Ethan Akanni: “Speaking out has been one of the top things I’ve achieved this year.”

Many people have found 2020 to be a tough year, and nobody can deny that at the very least it has been unique.

For 21-year-old hurdler Ethan Akanni, strange might be the best word, as he has begun to tell his story of being a gay athlete. Knowing his sexuality as a young teenager, it was no secret for most of his time at high school, but he only came out to his family in May last year, and started to become more active on a wider scale in April when he penned an article for Sky Sports.

In amongst that time he became one of the founding members of the Athletics Pride Network, and has done various interviews in the months since about being an athlete from the LGBT+ community, including for LEAP Sport Scotland and EGLSF’s European Week of Sport series hosted by Pride of the Terraces.

With the first lockdown in the UK because of the Covid-19 pandemic earlier this year, and some injury issues in the summer, talking about his sexuality has been a point of pride for Akanni in what has otherwise been a difficult time.

“It feels a bit weird in a way, because I’ve gone from being a normal person to being in the spotlight quite a bit in terms of LGBT+ awareness,” he admitted.

“It’s nice, it just feels very strange. If you told me this time last year that my story would be shared around, and I would be a part of a network that is helping to include people in the LGBT+ community, I would never have thought that would actually happen.

“It’s kind of been out of my hands, it has just happened, but I quite like that because it’s not just me wanting to drive it forward, it’s other people too who want to build up this community – not even just in athletics, you can see other sports doing the same as well.

“With the LEAP Sports interview, there were other sports and networks represented there too, so it’s just nice.

“2020 has been such a dark year that having things like this to brighten it up has been really nice. Speaking out has been one of the top things I’ve achieved this year to be honest.

“It helps me feel like I can be more like myself as well. After the initial interview I did with Jon Holmes at Sky, I just got everything out there and I realised I didn’t need to hold back any more. I want to help other people feel that way as well.”

Although still young at 21 years old, the ball has been rolling on Akanni’s journey for eight years. He accepted his sexuality at 13, and confided in close friends – only for the news to spread through his school to the point it was common knowledge.

Thankfully the Loughborough University student was not significantly singled out for his sexuality by his peers, but there was still a hesitancy to be his authentic self at home.

Growing up in a religious family, he was concerned about what the reaction of his mother and brother would be. As it turned out, his eventual coming out last year went better than he could ever have expected.

“It was difficult, because a lot of the time I had to tell my friends not to say anything around my mum,” Akanni recalled.

“It sort of felt like I had an alter-ego in a way. I had chosen to be reserved at home, more ‘normal’, or at least at the time that was how I thought of it.

“Then when I went out I would be more of my usual self, a bit more flamboyant, a little bit camp, I could talk about gay things because I did have other gay friends in school which was quite nice.

“I could do that at school, but that was – not an escape, that’s the wrong word – but I could be myself. Having a place where I could do that was nice, but at the same time it kept eating me up that I wasn’t telling my mum and my brother. It was difficult, but I didn’t really realise it until afterwards.

“That sort of thing builds up, especially over seven years, so it was essentially my whole way through high school and the first year or two of university where I was hiding it.

“It just became a normal thing for me at the time, it wasn’t even like I was hiding something from my mum and my brother, it was just like ‘this is what I have to do’. Looking back on it, I really wish I had said something sooner and off-loaded that stress, but it has made me who I am and it has shaped my relationship with my friends and my family.

Akanni had gotten into the habit of hiding who he was at home, although he did not realise the impact of that until after coming out to his family.

“They were actually overwhelmingly ok. It was mostly my mum I was worried about, because she’s quite Christian and she can be extremely conservative so I thought she might not accept it, or understand it.

“Literally the first thing she said was that it’s ok, and she gave me a hug. At that moment I didn’t know what was happening, I was expecting a lot of crying and shouting, and this was the complete opposite to what I expected. That was extremely nice, because I know some people aren’t as lucky to get a reaction like that from family or friends, so even to this day I’m a little bit shocked by it.

“My brother was the same, he actually said ‘aww yay!’ because he was happy that I was able to come out to them and not hide anything any more. That was really nice.”

In a sporting context, seeing Tom Bosworth publicly come out played a major role in Akanni having the confidence and comfort level to be out in sport.

There were potentially extra barriers for him to break through though, as it is much rarer to see high-profile black LGBT+ people in or out of sport.

So while incidents of overt racism and homophobia, have mercifully been few and far between for Akanni, he is conscious of the impact that seeing someone in his position could have.

“If you look at sport in a wider sense, it’s definitely not as common,” he reasoned.

“Increasing visibility of black LGBT+ athletes, or even just people generally, is very key. Obviously there was Tom Bosworth, but there were no black counterparts. I didn’t know about Corinne Humphreys until I actually met her, so that was nice.

“It’s not really something I’ve particularly thought about, but I’m also aware that there’s not much visibility on that specific section of people.

Being a gay, black athlete puts Akanni in a relatively rare position.

“It’s definitely something that is changing though. Going into different sports, Nicola Adams is also a very visible person who is part of the LGBT+ community, so it’s about trying to find the right role models.

