Is sport the last great bastion of homophobia?
And where, exactly, are all the gay sports stars in the world? They are definitely out there, but rarely mentioned, just think sports pages in the tabloids.
While homophobia also remains an ugly stain on the ‘beautiful game’, come the start of the football season the majority of fans at matches across the country will hear – and some engage in – anti-gay abuse.
A 2009 Stonewall report found that from more than 2000 supporters surveyed, 70% had witnessed homophobia on the terraces. More than half thought the FA, Premier League and Football League were not doing enough to tackle the issue.
By now, most people are familiar with Liverpool born, openly-gay footballer, Anton Hysen, but he is in the minority. With the amount of fit lads preparing for the 3pm Saturday kick-off, and a vague statistic which says that one in 10 people are gay or lesbian, there has to be more than a few lesbian, gay or transgender people on the field.
It is not that all lgbt people have decided against a career in sport in case they have a tooth knocked out. It is more likely that none have decided to take centre stage and announce their off-pitch ball control because of fear. The sporting industry in general is a very macho environment. Through fear of being bullied, both men and women, have at some point felt uncomfortable when coming out, especially if they felt it would harm their career. It is the same reason why many Hollywood actors have stayed firmly in the closet, despite the fact that we just love the actors that have opened the closet door, if only just a fraction… imagine Richard Chamberlain for a moment.
There’s clearly an argument to be had about standing proud for gay rights in sports and being true to one’s sexuality, but at the end of the day every man or woman’s situation is different, so it is their personal choice. By encouraging more gay role models in sport, it will show young people that sexuality is no barrier to achievement. There have been a few hugely courageous sports stars to have come out – like rugby’s Gareth Thomas, diving’s Tom Daley, cricket’s Steven Davies and tennis’ Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King and Amelie Mauresmo – but many still feel pressurised to keep quiet.
Although those who have taken this commendable step have received a positive response, many others remain in fear about the loss of status among fans and colleagues and about potential sponsorship drying up.
Martina Navratilova concluded that despite losing $12million in sponsorship deals when she came out, it was still the best thing she ever did. She did not lose her American citizenship as she feared, she received new endorsements from forward thinking companies, and became a hero to many who never really had much interest in tennis before.
Tackling homophobia in sport is not just important for sport itself; it has much wider implications, from addressing LGBT issues, homophobic attitudes in society and homophobic bullying in schools. While there are some excellent projects to address this problem, such as Rugby League’s Tackle It, only too often can homophobic and transphobic attitudes prevail between fans and players alike.
Former MP, Lynne Featherstone, has written: “The fight against racism has been so successful in football and other sports. Given the role sports can play to change attitudes in society, it’s crucial that we break down the culture that allows spectators and participants to get away with homophobia. The Charter For Action ( set up to tackle homophobia) is the first step in bringing people together in doing just that.”
She continues: “It is hugely important that role models like Gareth Thomas have come out. But the real importance of these role models is the message that goes out to young people – that up and down this land children will feel able to be themselves, whatever their sexual orientation or gender identity, and take to the fields of sport without fear or anxiety. That is the ambition”.
Sportsmen and women should be able to participate in their game without fear of being who they are. Just how many players do not reach their full potential because they somehow cannot be true to themselves.
We all envisage a time when issues of sexuality will no longer be of interest to players or fans, when participants can compete without distraction, or without the smokescreen of husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends. Professional sports will not fall apart. People will still come to watch their chosen sports.
Martina Navratilova is quoted as saying that transparency in sport is vital.
“Homophobia and transphobia in sports are problems that we need to give a lot more work and attention to”. She also said that a greater number of out players would improve the wider culture of sport.
So it may seem that finding a gay or lesbian sports star is like finding a needle in a haystack, but we need to take a look at the bigger picture. There are many openly-gay football and rugby teams in the UK. They may not be world famous, but seize the opportunity given to them and are open about gay men and women playing sport.
There are gay sailing and swim teams, tennis players, boxers and gay grapplers fighting it out in the ring. Many players are out there just getting on with it, so it’s up to you whether you join in. While there may not many sports stars rushing to announce their sexuality, we heartily embrace those who have.
Often sport is a game of two halves, it just depends on which half you are standing in.