An ongoing issue which appears relatively stagnant and to a large degree unreflective of wider society, homophobia in sport is having a major impact on LGBTQ+ athletes. Coming out to friends or family is challenging for any individual, as it reveals a personal journey and fundamental part of their identity. In sport however, it seems that many players are forced to choose whether to come out or play sport. Such an issue can be derived from issues in schools and youth sports, where the deficit of LGBTQ+ youth participation, often due to gender stereotypes being amplified and deterring individuals, is affecting the mental and physical health of LGBTQ+ youths. Although there have been a number of cases of homophobia in various sports such as boxing with Tyson Fury’s homophobic remarks or rugby, with Nigel Owens being the victim of abuse on the pitch, homophobia is an issue most prominent in men’s football.
One of the most notable issues arising from homophobia in sport, either at professional level or during youth, is that it has led to a deficit in participation from openly gay athletes. In the top tiers of British football, there are no openly gay professional male players, a staggering figure which exemplifies the problem. The Chair of the FA, Greg Clarke, has suggested that football is still unsafe for those wishing to come out, worsened by the suicide of Justin Fashanu in 1998, the only player ever to come out as gay. Fashanu became the subject of ongoing homophobic abuse, which contributed greatly towards the collapse of his career. A more recent example is the West Ham vs Brighton match on 5thOctober 2018, where angered West Ham fans were guilty of singing “Does your boyfriend know you’re here?”. No arrests or actions were taken during the game, but the West Ham Police Liaison officer later tweeted condemning these remarks.
In the top tiers of British football, there are no openly gay professional male players
Such lack of action is highlighted in the House of Commons’ report on homophobia in sport, printed 7thFebruary 2017. From the data collected, it was football mentioned most frequently as the sport suffering from the biggest homophobia problem. It is further noted that LGBTQ+ supporters provide the only real LGBTQ+ visibility during matches, largely due to the lack of progress officially and socially in football. The fact that David Eatock’s sexual abuse experiences in the 1990s led to him being accused of being gay and to blame explain the culture of silence which has developed among sportsmen. ‘Out on the Fields’, an international study on homophobia in sport, released in May 2015, found that 73% of people did not see youth sports as a ‘supportive and safe place’ for such individuals, while 70% of the UK consensus agreed. A more recent study carried out by ComRes delved deeper into such statistics, finding that while 82% of fans would be comfortable with an openly gay player in their team, 7% said that they would stop watching their team. 47% also said that homophobic abuse had been witnessed at sports matches.
in a recent survey, 7% of people said that they would stop watching their team if a player was openly gay
With these statistics in mind, coming out in sport, and football in particular, is a considerably unnerving task. While trying to encourage and support progress on this issue, fans must appreciate the implications for the career or life of the individual. Certainly a ‘searchlight culture’ should be discouraged and labelling those who display traits which may be seen to reflect their sexuality is counterproductive.
Homophobia in sport also has wider implications, with the ‘Out on the Fields’ survey showing that 30% of gay men involved in the survey stopped pursuing sport further due to abuse, while in 2012 it was found in the Culture, Media and Sport Committee report that it was a “bigger problem in football than racism and other forms of discrimination”. Fans watching matches who may be unsure or not public about their sexuality may be also harmed by the abuse shown by other fans and therefore the issues during matches can also have a chain effect in other areas of life.
Nevertheless, there are examples of LGBTQ+ individuals in other sports who, although facing some abuse, have largely been accepted and welcomed. Tom Daley, coming out via YouTube in 2013 is an inspiring example, while other openly gay sportspeople such as Gareth Thomas and Casey Stoney have helped pioneer such change. Groups have been trying to raise awareness and counter the issues, such as Crystal Palace Football Club’s LGBTQ+ fan group section in the programme, the Amateur Swimming Association, major sponsors and brands as well as “Straight allies” and National Governing Bodies.
examples such as tom daley and casey stoney show that change is possible
While progress towards preventing homophobia is sport is slower than other social areas, it is moving in the right direction and will be only strengthened by pioneering individuals.