For many LGBT+ people, the stigma and stereotypes around sport are enough to put them off before ever getting the chance to take part themselves. Already in the current football season we have seen homophobic chants coming from some fans, so it is really no wonder that some would rather avoid that world altogether.
Sport in one form or another, though, is a cultural institution all over the UK. Football is clearly the dominant one when it comes to television coverage and column inches in newspapers, but rugby – both Union and League – have their own areas of the country filled with devout supporters. The same goes for cricket, shinty and many more, so while many people actively try not to get roped into participating there are also a significant number of people who are obsessed with their chosen sport before ever realising they are LGBT+.
That can bring about its own set of issues. It can be tricky to marry the ideas of continuing to play or follow the sport you love when messages of support for who you are prove few and far between. That is why we have supporters groups and inclusive campaigns to try and improve the situation.
People who are playing their sport growing up, though, may well feel as though a professional career is not a viable option. Even recreationally, it is not uncommon for people to think that trying to place themselves in the middle of the narrow overlap between the LGBT+ and sporting communities is more hassle than it’s worth.
Thankfully, more and more we are seeing stories of people who either keep going or return to sport – hopefully a sign that things are becoming easier for them. Some even go one step further than merely participating.
When Lachlan Smith stopped playing cricket in his native Australia he never thought he would pick up a bat again. So confident was he of that, that when he moved to the UK he did not take any of his kit with him. In fact it was only when rediscovering his old bat on a visit home that the cogs began turning in his mind that it may be something he would like another shot at.
Of course, he has since gone on to found the Birmingham Unicorns, an inclusive club who got off the ground this year to play their first fixtures, including the historic game against Graces that was the first ever match between two inclusive cricket teams. He has come a long way not just from believing he would never play again, but also from being hesitant to come out at first when he eventually did return to action in England.
“I went to an all-boys secondary school, and it was weird because there’s an idea that in boys’ secondary school it is full of sexual experimentation but if that was happening at my school I didn’t know about it,” he recalled.
“It didn’t feel like it was an environment where people could come out. I never felt entirely comfortable, and I think that had a lot to do with it. It was a Christian school, but it wasn’t an overtly Christian school, but I still don’t think that environment encouraged people – it certainly didn’t encourage me – to come out.
“I struggled a lot with self-confidence, I was very shy. I’m still shy now I guess, but back then I was painfully shy right from primary school through secondary school.
“I know that there were periods in my teenage life where I got quite depressed, but I’d lose myself in other things and sport was one of them. It was an escape from worrying about the rest of my life, so I was obsessed with cricket and cricket stats, as well as Aussie Rules football.
“I stopped playing after coming out, I must have last played when I was about 20. I remember some of those final games, but life was just shit at the time anyway which didn’t help.
“It was only really when I went home in about 2010 – I still had a bunch of stuff in storage in Adelaide from when I left, and my mum said we need to clear it out. We went through all this stuff, and I found my old cricket bat in there, and a brand new, never used cricket ball. My mum told me to take it back to England, and I could decide when I was there if I wanted to use it or get rid of it, but it was another couple of years after that before I got the courage to go back and try playing again.
“It still feels a bit weird if I’m honest, because I think I’m of a generation that overthinks these things. It might be partly my personality, but I think it’s partly generational. I think if a 20-year-old came into a team now, and was confident enough in their own ability – I wasn’t, but if they were – I think being LGBT+ wouldn’t bother them in the same way.
“I assumed it would bother everybody else, but if it does they certainly don’t say anything and they don’t act like it bothers them. I think it just genuinely doesn’t bother them. The majority of players I play with are younger than me, I’m often the oldest one in the team. Most of them are late teens through to 30, that kind of age, and it just doesn’t bother them.
“There are people at the club who are devout Muslims, and some of them have been quite devout Christians. I really thought they might be quite problematic, but if it’s a problem for them they don’t show it at all.
“When I left Australia, I never thought I would play cricket again. I was quite happy watching it on TV, or occasionally I would go along on my own because I didn’t know anybody else to go with – although now I can go with my teammates.
“I’ve learned the value of sport. Coming out doesn’t have to be traumatic, but even if it is there can be really positive consequences of it. My performances improved, I’m much more comfortable at the club, and I want to give more people the opportunity to do the same if that’s what they want. If not, I’ll keep chundering along until I’m 55 or 60 and call it a day.”
Even in a very different sport on the other side of the world, there are similarities between Smith’s experiences and that of former professional ice hockey player Jessica Platt.
Platt only recently announced her retirement, but being able to play professionally was literally the kind of thing dreams are made of. In doing so she made history as the first ever trans woman to play pro ice hockey.
The similarities between Smith and Platt come both in their upbringing in fairly conservative areas that are not ideal places for LGBT+ youth to grow up, but also in their happiness having come out and being their authentic selves in both sport and day-to-day life.
“I had always hoped that I could make a career out of ice hockey,” Platt explained.
“Growing up, most Canadian kids have a dream of playing in the NHL or something like that. I had always hoped I would do that, I knew I was good but looking back I didn’t have nearly a good enough work ethic to make it happen.
“I didn’t really care about my body, I wasn’t trying to be the best version of myself, something was off. I think it was the struggle between my identity as trans and who I thought I had to be in the male hockey world.
