Gay People and Sport: An Uncomfortable History
To mark the end of LGTBQ+ history month, Nick Powell, Print Sport Editor, analyses the relationship between Gay People and Sport through history.
The Australian Open wrapped up Sunday before last, concluding a wonderful tournament that finally saw a major international sporting event have the presence of fans.
One of the stadia the fans piled back into was the “Margaret Court Arena”, named after Australia’s most successful female tennis player. Indeed, the aptly named Court is the World’s most successful female tennis player ever, despite Serena Williams’ best efforts to dethrone her.
Why I say best efforts, and one of the reasons I admittedly would love to see the latter become the official GOAT, is that Court has a long and detailed history of unpleasant and offensive comments, many of which have involved intense homophobia.
For someone who’s greatest rival was herself a lesbian – Billie Jean King – it would have been staggering to many to hear Court’s first uttering of her views. In 1990, she suggested Lesbians were ruining tennis and of Martina Navratilova “a great player but I’d like someone at the top who the younger players can look up to. It’s very sad for children to be exposed to homosexuality. Martina is a nice person. Her life has just gone astray.”
It was thought that Court, who continued to condemn gay people up to Australia’s gay marriage debate and beyond, would fade into obscurity, and for a while it looked that way. Indeed removing her name from her Australian Open Arena was considered, but with her becoming increasingly irrelevant it seemed unnecessary, only having the possible effect of giving her martyrdom among Christian fundamentalists.
Until she was bafflingly awarded Australia’s highest honour on Australia Day in January of this year. Victorian Political Leaders were united in opposition in the state in which the competition is played. Premier Dan Andrews stated “I don’t want to give this person’s disgraceful, bigoted views any oxygen” and that “Grand Slam wins don’t give you some right to spew hatred and create division,” while opposition leader Anthony Albanese went further, implying that the fact she had already received a major honour in 2007 and had been elevated to the highest status in 2021 had “nothing to do with tennis”, and indeed it appeared a ringing endorsement of her views.
To Australia’s credit, they have not always endorsed their talented Christian fundamentalist homophobes. Rugby Australia, Rugby Union’s governing body down under, sacked Israel Folau (below) after he stated that “hell awaits” gay people (among others).
Sacking him was a brave decision. He was by far their best player at the time and would quite possibly have helped them progress further in the World Cup later that year than they did had he been playing. He is hoping to get back into Australian sport, having joined French Rugby League club Catalan Dragons, with a view to now playing in that sport’s most prestigious League – the NRL – with club St George Illawarra applying to the League to allow them to appoint him to their squad. The outcome of that decision will in itself be a huge indicator as to whether Australian sport’s recent lax attitude to homophobia is a trend.
Back in the UK not a single Football League footballer from the 4,000 members of the PFA has come out as gay and whilst I miss the real noise of the terraces as much as anyone, anyone who has gone to a professional football game knows that homophobia remains rampant and unchallenged in the stands of teams all over the country, and this is likely the greatest barrier to the UK having their first gay footballer.
It was openly gay ex-Welsh rugby legend Gareth Thomas who illustrated this so shockingly when he travelled to Leeds with Brighton supporters in documentary “Hate in the Beautiful game”. Based on the age-old stereotype of the residents of Brighton all being gay, Thomas was present to see Brighton fans receive a barrage of homophobic abuse, which the Brighton fans had to prepare to put up with every week. It displayed all too clearly that though most clubs’ and governing bodies are taking measure to promote gay rights, this has not translated universally to their fans.
That no player has taken the decision to come out during the Coronavirus pandemic, with the chance to settle down as an openly gay player before fans are welcomed back, is disheartening. This appears to be the perfect opportunity to establish the normalisation of a gay player without that individual facing the short-term abuse that would make it so challenging. The fact that any closeted gay players (of which there are thought to be several) won’t come out now makes you wonder when that time will come.
So where does all this leave gay people and sport? Despite the sporting achievements of Margaret Court and Israel Folau not being fully discredited by their homophobia, as well as a seemingly impossible situation to come out for gay elite footballers, I remain optimistic.
While New South Wales’ support of gay sports people, the UK nation which it is named after is more of a safe bet. Aforementioned 100 cap Welsh hero Thomas (below) became the first pro Athlete in a UK team sport to come out, two years after compatriot Nigel Owens, who refereed the same number of games in the same sport, did the same.
Rugby, both union and league, in the UK has been remarkable in embracing these individuals and many others, with the latter sport having Keegan Hirst as their first openly gay player in this country, but what has come with these individuals is not just the courage to be themselves, but a responsibility to fly the rainbow flag for their sport.
That added element of responsibility will be embraced by some, but may put others off, nevertheless once it starts, it is likely to accelerate the acceptance process more and more.
Returning to Billie Jean King, whilst she herself was outed, she can reflect that that brutal and unfair story helped pave the way for a wonderfully tolerant approach within women’s sport, where not only have there been several big names who have come out, but even couples emerging from the England women’s cricket and hockey teams.
The fact that gay women are now fully accepted in sport, from a similarly difficult start, should give hope that the same will happen with gay men, and though it is far too late, we can be hopeful that things are on the right path, and those first footballing pioneers will accelerate the process of acceptance.