On Sunday, October 6, Michigan Athletics held its first ever LGBTQ+ Pride Day. Hosted at the University of Michigan’s soccer stadium, the event took place during the Men’s and Women’s Soccer Doubleheader game. The Pride Day event aimed to make a show of support for LGBTQ+ athletes at the University of Michigan and to promote visibility and acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community. Nathan Brecht, Assistant Director of Fan Experience at the University of Michigan Athletics Department, told us, “We have been exploring the idea of doing a Pride Day for quite some time as
part of our overall programming and with an eye towards student engagement and diversity. We strive to use our platforms to engage people from all backgrounds, experiences and interests”.
The world of sports does not have a reputation for being extremely encouraging towards queer and trans athletes. Male athletes especially are expected to display “masculinity” at all times while on the field. This usually means that members of the sports industry -- coaches and fans alike -- promote aggression and brute strength as the desired qualities of an athlete. While gay male athletes are perfectly capable of being aggressive and strong, like all gay men in our culture they are nonetheless stereotyped as feminine, flamboyant, or weak.
As a result of this stereotype, the world of athletics often fosters a hostile environment towards gay male athletes. Many gay athletes are pressured to stay in the closet for fear of being seen as a less competent player due to their sexuality. In fact, an openly gay football player was not drafted into the NFL until 2014, when Michael Sam was drafted by the St. Louis Rams.
“Athletics as a whole is often associated with traditional gender roles,” Brecht said. “But at Michigan, we felt it was important to break down barriers and create a more welcoming environment for both fans and athletes regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation.”
Being a transgender athlete is not easy, either. On October 14, the International Association of Athletics Federation cut the maximum permitted testosterone level for female athletes in half. This has been widely regarded as an effort to prevent trans women from competing in women’s athletics events. From the high school level to the professional level, trans athletes are systematically misgendered and forced to compete in divisions for their biological sex, not their gender identity.
Amidst all of these efforts to belittle and ostracize LGBTQ+ athletes, our society is nonetheless progressing slowly towards a more equitable and accepting understanding of sports. Events like Michigan Athletic’s Pride Day help create a welcoming atmosphere of inclusion for queer and trans athletes. “Athletics has such an impactful voice that can reach a wide variety of audiences; therefore, I think it is important to use our platform to promote social awareness and inclusivity across our entire community,” Brecht said. “With this day being the first of its kind I think it was an absolute success. We had great crowds, positive feedback from attendees, and all of our pride flags were claimed.”
While we have quite a ways to go before we see institutionalized changes for LGBTQ+ equality, letting queer and trans athletes know that they belong is a first step. And it is a step that the athletics department is taking here at the University of Michigan.