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Op-Ed: Olympians Can Break Records, But Not the Gender Binary

Olympics gender binary op-ed

Reporting from Rio consistently demeans male athletes for not acting “like men” in victory—and erases female athletes all together.

When I first learned to hit a baseball, I gripped the handle of the small, blue bat--as my mother threw the pitch.

When I first learned to shoot, I sighted the bull's-eye down the barrel and squeezed the trigger--of my mother's .357 pistol.

When I first tossed a football, my mother waited down the field to catch the toss. She was the one who taught me what it is to win--and to lose--with dignity.

As I grew older, I saw how mothers and fathers acted in other families. The pattern repeated every time--women gossiping in the kitchen, men in the living room watching TV sports and barely talking. I began enduring surprise and confusion when I talked about my mother's teaching me to drive or my father's teaching me to bake. I had always seen them as whole people, and the gender binary was teaching me to make them less--confine them to lanes as tight as any race track.

Years later, as a grown cisgender man, I watch the world-class athletes of the Rio Olympics perform amazing feats. I listen as reporters like myself tell their stories of victory and loss. And I feel such confusion as those same reporters try to pack these achievements into the same tired gender roles that made me ashamed of all that my mother and my father taught me--of how not just "to be a man," but to be a person.

Despite a record number of LGBT athletes in Rio this year, general media can't help but confine these athletes to heavily gendered expectations of how to compete and how to celebrate. When British divers Chris Mears and Jack Maugher embraced after winning gold, The Daily Mail told them "steady on, chaps!" and highlighted the "manly pat" between the Chinese divers. When British tennis player Andy Murray cried after clinching gold, the BBC's Paul Hand said Murray was "not macho."

Andy Murray also had to correct another reporter who falsely congratulated him on being the first tennis player to win multiple gold medals--politely reminding everyone about the existence of Venus and Serena Williams.

Related: Meet the 45 Out Athletes of the Rio Olympics

The Rio games sport the greatest LGBT athlete representation in modern history, but no one appears safe from the pervasive and toxic gender roles that confine us in public and private life. If cisgender male athletes can't show the depth of their emotion at achieving the highest honor in their careers, what can we hope for the first open transgender athletes when they finally compete?

Despite the dangers gay and lesbian athletes still face, acceptance has slowly pulled forward--as long as they stay in their cisgender lanes. If we want a diverse Olympics, we need to surpass these gender expectations and let athletes perform as athletes first. If we continue to expect stoic men and erase women, we'll never have the transgender-inclusive Olympics we're all hoping for.

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

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Michael Lambert