Sport sociologists have longed defined sport as a heterosexist institution where gay and lesbian athletes are stigmatized. However, the number of active gay and lesbian athletes who have disclosed their sexual identities in sport is increasing, and therefore deserving of attention and investigation. The present study examines why intercollegiate lesbian athletes disclose their sexual identities, how they disclose their sexual identities, and the perceived consequences of sexual identity disclosure in sport. In-depth interviews were conducted with 16 self-identified lesbian athletes who disclosed their sexual identities while participating in intercollegiate sport. Unlike most past literature on disclosure, the present study approaches disclosure as an interactional process that involves a discloser, an audience, and a context.
Motivational factors leading to disclosure included wanting to be perceived as an honest and “normal” person, further self-acceptance, the desire for closer friendships with teammates, an unwillingness to hide their intimate or sexual relationships with teammates, and tolerant sporting environments. Athletes’ perceived consequences of disclosure included a personal sense of relief, more self-confidence, positive responses from teammates, closer friendships with their teammates, and the creation of more supportive environments. Respondents most commonly utilized implicit and reactive methods of disclosure; however, in some cases the lesbian athletes relied on teammates to tell others about their sexual identities.
Unlike past literature, the disclosure experiences, and the overall sporting experiences of the lesbian athletes in the present study, were positive. Explanations concerning their positive experiences included a self-fulfilling prophesy, the liberal mentality of the universities they attended, the large number of lesbians on their teams, the implicit nature of disclosure, and greater tolerance for gays and lesbians in sport.
Overall, approaching disclosure as an interactional process provided a more inclusive and sociological understanding of the disclosure experiences of lesbian athletes in sport. Future research should consider utilizing such a framework to investigate the disclosure experiences of gay and lesbian athletes in high school and professional sports.