Fair play: homosexuality in sport

With more sportspeople coming out about their sexuality and increasing tolerance from fans, Ben Whitford looks at how the global sporting community is responding to the need for equality

The UK might not have the entrenched culture of homophobia that was seen in Russia during this year’s Winter Olympics, but when it comes to sports, the nation still has a way to go.

“With all the progress that’s been made on LGBT rights in Britain, it’s easy to overlook how far sport lags behind,” veteran gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell tells Positive News. “Proportionately, far fewer sportspeople are openly gay than in most other walks of life.”

Indeed, while a handful of athletes have come out, many more are presumed to be still in the closet. Many top football leagues, including the Premiership, still lack a single openly gay current player. But times are changing slowly. British sport now boasts gay athletes including Olympic diver Tom Daley, Welsh rugby icon Gareth Thomas, England women’s football captain Casey Stoney, boxing star Nicola Adams and Surrey wicketkeeper Steven Davies.

A similar trend is at work in America, where former Leeds United winger Robbie Rogers became the country’s first openly gay major-league athlete when he took the field for Los Angeles Galaxy last year. In February, Jason Collins of the Brooklyn Nets became the NBA’s first openly gay player, and Michael Sam became the NFL’s first openly gay star when he signed for the St Louis Rams this spring.

“Proportionately, far fewer sportspeople are openly gay than in most other walks of life”

Announcements such as these are encouraging for those campaigning about gay rights, and who have mixed feelings about the impact of this year’s Winter Olympics in Russia. Depending on who you ask, the games were either a big win for gay rights activists or a big missed opportunity.

Campaigners had hoped to use the Sochi Games to draw global attention to Russia’s abysmal track record on gay rights, and in particular its laws banning pro-gay ‘propaganda’. Certainly, things got off to a good start: during the opening ceremony, International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach rose from his seat next to Vladimir Putin to declare that the ‘Olympic dream’ was of a world where people could “live in harmony with tolerance, and without any form of discrimination for whatever reason.”

“The opening days were very successful because we were able to raise considerable awareness around Russia’s anti-gay propaganda laws,” Hudson Taylor of Athlete Ally, one of the few LGBT groups present at the Games, told reporters.

But the Games didn’t spark the high profile protests or boycotts that many activists had hoped for. Even the rainbow gloves worn by some athletes, initially thought to be a gesture of LGBT solidarity, proved simply to be a nod to the colours of the Olympic rings. Russia soon went back to business as usual: a week after the Olympics ended, a few hundred international athletes gathered in Moscow for the pro-gay Open Games, only to see venue bookings abruptly cancelled, organisers harassed by police, and events disrupted by smoke bomb attacks.

This is a sign, activists say, that international sporting bodies must take more forceful action against homophobia. The All Out pressure group has gathered more than 115,000 signatures for a petition urging the IOC to pledge never again to allow countries with anti-gay laws to host an Olympic Games. Other groups, meanwhile, are calling for organisers to pass measures prohibiting discrimination against gay athletes.

“One of the big failings of the International Olympic Committee — and the Commonwealth Games, which take place in Glasgow in July — is that they do not ask participating countries to sign a declaration that they won’t discriminate on grounds of … sexual orientation or gender identity,” Tatchell says. “That discrimination has got to be challenged.”

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In the meantime, each player who comes out makes the road easier for those who follow, says Richard Lane, a spokesman for LGBT advocacy group Stonewall. “We’ve reached a point where there’s a critical mass,” he says. “The momentum is there – we’re making huge strides forward.”

That was certainly the case for former West Ham and Everton midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger, who came out earlier this year. “I read about [gay basketball star] John Amaechi, Gareth Thomas and Tom Daley. They weren’t footballers, but the fact that they went public gave me the feeling that I was not alone,” he told the Guardian. “I began to think that I could help other footballers who might be in the same shoes … I wanted to encourage them, the way that those guys and Robbie Rogers encouraged me.”

The bravery of players like Hitzlsperger is also helping young college athletes to come out to their teammates. Deanna Hong, a 21-year-old gay student who played lacrosse for UCLA, grew up cheering for Gro Hammerseng, the captain of Norway’s women’s handball team, who dated and eventually married a teammate. Hong says she was inspired both by Hammerseng’s sporting prowess, and by the support she and her partner received from fans. “That was when I really peaked as an athlete — I wanted to be just like them,” she says.

Hammerseng’s example helped Hong find the confidence to come out to her teammates. While she was nervous at first, her fellow athletes were extremely supportive, and her sexuality wasn’t an issue on or off the field. Now Hong takes it for granted that people will be accepting. “I can’t think of any experience in my life that’s been negative,” she says.

“The fact that they went public gave me the feeling that I was not alone”

Stories like Hong’s are increasingly the rule rather than the exception, especially among younger sportspeople, says University of Winchester sociologist Eric Anderson. In a recent study, Anderson found that every single player at one Premiership club’s training academy said they would be happy to play alongside gay teammates. This, he says, is a sign that today’s young athletes, having grown up alongside openly gay peers, see homophobia and intolerance as things of the past.

But some older players and manaers have less enlightened views, Anderson says, and international players in particular face challenges when they play in countries with entrenched cultures of homophobia. Still, he predicts that more tolerant views of sexuality will become the norm as today’s youngsters move into leadership positions. “There’s absolutely no going back,” he says.

Fans are also far more tolerant than they once were, with one recent study finding that 93% of English football supporters – long believed to be among the most homophobic fans around – were now perfectly happy to cheer for gay players. “Fans are interested in how well a player plays, and that’s it,” explains Ellis Cashmore, a professor of culture, media and sport at Staffordshire University. “We’d rather have a gay player who can genuinely play than a straight player who can’t.”

That cultural shift is also prompting more gay people to play sports recreationally. London alone boasts dozens of LGBT clubs offering everything from cricket to kickboxing. This summer, meanwhile, Cleveland will host the 9th Gay Games, which have been held every four years since 1982 and now attract upwards of 10,000 participants, including many amateurs, from around 70 countries. “It’s a way for people who’ve felt excluded for whatever reason to rediscover sport,” explains Marc Naimark of the Paris-based Federation of Gay Games.

Reconnecting with sport can be an emotional experience. Growing up in the 1980s, Leviathen Hendricks found PE classes terrifying and, plagued by teasing and his own self-consciousness, soon began to skip them altogether. “You put a wall up,” he explains. “Sport and athletics can be a very emotionally unsafe place for a lot of gay and lesbian and bisexual people.”

It took years for Hendricks to give sport another chance – but when a gay friend invited him to a kickabout in the park, he was soon hooked. “I’ve found it such a powerful experience … perhaps largely because it was something that seemed so off-limits to me before,” says Hendricks, who now runs Phoenix FC, one of London’s biggest LGBT football clubs. “It was just a very freeing experience.” The more openly gay role models are available to young people, he notes, the more common such experiences will be – and the more isolated the individuals and nations that fail to embrace and support gay athletes will become.