Social media has allowed athletes to have control over the visibility of their sexuality

“The word you’re looking for is ‘girlfriend’.” These few words by a Twitter user who was following the coverage of the 2017 AFLW Brownlow medal kicked off a social media storm. They accompanied a screenshot: a Fox Sports website journalist had captioned a photo of Collingwood full-forward Moana Hope on the red carpet with “her friend” Isabella Carlstrom.

The incredulity flew thick and fast, and questions were asked: was it a deliberate erasure of Hope and Carlstrom’s relationship? Or did Fox Sports just not know? If they didn’t know, why not just not have a descriptor? Why didn’t they ask? Were they fearful of outing an athlete?

Hope and Carlstrom had never hid their relationship, but they weren’t exactly out either. And they’re not the only sportswomen to walk this line. For some of these couples you need to read between the lines, or pick up on the subtle and not-so-subtle cues. For others, like Matildas star Chloe Logarzo and softball player Jasmine Peters, there’s no ambiguity. Their Instagram accounts leave nothing in doubt.

They are all part of a relatively recent phenomenon: elite sportswomen becoming more visible about being in same-sex relationships.

“There are still a few people scared that it is going to tarnish their image, but for me, if it was going to tarnish my image then it’s not the image I want because I’m not telling the truth,” says Logarzo.

For a time, these athletes’ relationships didn’t receive all that much mainstream media attention. To be in the know you really had to be a women’s sport fan and you had to be following these athletes on Instagram. Then came the federal government’s marriage equality postal survey, which threw the spotlight onto anyone in the public arena and in a same-sex relationship.

Soon after that came the “the kiss”: Adelaide Crows AFLW player Erin Phillips wins the league’s inaugural best and fairest award and at the ceremony is immediately congratulated by her wife, American retired professional basketball player Tracy Gahan, with a kiss. Media around the world erupts, with photographs and video of the moment being shared widely.

The issue of homophobia in sport is gaining more traction all the time. And rightly so, although most of the conversation up until now has been focused on male athletes and the desire – particularly within queer communities – to see them come out. While such conversations are important to have, they ignore the experiences of female athletes—experiences that are often completely different, more complicated, and come with their own set of challenges.

The lack of media coverage is the first and most obvious difficulty. Even if you are out, no one knows because the media isn’t talking to you or even about you. How do you present yourself? It’s a question the majority of women ask themselves regularly, and it’s one game we can never win. You’re either deemed too sexy or not sexy enough. And you immediately wear that stereotype, no matter your sexuality: aren’t all women who play sport lesbians anyway?

Logarzo considers herself to be out, but by society’s working definition at the time of this interview she was not. Now, after an earlier version of this piece was published, she is. Confused?

And what about Hope and Carlstrom? Tony Harper, the Fox Sports journalist who wrote the caption, explained: “I googled them. I found three articles where Moana refers to Isabella as her ‘friend’ so that’s what I went with.” Erin Riley, the author of the tweet that looked to ‘correct’ the caption, says: “I just assumed they were out.” But were they? Who even gets to decide?

“I always refer to Jasmine as my girlfriend, I never say I don’t have a girlfriend,” says Logarzo. “But it’s never really been something I’ve sat down and talked about [to the media].”

There’s a gap. So should we, the media, make assumptions about an athlete’s sexuality without their express permission? Hell no. Not every athlete wants to talk about their sexuality or relationship. As one sportswoman told me, on condition of anonymity: “I don’t like sharing too much of my personal life. Obviously I do share some personal things, but I don’t want my sexuality being a focus.”

But perhaps, if you take your girlfriend to an official awards night, hold her hand as you walk down the red carpet when you know there will be a shitload of media, then you are de facto out? If a straight couple did that, everyone would assume and call them a couple and it would be reported as “X & Y debut their new relationship at the Brownlow”.

How difficult would it have been for the photographer or an assistant to ask for names and relationships on the red carpet after every photograph was taken? Or maybe we shouldn’t be highlighting relationships at all? That was the eventual position Harper came to, removing all references to partners, wives and friends from photo captions of the awards coverage for both male and female players.

“For me it’s about the athlete,” says Harper. “If they don’t raise it [their relationship or sexuality] then I don’t raise it. I want to go where people want to take me. Personal is personal until an athlete wants to take it there.”

Then there was “the kiss”. What had always been a non-story became a huge story—when it happens all the time on a player’s Instagram it’s not a story, but it’s a huge story when it happens at a glittering event packed full with mainstream media.

The fact is that while the media tries to figure out the ins and outs of who is in or out, athletes are on Instagram being visible and in total control. As Dr Kim Toffoletti, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Deakin University, says: “[What] we’re seeing is lesbian athletes in all facets of their life and we’re not waiting for the mainstream media to present them in a particular way.”

Couple this with an increasing desire from younger generations to not be labelled at all rather than be out, and what you have is people living their lives and being visible without expressly talking about it. It’s a non-story to them; coming out isn’t a consideration.

“I don’t think it’s necessary [to make an ‘announcement’] because it shouldn’t be a big thing,” Logarzo says.

People think of their identities as more than just their sexuality. For sportswomen, being an athlete is what is front and centre—more than being lesbian, and often more than being a woman. How many times have women in sport had to ask for the focus to be only on their athletic achievements?

On top of this, publicly claiming a sexual identity of the LGBQ (*) variety is still a very political thing to do, and it’s tough enough for women in sport as it is, without adding extra complications to navigating what is still, at times, a hostile environment.

This discussion is all complicated by the fast pace at which things are changing. The issue of marriage equality was at the forefront of political debate in Australia leading up to and during the postal survey. During this debate many athletes became vocal in their support of marriage equality and about being in same-sex relationships. Casey Delacqua, Erin Phillips, Michelle Heyman, Alex Blackwell and Megan Schutt all had articles published in which they stated their support and their sexuality, and many more athletes took to social media with theirs. Others, like Moana Hope and Sam Kerr, participated in equality campaigns with their sponsors.

The introduction of the AFLW has gone some way to normalise same-sex relationships. As Caroline Wilson wrote: “The great achievement of the AFLW in this area has been to expose the complete acceptance, to the point of indifference, to what was once considered controversial.” When you pull up women from amateur leagues where there is little-to-no pressure to hide your sexuality, these women are hardly going to go back in when later dealing with mainstream media.

Social media gives female athletes a choice. They don’t have to make a big coming out statement—they can just be themselves on social media, be public about who they’re in a relationship with and deal with questions from the media if and when the time comes.

“If the media asked me, I’d be open to talking about it,” says Logarzo. “If someone asked me, I would say I’m gay.”

Still, we need to recognise that social media has created just another set of challenges that women in sport have to manage and steer, and they often have to do this on their own. Logarzo and Peters have acknowledged their identities and their relationship without making it political, and in doing so they have maintained a level of control and comfort over what they chose to share. However, the personal is still political whether they intend it or not. They’re doing their part to normalise queer visibility on their terms.

Academic scholarship on social media says that as a user what you’re selling is community, connection and intimacy—so if an athlete can’t share themselves what’s the purpose of social media to them really?

The majority of female athletes don’t have a public relations or media team behind them. Social media has become the most important tool in their arsenal and they’re too busy getting on with playing their sport to be anything but authentic.

* Trans and intersex (the ‘T’ and ‘I’ in LGBTQIA+) athletes also face a range of issues in performing their public identities through social and traditional media. These issues are complex in and of themselves and, as such, are beyond the scope of this piece