Sam Winton: “If you say you don’t care about sexuality, you’re saying you don’t care about an important part of their life.”

Many LGBT+ youth struggle to find a place where they feel comfortable in sport.

Sam Winton never turned against it, but there were certainly times where he felt like he was on the outside looking in when trying to take part.

As the unsporty member of an active family, being in and around sport was a regular occurrence for him, even when that may not be particularly common for others who grew up gay.

Winton, though, could also look at LGBT+ role models within his own family, so as far as he was concerned there was no reason taking part in sport and being LGBT+ could not co-exist.

“I knew I was gay at about 16 and I had made the decision to tell people around me, and my mum was always very supportive,” Winton said.

“My mum is a lesbian as well, and she had a conversation with me at one point saying she thought I should come out to my grandparents, and I just thought ‘Why? They know.’ I know it’s a very young, gay attitude that I don’t need to come out because it’s not an issue, and I think that’s actually a sign of progress.

“I know some people aren’t very keen on that view and think it’s about a process, but I never felt the need to have an official coming out party as it were.

“My mum wasn’t out when I was growing up, she went through a period of discovery herself, but I definitely always grew up in a gay household in that I had gay uncles who were always coming round.

“Everyone in my family was incredibly sporty, so being the non-sporty one I immediately felt as if I was at a disadvantage. My grandad was a PE teacher who absolutely loves football, rugby and cricket, and my uncles and cousins are very similar.

“Any sport they pick up, they’re immediately very good at, and then there was me who didn’t really know what was going on. I think that affected me as well – my perception of sport was as something that you had to be good at. That’s a whole other dynamic, there are people who have an expectation of natural-born talent, that if you give them a football they will be David Beckham even though they’re only 12.

“For me, those two spheres always crossed over. My uncles would go to my dance shows, and I would go to my cousins’ sports, it never seemed like a binary choice to me.”

As well as dancing, Winton tried his hand at football, rugby and cricket at school, but it was not until a new hockey club started up that he really began to find his footing in sport.

Sam Winton would go on to leave hockey behind for rowing at the University of St Andrews.

There are several potential reasons why he never stuck at any of those other sports – insecurity about his ability and his sexuality, the social structure of school, and a lack of encouragement from his teachers.

That last point is something Winton feels passionately about, and he is pleased to see it starting to change now.

“It was just that none of the sports I did sparked that passion for me,” the 20-year-old recalled.

“I was never any good at them for one – which was always a downer for me – and I just didn’t enjoy them. I always felt on the outside a little bit. I was never going to make any teams or be invited to training sessions, or anything like that.

“I wasn’t good enough to make my way into the inner circle as it were, but I think subconsciously I knew I was a bit different from everyone else.

“A lot of LGBT+ people realise very early on that they don’t fit the stereotypical mould. I’m sure everyone struggles with that at some point, but I think LGBTQ+ children struggle with that a little bit sooner than they would like.

“That sort of realisation of being a little bit different puts people off, particularly in a school setting when things were so highly grouped. You were the top team, another team were the bottom team, there were PE people and there were maths people, it had that sort of structure.

“PE teachers work really hard now to change this, but when I was going through the system, if you weren’t sporty the PE teachers didn’t really care what you did during sessions as long as you were there and in your kit. That was up to you.

“They were definitely focused on finding good athletes for the school team, and the only reason I got into hockey was because my headteacher at the time – who was a fantastic guy, he ran the hockey sessions – was super encouraging, and it was a sport nobody had tried before so nobody was automatically good.

“I’ve seen some of the changes that are happening and it’s fantastic. Some schools are talking about moving away from calling it physical education and calling it health and wellbeing to incorporate mental health into it. Those sorts of practices are phenomenal, because at the end of the day school PE isn’t about performance.

“That’s only one element of it, school PE is about building those lifelong habits. I hate that phrase, you hear it so much around sport, but it’s true – that’s what it’s about. That’s what the intention always was, that PE sessions would help cultivate active people through sport, and instead they try and find the next Olympian.

“Some schools do that really well, but we’ve seen over the years that that mentality ostracises a lot of people from sport who don’t have that competitive spirit. A lot of fantastic conversations are happening in sport at the minute, and it’s really fascinating to me. I’m excited to be a part of that conversation to try and help change that perception of sport, for sure.”

Winton is part of the conversation to change perceptions of sport through his business, Here For Sport.

