The whole culture of how we talk about sports is really to blame, but I grew up playing football in Texas, where things were tailored to my specific queerness.
Growing up in Texas in the 90s and early 00s, two things were certain. One, you always ordered the family sized queso even if it’s just for you. Two, the Dallas Cowboys were inescapable and destined to be a part of your life. I did my best to avoid the Cowboys as a kid. I didn’t really care about football or sports in general. Except for tennis. I would watch with my mom constantly.
When I was a little boy growing up in Rule, Texas there was no room for boys that didn’t at least like football. Most of the other little boys in my class had families that did some kind of farming or manual labor and that was destined to be their profession as well. Because of my lack of interest in the pigskin, I didn’t have a ton of friends. When the boys would all divide up at recess to play tackle football, I would hide on the jungle gym or sit off by the tennis courts and just wait for recess to end.
On the off chance that I got wrangled into playing, usually through threat of violence because someone was sick and they needed even teams, I always avoided getting the ball because I was afraid of getting hit. Although sometimes that would backfire and lead to the ball getting thrown at my head when I wasn’t looking. Then, I would walk away, start crying, and sit patiently away from everyone until the teachers came to collect us. They would see I had been crying. I would tell them what happened and they would tell me to toughen up or it’ll keep happening.
And that’s what I did. Or at least, I tried. I bit the bullet and started watching football and playing it with the other boys. Even played on the school teams through middle school. I always knew I didn’t belong there, but the only other option was physical violence. I figured if I was gonna get hit, it should at least be in a controlled environment.
In the grandest trans trope of all time, I really just wanted to be on the dance team or a cheerleader. I was fine being adjascent to football. Being adjascent to it was all you needed to be as a little girl. Tolerate it enough to go to the games every week and watch the games on Sunday after church with your boyfriend’s family.
After I started following football, I realized that I was opening myself up to another type of violence, emotional violence. I can’t count the number of times a middle school coach told me to stop being a “pussy” or to “man-up”. As a closeted trans girl starting the nightmarish process of male puberty, the last thing I wanted was to “man-up”. The thought of growing old as a man gave me nightmares. Forced into weightroom routines meant to bulk me up and make me a better instrument for violence was horrifying. And most days I would go home after workout and find a place to cry in peace.
Playing football comes with an expectation that you’ll be subjected to a certain degree of hyper-masculine dogma that is meant to make you better competitors and bring you closer as men. While that alone is problematic enough with what it does to young people’s minds, the fact that this belief extends to casual fans is a crisis.
When you grow up watching a team, and investing time and money into them, you feel a certain sense of entitlement when it comes to their on-the-field product. You want them to win. Because when your team wins, you get to mock other people who are wearing a different color shirt than you because their team didn’t. When you are a male-identified individual, sometimes it might seem like your team not winning makes you look inferior for supporting them. In a sport that is predicated on being the biggest and most violent, that means your team isn’t man enough; and if your team isn’t man enough, that must mean you aren’t either. So, you do what any man would do when their masculinity is questioned. You lash out and try to break down another person’s masculinity to make yours seem better. That leads to things like this:
“I can’t believe we’re still starting Tony Homo this week.”
“I turned off the Cowgirls game. I couldn’t watch them suck that much any more. They should get off their knees and actually play football once in a while.”
Aren’t you clever? You figured out a slur that rhymes with “Romo” and you deployed it to make it obvious that your masculinity is in tact, even if Tony’s isn’t. Never mind the time he played with like four injuries that would render most people incapable of walking on their own. He’s a “p*ssy” and a “h**o” because he threw too many interceptions that one time.
Nail Polish? On a Boy?
As a young, impressionable, closeted queer, you learn quickly that words associated with any sort of non-cis-heteronormative behavior are bad and should be used to degrade others. They are insults of the highest degree. So, if you are a “little boy” who really wants to be a little girl and has spent most of your life already being physically assaulted for not being “manly” enough, who then starts hearing how fans use homophobic language to lambast a football team, what’s your incentive to come out? If they’ll call a professional football player a “h**o” for simply not playing perfectly, what will they do to you if you show up at school with your nails painted?
(I’ll tell you what they’ll do; your teammates will call you the F-word all day and then assault you in the bathroom, holding you up against a wall by your throat. That was for wearing black nail polish on halloween as part of a costume. Imagine if you had done it just to express your gender identity. The commeraderie of football is really amazing isn’t it?)
When I was in middle school, the football and cheerleading teams did this thing every year where some of the football players would dress as cheerleaders for the pep rally during the week of Halloween and vice-versa. The players in obviously cartoonish drag would then do a dance that was specifically meant to be (a little too) sexualized and everyone would cackle, because boys wearing skirts and dancing is the funniest thing in the world.
I got asked one time to do it and I said no. I said no because I could tell it was a trap. Later I found out I was right and that they were going to call me out for “liking it too much” and make fun of me in a very public way.
The culture around football made me afraid of what I was. I was taught every day by teammates and coaches that femininity is a disease and a disgrace and something to be mocked. Or, when that fails, beaten out of you. As kids leave school and continue playing or watching football, they remember these lessons taught to them by coaches and teammates. And it informs the way they talk about the sport. It creates a toxic environment where manliness is key and women should butt out. Guys think it’s hot when a girl likes sports. But only because they want to see her wear their favorite team’s jersey and nothing else. If a woman has an opinion about them, they should shut up and let the men do the talking because this is a man’s sport.
I don’t think it’s necessarily men’s fault that they think this way. I think it’s impossible to avoid the idea of football being a sacred, manly activity if you grew up playing it. Their coaches told them that and their coaches’ coaches told them that when they were players.
I still watch football to this day. I’m not really sure why, but I do. I think it was simply part of my life for so long that I can’t escape it. Think of it like Stockholm syndrome. At a certain point the game became inevitable and now I can’t seem to shake it. I have, however, re-purposed it in my mind. The degree to which I’m invested is significantly lower and more likely within the “casual fan” territory.
“Having a favorite team” is something I’m not sure has ever been true for me. I say I’m an Eagles fan because I think Carson Wentz is hot. As a kid I liked to mess with my dad and root for any team but the Cowboys. Honestly though, if you told me that you’d give me a crisp $1 bill to root for another team? I’d definitely do it.
Truth is, I didn’t want to be associated with the Cowboys fans in my life. They said horrible, homophobic things about professional athletes to vent frustration about a trivial sporting event. At least if I rooted for other teams, I didn’t have to directly face the reality of my fellow fan base doing the same. It was a safe way of othering myself.
Most importantly, as I was facing my peers growing up it gave me some level of respectability. I may not be a Cowboys fan but at least I liked football. My “man-card” was adequately punched and I could move through the masculine world freely, pretending my fandom wasn’t like theirs.
After I came out, I quit watching football. I refused it. I wanted it out of my life. Then, one day, I was around some friends who had a game on and football managed to claw its way back into my life. It wasn’t any kind of intense competitive drive within me or anything like that. What drew me back in is the simple fact that, at its worst, football is a nice distraction. You can ignore your problems for a few hours and invest in something that you have no control over. You’re a non-factor in the outcome and sometimes there is nothing more relaxing than being of no consequence.
Football is heralded as a sport for men because you punish your body and endure great pain and adversity to reach a goal together. There’s nothing inherently manly about enduring pain and pushing through adversity, though. Women and femmes endure pain and push through adversity on a daily basis. The problem with football is that we treat it like a bloodsport. Football is, in fact, just a game. You’re not more manly because you can catch a ball and run. A lot of people can do that, including me; and there’s really nothing manly about me, no matter how hard my coaches tried to force it on me.
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