Tackling Homophobia in Sport

By Helen Owton

* This article words content that some might find offensive

Homophobia in sport is a hot topic in the media with high profile sports stars, such as Gareth Thomas and Casey Stone speaking openly about their experiences of ‘coming out’ and the implications of the 2018 World Cup being hosted in (anti-gay) Russia. In many sports, it as an arena for promoting heterosexual masculinitywhich can result in the reproduction of homophobia in sport for both women and men. Despite this, 2014 proved a better year for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) sportspeople in the US with 109 athletes, coaches, officials and administrators ‘coming out’ (Outsports, 2015). In the UK, the picture is slightly quieter, particularly for gay men in sport. Stonewall estimate around 5-7% of the UK population are gay which one would assume would be reflected in sport but active players at a highly competitive level are reluctant to ‘come out’, especially in team sports (such as rugby, football, basketball, cricket). This is hardly surprising when homophobia is still so prevalent in sport.

The recent Out on the Field survey found that 60% of 10 gay men and 50% of lesbians have been subjected to homophobia in sport and there appear to be attempts being made to address this issue now (e.g. http://www.birminghammail.co.uk/sport/football/football-news/west-midlands-police-looking-identify-9293042). Not only are athletes at risk, 85% believed that openly gay spectators would not be safe in the stands at a sporting event in the UK (Out on the Fields survey, 2015) which is hardly surprising in light of the homophobic taunts made by West Brom fans in the West Midlands.

The field is not easy for women either. In 1981, at the peak of her tennis career, Martina Navratilova paved the way for gay female athletes by coming out and has continued her fight for equal rights. Despite Navratilova’s bold move over 30 years ago there are few actively ‘out’ lesbians in the UK. Indeed, Casey Stone (England and Arsenal footballer) thought that ‘coming out’ last year would end her career and it may be fear such as this which prevents others from doing so.

When an individual feels unaccepted and alienated from society, this is when problems can occur. For example, gay athletes may hide their identity and feelings when they play sport and some men may act out extra aggressive behavior so that they will not be seen as gay. As Nigel Owen (Welsh rugby union referee) said, “Once I came out and rugby had accepted me, my performances got better and better. I wouldn’t be able to referee as well as I can now if I was still worried about people finding out about who I am.”

It seems that the negative use of the word ‘gay’ is one of the most hurtful ways of reinforcing homophobia. Marcus Urban (East German International Footballer who retired from football early to live openly as a gay man) told CNN that ‘constantly hearing “gay” used as a curse word like “shit” made me think, “Of course, I’m shit.” This type of bullying often starts in childhood suggesting that this is where we need to re-educate society. For example, Stonewall (2013) report that nine in ten secondary and two in five primary school teachers say young people, regardless of their sexual orientation, experience homophobic bullying, name-calling or harassment. Homophobic bulling impacts on pupil’s school attendance, attainment and future prospects (Stonewall, 2013) which also has an impact on their participation in school sports.

Changes in policy can have positive effects, for example, gay marriage may bring more stability and happiness to gay couples and encourage a change in perceptions to acceptance in society. The most recent policy change was in Ireland who became the first country to legalise gay marriage by public vote last week (22/05/15). The gay vote in Ireland received two-thirds in favour of gay marriage which is reassuring, but the very fact that we had to have a referendum at all is shocking. Credit goes to various sports stars, such as Valerie Mulcahy (Cork footballer), Donal Óg Cusack (Irish hurler and Chairman of the Gaelic Players Association), Nikki Symmons (Irish hockey player) and Shane Horgan (former Irish rugby player) who have gone public on their sexuality to inspire and help others.

So where does this leave us moving forward with various sporting events coming up in 2015 and 2016 (e.g. FIFA Women’s World Cup and Rio Olympics). Sport is still the final closet for active LGBT sportspeople in society which is why it is so important for other sportspeople (e.g. James Haskell) to unite and actively tackle homophobia in sport. Whilst it is also important for athletes to come out, it should not be their sole responsibility either; ‘It’s the people in the stadium who can make the difference.’ (Nigel Owens)

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