krane and Barber (2005) interviewed several lesbian coaches who discussed how
hiring practices within their intercollegiate athletic departments were inuenced
by perceptions of lesbianism. Specically, many of the coaches spoke to witness-
ing covert discriminatory actions toward applicants perceived to be lesbians. Like-
wise, they recalled being asked questions about their personal lives during their
own interview processes; a practice that is against the law. Thus, women may
directly suffer from the lesbian stigma by being denied access to sport organiza-
tions. Women may also indirectly suffer by compromising their work performance
through allocating unnecessary cognitive and behavioral recourses toward avoid-
ing the lesbian label. Taken together, women may suffer a variety of negative
298 Sartore and Cunningham
consequences as a result of the lesbian stigma. As such, the current model poses
Proposition 6. As a result of stigmatization and social identity threat,
women may suffer negative psychological, physical, and professional outcomes.
The negative outcomes that may result from the lesbian stigma have the
potential to reinforce the differential group memberships and statuses between
men and women in the sport context. This is particularly true to the extent that
lesbian stigma is constructed by the same gendered and homophobic discourse
that shapes sport and sport organizations (Knoppers & Anthonissen, 2008; Shaw
& Hoeber, 2003; Veri, 1999). Cunningham (2008), for instance, argues that gender
inequity is institutionalized in sport organizations. Thus, the underrepresentation
and subordination of women in sport organizations are just the “way things are
done” (Cunningham, p. 138). As the lesbian label subverts the power and status of
women and maintains their out-group status in sport (e.g., Grifn, 1998; Lenskyj,
1990), the lesbian stigma may also contribute to institutionalized gender practices
in sport organizations. The negative consequences of stigmatization may operate
to reinforce and perhaps even accentuate the differential statuses and group mem-
berships between the genders in sport and sport organizations. While not speci-
cally proposed, this potential relationship is illustrated in Figure 1.
Potential Moderators to the Aforementioned Relationships
As illustrated in Figure 1, there are two potential moderators to the current model,
the rst of which is sport/job type. While participation in sport is a masculine
activity (e.g., Messner, 1988, 2002), some activities and positions in sport organi-
zations are viewed as more feminine, and thus more appropriate for women to
occupy than others (Koivula, 2001; Riemer & Visio, 2003; Schmalz & Kerstetter,
2006; Shaw & Hoeber, 2003). For instance, sports such as gymnastics and dance
are more feminine and female appropriate, whereas sports such as football and ice
hockey are deemed more masculine and male appropriate (Kolnes, 1995; Schmalz
& Kerstetter, 2006; Shakib, 2003). The gendered discourse present within sport
organizations suggests that it is more appropriate for men to occupy the highest
status positions and women the lower-status positions (Knoppers & Anthonissen,
2008; Shaw & Hoeber, 2003). Thus, we propose that taking part in sports consid-
ered feminine and occupying lower-status positions in sport organizations may
allow women to escape the lesbian stigma and its potential negative effects. As
such, we suggest the following.
Proposition 7. Stigmatization will be moderated by the “gender appropri-
ateness” of a sport and/or the position one occupies in a sport organization.
