Once again, the topic of being LGBT+ in men’s football has surfaced in national newspapers in the United Kingdom.
Yet another silhouetted figure appeared in the tabloids, prompting a passionate response from the Sports Media LGBT+ network in an open letter signed by (at the time of writing) over 200 individuals and 100 organisations, including this very website and the Football Association, Football v Homophobia and countless LGBT+ supporters groups. While that letter addresses the searchlight culture around gay and bisexual male football players, Alex Reimer wrote an article for OutSports dissecting the most recent tabloid article highlighting some of the main issues with it.
It is established to the point of cliché at this stage that LGBT+ identities are far more openly common in women’s sport than in men’s sport, something that is striking even to those involved in women’s sport.
For someone like Laura Montgomery, who is involved in both sides of the game, it is a conundrum that does not look like getting resolved any time soon.
The Glasgow City FC co-founder, who also works for Hibernian’s men’s side behind the scenes in her day job, wonders if it is a result of the expectations of football players’ characters being much narrower in the men’s game.
“It has obviously proven very challenging for men connected with football to be able to come out,” she explained.
“It just falls into the stereotypes of what men should be, and what a male footballer should be.
“In the women’s game, I don’t know if it’s just a reflection on women, if it’s that we’re more understanding, we don’t have the need for a particular type, I honestly don’t know.
“It has been well spoken about, and I’m not actually too sure when we will have men that are either players or behind the scenes who are comfortable coming out in that male environment.”
Even in rugby, where there have been high profile male players who have come out, LGBT+ involvement is scarce. Just this month, Levi Davis hit the headlines for coming out as bisexual, and there are the extremely prominent examples of Gareth Thomas and Nigel Owens for LGBT+ people to look up to in the sport, but statistically there must have been more than a handful in the last decade.
From the outside looking in, the physicality of rugby might make it seem like a more macho sport than football and therefore less open to LGBT+ visibility – but in reality far more proactive moves are being made than in football.
That there are no more than a few examples of out LGBT+ players shows that there is a general hesitancy in male team sports from people to be visible though, so while Scotland international Jade Konkel is more optimistic that it will only be a matter of time before more men come out, she acknowledges that there is a big difference between men’s and women’s rugby in that regard.
“Things have changed massively in society, it has become so much more normalised,” Konkel reasoned.
“It’s all over various social medias, and there’s more stuff happening in the media in general. You’ve got Pride and other events, and I think that all trickles into the sporting world as well, because it all becomes a lot more normal, which is brilliant.
“It’s definitely a lot harder for male players to come out though. Again, there’s a lot more stuff coming out now to show that it’s ok, but I do think the male game is a lot further behind than the women’s game at present.
“It is improving, and it is becoming more normalised, but it is going to be another chunk of time before it becomes even more normalised. They’re definitely behind, but they’re on the right path.”
While most of the attention from major media outlets will naturally fall on football because of it’s popularity across the country, there are examples out there in some of the sports that fly under the radar that little bit more.
At the start of this year, the Elite Ice Hockey League held their first Pride Weekend, where every club in the league hosted a match with a Pride theme. Clubs dove headfirst into the festivities, changing their kit to rainbow colours, handing out rainbow flags and selling Pride merchandise.
Such was the overwhelming support, Zach Sullivan felt comfortable enough to become the first professional hockey player to come out when he announced he was bisexual. He faced no backlash with his teammates showing their support along with hockey fans on social media, which tied in to the similarly positive response he got from friends and family.
“I spoke to my best friend from school, his birthday is around Christmas and we usually get a couple of days off so I went home,” Sullivan recalled.
“His birthday is Christmas Eve, so we always go out and we were talking and I said I feel like I need to tell you that I’m bisexual. His response was ‘yeah, I guessed’. His way of explaining it was that we had never talked about relationships before, it was never really thought about.
“As a result, he guessed that I wasn’t ready to talk about it, I wasn’t comfortable in my sexuality. He’s a very intelligent guy, so I’m not surprised he came to that assumption.
