Mainstream male sporting role-models within the LGBT+ community are few and far between.
In rugby union Gareth Thomas came out as gay in December 2009 while still playing, but he had already entrenched himself as a legend of the sport long before then.
Tom Daley rose to prominence as much for his youthfulness as his ability when he represented Great Britain at the 2008 Summer Olympics at just 14 years old, before coming out in December 2013.
Thomas Hitzlsperger played in the English Premier League for Aston Villa, West Ham United and Everton while also playing 52 times for Germany, but did not come out until after he retired in 2013.
But go back even just 10 years and it was very rare to see an LGBT+ athlete on television. For youngsters trying to reconcile their LGBT+ identity with playing sport, not having someone to look up to as an example of what was possible could make things even more difficult than they already were.
And that is exactly why Craig Stephen tries so hard to be open about who he is while playing sport.
Stephen is a sports studies student in his final year at the University of Stirling, and was president of the men’s basketball team for the last two years, before continuing in that role when the men’s and women’s clubs merged at the end of the last academic session.
Not coming out until he was 18 but playing basketball at home in Dunfermline for four years before then, Stephen had to look elsewhere for reassurance that he could be accepted.
“Something I’ve discussed with people before is the idea that the time you would probably be specialising in sport if you were looking to go professional or take it a bit more seriously, when you’re looking at your mid-to-late teens, that was when I was having a personal identity crisis,” Stephen, now 24, explained.
“You’re not actively engaging in sport the same way that you would, because you’re trying to figure yourself out in your own head.
“Especially in a male team sport, you’re getting a lot of negative reinforcements, societal expectations of what it is to be a man.
“It definitely made things more difficult. I was just looking for role-models in general, but there was a distinct lack of gay sporting role-models in general. Between 2010 and 2013, there were barely even rumours about an athlete being gay, never mind someone openly accepting that.
“I spent a lot of time in my late teens online, making friends there instead. You would build confidence around how other people lived their lives so confidently – it was that idea of ‘if they’re showing me that they can do it, so can I’.
“That’s why I think it’s so important for me to have an active voice on it. It’s something that I was lacking, and it’s not necessarily something that’s lacking from wider society, but you don’t know where you’re going to get your inspiration from a lot of the time.
“If I can give somebody that confidence to talk frankly, openly, about themselves then that’s always a bonus.”
Stephen admits that is fortunate to be comfortable enough to be so open about his sexuality, having never encountered any serious resistance to his identity.
But even though his story is a positive one, he has also seen first hand that not everyone has that luxury.
The change that Stephen has seen in general society’s perception of LGBT+ people has been stark over the last few years, and he is trying to take an active role in increasing visibility and opportunities for the LGBT+ community.
“The difference between the way people handled myself coming out against other people – who were braver than me to come out three or four years beforehand – was really noticeable,” he said.
“I’m from Dunfermline originally, and there is now Fife Pride which started about three years ago now. I left school in 2013, and if I had ever been told that there would be that kind of event held in my local area, I would have never believed you.
“There are schools in the Fife area that have LGBT+ groups within the school. Again, that’s something I could never ever have imagined in my time at school. It’s super encouraging to see.
“I think a huge part of it has actually been down to popular media, representations of gay people has become a lot more positive and rounded, rather than being sensationalised. They’re getting made to be seen more as normal people who are – and I hate using the word normal – but what society considers to be normal.
“There’s a charity based in Glasgow that I’ve done a little bit of work with called LeapSport Scotland, they’re all about creating opportunities for LGBTQ+ people in sport, whether that be participation, taking people to the Gay Games, stuff like that and volunteering as well.
“It gives people a community which sometimes people feel like they’re missing when you try and connect to LGBTQ+ people in sport, because the two realms don’t normally fit together very well.”
With that said, progress does not mean that all is currently fine for LGBT+ people.
In the first month of the current French football season, there were 20 cases of homophobic chants or anti-gay banners during matches, leading some referees to bring games to a halt.
A widely-suggested reason for the lack of LGBT+ male footballers in England is the potential abuse they would receive from opposition fans.
Tackling that issue could be the next step for the progression of equality in sport, according to Stephen.
“A huge part of that change is beyond an individual’s control, but it’s how the saying goes, you can’t always change the world but you can change an individual’s world,” he reasoned.
“I think you’re looking at how sports fans are some of the biggest influencers on people’s perceptions of sport. You’re looking at how do you make people understand that what they say and do is not just banter, in that it has consequences. You can’t just throw around slurs and expect everybody to feel comfortable about it.
“There also needs to be a bigger push on organisations being a presence for LGBT+ people – allowing more LGBT+ visibility within their structures.
“That could be be professional athletes having the right structures in place for them to come out and face little public backlash, or somebody trying to join their local club and they don’t have to worry about coming out to their teammates because it’s just an acceptable thing. I think it’s just about creating those environments where the LGBTQ+ factor doesn’t particularly matter.
“Providing somebody with an environment where they can be themselves and take part in sport, something that interests them and that they enjoy doing, that gives them that escape from the real world, that’s a win really at the end of the day.”
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