The issue of homophobia in sport has returned to the forefront in recent weeks. It has long been a subject of debate as to how to do better, with the main focus being on football. Specifically, men’s football.
I say that because there are no shortage of gay athletes. They are prominent in women’s football at all levels – the BBC even ran a feature on a couple that faced each other in a match. Tennis has seen the likes of Billie Jean King rise to the very top of the sport. Tom Daley is an Olympic bronze medallist and world champion in diving. Gareth Thomas is a Welsh all-time great in rugby union who came out while he was still playing, and elsewhere in the sport Nigel Owens is widely regarded as the best referee in the game.
Really, those last two examples are the best ones to compare to football because of their recency and the prominence of rugby across the UK.
It’s heartening to see that Thomas spoke about not wanting to be seen as a “gay rugby player”, but as a player and a man first and foremost. It’s great to see Owens making jokes about his own sexuality to players on the pitch, because that is the normalisation of LGBT+ at work. Yet at the same time, they provide role models to youngsters who may be struggling with their own identity who have a passion for rugby.
Both men have been open about their stories, about the mental anguish they have suffered over who they are, and the effects that can have. Both men have been driven to suicide attempts. Owens said back in 2007: “It’s such a big taboo to be gay in my line of work, I had to think very hard about it because I didn’t want to jeopardise my career.”
Things are getting better. Part of that is down to the influence of people like Thomas and Owens, part of like is down to organised campaigns like rainbow laces or football v homophobia – which this year saw Altrincham FC take to the pitch in a specifically designed rainbow strip.
That is probably the biggest change since Owens’ interview in 2007. It’s no longer a taboo subject. But that doesn’t mean it’s not an issue, and that doesn’t mean all attitudes are changing.
At the start of this month there was an incident with the England cricket team out in the West Indies. I know it’s not the most popular sport in Scotland, but “sledging” on the field is commonplace, and what wold normally constitute banter in football. But in the same way, there are lines that can’t be crossed. England captain Joe Root could be heard saying to a West Indian bowler, Shannon Gabriel, “don’t use it as an insult, there’s nothing wrong with being gay.”
Root has been lauded for the calm, matter of fact manner he dealt with the comment. Even at the end of the day’s play, he didn’t disclose what Gabriel said to him, although the West Indian later released a statement explaining all. But what that did was re-open the conversation around homophobia in sport in a big way.
Nigel Owens also made some headlines recently by commenting on French international Jefferson Poirot’s rainbow laces in the 6 Nations. Again, his comments afterwards were measured, classy, and for me bang on the money.
The holy grail around most discussions of LGBT+ in sport is that we don’t have an out footballer in the English Premier League. We have seen players come out after retirement – German international Tomas Hitzlsperger being the most prominent – but no active player since the top tier of English football became the global commercial success that it has.
I think that would be a big step, but I don’t think that is the magical cure all for homophobia. The game Football Manager introduced gay players in the 2018 release, and some of the reaction was hardly encouraging. Admittedly, the way it was done in the game – where clubs would receive a financial marketing boost – wasn’t exactly ideal either, but as far as I know that has been remedied in the most recent edition.
I would imagine that the fear behind a top player coming out would be the level of abuse, much like some of those responses on Twitter, that it opens them up to. What I would say to that is there are always idiots who will chant anything offensive. If the player is good enough, then it will probably be forgotten before long.
I know it’s not the same thing, but over the years players have been on the receiving end of a torrent of abuse from fans and eventually that gets forgotten because there’s no denying their ability. Ryan Giggs, John Terry and Wayne Rooney all had extra-marital affairs that made them targets, but before long nobody cared. People were burning effigies of David Beckham after he got sent off playing for England at the 1998 World Cup, and he came through it just about alright.
For the most part, I don’t think fans would care about the sexual orientation of players if they were still delivering the goods on the pitch.
I said that I don’t think a top footballer coming out would be a magical cure, and that’s because that would not take the grassroots level into account. For all that a high profile case would help so many people struggling with their identity, people playing out in their local parks, who don’t think they’re affected by it, may not see attitudes change.
Sky Sports ran a fantastic piece about a discussion between three members of the LGBT+ community involved at the lower levels of football. What I took from that is that on an everyday level it just comes down to visibility. Maybe I’m being optimistic, naïve even, but it’s when people are interacting with LGBT+ people in those environments and see that there’s no reason to be prejudiced that perceptions will change.
To an extent, I can even talk from personal experience. I’m a sports reporter, so I am in and around football clubs on a regular basis, behind the scenes and on matchdays. What I can say is that I’ve never seen an issue with homophobia, and the impression I get is that managers and teammates will not care.
Sure, there’s banter, but as acknowledged in the Sky Sports piece above that’s part and parcel of the game, and most of the time it should actually be encouraged. Occasionally the “banter” becomes a little too “lad culture-y” for me, and that makes me a little uncomfortable, but I’m not sure that doesn’t have as much to do with my personality as my sexuality.
One thing I can say though, is that LGBT+ representation in the media is rare, especially in a sporting context. This, I think, is a much bigger issue than we are giving credit to. If I can get statistical for a minute, the Sports Media LGBT+ Twitter account ran a survey towards the end of last year. From an admittedly small sample size, 3% of respondents believed that sports media was ‘very inclusive’ of lesbian, gay, bi and pansexual people – and all of those responses happened to come from straight men. It was close to a 50/50 split between those who has witnessed, or been subjected to, anti-LGBT+ attitudes or behaviour in a workplace environment. Just under two thirds of LGBT+ respondents in the industry are not out to everyone at their workplace.
This was not a perfect survey, but it highlights the issues that LGBT+ people face in sports media. The reason I bring this side of the coin up is the simple question: how can we expect sportsmen to come out to the media if the media itself isn’t representative? There aren’t many LGBT+ role models covering sport, and that is a big issue too.
I’m conscious that these sorts of conversations tend to be very homosexual-centric. For trans people, it’s a whole other ball game. You only have to look at the controversy surrounding Caster Semenya, or more recently comments made by Martina Navratilova to get a tiny taste of what could happen. Although I can’t offer the same sort of analysis or insight, I can point people to the short film Just Charlie, which I found very powerful.
I wonder as I write all this if I’m being hypocritical. I have not played sport since coming out, after playing for my local cricket team for nine years and playing football with friends for as long as I can remember. I kept my identity a secret through all that, so who am I to advocate for better exposure of the LGBT+ community in sport?
What I can say is that I think having that role model would have helped me. And I think it would help countless other youngsters come to terms with who they are. It might even persuade other people that homophobia is wrong and break down those barriers, who knows? It may just have to be a generational thing as I’ve written before, but the only way to overcome the issue is to kick down the door at all levels. I suspect that once one person does it the floodgates will open. When that happens, hopefully it will make for a more inclusive experience for everyone.