In Israel, Athletes Still Hide in the Locker Room Closet

The Hebrew term 'homo' is the ultimate epithet on the field - and being branded one is no less negative than being labeled a 'terrorist'

Washington Wizards center Jason Collins’ recent disclosure in “Sports Illustrated” that he is gay has had a ripple effect around the world. The National Basketball Association player is the first male athlete from a major U.S. sports team to publicly disclose his homosexuality.

People have become a bit more tolerant of differences in sexual orientation in recent years, including in America. But in sports circles, where old-fashioned macho attitudes still set the tone, it’s no wonder that gay male athletes prefer to maintain a low profile. What Collins did took a lot of courage.

Of course, Collins is not the first male player from a major American sports team to come out of the closet, though the others did so after retiring. There have been other major team athletes elsewhere in the world as well who have been open about their homosexuality, among them English cricketer Steven Davies, Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas, and less prominent athletes including soccer players in Norway and Sweden.

They are still just a drop in the bucket, of course, if one assumes that the percentage of gay athletes is comparable to the population as a whole. Coming out publicly under such circumstances is not a simple thing in places like Scandinavia, Britain or the United States − and certainly not in countries where public opinion is less tolerant.

Like Israel, for example.

Tel Aviv, which is world-renowned as a gay-friendly city, is just one facet of the social mosaic that is Israel. Among major segments of the Israeli public, homosexuality typically invokes negative reactions.

Indeed, homosexuality − let alone bisexual and transgender identity − is granted no real legitimacy here. Some openly gay Israelis are shunned by their families, and whole segments of society stay away from them.

That’s certainly the case among many sports fans, and although this is clearly a generalization, it appears to be particularly true among soccer fans − and among the athletes too.

“I have no problem with gays. I know gays. But for a soccer player, it’s really a problem to disclose something like that. It could ruin your career in Israel,” said one Premier League player, whose request to remain anonymous indicates the long way Israeli soccer still has to go.

Indeed, for athletes who play team sports, coming out is especially daunting. A considerable number of athletes involved in non-team individual competition around the world have publicly disclosed their homosexuality. And while their decisions were no less courageous, it can’t be denied that they did not have to deal with being sized up by dozens of pairs of eyes every time they entered the locker room. Dealing with a full team locker room can’t be easy.

“In the eyes of most soccer players in Israel, being gay is a type of problem − something not natural,” the Premier League player said. “It’s also embarrassing to a lot of people. I think if players knew that one or another teammate was gay, first of all they would be embarrassed by it.”

Even if over the years fans’ attitudes toward homosexuality have softened somewhat, anyone who attends a soccer game in Israel knows that the Hebrew term “homo” is the ultimate epithet on the field − more insulting than calling a player a “son of a whore” and no less negative than being labeled a “terrorist.”

It’s sad, but it’s also the reality in a considerable number of countries in Europe and elsewhere around the world. Attitudes are changing, but even in countries like Britain, where they are taking steps to combat prejudice, progress is slow − too slow.

So in a team sport like basketball, are the players and fans − and I know this is also a generalization − considered more enlightened than their soccer counterparts? Are things different?

Apparently so, if only just a little. At least basketball players here speak more openly about homosexuality.

Gur Porat, 32, of Elizur Ashkelon, for example, thinks that eventually an Israeli team athlete will follow Collins’ lead and come out publicly as gay. And he thinks that athlete will probably be a basketball player.

“I think it will take time but in the end it will happen,” he told Haaretz. “You need to understand that men’s sports is a very macho field, so it’s hard to talk about this. It’s by no means simple for an athlete in Israel to come out of the closet, but I have no doubt that it will happen in basketball a lot sooner than in soccer.”

Contrary to popular belief, in basketball at least the Israeli players are no less liberal than those from abroad. In fact, sometimes the Israeli players are actually more liberal.

“In the locker room, we laugh about it all the time. Homophobic foreign [players] come here. They’re not going to show it openly, but you can see it from their attitude,” Porat said.

So are there gay basketball players in the Super League here? “Based on the statistics, I assume there is one on every team, but I don’t know of any,” Porat explained.

As Porat has said, however, the day will come when fans will know which of their favorite players are gay. The era in which singers, artists, lecturers and public figures once hid in the closet is over. And even locker room closets will be wide open some day.

AP