Undermining Performance: Why Exclusion is Not the Only Consequence of Bias in Sports

With the help of GLSEN, we understand key effects of anti-LGBT bias and bullying on LGBT youth participation in K-12 sports. We know that about one third of LGBT students avoid attending P.E. classes and almost 40% avoid locker rooms. We also know that almost a quarter of LGBT youth avoid school athletics all together. Many brave LGBT students have verified this data, sharing their stories of exclusion and marginalization.

It’s easy to look at how anti-LGBT bias operates in sports and see exclusion of LGBT youth as the primary consequence.  However, the stereotyping that accompanies bias compounds the challenges LGBT youth face in athletics because they undermine performance. Bias doesn’t just exclude LGBT athletes; it tries to set them up to fail.

A few months ago, I finished Dr. Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi, a book that examines how commonly-held stereotypes can influence performance.  For example, before administering a challenging mathematics test to women, Steele would tell them that the exam either was or was not a reliable test of intelligence.  Based on this subtle change in wording, women were likely to perform better when told that it was not an accurate test of intelligence than when told that the test accurately measured their intelligence.

In another example, Steele selected a group of white males to play ten holes of miniature golf.  He told some that the course was a test of their natural athletic ability while he told others nothing.  Again, those who were told that it was a test of their natural athletic ability underperformed compared to those who were told nothing.  In both cases, participants who were reminded of the test’s deeper purpose did not perform as well as others because they were subconsciously aware of a general stereotype—that women are not as good at math as men and that white males are less athletic than black males.

Based on Steele’s research, it would be reasonable to conclude that athletes face similar challenges because of stereotypes, LGBT athletes in particular. We’ve seen countless incredibly talented LGBT athletes succeed at elite and professional levels, particularly in recent years as more and more come out. LGBT athletes are just as capable and talented as anyone else.

Nonetheless, anti-LGBT stereotypes persist in nearly every high school locker room in the country, sending devastating messages — messages that say more than “you’re not welcome here”; they say “you cannot succeed here”.

For example, women athletes are often labeled as lesbians regardless of their sexual orientation.  People use this stereotype as a way to explain why some women excel in a historically male-dominated space. The stereotype is usually articulated in a negative way and is designed to minimize and undermine the achievements of all women athletes at the expense of LBT women. It’s a lose-lose for LBT women.

Gay male athletes also experience reductive and stigmatizing stereotypes. They are characterized as “soft” and not as “tough” as straight athletes. In sports, where being tough and resilient is everything, that mischaracterization can crush confidence and ultimately performance.

Steele’s book suggests that being more aware of stereotypes and their negative effect on performance critical.  That’s why Athlete Ally’s work is not only about ensuring that LGBT athletes feel welcomed and respected in sports; it’s about ensuring their right to self-determination and self-actualization.

For more on how stereotypes impact performance check out Dr. Steele’s conversation on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vvwvvbiwRkg.