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LGBT is still facing huge challenges in the world of sports

Updated: Jun 9

✦ Increased inclusion can have a transformative impact

Despite significant progress made in recent years for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community to achieve acceptance and equality in society, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and other barriers are still prevalent in the sports arena.

Much is still needed to be done and the attitudes and beliefs of many need to be enhanced and adjusted if we are to call sports a truly inclusive place.

Consider that it was over 100 years ago when Bill Tilden proudly confirmed he was homosexual, thus becoming the first athlete of note to do so. Tilden won the men’s singles title at Wimbledon in 1920, winning twice more in subsequent years, in addition to seven U.S. championships and seven Davis Cup victories for the U.S as captain. In 1950, a survey of sportswriters named Tilden the greatest tennis player of the half-century.

Bill Tilden

1924: Full-length image of American tennis player Bill Tilden (1893 - 1953) hitting a tennis ball. Tilden was the only man to win the US championships for six consecutive years, 1920 - 1925. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Since then the number of notable athletes confirming they were or are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender has been scarce. Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova are well known exceptions from the tennis court who confirmed themselves as lesbians back in the 1980s, and Caitlyn Jenner came out as transgender almost 40 years after winning Olympic Gold in the decathlon.

Ian Roberts, one of Australia’s most popular rugby players, was the first major sports personality in Australia to come out when he posed nude for a gay magazine in 1995 and spoke about being “part of a different group... an outsider.”

Off-field activism

Encouragingly, the number of professional sportsmen and women who have identified as LGBT has increased in recent years with the likes of British Olympic gold-winning boxer Nicola Adams, and Robbie Rogers of the Los Angeles Galaxy in the American Major Soccer League becoming the first openly gay man to play in a major US professional league. Similarly, NFL player Michael Sam confirmed he was gay in 2014, and fellow NFL star Ryan Russell became the first self-confessed bisexual athlete in any professional league in 2019.

Daniel Dubois v Ebenezer Tetteh - Royal Albert Hall

Nicola Adams poses with the belt after a split decision in her WBO World Flyweight Championship bout against Maria Salinas at the Royal Albert Hall, London.

(Photo by Steven Paston/PA Images via Getty Images)

Orlando Cruz, a professional boxer from Puerto Rico, became the first openly gay man in boxing in 2012, Fallon Fox the first openly transgender professional MMA fighter a year later, and Patricio Manuel became the first openly transgender professional boxer in 2018.

One of the highest profile sports personalities who has identified as being gay is women’s footballer Megan Rapinoe. As captain of the US national team, Rapinoe has won the Women’s World Cup twice and Olympic Gold at London 2012. In 2019 she was named FIFA’s best female player of the year and was on the list of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020.

Portland Thorns FC v OL Reign

SEATTLE, WA - AUGUST 29: Megan Rapinoe #15 of the OL Reign dribbles the ball during a game between Portland Thorns FC and OL Reign at Lumen Field on August 29, 2021 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Jane Gershovich/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Rapinoe is as well known for her off-field activism as she is for her endeavours on the pitch, having spearheaded the movement that filed a lawsuit against the United States Soccer Federation in 2019 accusing it of gender discrimination in relation to unequal pay. She was lauded for her ongoing clashes with former US President Donald Trump as they traded barbs on numerous occasions, starting in 2019 when she refused a visit to the White House after the World Cup victory.

Personalities like Rapinoe are crucial for the advancement of LGBT in sports; she is articulate, opinionated and has conviction but, above all else, is commercially viable meaning she takes her voice and message to the masses which can effect positive change.

‘Rainbow Olympics’

The recent Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics were a triumph for the LGBT community where over 200 out LGBTQ+ athletes, including nine from Australia, participated - three times more than the number of athletes that were “out and proud” in Rio in 2016. Leading the Aussie contingent were tennis veteran Sam Stosur, women’s rugby sevens player Sharni Williams, basketballer Leilani Mitchell and footballer Sam (Samantha) Kerr.

Oceania Rugby Sevens Challenge

TOWNSVILLE, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 26: Sharni Williams of Australia runs the ball during the Oceania Sevens Challenge match between New Zealand and Australia at Queensland Country Bank Stadium on June 26, 2021 in Townsville, Australia. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

International athletes of note included British diver Tom Daley, US track and field champion Raven Saunders, US gymnast Danell Levya, and New Zealand's weightlifter Laurel Hubbard.

Daley became one of the first openly out gay men to ever win gold and used his triumph as an opportunity to send a message to LGBT youth. “I hope that any young LGBT person out there can see that no matter how alone you feel right now, you are not alone and that you can achieve anything and there is a whole lot of your chosen family out here ready to support you,” Daley said on Twitter. “I feel incredibly proud to say that I am a gay man and also an Olympic champion.”

