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LGBTQ in sport: A colourful future

Although Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual and Queer (LGBTQ) people have long had a presence in sport that presence has evolved significantly in recent times. Jose Bourbon, Matthew Bowers, Louis Olvera and James Pike look at the status of LGBTQ acceptance and inclusion across sport in the U.K. and beyond.  

Gay athletes have been coming out across the world as early as the 1920s, but most movements on the LGBTQ front began in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Though there was an effort to drive LGBTQ rights forward, it was mostly disjointed throughout the U.K. and across the world.

Only in the 1980s did that begin to change. In 1982, Great Britain sent one of the largest contingents to the inaugural Gay Games in San Francisco. The Gay Games were founded to give LGBTQ athletes a space to compete without fear of harassment or ridicule, which were commonplace in standard sport at the time.

In May of 1988, Section 28 of the Local Government Act became law. The legislation stated that “a local authority shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality.” The LGBTQ community saw this law as discriminatory, and in the wake of Section 28’s passing began to organise their advocacy efforts on a national level.

Stonewall was one of the first LGBTQ rights groups to be founded in 1989. Their initial work protested Section 28 and pushed for its repeal. To this day, Stonewall’s website says that Section 28 was “an offensive piece of legislation designed to prevent the so-called ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools; as well as stigmatising lesbian, gay and bi people, it galvanised the LGBT community.”

Stonewall’s work helped to get Section 28 repealed in 2003, but that is only part of what they have accomplished. In the nearly 30 years since its founding, Stonewall has become the leading organisation in the U.K. for LGBTQ rights. Though their efforts are spread out across all of society, sport has been one of their focus areas in recent times.

The Rainbow Laces campaign is central to Stonewall’s work towards increasing LGBTQ acceptance in sport. It asks athletes to swap out standard shoelaces for rainbow-coloured ones when they perform, in a show of support for the LGBTQ community. Though shoelaces are the primary focus, the campaign is not limited to them. Depending on the sport, athletes can wear rainbow-coloured socks, boots, and grip tape.

Athletes across U.K. sport have been spotted wearing rainbow laces in recent months, but the largest partner Stonewall has is the Premier League. For the last two seasons, the Premier League dedicated a matchweek (usually in late November) to Rainbow Laces and promoted it across all their channels. On that weekend, rainbows can be found on the armbands and shoes of footballers across England’s top division.

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On some fronts, the campaign has made progress. As part of the 2017 Rainbow Laces week in the Premier League, Swansea City and AFC Bournemouth both announced that supporters would be able to use the “Mx” title in front of their names, offering an option for those who don’t identify with traditional genders.

However, Stonewall believes there is still much work to be done, especially on the grassroots level. Their own research indicates that two-thirds of LGBTQ students do not like team sports, and gay men are four times less likely to participate in sports than heterosexual men. Stonewall believes much of this can be traced back to a long-standing pro-heterosexual culture across sport, which has normalised terms such as ‘gay’, ‘faggot’, ‘fairy’, ‘poof’, ‘dyke’ and ‘lezza’ as derogatory. Athletes have flung insults such as “that’s so gay” or “get up, you fag” without realising how much pain they cause any LGBTQ person within earshot.

With members of the LGBT community facing these daily struggles, it needs to be asked what steps are being made to accomplish LGBT inclusion in sport. One LGBT team is taking the lead.

Stonewall F.C., based in Barnes and founded in 1991, is Britain’s first openly gay football club (though they share the same name with Stonewall, they are not connected to the charity). Stonewall F.C. have participated at the Gay Games, a worldwide sport and cultural event that promotes sexual diversity featuring LGBT athletes and artists, winning the gold four times, the silver and bronze once,  and the European Gay Competition a record nine times. Because of that and other triumphs, the club claims on their website to be the world’s most successful gay football club.

Gay Games 9 Opening Ceremony rainbow march, 2014. Author: Koji Kawano
Gay Games 9 Opening Ceremony rainbow march, 2014. Author: Koji Kawano

The club operates three separate teams at three different levels. The first team play in the Middlesex County League Premier Division, the Reserve team in London’s West End A.F.A Sunday Football League, and a third team play in the London Unity League.

Despite the club’s longstanding success in the British football scene and in the gay community, Stonewall F.C. have never witnessed a professional footballer in English football come out, at least not since Justin Fashanu in 1990, shortly before the creation of the club. That is something club manager Eric Najib struggles to understand. He told The Sun in November 2016: ”Football seems to be the last bastion when it comes to being open and comfortable about sexuality.”

