Unless directly confronted with it on an everyday basis, it may be quite easy to think that there are not many issues with homophobia in sport in 2020, but that is not the case.
Just this last week, Australian cricketer Marcus Stoinis was fined for using homophobic language, an incident that follows James Pattinson’s suspension for the same reason. Only last month were legal proceedings between rugby player Israel Folau and Rugby Australia settled after Folau saw his contract terminated for homophobic tweets, although the New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Board have since accepted a complaint against Folau.
In football, earlier this season matches were stopped in France amidst a rise in homophobic chanting and banners from the stands, while the general discussion around trans athletes continues to rage on, with a Loughborough University study in the aftermath of the 2016 Olympics reviewing 31 national and international transgender sporting policies – including those of the International Olympic Committee, the Football Association and the Lawn Tennis Association – and concluding that a majority unfairly discriminated against transgender people, especially trans women.
In amongst all of this, it is important to make sure that LGBT+ athletes are visible to help dispel some myths and make athletes as comfortable as possible with their identity in a sporting context.
One sportsman who has been vocal about not just LGBT+ in sport but also parasport is John Dickinson-Lilley. Often known as JDL, the 40-year-old was a double British champion as a visually-impaired ski racer before retiring three years ago.
Perhaps one of the reasons he has been so keen to speak out is that he has seen first-hand how homophobia can affect people in negative ways.
“I’m divorced now, but I was one of the first to have a civil partnership in 2007, and we had very close relatives that didn’t come to the wedding, because they didn’t agree with it,” Dickinson-Lilley recalled.
“That wasn’t long ago really, when you think about it. I think growing up LGBT+ in the late-90s and early-00s was pretty horrific. Obviously I was a teenager, so I didn’t handle it with a great deal of diplomacy. What I really did was keep to my identity, I got involved with what was at the time the LGB society, which is now an LGBT+ centre, in Leicester and they were really supportive. It was basically a youth centre, I used to travel 20-odd miles to Leicester on the bus to go and sit on a sofa and drink coffee with a bunch of people who were also gay. I was just able to have a conversation, and that sense of community was really powerful.
“Back then, the gay scene was also really important. It wasn’t about going out on the pull, you could have a pint, and you could chat to another bloke, and that would be ok. You wouldn’t get a load of grief for it.
“I do remember, really specifically, one night I went to a gay club in Leicester which is kind of on a side street beside a car park. There was a gang of people waiting outside, and we all legged it in different directions. It wasn’t the first time it happened, but two friends of mine ended up in wheelchairs, because they had their spines damaged in the gay bashing. That was a very real threat, and even now, I’ve been with my partner for seven years and we don’t hold hands in public.
“It’s really easy to say that’s everything has changed and everything is easier now. To some extent, things are easier now, but the battle is not over. We need to make sure that we’re looking after each other. We need to see important things like Pride for what it is. It’s not a day, it’s not isolated things, it’s a really powerful movement. That’s why Pride matters. Just being out can make a difference, but you don’t have to be out to be proud I don’t think. You can be a closeted ally, particularly in these turbulent times. I’m not stating a political claim here, but the moment that having a fact-based conversation doesn’t matter, the moment you start eroding rights here and now – they think essential rights are privileges that someone has given you – things get very dark indeed.”
As Dickinson-Lilley alluded to, although there is still work to be done things are unquestionably better for LGBT+ people in and out of sport than they were a decade or two ago.
Retired Inverness goalkeeper Kim Jappy has seen first-hand the change that has taken place, going from falling out with her parents when she first got into a relationship with her parents to returning to her hometown and getting married.
Jappy takes a bullish approach to the naysayers, but does believe in a sporting context progress is being made – at least in the women’s game.
“I know people that will never come out, purely on the grounds that I think they would be absolutely mortified, or their parents would reject them,” Jappy explained.
“I’m a firm believer that life’s too short. You do what you’ve got to do, stand up for you who are and be true to who you are. I used to worry about stuff, and what’s the point? What will be will be. People will always believe what they want to believe, so they can either listen to what you have to say and accept what you have to say, or not believe a word and make up their own stories anyway.
“I think everything is going in the right direction. The more women’s football is getting on the telly, I think the game in itself is getting better. It’s not so much about most girls that play football being gay or whatever, they’re actually just quite good footballers.
“Society has changed, it’s more acceptable now. It’s on the telly quite a lot, it’s come quite far since the first lesbian kiss on Brookside. Obviously some of your top players have come out in the women’s game, which has helped a lot I think. It was a big thing at last year’s World Cup.
