Homophobia is a hot topic in Leicester with the Hate Crime project being launched to address and raise awareness of the shocking statistics from a study by the University of Leicester that eight in 10 LGBT people have been abused or harassed, with one in 10 suffering physical assault. A quote from Dr Stevie-Jade Hardy, who is the lead researcher on the Hate Crime project highlights the importance of tackling homophobia:
''Hearing homophobic terms can be an 'everyday' occurrence for lesbian, gay and bisexual people, and this hostility is evident in most public contexts, such as sport and leisure activities. We know from our research that being called abusive names can have a damaging emotional and physical impact on those at the receiving end. It can leave people lacking self-esteem and feeling anxious, and can even result in them withdrawing from such activities altogether.''
Whilst we don’t know how many of these incidences are sports-related, the largest and first international survey, Out on the Field (2015), found that 60% of gay men and 50% of lesbians have been subjected to homophobia in sport. Indeed, homophobic bullying and various types of homophobic abuse are not uncommon by fans in some sports. In many sports, it as an arena for promoting heterosexual masculinity which can result in the reproduction of homophobia in sport for both women and men. Sports, such as rugby, football, and boxing that emphasise aggression, competition and toughness tend to align with the dominant definition of masculinity. When this definition of masculinity is based on the assumption that as well as being aggressive and competitive, all ‘real men’ must be heterosexual, ‘gay’ becomes a derogatory identity label and an abnormal lifestyle (Naess, 2001). Thus ‘homophobia within athletic masculine culture tends to lock men – whether gay or not – into narrowly defined heterosexual identities and relationships’ (Messner, 1992, p.156).
It seems that the negative use of the word ‘gay’ is one of the most hurtful ways of reinforcing homophobia. Constantly hearing the word ‘gay’ being used as a derogatory curse word like ‘shit’ can make you feel like you are shit. Marcus Urban (2013) said, "I was constantly affected by insults. Although it is not said to me directly it concerns me, even today." Problems can occur when individuals feel silenced, deviant and alienated from society. Specifically, gay athletes may hide their identity and feelings when they play sport and some men may act out extra aggressive behaviour so that they will not be seen as gay. As Gareth Thomas and John Amaechi probably both agree, there is a stigma attached to homosexuality in the male locker room, and that disclosure whilst actively playing would be costly for an athlete in terms of salary, endorsements, and sports fandom.
Nonetheless, sports stars who have gone public about their sexuality also help to inspire others to come out and be positive role models. In 1981, at the peak of her tennis career, Martina Navratilova paved the way for gay female athletes by coming out and has continued her fight for equal rights. Despite Navratilova’s bold move over 30 years ago there are few actively ‘out’ lesbians in the UK. Even more recently, Casey Stone (England and Arsenal footballer) thought that ‘coming out’ last year would end her career and it may be fear such as this which prevents others from doing so. Whilst there has been a longer standing connection between sports and lesbians, the field for lesbians is also challenging; they continue to experience homophobia/heterosexism in women’s sport.
Whilst 2014 proved a better year for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) sportspeople in the US with 109 athletes, coaches, officials and administrators ‘coming out’ (Outsports, 2015), the picture is slightly quieter in the UK. This could be because of the homophobia that is so prevalent in some sports. For example, in May 2015, the local West Midlands Midlands Police were trying to identify West Brom football fans who were reported to chant homophobic taunts. Indeed, 85% believe that openly gay spectators would not be safe in the stands at a sporting event in the UK (Out on the Fields survey, 2015). It is hardly surprising that Wasps and England’s James Haskell has called on more high-profile players to speak out against homophobia. So what’s happening in Leicester?
Leicester is a city well known for its sporting achievements. For example, Leicester is the only city in the East Midlands selected to host matches in the prestigious six-week Webb Ellis Cup Rugby Tournament, which will see the top 20 teams in the world competing against each other. In fact, you can see the Webb Ellis Cup in Leicester on Saturday 15 August in the city centre at Humberstone Gate where you can take pictures and participate in lots of other sporting activities.