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Not every player or staff member on Stonewall F.C. is gay. There are multiple straight members happy to play alongside their gay teammates, and they say the league has got better at accepting the team. Many believe that level of acceptance in the locker room and the field could reach the Premier League, but the Football Association chairman Greg Clarke has his doubts about another area of the game.

He once told a select committee that he “would be amazed” if there was not a gay player in the biggest league in England by now, but it still remains impossible for a footballer to come out because of the abuse he would receive from the fans.

“I think there would be significant abuse,” Clarke said. “I don’t think we have corrected the problem [of homophobia in football] yet.”

Whether it is Clarke’s comments or the chants from football fans, players have not felt the urge to come out in public … or privately. The Premier League chief and the governing body once had an open invitation to any footballer willing to meet privately about how to improve inclusion in the game, but not one gay professional footballer was willing to meet. So far, the FA cannot convince a player to feel comfortable in the Premier League about being gay.

Najib thinks more officials should encourage players to be comfortable about their sexuality. He goes on to say, ”The only difference with football is the terrace culture and the scandalous fact that there are people in high places advising players that it would be ‘career suicide’ for a footballer to come out.

“People say sponsors would pull out. If that happened, that would be a disgrace. But I disagree. I think lots of avenues open up for a player coming out right now. It’s not done our club any harm– we have a kit deal with Adidas!”

That decision was made for the 2016/17 season for their 25th anniversary in partnership with Team Pride (another team sponsor) and would provide the kit for all three team levels. This decision by Adidas was the second major step in supporting the LGBT community. The athletics manufacturer had also added a protective clause to their athlete’s contracts, which protects them if they come out publicly as LGBT.

The concurrence in a modern sporting culture that this issue still requires attention and work towards progress is a positive sign. Whilst the problem still runs deep – as evidenced by fear among athletes in the worlds’ biggest leagues to expose their true personal fidelities – the movement seems to be powered by local community and grassroots organisations. Stonewall FC’s impact on English football culture and inclusion is noteworthy, but major sports leagues across the world are facing the same issues. American and Canadian leagues like the National Football League (NFL) and the National Hockey League (NHL) are also making a monetary and legal investment in LGBT inclusion.

It’s clear that some professional sporting organisations and leagues seem to be more progressive than others when it comes to LGBT rights and inclusion. Nowadays, however, most popular and global leagues have some sort of committee or gay pride events built into the season to bring light to the issue.

The National Football League is the most lucrative sports league in the world, with an annual revenue of around 16 billion USD. Now famously engulfed in a legal and social controversy surrounding the safety of players in such a violent and ruthless game, the culture surrounding such an activity and the community of fans it attracts has been at odds with LGBT athletes.

Most famously, Los Angeles (then St. Louis) Rams linebacker Michael Sam was purported to be a pick in the early rounds of the 2014 NFL Draft. Before the draft, Sam announced that he was gay, becoming the first draft candidate to come out. This, combined with the pressure from the resulting media coverage, saw him fall to the very last selection in the draft. After joining the Rams as the first openly gay player in the League, he was cut from the Rams practice squad, made a short appearance with the Dallas Cowboys practice squad, and was never heard from again in the NFL. His story is a daunting reminder of the intolerant and very much exclusive culture in NFL locker rooms and boardrooms even to this day.

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Additionally, Ryan O’Callaghan is a former offensive tackle for the Kansas City Chiefs who came out last summer. He told USA Today: “Early on I decided that I could never come out. When you’re in the closet, it’s a scary place. You think no one will love you, especially if you hear slang and people talking bad about gay people. You think they’re talking about you … you hear people you love talk and say these things and you think that’s exactly how they think of you. Or they will if they knew you. You just decide not to let them know you.”

Perhaps it’s the attitude and locker room culture that naturally rejects gay players or a conspiracy plotted by the evil financial overlords who are the real winners of the money in major sporting leagues. However likely or unlikely each option is, clubs and leagues all over the world have to deal with the potential costs of being active members and difference-makers for the inclusion of LGBT athletes and fans alike.

Back in August of last year, the NFL enacted their ‘NFL Pride’ LGBT friendly employee group, specifically designed to enact inclusion and tolerance awareness throughout the game and its fans. This was a major public statement from the League, and it’s not the only thing they have done to become more progressive in this area. In 2011, the new NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) included discrimination protection against LGBT players both inside and outside of the locker room. This meant that any player who felt they were unjustly discriminated against had legal leverage to make sure it never happened again.