Winton believes attitudes are changing among young people as well. Being pigeon-holed into having a particular subject that they are good at, or a specific sport where they can excel, is no longer as cut and dried as it once was.

The social expectations of what a boy “should” like and take part in are slowly evolving, and Winton credits an unlikely source for being a catalyst for that change.

“It’s up to the person, and I think that is definitely happening more and more where you get footballers who are also massive drama heads,” he insisted.

“I like to think of it as the High School Musical effect – that’s probably not the scientific or academic name for it, but it works.

“Zac Efron is very much still a masculine figure. The more his career has gone on, High School Musical becomes more impactful. He hasn’t had this coming out moment, he hasn’t had this massive revelation, and I think that shows that men can be men and also enjoy musical theatre.

“There is still a damaging association of being gay with being feminine, and that’s still an undertone for men and in the lesbian community too. It’s still said that if you’re a lesbian you’re a bit more butch, more masculine. Those stereotypes are still there and it disappoints me at times that the LGBTQ+ community doesn’t try to fight them, and instead actually plays into them at times and portrays a very one-dimensional image.

“I find that frustrating, because I always say that while I’m gay, I don’t identify as queer because that’s not how I see myself. I get that that’s a really debated term, and I don’t know enough about it and I’m trying to educate myself about it, but I don’t identify with the rainbows and glitter side of things. I am just a person that happens to be gay, and there is that very one-dimensional portrayal out there.

“I got really frustrated by a Pride event held by one of the sports clubs at uni, who had a rainbows and glitter-themed event. Everyone got dressed up in tu-tus and threw glitter about, and that was such a one-dimensional view of a community that has so many different opinions and themes.

“I think there is a tendency to homogenise LGBTQ+ people. I’m a dance and theatre buff, so I’m guilty of it as well – I bloody love Eurovision for example – but there is a tendency to construct these stereotypes and expect the LGBTQ+ community to adhere to them.

“Zac Efron not doing that, and being able to pick it up and leave it and do a bit of everything, really presents that three-dimensional view, and I think that’s really powerful.”

Upon moving to St Andrews for university, Winton intended to continue playing hockey. However, a less than stellar first impression at the club saw him try to move on to other things once again.

Quidditch, archery and fencing all came and went before Winton finally settled into rowing – becoming something of an obsession over recent years.

Rowing has become something of an obsession for Winton since taking up the sport.

University is often heralded for being an inclusive environment, and the reasons Winton initially moved from sport to sport had nothing to do with homophobia, but in his role as volunteer and engagement officer with the St Andrews student union’s executive committee he has had to have some conversations about diversity and inclusion.

“There’s quite a fun meme at St Andrews, it’s very difficult to tell between posh and gay,” Winton laughed.

“It’s true! We’re fashion forward, a bit snobby at times – I mean I’m just doing the one-dimensional LGBTQ+ thing now – but you’ve got to take your benefits where you can.

“Because of that though, I don’t think I was ever explicitly labelled as gay going in. People probably just assumed I was a posh boy from Eton, and it wasn’t until people got to know me that they realised that was incredibly far from the truth. I grew up in Coventry with a single mum, so when they realised I wasn’t posh, thinking I must be gay was just the maths that they did.

“I don’t think there was ever any explicit homophobia, and I think university is probably one of the best places for it because the majority of people are all so open.

“I wouldn’t say that the hockey club are even particularly bad, I probably just got one bad person that day. It can paint your entire view of the club, but I’ve since interacted with the club and they are fantastic and lovely people, so I assume I just got someone at a bad moment.

“I never found any explicit attitudes like that, but there is still an undercurrent there. There was one club when we were asking them about their LGBTQ+ members who said ‘we’re so inclusive that our members don’t feel like they can share that with us, because we just don’t care’. We tried to tell them that’s an issue, it’s a sign to us that their members aren’t being included because they don’t feel like they can talk about their home life.

“Karen might walk down to the club and say her children are playing up again, or complain about her husband, but the fact that LGBTQ+ people can’t have those conversations is really worrying, because they’re clearly uncomfortable.

“It came up a lot with the Black Lives Matter movement too, when you’re saying you don’t see colour what you’re saying is you don’t see them for who they are, and it’s the same for LGBTQ+ communities. If you say you don’t care about sexuality, you’re saying you don’t care about an important part of their life. To ignore that isn’t good enough.”