Additionally, the ‘Football Investment Strategy’ is an investment that is going into the city’s sporting infrastructure to transform grassroots football in Leicester and encourage more people to get fit and active. Alongside these investment strategies where Leicester sports (e.g. football and rugby) are in the limelight nationally and internationally, there is a need to ensure that this sport development is accompanied by working to raise awareness of LGBT bullying and tackling homophobia in sport.
So how many sportspeople are gay or lesbian in Leicester? Stonewall estimate around 5-7% of the UK population are gay which one would assume would be reflected in sport but active players at a highly competitive level are reluctant to ‘come out’, especially in team sports. This is hardly surprising when homophobia is still so evidently prevalent in sport.
LGBT Leicester Sports
In Leicester, we know of the Leicester Wildecats who are a gay football team which provides a queer space for enjoying sport and the freedom to express their sexuality without discrimination. However, Wildecats recognise that whilst gay sport spaces possess possibilities for ‘queer resistance’ and ‘integration of sexual difference’ they argue that the world of football needs a gay player to come out while he is playing. Whilst these gay sports spaces are evidently needed, perhaps the existence of such spaces unintentionally and simultaneously leads to a greater resistance from the public.
A representative (Gareth Miller) from Leicester Wildecats joined two representatives (Karen Laurie and Moji Green) from Roller Derby Leicester (RDL), Dr Helen Owton, Dr Kate Russell, Paul Fitzgerald (Leicester LGBT centre) participated in a sports panel discussion on Tackling Homophobia in Sport at De Montfort University (DMU) during DMU Pride 2015. We showed the ‘Game Changer’ documentary about Gareth Thomas who came out as gay whilst still playing professional rugby. Throughout DMU Pride, many of the DMU sports teams showed their support towards raising awareness of LGBT communities and tackling homophobia by wearing #DMUpride T-shirts.
Also, Stonewall’s rainbow laces have contributed to raising the awareness of LGBT issues in sport. Ex-Leicester City striker Emile Heskey showed his support towards this campaign together with other Premiership League players and the Leicestershire Police Tactical Dogs and Firearms Unit (TDFU).
Whilst #DMU Pride T-shirts and Stonewall rainbow laces raise awareness of LGBT communities and issues, actual changes need to be more evident in society.
Roller Derby Leicester (RDL) seems to be making such change. Their team has a framework and a collective desire to strive for equality, and a positive culture which embraces ‘difference’. Roller Derby is a very inclusive sport and it seems that good practice has been developed from the roots of a newly formed sport.
How can we continue to make this sort of progress and change, particularly in cultures that are so deeply embedded with normalised and implicit codes of homophobia/heterosexism? Will other sports teams in Leicester be willing to embrace this framework and ensure that players have the opportunity and an extra supportive network surrounding them to enable them to come out?
Change starts at home
Changes in policy can have positive effects, for example, gay marriage may encourage change in perceptions to acceptance in society. However, we still need to recognise that marriage, as an institution, is ‘good for some and not for others’ and that ‘gay marriage does not equal equality’; there is still much work to be done to continue to eradicate discrimination (Bindel, 2014).
Bullying often starts in childhood suggesting that this is where we need to re-educate society. Changing people’s attitudes needs to start at the home and in schools. Stonewall (2013) report that 9 in ten secondary and two in five primary school teachers say young people, regardless of their sexual orientation, experience homophobic bullying, name-calling or harassment. Such homophobic bulling impacts on pupil’s school attendance, attainment and future prospects which also has an impact on their participation in school sports. There are approximately 200 primary schools and 60 secondary schools in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland and the Ben Cohen Stand Up Foundation provided the Leicester LGBT Centre with some funding to start tackling homophobia in sport (THIS project) in 2014, but there is great scope for more change that needs to occur.
So whilst it is also important for athletes to continue to ‘come out’, it should not be their sole responsibility either; it’s the people in the stadiums, attitudes at home and at school that need to be challenged.
Don’t be a bystander! #Nobystanders
Messner, M. (1992) Power at Play: Sports and the problem of masculinity, Boston: Beacon Press.
Naess, F. (2001) Sport, Education and Society: Narratives about Young Men and Masculinities in Organised Sport in Norway, 6, (2), 125-142.