“It’s still a fairly conservative area, they put in a rainbow coloured crosswalk in the city in 2019 and they still had a bunch of people that were very angry about it. The city itself is a little bit more conservative, but there are a lot of really great people. That was nice to see, and my parents and close friends were supportive of me, which is really what mattered most to me.
“When I first started transitioning I was in university, and I had an amazing friend group there. They helped me through everything, it was a really hard time and I’m sure it wasn’t easy for them to have to help me through everything I was going through, but they got me there.
“Because I had taken so many years off from competitive hockey, I had to learn the flow of the game again, where people were going to be. Before I quit playing, my dad said that I had great vision of the ice, I always seemed to know where everyone was and where they were going to be, so essentially by taking such a long break I had to learn to play all over again.
“Obviously I was learning quickly what my body could do and what it couldn’t do, and then I had to learn the mental aspect – the systems, the plays, everything.
“When I started playing professional hockey right after starting to play hockey again in general, I was playing with people who were on the national team and people who had just come out of playing university hockey, so they had been playing with all these complicated systems that I didn’t know because I never played at university. I was just learning how to play the basic systems again, so I had to pick it up pretty quickly.
“I made sure I had followed all the rules and regulations that the league required from me to play, and I had sent a message to the league just confirming everything – but other than that, I wasn’t out yet.
“My day to day life is pretty similar to what I would expect. Everything is pretty much how I have always dreamt of it, I just have the added joy of hopefully making the world a better place.”
Where Smith and Platt each took time away from their sport to be their true selves, it was a much quicker transition from men’s to women’s sport for footballer Blair Hamilton.
The Scot had been playing for Aberdeen University’s men’s team while taking the early steps of her transition, and was preparing to go to one of the biggest social events on the uni calendar when she finally said enough was enough and decided to present as female.
It was no secret that she was trans, but it still felt like a big step. Thankfully, that event would smash a door wide open for Hamilton as she was approached by the women’s team and had the first discussions about switching over.
“I went to trials for the men’s team at Aberdeen, and I got selected for their third team,” Hamilton said.
“The first year was ok, the second year was actually ok as well, but at that point I didn’t think playing for the women’s team was a possibility. I didn’t think that was ever going to happen.
“I wouldn’t say there was toxic masculinity, but the environment of the men’s football team was very hard for me to fit into. It was very hard for me to know what they wanted to talk about. Luckily enough, I’m not into guys, I’m into girls, so if they looked at a girl and said ‘she’s gorgeous’ I could say ‘yeah, she is’. I suppose we could bond over that, but I always felt like I didn’t really fit in, which makes it hard to connect with people.
“Basically, I had a small mental breakdown the night before the Sports Ball. I was originally going to go in my kilt – which I still have and I still wear, because I’m very proud of my Scottish roots – but I didn’t feel comfortable going to a Sports Ball in a kilt. I remember sitting in the pub with my girlfriend at the time the night before, and I just didn’t want to go, and I said I wouldn’t.
“My girlfriend just asked why don’t I message them, what’s the worst that could happen. Don’t ask me to think of the worst, because I will, and I was like ‘I’m going to get kicked off the team, I’m going to lose the only friends I’ve got, I’m going to be socially isolated, blah blah blah’. After four or five pints and a little bit of bravery, we had written this text message, and Katie to be fair to her sent it. I didn’t send it, she sent it.
“There was a guy who messaged me back 20 minutes later, and he told me not to worry about it. He said Aberdeen University Football Club is an inclusive football club, I could do whatever I felt comfortable with.
“The thing is, it was kind of like the elephant in the room – people knew about me transitioning, but they didn’t ask about it. That’s what made it awkward, because I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t going to turn up in a kilt, because I wasn’t comfortable with that, but were they expecting me to go in a dress? On the actual night there’s a photo of me and maybe 20 lads in the room – you can’t really see it but if you look closely you realise I’ve got make-up on and I’m in a dress.
“How I transitioned across to the women’s game was born out of that Sports Ball. I was sitting at the men’s table, the only one in a dress, testosterone flying everywhere, lad culture – they weren’t bigoted, it wasn’t toxic, they were really nice guys but I didn’t fit in.
“The captain and the president of the women’s team were at the table next to us, they came up to me and said they didn’t think I belonged at that table, would I like to go and sit with them. I went over for a couple of drinks, and then they asked me about myself, how long it had been going on for, and they turned around and asked why I didn’t play for them.
“I didn’t know that was an option, and the actual thing they said was ‘we don’t know but we’ll try’. That’s when they got in touch with BUCS and the SFA to see what the policy is, and while they did that I went and trained with them. It was really good actually. I didn’t go straight away, I think it was only at the fourth opportunity that I actually went. I chickened out three times I’m pretty sure.
“They fought tooth and nail to get me going – to the point that I missed the first game of the women’s season because we hadn’t heard anything back from BUCS. Those two were phoning and emailing, they couldn’t have done any more, and eventually they were referred to SFA guidelines, which I was already approved by.
“Don’t get me wrong, I can imagine it probably wasn’t everyone and that there were some people who were a little bit bigoted in their views who were too scared to speak up against the majority. That was one of the things I was scared of, but it was pretty much universal on the women’s side.”