It was getting into rowing that led to Winton creating Here For Sport. He had previously believed that rowing was a closed world to someone like him – essentially that it was full of rich, straight, white people who would not accept him – and thinking about the reasons behind that perception inspired him to work towards making sure sport could be a place for everyone.

Starting up a business is never a simple process, but beginning entirely from scratch and then being hit by a global pandemic inside the first year has made for some stressful moments.

Here For Sport uses sportswear as a tool for fundraising and advocacy, but Winton has spent a lot of company time so far trying to prove that, as one lender attempted to argue against, a student could be trusted with a £25,000 loan.

Here For Sport’s LGBTQ+ range of sportswear prominently features a pink triangle to represent the gay rights movement.

Progress has been slower than Winton may have liked, but things are starting to pick up steam – thanks in part to the Black Lives Matter movement changing how people view sport’s relationship with politics. As an ambitious project though, it is not easy to summarise Here For Sport’s goals purely because there are so many things Winton wants to achieve.

“I think one of the problems that Here For Sport has is that we want to achieve so much,” Winton admitted.

“Often it seems bigger than the scope we have. That’s sometimes hard for people to get, but we are looking at things holistically and not in a vacuum.

“For me, the aim has always been to break down those barriers in sport, to start making sport achievable and a life-long habit – although I do hate that phrase, it’s true. I want to make sport a very normal part of our culture and our society for everybody. Some people will say it’s already a normal part of our society and our culture, but it’s not for everybody.

“It’s very rare to find someone who has grown up as part of the LGBTQ+ community that’s embracing sport in the same way that it’s a rarity to talk to Afro-Carribbean communities and for them to be golfers, or tennis players. That shouldn’t be the case.

“That’s our aim, to make sure that sport is there and being used for everybody effectively. I believe everybody knows sport is a good thing, and I do firmly believe that everyone wants to try sport or be physically active.

“What we’re trying to do is reduce the reasons they don’t get involved, because at some level, someone has that desire.  Even if it’s to look as good as Cristiano Ronaldo, that’s still a motivation to do sport, so why is that being outweighed by the other reasons they don’t want to do sport? Over the last few years we’ve codified it into four different sections, which we’ve tried to break down on our website.

“It’s not me that makes all these things up, there are academic journals that have pointed to these things and highlighted these things.

“I’m sure a lot of academics feel that they’re just screaming into a void sometimes, and that is particularly true in sport because to become a sports professional or get to a high level, it feels like you have to have at least an Olympic medal.

“If you look at most people on the Olympic committee, they are all ex-sportspeople, and as much as that’s fantastic they only know what they know. That’s great, because it means they have a really in-depth, fantastic knowledge of their sport, but they don’t know about things that are different elsewhere.

“Anyone who has worked in the academic sphere will know that sport is looked down upon almost as a lesser discipline. They’re not writing these things because it’s helping them, they’re writing it because they genuinely are passionate about sport, and want to change it, so maybe we should start listening to them and reading their work.

“They know a lot, they have dedicated their lives to this. A lot of what Here For Sport does is pick up things from other disciplines that work around cultural trauma within marginalised communities comes from – research in psychology and sociology, research into the logistical and economic barriers that very much draws from politics and economics.

“Maybe that’s me showing my student-ness, but one of the good things about being at St Andrews is the inter-disciplinary approach they take, and that’s what we do – we combine business and social enterprise with academia and charity. I think that is the way that we can change things, instead of taking a really isolated approach.”

Part of the way Winton is trying to change things is by moving the narrative around sport for the LGBT+ community.

As part of his role in the St Andrews student union, he is helping orchestrate a series of stories for LGBT+ History Month, with the idea that hearing positive experiences from the sporting world can inspire more people to get involved.

“The team there have been working on the LGBTQ+ charter for years,” he explained.

“I only joined them this year, and I timed it right because we managed to get a full charter and we’re still celebrating that through Global Pride month and sharing stories with a LGBTQ+ theme with their experiences and what sport has given them.

“There are a lot of stories about homophobia in sport, and a lot of stories like ‘I got assaulted at a football match’ or something to that effect. I’m not diminishing those, but they create a very negative narrative around sport.

“I really want to go about sharing the positives, because there are many, they’re just not as newsworthy or headline-grabbing. These stories of people who have found positive outlets in sport, I think, are really powerful and really important to share.”

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