We identify the second moderator as the degree to which women focus on
their stereotyped social identity within the sport context. As such, the levels of
stigma consciousness women possess or the response to a particular identity and
its salient domain-relevant stereotypes (Pinel, 1999) may mitigate or accentuate
negative consequences. Thus, individuals who possess high levels of stigma con-
sciousness also possess expectations of stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimina-
tion (Beatty & Kirby, 2006; Crocker et al., 1998; Major, Spencer, Schmader,
Wolfe, & Crocker, 1998; Pinel, 1999). This is particularly true with regard to the
Lesbian Stigma 299
most pervasive societal stereotypes, of which the content is almost inescapable
(Devine, 1989). Brown and Pinel (2003) demonstrated that when faced with the
negative stereotype regarding female’s decient math ability, women who pos-
sessed higher levels of stigma consciousness allocated more attention to the nega-
tive stereotypes and thus performed poorer than did women with low levels of
stigma consciousness. Such ndings demonstrate that attending to salient, contex-
tual stereotypes can negatively impact one’s performance. These ndings also
provide support for the importance of the meanings of group membership and
status in specic contexts, as they heighten stereotype saliency (Steele et al.,
Thus far we have discussed that some women modify their behavior and self-
presentation to thwart the lesbian label, its associated stigma, and the accompany-
ing societal and contextual repercussions (Blinde & Taub, 1992; Grifn, 1991;
Krane & Barber, 2003, 2005; Lenskyj, 1987; Shakib, 2003). These behaviors are
not performed by all women in sport, however. Rather, the current model poses
that women who attentively acknowledge and focus on the lesbian label, stereo-
types, and stigma (i.e., possess higher levels of stigma consciousness) are more
likely to suffer stress as a result and modify their behaviors than are women with
low levels of stigma consciousness. It would follow suit that women possessing
higher levels of stigma consciousness would also be more likely to anticipate and
perceive discrimination as well as forgo the opportunity to disprove situationally-
relevant stereotypes for fear of negative repercussions (Pinel, 1999). Thus, we
propose the following.
Proposition 8. Stigma consciousness will moderate the relationship
between stigmatization and the level of social identity threat experienced.
Over twenty years ago, Lenskyj (1987) identied the lesbian label as successfully
dividing and censoring women in sport. Ten years ago, Grifn (1998) wrote that
“as long as the lesbian label is taken as an insult, the label maintains its power to
intimidate” (p. 87). In recognition of this intimidation, Krane (2001) suggested
that many females in sport “perform femininity” (p. 120) to thwart prejudice and
discrimination. Despite these integral works, however, the lesbian stigma has
failed to be adequately theorized. Likewise, the potential consequences of the
stigma have only recently received scholarly attention (e.g., Krane et al., 2005).
Further, a considerable amount of work has been devoted to the implications of
the lesbian stigma, as it primarily relates to lesbians within the sport context with
only a few inquiries concerning women of other orientations (see Blinde & Taub,
1992). Thus, the purpose of this article was to outline the specic components of
the lesbian stigma as it pertains to nearly all women in sport and identify potential
negative repercussions from women’s awareness of and susceptibility to the les-
bian label. Specically identied were the possibility of experiencing excessive
burden, negative psychological, physical, and professional outcomes, and ulti-
mately the reinforcement of sport’s heteronormative norms and the marginaliza-
tion of women. The following section addresses implications, future directions,
and conclusions of this conceptual framework.
300 Sartore and Cunningham
Implications and Future Directions
There are numerous potential implications of this proposed model. First, whereas
previous literature on the lesbian label has primarily focused on the effects of
prejudice and discrimination experienced by lesbians only (for exceptions, see
Blinde & Taub, 1992; Krane et al., 2005), the current model proposes that women
of any sexual orientation are susceptible to this stigma. Likewise, the lesbian
stigma has been investigated among coaches, athletes, and physical education
teachers (e.g., Grifn, 1991, 1998; Krane & Barber, 2005; Lenskyj, 1991). We
sought to extend this line of inquiry to all women and other sport-related settings.
For example, a generally overlooked population has been college and university
health and kinesiology departments (i.e., sport-related curricula; for exceptions
see Woods & Harbeck, 1991). Investigating the lesbian stigma, as well as seeking
to identify its presence, impact, and potential consequences as they relate to health
and kinesiology department members of all sexual orientations, may contribute to
the understanding of the lesbian stigma within the multifaceted context of sport.
Inquiries within other sport-related settings could do the same.
