A prevalent theme for underrepresented communities in sport is that you can’t be what you can’t see. It is a refrain often repeated in women’s sport, football especially, but it is just as true for the LGBT+ community.
It was particularly pleasing, therefore, to see such a prominence of articles across several media outlets for LGBT+ History Month in February. The usual suspects, the likes of Jack Murley’s excellent BBC Sport LGBT Podcast, Outsports and Sports Media LGBT+, were as prolific as ever, but they were joined by a huge amount of content from other parts of the BBC, Sky Sports, The Athletic and several others.
For LGBT+ youngsters and trying to figure out whether it is possible to stay active in sport, there are countless potential role models for them who have never been more visible. However, that has not always been the case.
In the case of Scotland’s first ever female professional boxer, Kristen Fraser, she could not see anybody she could look up to on multiple fronts – being LGBT+ in sport or being a woman in boxing – so she had to turn to television instead of sport for any sort of representation.
“I didn’t really have role models when I was younger – I honestly can’t think of one British person,” Fraser recalled.
“I remember when The L Word came out, and that was so early in the grand scheme of things, with what was going on in the world at that point it was very controversial. It was still the time of ‘your mate can get a dodgy DVD from his pal who works with your uncle’, that sort of thing, but when that came out it was really eye-opening for me in particular.
“At that time, it would maybe have been 2005 or 2006, it was early to actually see that depiction of a LGBT+ community, I was like ‘wow’.
“That was really good to see, and I think that was the start of seeing that more globalised community right there. I know it’s not a real show, but I can remember that being my first look into what wider LGBT+ society could be like.”
Fraser is now one of those role models herself as one of the most prominent figures in Scottish boxing. She has received nothing but support from coaches and others at her gym, and is defying expectations at seemingly every turn.
There can sometimes be differences between acceptance levels in individual and team sports though, but Abbi Aitken-Drummond’s experiences have been similarly positive. In fact, she found love in sport, meeting her now wife Annette while playing international cricket for Scotland.
While not immune from problems by any means, women’s sport does seem to be far more inclusive for LGBT+ people than men’s sport, especially in a team environment, and that is something that Aitken-Drummond struggles to make sense of from afar.
“I feel like women’s sport has always been a relatively welcoming environment for the LGBT+ community and cricket is no different,” the former Scotland captain reasoned.
“What I think still needs an incredible amount of work is the perception of LGBT+ people in male sport. I think it’s crazy that in 2020 there are no well-known gay males playing top level football for example.
“Statistically there surely has to be? And why is that the case? Is it because we’re creating sporting environments where they feel unsafe to come out? Because we don’t welcome gay people to the sport? I don’t have the answers.
“I’m not trying to point the finger at football in particular, I think its a common theme across the majority of sports. We have seen more well-known gay athletes come out in recent years, but more often than not this is at a time when they have retired – Colin Jackson for example.
“My sexuality is a big part of my life, and if I felt I had to closet that off for a large part of it, it probably would drive me away from my sport, because I just wouldn’t have the energy to keep up that fake persona.”
Two of the highest profile examples that do exist of LGBT+ men in team sport comes from rugby, where referee Nigel Owens and Welsh legend Gareth Thomas have done a great deal for breaking down stereotypes.
Both men remain highly respected, and continued to perform in their roles at the highest level after coming out, with Thomas even revealing he is HIV-positive in September 2019.
LGBT+ figures in rugby are not limited to being on the pitch though, as broadcaster Nick Heath continues to work towards equality in sport. He makes no secret of his sexuality, and works to promote diversity with the Harlequins Foundation as well as in Touch Rugby, and he believes the impact Owens and Thomas has had cannot be downplayed.
“They have been massive,” Heath insisted.
“They’re hugely well-known people, Gareth Thomas was an amazing athlete, an amazing rugby player. He was hugely impressive in everything that he did, and I think it helped – especially in the last 20 years, this era that we’ve been through – people lose any association that being gay is in any way less masculine.
“Someone like Nigel Owens is in a position that commands respect on the field, and rugby has always respected its referees, that really hasn’t changed as far as Nigel is concerned.
“The two of them have been great ambassadors, so I think they have been huge assets to the game and as a sport we’re very lucky to have had them. As an LGBT+ community, I think they have done wonders for making it a non-issue.”
Role models do not always inspire people watching from afar though. Even those from the LGBT+ community who take part in sport continue to find people who have different experiences that they can learn from.
As a tennis coach and chair of Newcastle United’s LGBT+ supporters group United With Pride, Ian Pearson would be well-placed to judge the differences between individual and team sport, but he also knows what it is like to be in the relatively rare position of being a male, gay athlete surrounded by other LGBT+ sportspeople.
Pearson’s coaching career goes back years, but he played as recently as 2018 when he competed at the Gay Games in Paris, and won a consolation competition with some of the best tennis he had ever produced.
That was a competition that he could not have imagined taking part in years earlier, but he tried to make the most of the opportunity by learning about what other athletes had taken from all over the world.
“I decided that my last tournament would be the Gay Games, because I had never taken part in anything like that before, and the idea of doing that 10 years before would have been completely outrageous,” Pearson explained.
“I had a great week in Paris, I took part in everything that I could. I took part in the opening ceremony, and walking through a stadium with 20,000 people was an amazing experience. My husband was there to support me as well, we had a nice week in Paris, and then that was it. I thought I was never going to get to Hong Kong in 2022, so that was the last time I really played competitively. Now I just coach, but I love coaching. I’m much more successful as a coach than I ever was as a player.
“It was a cracking opportunity, and I met some fantastic people who opened my eyes. Coming from the north east, I hadn’t seen some of these things before. There were people coming from San Francisco in America, and it opened my eyes as a small-town Geordie boy. I took that back, and thought that up here attitudes need to change a wee bit – that’s when I really started falling into volunteering for Newcastle United.
“Whoever I was playing against, I was asking what happens in their area and how they find playing tennis as an openly gay person. I heard some interesting stories. Seeing people who are trans on a tennis court, I hadn’t seen it before. I worked in this sport for 20 years and I had never seen that in this country.
“Trans participation in sport is minute as a percentage compared to every other category. Again, they need to be heard. I had somebody on a national coaches’ forum who had someone on their boys’ squad who wanted to join the girls’ squad because they were transitioning, and the coach didn’t know what to do. I was like ‘just let them do it’.
“Are they playing at elite level? No, so crack on, but the responses from a lot of other coaches weren’t thinking about the player or the person, more the general principles of elite level. If a man became a woman at elite level, it would ruin the women’s game, things like that, they were thinking along those lines, but they were applying that to grassroots level, which is completely ridiculous.
“There are rules and regulations in place, set by the governing body, to cover that. You don’t need to worry about that, you need to worry about people on the ground and how you can encourage people to take part. By creating barriers, you’re not going to get very far.”