IDAHOBIT 2020: Homophobia and discrimination in sport robs people from endless opportunities

I am launching the Social Storr project to offer thoughts and share my work, as well as projects I will be working on in the future. To find out more information check out www.socialstorrproject.com or get in touch via social media to know more about how you can help make sport a more welcoming space.

Today, 17th May, marks International day against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia (and intersexism). It is a day to highlight the ongoing challenges that exist for LGBT+ people across the globe, whilst also marking the day that homosexuality was officially declassified as a mental disorder 30 years ago. Above left is a picture of 9-year-old me, fresh from another win with my dance partner Lucy, at a Ballroom and Latin dance competition. I used to love dancing and was quite good at it. My trophy cabinet got so full that I ended up putting some in boxes because I had that many. Unfortunately, research tells us that many young LGBT+ people, whether they are aware of their sexuality or gender identity, do not have positive experiences in sport and physical activity contexts and are subjected to hostile attacks and discrimination. My research, advocacy work and ambition is to change this. For many years now, I have worked to raise awareness about LGBT+ inclusion in sport, in the hope that LGBT+ people can engage with sport in meaningful and fulfilling ways, whilst improving their health. From interviews with LGBT+ young people and adults though, the impact of homo/bi/transphobia has long term effects and those experiences stay with them into adulthood, resulting in many LGBT+ people distancing themselves from sport and physical activity.

My own physical activity and sport experiences have been positive. From a very early age sport has been central in my life, and now I live, work and breathe sport. However, it is not always easy as a gay man working in sporting spaces, and often I very much feel like an outsider. My first early experiences of hostile sporting spaces was at university. I went to Loughborough University in the UK, the sporting mecca for any athlete and sport enthusiast. Homophobia was entrenched in every part of the campus, from the sporting fields to the halls of residences. In Fresher’s week, I listened to the lyrics of the booze fuelled drinking songs – ‘queer/you take it up the rear’ and ‘batty/take it up the arse’ – being shouted out in the chorus of thousands of university students in the student union. It wasn’t until I was befriended by a group of lesbians, who took me under their wing, that I felt comfortable and came out. I admired all of them for their courage and ability to be themselves, and not give a #%&* what anyone thought.

Reflecting on my own life, I guess sport was probably a coping mechanism for me as a teenager. I played tennis and for every moment I was hitting the tennis ball, I was not thinking about being gay. It was a welcome distraction and I still play today. But there is a large body of evidence, in addition to recent research I recently completed in collaboration with Twenty10, demonstrates that young people in particular, are subjected to significant homophobia/ biphobia/ transphobia, which stops them from participating. By allowing discrimination and homophobia to be pervasive in sporting environments, we rob LGBT+ people of endless positive experiences and possibilities. For example, the social and health benefits, and opportunities to make meaningful connections. All in all, opportunities which ultimately can make the lives of LGBT+ people rich and rewarding.

In recent years, the entrenched homophobia in sport has made me reflect on my earlier experiences as a dancer. I started with Ballroom and Latin, and later went on to compete in Freestyle Disco and Rock‘n Roll. I used to travel up and down the UK competing. My highlight was dancing in the UK National Championships, which involved all 10 ballroom and latin dance styles, held in the famous Blackpool tower. When I was 16, I stopped competing and dancing, opting to pursue my tennis instead. But if I am honest, I probably stopped because of fear of what others might think. Growing up in the 90’s and early noughties, boys didn’t dance and if they did, they would most likely be called gay. This is problematic for several reasons, the main one being who knew what my dancing accomplishments could have led to? Dancing is a well-established career now, where professionals can tour the world in a range of work endeavours. Who knows? I could have toured the world with Britney Spears or been a professional dancer on Strictly Come Dancing. I could have even been a dance teacher.

My point is this: we do not know what may have eventuated and we do not know where our next Olympic gold medallist or top player may come from. However, more importantly, a shy, gay man who lacks confidence gets to make friends and stay healthy at the same time. So we need to ensure everyone has the opportunity to participate. We also must acknowledge the potential harm and trauma to LGBT+ people, which is caused by the vehicle of sport.

My wish is for every LGBT+ person to be able to play and engage with sport in a safe and enjoyable way, and for the endless opportunities that sport could lead to for a young gay/ trans person, to be realised. I still have some trophies back at my parents’ home and think back on my achievements with pride and a smile. We can all play a part in a world where everyone can access safe spaces. My saviour was the sport of tennis, and every time I was on court and hitting the tennis ball, I was not thinking about my sexuality and the shame that society forced upon me. I look to a future where everyone can live as their authentic selves, free from discrimination, where sport is a reality for everybody, not a luxury for those privileged few.

  • Me with my partner Lucy in some of our Ballroom and Latin numbers, always a trophy in our hands. And this year at the Glam Slam at the Australian Open with representatives from Tennis Australia, the GLTA, Proud 2 Play, and the Victorian Government – sport can help in advancing social change and it makes me so proud to see Tennis be part of the process.

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