These policies and procedures set in place are not what will ultimately cure the NFL and any other sporting organization of the exclusionary culture currently riddling teams and fan bases alike, but they are certainly a step in the right direction- however, they don’t come without cost. According to a press release by the NFL back in 2013, the costs of hiring lawyers specifically to litigate for and against LGBT-discriminatory related cases was too high to justify the employment or contracting of full-time legal professionals. Essentially, that means the League is yet to put their money where their mouth is. Policies and protections are incredible, but only if there is a mechanism to enforce them.

The counter-argument to this is that it’s simply not a viable business option when there are no current players who are openly gay, and therefore it would be a poor financial investment. There is indeed logic there, but it’s impossible to measure the number of players currently on NFL rosters who are still in the closet, and potential prospects for the league who would feel more comfortable being openly gay if there were public defenders on duty to fight in their corner if they were to be discriminated against.

Another American sports league investing heavily in LGBT rights and inclusion is the National Hockey League, who just wrapped up #HockeyIsForEveryone month: “Our Clubs, our players and our fans are committed to welcoming everyone to hockey,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “While the NHL family strives for diversity and inclusiveness all year long, February is Hockey Is For Everyone month, which will highlight, on a daily basis, the many ways our sport brings greater attention, heightened awareness and broader opportunities.”

Individual clubs and communities held a variety of events to put their money where their mouths are, and make a real financial commitment to LGBT inclusion. With the NHL and NFL committing time, resources, and human capital to support and promote these causes that so desperately need to progress, it proves the social and communal effort that or society requires to become more healthy and inclusive.

Although gay athletes’ rights have been fought by the media, other players, and fans, there is a common misconception that we can put the entirety of them under one umbrella. There has been a term introduced to the colloquial regarding these members of society, which is actually an acronym. LGBT has entered the dialogue as an improved and more inclusive descriptor than the word “gay”. However, it hasn’t exactly caught fire, and owners and league administrators continue to use “gay”, and it unintentionally discriminates against those who wouldn’t simply identify themselves as such. We looked into the particular exclusion of one of these groups, those athletes who would identify as bisexual.

There can be little doubt that the British media has played a crucial role in the last few years in the normalisation and acceptance by society of diverse sexual orientation. This has been done by news stories and opinion pieces celebrating sportsmen and women who ‘come out’. However, media tend to focus on homosexuals and forget bisexuals, what recently can be seen in the discussion around why are there no Premier League players coming out as gay.

Rory Magrath, Lecturer in the School of Sports, Health and Social Sciences at Southampton Solent University, explains that this media’s approach that focus on gays can be explained by the lack of publicly bisexual players:

“This is likely due to the fact that very few professional athletes are bisexual. In football, for example, there has never been an openly bisexual player, but there have been openly gay players [mainly former players], so this likely influences the narrative on this subject because the precedent is set by these athletes”

Magrath is one of the few to research this question: in September 2017 he published his study “Bisexual Erasure in the British Print Media: Representation of Tom Daley’s coming out”. In the study he analysed the coming out of Tom Daley in 2013 as the first ever British Sportsman or woman to openly declare as, at least, something different than homosexual, by saying “being in a relationship with a man but still feeling attracted to women”, a moment media failed to highlight by referring to him as “gay man”, “gay relationship” and “gay athlete”, as explained in the study. When I asked Magrath if today things are better he replied cautiously:

“It’s hard to say. Bisexuality has traditionally been erased as a legitimate sexual orientation particularly in sport, where attitudes towards gay men and lesbians have only (relatively) recently – in the last 10/15 years – become more inclusive. It’s arguable that one of the major reasons why media don’t talk about bisexuality, particularly in sport, is that there are very few openly bisexual people. In sport we have Nicola Adams and maybe Tom Daley, as well as some other, historical athletes, and in wider society, they are far outnumbered by gay men and lesbians.”

It’s difficult to explain why sports media are putting apart (even that unconsciously) bisexuals in this discussion. Magrath doubts “they are doing it on purpose” and prefers to point out historical reasons which show that society “has been slower to accept wider social change and attitudes toward bisexuality liberalised later than homosexuality”. But if the number of bisexual players is probably smaller than heterosexuals, the discrimination comes from more parts of the society, what probably makes it more difficult to lead with it:

“Historically, it’s been more difficult as a bisexual person because discrimination has come from both sides (so gay men/lesbians and heterosexual people)” tells Magrath, explaining that the “age-old claim that bisexuality is simply a step toward full homosexuality” or represents “men and women in denial” might make the process of coming out “even harder, even if these attitudes no longer hold true”.

