LGBT+ History Month: Undoing Homophobia in Sport
Online Sport Editor, Elise Hamersley, takes a look at the role sport plays in LGBT+ History Month, and the work still needed to undo a culture of homophobia
This February is LGBT+ history month, an annual observance of queer history and civil/gay rights movements. In the UK, this marks 18 years since the abolition of Section 28, Thatcher’s amendment enacted in 1988 which stated that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality”. During this historic month, Exeposé Sport celebrates and acknowledges the role sport has played in LGBT+ history and pays homage to all queer folk in sport; those who face(d) abuse, those who are/were forced to hide who they are, those who were publicly outed, those who find the courage to live openly despite the potentially life-threatening ramifications, and those who paved the way for the next generation of athletes to feel more comfortable in today’s sporting landscape.
There have been many iconic LGBT+ sports stars throughout history and in the present day. Readers might be familiar with boxer Nicola Adams (OBE). She is Great Britain’s most successful female boxer of all time after winning team GB’s first ever female boxing Gold in London 2012, a title she successfully defended in 2016, all as an openly LGBT person.
Tennis legend Billie Jean King won 12 Grand Slam single titles, created the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), and is considered one of the greatest players of all time. On 1 May 1981, she was forcibly outed. While she received support from her fellow tennis players, she lost all of her sponsorships.
Former professional rugby player Gareth Thomas (CBE) represented Wales in both rugby league and union. After retiring from international rugby union, Thomas became the first ever openly gay professional rugby union player in 2009.
Despite these courageous individual stories, sport still has a long way to go in undoing a culture of homophobia, especially those sports which are historically linked to aggression, physicality, hyper-masculinity and ‘lads culture’, a derivative of ‘old boys clubs’. Negative perceptions of LGBT+ people are built into many sporting spaces, creating a hostile and unwelcoming environment for those who are both out and closeted to pursue sport recreationally or professionally.
It’s worth pointing out that these stereotypes do not only negatively impact genuinely queer people, but also those who are subject to abuse for having mannerisms, or personality traits that are deemed stereotypically ‘gay’ by homophobic people. We should no longer live in a world where our perception of human beings are so limited that there are such things as ‘gay personalities’ and ‘gay mannerisms’. In an interview with the BBC about coming to terms with his sexuality, professional rugby league player Keegan Hirst said “With the benefit of hindsight, I probably realised I was gay when I was 14 or 15… But the only gay people I knew were George Michael and Elton John, and I wasn’t like them so I figured I couldn’t be gay- or that’s what I told myself”. Reductive views of sexuality boil queer people down to detrimental stereotypes and are part of power structures that oppress us all. Interestingly, most ‘negative’ stereotypes about gay men in particular, are fundamentally routed in both homophobia and sexism, because homophobes consider characteristics such as ‘sensitivity’ and ‘femininity’ inherently female and therefore inherently weak.
Sexuality shouldn’t factor into sport, or any career for that matter. Who an athlete sleeps with doesn’t affect how fast they run, how accurate a bowler’s spin is, or how hard a cyclist can push on his pedals. However, the Rainbow Laces Campaign has found that “43% of LGBT people think public sporting events aren’t a welcoming space for LGBT people” and as many as “14% of LGBT pupils- including 29 percent of trans pupils- are bullied during sports lessons”. The HRC also found in 2019 that over half of LGBTQ identifying respondents would “be more likely to follow a sport in which there were openly LGBTQ athletes or coaches”. So while an athlete’s sexuality shouldn’t matter, it does. How comfortable people feel in their social and professional environment directly impacts performance. The amount of LGBT+ young people put off by unwelcoming sporting spaces also hinders the progression of sport by limiting the talent pool of those who feel encouraged to pursue elite level competition.
“While an athlete’s sexuality shouldn’t matter, it does”
It is also important to highlight the marginalisation of queer female voices in today’s sporting world. When Bath Rugby player Levi Davis bravely came out as bisexual in September 2020, the Gay Times posted his headshot on Instagram with the words “Levi Davis becomes the first professional rugby union player to come out as LGBTQ+”. What a fantastic and brave event in sport and this young man’s life. It should absolutely be celebrated and recognised as a notable progression in rugby. Only, as a friend pointed out to me, Levi Davis isn’t the first professional rugby union player to come out as LGBT+, he is the first male professional rugby union player to come out as LGBT+. There have been openly queer female rugby union players for years. This fact doesn’t take away from the importance of Davis’ coming out, but the headline does underscore the press’ intentional ignorance of female LGBT+ voices in sport and devalues the prominence and position of women’s rugby as a whole.
Throughout the month of February, Exeposé Sport will be sharing on our social media platforms poignant LGBT+ sports stars and officiates who changed the game and paved the way. There is still a long way to go in making sport a progressive place for people of all sexual orientations and backgrounds, and we hope we can contribute in a small way to making Exeter’s sporting space more welcoming for all students.