“I’ve always thought that I could be one of those people, especially during this year as I’ve started to become a lot more visible. I’d like to be one of those figures that young gay people could look up to, or look at and say ‘this is someone that’s done it, so why can’t I do it as well?’ If anything it’s an extra bit of motivation for me.

“It’s like ‘if not now, when?’ If it’s not going to be us, who else is going to do it? I’ve been trying to kickstart things and get the ball rolling, and hopefully it will cause a domino effect and we’ll see more gay, black representatives.”

At the tail end of last year, the wheels were set in motion for the formation of the Athletics Pride Network.

Akanni attended meetings as early as last December, although the APN was not officially launched by UK Athletics until April this year, with objectives to improve access to athletics for LGBT+ people, provide a support network for the community and allies and to challenge homophobia, biphobia and transphobia.

Much as it is there to be a support mechanism for anyone involved in athletics, so far it has been most valuable for Akanni as an educational resource.

“It’s been a turning point in an educational way for me, I’ve learned a lot more about my own community through the APN,” Akanni explained.

“Something that I kind of knew before, but I really started to see was that nobody’s experience is ever the same. You may be from similar backgrounds and similar areas, or in similar situations, but the way that it affects you and the people around you can be very different.

“I’ve also learned a lot about transgender people, because one of our core members is a transgender female. I didn’t really know much about it before. It has been quite eye-opening, because not only has she taught us general things that people should know, but she has also told us about negative things that she has experienced, or that her friends have, just for being transgender.

“It’s actually quite shocking, but it’s good to know that sort of thing because now I can look out for them and challenge them. I can educate people about it when they say something transphobic without meaning to.

Hearing other people’s stories as part of the Athletics Pride Network has been a significant learning curve for Akanni.

“Another thing is that where we are at as a society now is completely different to 20 years ago. It didn’t really sink in until I heard the stories, and it’s really eye-opening – we have come so far in 20 years, so I can only imagine what we will be doing in the next 20 years.

“There have been a few things that I just didn’t really expect to happen, or at least not to that extent. It was the fact that it wasn’t just one person, there were multiple people who had similar negative situations.

“I’ve been quite lucky, I didn’t have too many negative stories, and even the ones I did have weren’t to an extreme extent. I didn’t go through any of their experiences, so to hear certain things was nice in a way to learn what others have gone through, but it was also uncomfortable to hear.

“These are the stories we need to share, because people see the struggles that LGBT+ people – not even just athletes – go through, and they can educate themselves and learn from it because they see how bad it was before.”

That the APN has been such a learning opportunity Akanni, who is a core member of the network, shows how much value it can have for everyone, regardless of whether they are in the LGBT+ community or not.

It is unfortunate that the group’s first year has taken place when events cannot be held, and people cannot meet up, but there is a strong enough base already in place for the potential reach of the APN to be very exciting.

“It’s about trying to create this interactive, connected network and using that to educate people by challenging homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, and just being there for each other,” Akanni said.

“That’s one of the things I love about it, it aims to be a massive family, which is really nice. I have actually made quite a few good friends from it already, just this year alone, so it’s really nice and I hope it keeps growing and continues to improve.

“Obviously things have been slowed down throughout the pandemic, because we can’t meet up in person or do events together or have meetings. A lot of it has been online, and you have to integrate it into working from home, which is a bit more difficult.

The pandemic has just been another hurdle for Akanni to overcome with the APN.

“We do have meetings coming up with the home countries – England Athletics, Northern Irish Athletics, Scottish Athletics and Welsh Athletics – where we will be giving webinars to them and essentially describing who we are and what we do.

“Hopefully we can build off of that and get this information out to all clubs, and build a connection between the clubs and the APN, and also the national governing bodies. That’s something that’s in the works that I’m quite excited about.”

As the APN brings people together, Akanni got the chance to meet the man who impacted his own journey: Tom Bosworth.

The playing field is beginning to level out though, since after all the work done to share the hurdler’s story Akanni is now in a position to have a similar effect on someone else’s life in the same way the Olympic race walker did for him.

That is something he is still getting used to, but he is trying to take it in his stride and take confidence from being an inspiration to others.

“Obviously Tom is another core member of the Athletics Pride Network, so when I first got to meet him I was a bit starstruck, it was in person last December and as he walked in I couldn’t believe it!” he enthused.

“Way back at the end of June me, Tom, Andy Paul and Susie O’Connor did an open discussion talking about our experiences, and I mentioned the fact that him coming out gave me the confidence to come out to my training partners, and he was quite flattered by that.

“I feel like he didn’t intend for him coming out to inspire other people, it was more for him, but it had an inspirational effect anyway. I think that was nice for him to hear, but it was also nice for me to meet someone who had such an integral part in me being who I am.

“I’ve been told a couple of times that I’m an inspirational gay athlete, and that is true in terms of visibility, but it feels weird to hear someone say I’m an inspiration, or an integral part of something. It’s a bit strange, it’s all a bit alien to me, but it’s also quite nice because I’m making a difference and that’s the main thing.”

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