As a playwright attempting to reclaim the lesbian lives of historic women athletes like Babe Didrikson Zaharias, I run into a peculiar brand of homophobia.
Writing about women athletes is a joy. Women athletes defy expectations and societal norms. They run their own races. They inspire and they revolutionize. This is why slamming into their closets is such a jolt and disappointment.
Yes, it's true that lesbians in the spotlight have historically needed to disguise their orientation. The penalties for deviance from the heterosexual template have been swift and severe. This was especially true for women athletes, who, by the very nature of their achievements, posed a challenge to the tenets of femininity. (They had muscles and they were competing!) The media, and sometimes even fans, were all too eager to find some excuse to invalidate their achievements. For homophobes, uncovering lesbian identity provided a comforting assurance that the athlete could not be a "real woman."
But that was then and this is now. Or is it?
I call the homophobia that I encounter in telling about their lives "misguided allegiance homophobia." In this permutation folks insist that these historic figures would not be pleased by being outed posthumously; that honoring their lives requires honoring their closets and perpetuating the fictions they so carefully constructed.
Babe Didrikson was a tomgirl from the get-go, racking up trophies for a variety of sports in high school and even trying out for the football team. Recruited for an amateur basketball team in Dallas, she made such a name for herself that she was invited to try out for the 1932 Olympic track team. In order to get around the three-event limit for individual athletes, Babe's handlers were allowed to register her as a team, all by herself. In two and a half hours, she won five events (shot put, javelin, long jump, baseball throw, and 80-meter hurdles) and set a world record in the hurdles and javelin. In addition, she tied in the high jump, setting another world record, and finished fourth in discus. She scored eight points higher than her nearest competition -- a team of 22 women!
At the Olympics, bound by the three-event limit, she scored two gold medals and took the silver in the high jump. During this period, Babe was too focused on winning to give much attention to her image. She appears to have been perfectly comfortable with herself and her sole concession to "media spin" may have been misrepresenting her age, claiming to be 18 instead of 21. But Babe may have been catering to the public's acceptance of tomboy behaviors in a teen as opposed to the expectations for "young ladies."
Babe's overnight celebrity attracted enormous attention, and not all of it was positive. Sportswriter Paul Gallico, a ferocious policer of traditional gender roles, wrote in "The Texas Babe" in Vanity Fair in 1932 that this "strange girl-boy child" would have been right at home in a men's locker room. He used the word "boy" more than a dozen times to refer to Babe, attributing her athleticism to an over-compensation for her inability to attract men.
What Gallico did not mention was that Babe had made a fool out of him. After the Olympics, fellow sportswriter and fan Grantland Rice had arranged a friendly game of golf to introduce Babe and Gallico. Exploiting Gallico's machismo, Babe challenged him to a footrace in the middle of the golf course and Gallico idiotically accepted. Needless to say, Babe left him for dead and went on to win the game handily.
The next year Gallico wrote an even more homophobic piece for Vanity Fair. Ostensibly a short story, the central character was a butch Texas athlete named "Honey," a thinly-disguised mimicry of Babe. In fact, a full-page photo of Babe sat on the facing page. Gallico imagines the other women athletes trash-talking Honey. They ridicule her Texas accent, comment on her frequent use of obscenities and speculate about her lesbianism. Gallico depicts his character as a genetic freak, filled with self-loathing in spite of her gold medal, sobbing while she smacks her own face and claws at herself -- because she cannot get a man.
Suddenly, Didrikson began to wear hats, dresses, girdles, lipstick, perfume and nail polish -- things she used to dismiss as "too sissy." And within five years, she married George Zaharias, a professional wrestler who, according to Babe's biographer Susan Cayleff "was a caricature of manliness: tough, ferocious, powerful... able to take punishment." Photographed next to George, Babe, now playing the then-elite sport of golf, did appear more feminine.
So successful was Babe in presenting herself as a traditional housewife that, several years later when Babe entered a long-term relationship with a woman, the press was willing to characterize the woman as Babe's "protégée." According to biographer Cayleff, Betty was Babe's "primary partner." A fellow pro golfer, Betty roomed with Babe on the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) circuit and lived in her home for the last six years of Babe's life. Whatever George may have thought of this arrangement, he accepted the situation. When Babe was in the hospital dying from colon cancer, Betty moved in with her, pushing the beds together.
When I wrote the book and lyrics for Babe: An Olympian Musical (score by Andrea Jill Higgins), the show included a love scene and duet between Babe and Betty. The scene marks a turning point in the narrative, as Babe moves from a position of alienation and competition with women to one of intimacy and professional alliance, culminating with the founding of the LPGA.
The response from the first studio production was overwhelmingly positive, but not without reactions to this "outing" of Babe. Was this respectful? What would Babe have wanted? And, the "smiling homophobia" of: "What does it matter anyway? Babe was still a great athlete." Some critics even felt a need to talk about George.
At what point can we recognize that Babe was bisexual -- or a lesbian whose marriage may well have been a concession to career-busting homophobia? I wish that lesbian athletes -- then and now -- would have time capsules where they can safely store the truth about their lives and the women they love. We should not be left with a closeted record and perpetual questions about how best to honor the memory of remarkable women who were compelled to live a lie.