“My mum’s response was ‘yeah, I always thought you were gay so it’s not much of a surprise’. My older sister was much the same. I told my family I needed to tell them something at Christmas, so their brains were probably working in overtime figuring out what it was, and again my older sister and little sister are very intelligent, and they worked it out as being the only possible thing it could be.
“My best friend in Glasgow, I’m not surprised he knew as well, because we had some very in-depth conversations that maybe other people find difficult to talk about. We have a very open friendship, we talk about a lot.
“If anything, it made me feel better that they knew, because these people had those suspicions for so long, they had this thought that I was gay for so long, and it hadn’t changed my relationships or friendships with them at all.
“It wasn’t just them saying they were fine with it, it was being able to look over my friendships and relationships with them and realising that they thought I was gay or bisexual for so long, and we still had a very close friendship or relationship. Actions speak louder than words, and their actions spoke a lot louder at that time.”
Sullivan’s story is an overwhelmingly positive one – literally, as he was surprised by the extent of media attention that was suddenly thrust on him when he came out. Since then though, he has not shied away from interviews as he tries to show that it is possible to be a professional athlete and part of the LGBT+ community at the same time.
Every LGBT+ person in and out of sport has to decide how vocal they will be about their identity, especially on social media. Ignorant or even abusive messages are common when the country’s biggest football clubs post practically anything equality-based, so it can be a minefield to negotiate for individuals directly affected at times.
For American broadcaster Charles Wollin, he would never hide who he is – but he is conscious that it can be overwhelming for his non-LGBT+ followers to see a constant stream of content.
“I think there’s also a right place and a right time,” Wollin said.
“I am who I am, and I’m cognisant of my role, but sometimes I’ll put it on myself that it’s too much that I’m putting out. I haven’t really had too much backlash on my Twitter, I haven’t really had that happen to me. It’s important to report on LGBTQ affairs and issues, and if people are getting backlash for who they are then there’s a whole community that’s ready to support them.
“For me it’s been pretty positive, once in a while I will throw the San Francisco City LGBT+ jersey and throw it on, take pictures with it, and on Coming Out Day I’ll put a picture of me with a jersey on. Last year I put the San Jose Earthquakes jersey on, every MLS team had a similar rainbow jersey with their patch on it, so I have one of those.
“People were saying how proud they are, and I do it just because that’s who I am. I also believe that we can continue to network and promote to be able to get justice for certain issues, and awareness.”
So when it comes to LGBT+ athletes in the media – social or otherwise – what is the way forward? There is no simple answer to that, because while visibility is important some athletes see no reason to shine a spotlight on something that should be irrelevant to their performance.
For those that do come forward and put their stories in the public domain, it is not always easy, but there is a common theme in why they do it – to help make things easier for the next generation.
“I’ve always been a very private guy,” Sullivan added.
“I understand how lucky I’ve been, both my parents have supported me from a very young age, they’ve taken me around the world to play ice hockey. I know a lot of people aren’t fortunate enough to have that, and I do feel very lucky to have parents that are so supportive. I think also battling mental health for so long put me into a shell where I’m not very confident or comfortable talking about my feelings and emotions.
“Although people talk about it flippantly, your sexuality is a very private thing. I don’t think it should matter, but for some people it does matter. I think it was just a case of making myself look like an idiot, or saying the wrong thing, saying something stupid. I don’t think I was in the most comfortable head space, there were a lot of contributing factors but it was having the attention on me, I’m not overly comfortable with that.
“It’s kind of backwards for me to say this, but the way forward is to not make a big deal out of it. It is backwards because of how big of a deal has been made of me doing it, but that was one of the scary things for me.
“All my friends, teammates and coaches were saying it was going to be huge news. Having been so private for so long, it was daunting to do it. I did have to sit down one night and weigh out the pros and cons of doing it. Obviously, and thankfully, the positives outweighed the negatives.
“I’ve always said that it’s the one time in my life I feel like I have a message, which I am vehemently passionate about. If I have to come out of my comfort zone and do interviews, and talk to people about it, then I’m absolutely willing to do that if it’s going to help people going through the same situation.”