Another implication of the model refers to the identication of specic fac-
tors that construct the lesbian stigma in sport. To date, many authors have identi-
ed the presence of the stigma in sport (e.g., Blinde & Taub, 1992; Kauer &
Krane, 2006; Knight & Giuliano, 2003; Veri, 1999); however, the specic compo-
nents of the stigma have not yet been theorized. We applied Link and Phelan’s
(2001) conceptualization of stigma in an effort to address this gap. Their frame-
work has particular utility in the sport context as the dependence of stigma on
power elucidates its pervasiveness. Thus, by framing the lesbian stigma in this
way it calls attention to the how gendered power structures that shape sport and
sport organizations reinforce the presence of the lesbian stigma and it’s negative
outcomes. This is not to suggest that every woman faces suffering greatly due to
the lesbian stigma, of course. Rather, the inuence of power on stigma and stig-
matization highlights how the stigma contributes to the general pattern of wom-
en’s disadvantage in sport (Link & Phelan, 2001).
While we suggest that most, if not all, women within the sport context are
aware of the lesbian stigma, this is not to say that all women experience the pro-
posed negative psychological, physical, and professional consequences. Likewise,
we do not suggest that the experiences of lesbians, heterosexual women, and
women of other orientations are identical. Outcomes are certain to differ as a
result of a variety of contextual, structural and individual factors (e.g., Crocker et
al., 1998; Meyer, Schwartz, & Frost, 2008; Bosson et al., 2005). For instance,
lesbians experiencing stigmatization across many contexts may perpetually
remain more or less vigilant and thus suffer greater consequences (Meyer, 2003).
Likewise, Bosson et al. (2005) suggested that the more stigmatized individuals
identify with a concealable stigmatized identity the more they are protected from
associated consequences. Nonstigmatized individuals, however, fail to possess
this protective mechanism and may experience particularly negative consequences
when labeled as deviant (see also Crocker & Major, 1989). Thus, while we pro-
pose that women in general do suffer as a result of the lesbian label, understanding
the specic intricacies of these effects is a fruitful line of inquiry.
Lesbian Stigma 301
Cunningham and Fink (2006) identied sexual orientation as one “largely
unexplored” (p. 460) characteristic within the sport-related diversity literature.
Further, they challenged researchers to examine characteristics such as these, as
they relate to various outcomes, to advance our understanding of the multifaceted
nature of diversity in the sport context. As such, we believe that testing the series
of proposed relationships suggested by the current model would not only respond
to Cunningham and Fink’s call, but also potentially contribute to the literature.
With this in mind, we believe the next logical step is to test the utility and falsi-
ability of the current model’s relationships (Bacharach, 1989). Further, we sug-
gest doing so by employing various theoretical frameworks, paradigms, and meth-
odologies, as such variety may “uncover different questions, perspectives,
methods, and subsequently, outcomes” (Cunningham & Fink, p. 461) related to
women and the lesbian stigma in sport.
In her investigation of sport participation, Shakib (2003) identied that social
status is “linked to a conformance to gender ideals” (p. 1411). The current model
follows this logic by suggesting that male dominance and control thrive within the
sport context due to their high-status, in-group membership. As a result of this
privileged position, women continue to be marginalized and subjugated. One spe-
cic way in which this occurs is through the use of the lesbian label (e.g., Grifn,
1998; Krane, 2001; Lenskyj, 1987). The purpose of this article is to propose a
potential way in which this inuential label negatively affects women in sport and
as a result maintains sport’s patriarchal, heterosexist norms. Specically, it is
hypothesized that the power of the lesbian label negative stereotypes, status loss,
and discrimination construct a lesbian stigma that escapes the consciousness of
very few women in sport. As such, women of every sexual orientation may expect
that if labeled a lesbian they will experience the prejudice and discrimination
(e.g., Krane & Barber, 2005; Krane et al., 2005). We further propose that the
greater this expectation, the greater one will reallocate cognitive and behavioral
resources toward avoiding the stigma and, in turn, compromise psychological,
physical, and professional well-being. These negative effects were then suggested
to contribute to the maintenance of women’s low-status position and out-group
membership such that sport’s masculine and heteronormative ideals are sustained.
Finally, it is proposed that women within certain sports and sport organization
positions may be more susceptible to the effects of the lesbian stigma than others
and that the effects of the stigma are likely inuenced by one’s stigma conscious-
ness. Implications for this model were identied and future directions suggested.
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