“I think having that is good, someone turns around now and says ‘oh, so and so is a really good football, and they’re gay’, rather than ‘they’re gay and they’re an ok footballer’. It seems to be that football teams can be talking more, and I believe that there’s quite a lot of gay golfers, it’s the same there.
“It just seems a little more accepted now, you can walk anywhere and see two girls holding hands. I don’t think it should be made a big thing, because I think people just need time to accept it to be what it is. We can all get married now, marriage is marriage, love is love, it doesn’t matter who it’s with.”
Moments like the first pre-watershed lesbian kiss on Brookside in 1994 go a long way to changing the perception of the general public.
In 2019, 25 years after Brookside broke down barriers, LGBT+ rights were once against thrust into the limelight as Megan Rapinoe became a global superstar by speaking out about political issues while the USA were on their way to a second consecutive and fourth overall World Cup win.
According to University of Stirling’s basketball club chairman Craig Stephen, Rapinoe was the perfect example of activism for the LGBT+ community.
“I think that was a really good example of having a platform and using it for change,” Stephen reasoned.
“I think most of social change comes from groups of people who are just done with the way things are. People have been given the confidence to go out into the world and ask for things to change.
“Personally, I think the reason why people got so riled up by Megan Rapinoe was their inability to confront their own attitudes, ideologies and beliefs. We live in a society where the visibility of LGBT+ people is obviously increasing. The human rights that we have are growing, so some people therefore think that everything is fixed, and nothing is a problem anymore.
“They think that anybody who does point out any problems is just trying to make a mountain out of a molehill. Megan Rapinoe standing up for the things that she believes in – equal pay, standing up against Donald Trump – she’s somebody who has faced so much adversity and backlash in her life that she’s not scared to stand up and say what needs to be said. it’s just that the audience that she was presenting that to aren’t open-minded enough to confront themselves and how their beliefs don’t match up with what she’s saying.”
“It’s a fine balance because you don’t want to be completely segregated your entire life. You don’t want to just be spending your entire life with LGBT+ people, or at least I don’t. But I want to be afforded the same opportunity to lead any kind of life I want and not have that affected by my identity. That’s not the case just now.
“You’re always entering into new situations, meeting new people, going to new places and you always have to have a guard up. You always have to be second-guessing yourself, second-guessing the new people you meet. That’s where I would say most of the problem lies, until everybody in society can enter into a new environment and feel comfortable, then there’s not going to be any change.”
So if things are improving, but the work is not done, what is the next step to ensure progress continues to be made? Right now, it might just be something that takes time.
Former Scotland international footballer Fin Annand and chairman of inclusive rugby club Aberdeen Taexali Bryan Sinclair, are both optimistic looking forward, although they both make the point that progress in sport may be guided by other areas.
“There’s much more representation across most aspects of life, especially in TV and films and music,” Sinclair reasoned.
”The LGBT+ community is much more vocal, much more visible in all those areas. By that happening, it has made it more acceptable for people to stand up and say ‘this is who I am’. You’ve seen that in sport in regards to Nigel Owens and Gareth Thomas as well, it’s the same kind of idea but I guess it has been done on a wider scale within other industries. The fact that it’s being seen across loads of different platforms mean people are then making it much more acceptable.
“It’s a generational thing as well to be honest, the older generation who are my parents’ age or my grandparents’ age, it wasn’t spoken about or accepted, it wasn’t heard of almost. But they’re more in the minority now, so people my age are more accepting of it, and obviously people who are younger are far more accepting of it as well. I think that’s making a massive difference.”
Annand added: “There are always going to be people who aren’t accepting of it. Of course you hope that’s going to get better, and I think it is getting better over time, absolutely. There has been a massive change in attitude, but of course you always want more to get to the point where it’s not even talked about.
“That would be the ideal scenario I think, that you wouldn’t have to announce it or tell your family, it just becomes a part of who you are and comes out naturally. That would be a good place to get to, and I think we’ll get there just by people talking about it. Not necessarily screaming about it, but bringing it into everyday life. It has changed in the past five years, you see it on TV more, you see celebrities talking about it more and being more open.
“I’m just massively grateful for my family and my team, because everyone has made it so easy for me. I’m aware there are a lot of people that still struggle, and I don’t want to minimise their struggle, I’m just grateful for my experience and I hope that I can then support other people to have a nice experience as well.”