Did you watch the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament in August? I can’t understand why gender-feminists and gay-rights advocates didn’t chain themselves to the turnstiles to protest the most flagrant forms of discrimination on the basis of sex and (God help us) “heteronormativity.”
As you’ll remember, New York State legalized same-sex marriage this past summer, yet just a few weeks later it welcomed, even celebrated, open discrimination at America’s foremost tennis tournament. This is a puzzle. The legislators reportedly were appalled by the idea of “separate but equal” twosomes in marriage (they could not see how a sexually integrated couple (one man, one woman) was different from a sexually segregated couple), so they abolished the requirement that marriage requires a man and a woman.
Then, just a few weeks after the change in marriage, along comes a tennis tournament that bills itself as the world’s most-attended single sporting event, and New York goes all wobbly on civil rights.
This tournament treats men and women entirely differently. The sexes are segregated in the locker rooms, and, to New York’s shame, men and women are openly discriminated against on the courts. Worse, there are different requirements for men and women to win a championship, or even a match: Men play best of five sets; women play best of three.
In the mixed doubles brackets, the one instance in which men and women are formally equal on the court, no same-sex teams are permitted to participate. Men’s doubles teams and women’s doubles teams must play in their own, separate brackets (and not even against each other). The tournament segregates the sexes and then “privileges heteronormativity” by excluding same-sex couples from the mixed-doubles brackets.
The U.S. Open does pay equal prize money to men and women. The Tournament takes pride in that practice, and was a pioneer two generations ago. Still, the practice seems the very definition of “separate but equal.” Outside of the mixed-doubles brackets, no chromosomal XX-person ever plays a chromosomal-XY person, yet the monetary rewards for the two sexes are identical. Separate play, but equal pay. Why do we hear so few complaints from our radical egalitarians?
Tennis is hardly unique, of course. In the Olympics, the world’s greatest venue for sports, men and women are separated in nearly every sport, not just running and skiing but curling and archery, too. No woman ever boxes a man; indeed, there are no women boxers at the Olympics. No man ever dives into an Olympic pool for synchronized swimming.
In the handful of sports that do treat men and women as equals, there is a strong suspicion of heteronormativity with all of that male-female ice dancing and pairs skating. Even gay men are required to skate with a partner of the opposite sex. She is invariably in some cute, short skirt, and he is in long, black pants. They don’t share their duties equally, either. She does the balletic work, and all of the really dangerous stuff, while he keeps his skates safely on the ice. It’s all so . . . normal, so hetero, so straight.
Sex/gender still matters in New York State – at least in professional tennis. In marriage, it no longer does. Any two adults, irrespective of their sex, can now get married – but don’t try any of that sex-doesn’t-matter silliness down at the courts. Tennis takes maleness and femaleness seriously. This is understandable, of course, because tennis features the big serve and television revenues. Marriage, on the other hand, only features the coming together, for better or for worse, of the two halves of the human race.
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Mr. Oliphant, a lawyer, is a part-time research fellow at the Marriage Law Project, Columbus School of Law. The views expressed here are his own.