Even if Magrath says that “attitudes toward sexual minorities are in general far more inclusive than they’ve ever been”, there is still a long road ahead, as recent stats show: according to Pew Social Trends only 12% of bisexual men are open about their identity compared to 77% gay men and they are also more likely of suffering mental health issues than people with other sexual orientation, according to the Office for National Statistics. Furthermore, looks like even LGBT organisations, are not balancing well their attention as a Funders for LGBTQ issues report concluded that just 1% of all LGBT funding is given to bisexuality.

However, to counterbalance Kick It Out launched, recently, the first LGBT inclusion campaign with the participation from players of all the Premier League teams, including names such as Eden Hazard, Juan Mata, and Vincent Kompany in which there is a direct mention not only to homosexuals but also bisexuals and transgender.

Kick It Out and Premier League clubs unite against homophobia, biphobia and transphobia

As #LGBTHistoryMonth draws to a close, we are delighted to join forces with all 20 Premier League clubs to send a clear message – homophobia, biphobia and transphobia have no place in football.If you see or hear abuse, #ReportIt and help us kick HBT discrimimination out of the game."LGBT+ supporters are part of the foundations of football – just like any other fan."Read more from Roisin Wood, our CEO, as well as Bill Bush, Premier League Executive Director, as we celebrate the launch of our film: http://bit.ly/2Co3J6i

Posted by Kick It Out on Tuesday, 27 February 2018

 

Talking with Sports Gazette Tom Taylor, media and communication manager of Kick It Out, also recognises that people are probably “not aware of bisexuality [as much as they are of gay and lesbian] and that society as a whole still doesn’t recognise bisexuality as much as they should.”

Sports gender categorization and an alternative way: Limitless – The first ever non-gender categorized Sport Competition in the UK

Sports Competitions were since their creation segregated by gender. There were no mixtures: women to one side, men to the other.

However, in the UK the discussion about gender categorization in sports is slowly arising, with some journalists and researchers starting to question if sports should be organised in a non-gender way. The signs that possibly not everyone fit within this categorisation, gain a new dimension with Limitless, the first non-binary gender competition in the UK, which happens on April 29.

Limitless is an amateur strength competition which wants to challenge this idea, proposing a new way of categorising sport. In this sports competition open to everyone participants are not divided by gender (male or female) but according to their level [1, 2 and 3], and it’s their responsibility to choose a category: the higher the category, the heavier the weights.

As Hannah Newman, the head of this event explains, the idea was born of a personal necessity: “I was someone who had always competed in strongwoman events but identified as non-binary and began to consider seeking gender transition. It then became clear that there was not really anywhere that I could feel comfortable competing because I did not fit into the traditional male or female categories within the sport. My coach suggested we put on a competition that was inclusive for everyone, including me and others who may find themselves in similar situations”.

Usually when we talk about transgender people we think about someone that was born with one gender but feels like the other. However Hannah represents another part of Transgender – usually called genderqueer – those who don’t identify exclusively with any gender but have to adhere to a sporting environment and society separated by male and female categorisations:

“It can be hard because there is still such a huge amount of misunderstanding out there, and many people still find it difficult to acknowledge the fact that some just don’t fit into the neat little boxes of male and female that society has created. It can feel like my identity is constantly being invalidated”, she explains, adding: “I never really felt that I fit within the boundaries of what was expected of me as a female person, but I never had a strong urge to be male either. Neither of these gender identities felt right for me. It has only been over the last couple of years that I’ve come to realise that is ok – I don’t have to fit myself into either box, I can just be myself”.

Hannah Newman training at Grindhouse Strongman

Until now the initiative has had a positive response on social media and Hannah says there is interest in setting up a similar contest in another country. She believes in the possibility of “redefining the way all sports are categorised”, conscious, however, that that can be “easier to do in some sports than others” as is the case of strength sports, where “it’s easier to categorise people by ability”.

But that will only be possible if the media takes more responsibility for the way they write about transgender: “There seems to be a lot of inaccurate, factually incorrect information presented in the media to the general public at the moment, and a lot of scaremongering. The biggest battle at this time is media representation of transgender people in general, not just in sport. Until that changes, it is unlikely that we will see any informed media coverage and discussion on trans inclusion in sport.”

Featured Image: Flickr, by University of Nottingham

José Bourbon
José Bourbon was born in Lisbon, Portugal. He completed his first degree in Social and Cultural Communication at Universidade Católica Portuguesa, in Lisbon. In the summer of 2015 he had the opportunity to work alongside some of the best journalists in Portugal during an internship at Expresso, one of the most famous newspapers in Portugal. He also played a part in the creation of BETup – an entrepreneurship news website that he worked on for six months. José currently writes for Winept, a Portuguese website dedicated to wine, but sports journalism is his main passion, specifically tennis and football. It goes without saying, José is also a Sporting and Portugal fan.
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