The Tokyo Games, nicknamed the “Rainbow Olympics”, proved that progress is being made, a belief supported by many of those that participated and watched the Games.

“What’s happening at the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games is a far cry from the first Athens 2004 Games I participated in as a young queer person trying to figure out my sexuality,” Theresa Goh, a 34-year-old Singaporean Paralympic swimmer, told the BBC.

2016 Rio Paralympics - Day 4

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - SEPTEMBER 11: Rui Si Theresa Goh of Singapore celebrates winning the bronze medal in the Women's 100m Breaststroke - SB4 on day 4 of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium on September 11, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

(Photo by Getty Images)


There is still much to be done, however, and the presence of LGBT athletes in many mainstream sports is still very low, if visible at all.

“Coming out is very difficult because the culture within sports is still so immensely ‘macho’ even though a lot of athletes have shown support,” said Levya, who came out on Twitter last year.

Justin Fashanu was a top talent in English football in the 1980s who came out as openly gay in 1988, the first athlete in a team sport to do so during his professional career. He received a torrent of abuse at the time and was largely ostracised from the game and wider circles of society. Sadly he took his own life in 1998 at the age of 36 with most believing the negative fallout from his admission the main contributory factor.

Justin Fashanu Norwich City 1981

NORWICH, UNITED KINGDOM - SEPTEMBER 19: Norwich City striker Justin Fashanu in action at Carrow Road circa 1981 in Norwich, England.(Photo by Tony Duffy/Allsport/Getty Images)

As of this year, there are no openly gay male footballers in England’s top four divisions, despite ongoing campaigns such as “Rainbow Laces” striving to highlight inequality in the game. It is believed the fear of abusive chants, threats, bullying and physical assault lead many players to hide their sexuality.

Australia’s leading domestic sports face a similar challenge. Reuters reports that in a 2015 international study initiated by Australian gay rugby groups, 80% of respondents said they had witnessed or experienced homophobia in sport and 75% said it was not very safe to be an openly gay spectator at a sporting event.

Ian Roberts was Australia’s first professional rugby league player to come out as gay, as previously alluded to. However, the barrage of abuse he received was sickening, culminating in a fan punching him as he left the field on one occasion and a physical assualt where he was was dragged, kicked and abused while unconscious on the concrete while walking along the Sydney Harbour foreshore. A fellow teammate was once overheard saying of Roberts “I feel uncomfortable rooming with Ian because he’s a faggot.”

Roberts, who has been an active voice on the issue ever since, aired his displeasure at the lack of progress and condemned Australia’s main sporting bodies for making “empty promises” to eliminate homophobia, as a collection of groundbreaking new studies reveal ongoing harm to young LGBTQ+ people in sport.

Despite rugby league superstar Greg Inglis stating way back in 2014 that he would fully support any players coming out as gay, believing it would be an enormous burden lifted for those that did, very little has happened, likewise in other Australian sports. This trend was not helped by the hugely controversial and outspoken comments of devout Christian Israel Forlau who said on Instagram in 2018 that homosexuals would go to “Hell.. unless they repent of their sins and turn to God.”

‘Death felt preferable’

Last year, Dan Palmer became the first Wallabies player to come out as gay. Palmer, who received a solitary cap against Scotland in 2012, opened up about his struggles in an emotional article published by the Sydney Morning Herald last October where he claimed “My own death felt preferable to anyone discovering I was gay.”

It is heart-rendering insights like these from Palmer that highlight the challenges and hopefully provide a sobering platform for real progress to be made.

“Athletes need to know that their teammates and coaches will have their back if and when they choose to come out,” Joanna Hoffman, from advocacy group Athlete Ally, told the BBC.

Men’s sports have traditionally lagged behind women’s in terms of numbers of ‘out’ athletes and allies but that is changing with every athlete who speaks up, Ms Hoffman added.

Equally so major sporting events that shine a direct light onto the challenges faced by the LBGT community. The Gay Games was launched in SanFrancisco in 1982 and will be hosted in Hong Kong next year. It will be interesting to see how this is embraced in a location that has increasingly and unwillingly become just another Chinese city, especially given Beijing’s archaic views on the subject.

We also have the World Gay Boxing Championships, founded by 45-year-old Aussie Martin Stark, which will be held in 2023 in Sydney to coincide with the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and when the city will also host World Pride.

Ultimately, in the words of Amit Paley, CEO and Executive Director of The Trevor Project when reviewing the success of the Tokyo 2020 Games, increased inclusion in sports enables more young people to reap the character-building, community and mental health benefits of sports environments.

“Increased inclusion and representation can have a transformative impact on the well-being and mental health of LGBTI youth, especially at a time when transgender and nonbinary youth are being targeted and scapegoated. I hope that by the next Summer Olympics in 2024, we can look back on this year and celebrate just how far we’ve come.”

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