Sexuality is certainly a sensitive subject when it comes to sport. Despite an ever-increasing list of openly gay athletes including Olympic bronze medallist Tom Daley and former Aston Villa midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger, who both came out in the last year or so, the reality is that it is still largely a taboo subject that causes sports starts distress and desolation.
As a Leeds United fan, Robbie Rogers’ struggle particularly sticks in my mind. The USA international became only the 2nd footballer in Britain to announce that he was gay in 2013, and as a consequence left football only a short time afterwards. Rogers talked about how it was ‘impossible’ to come out in football because of the hype surrounding the fact that so few had before. Indeed, his only predecessor, Justin Fashanu, had a once-promising career dogged with homophobic abuse, and he eventually committed suicide in 1998 after being accused of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old. Rogers had left Leeds shortly before he made his announcement, but suggested that he wouldn’t have done so made it had he still been with the Elland Road club.
However, 3 months after coming out he signed a contract with LA Galaxy and has since suggested that the only way things will change is if more people come out and continue to play.
Former Wales and British Lions captain Gareth Thomas suffered a similar experience in the world of Rugby. Thomas admitted that he had made several suicide attempts after confessing to his wife that he had been gay since the age of 16, and described how he used his feeling of ‘absolute despair’ to become one of toughest rugby players in the world in an attempt to hide his sexuality.
Thomas became Britain’s first openly gay professional rugby player when he came out in 2009, but admitted that he feared his announcement would derail his career. Like Rogers, Thomas has urged fellow sports stars to ‘break the taboo’ of homosexuality in sport and insists that coming out might inspire young, gay athletes to continue playing.
Away from typicallu macho sports such as mens football and rugby, progress has clearly been made but there are still concerns. Billie-Jean King received death threats after she came out, while her and fellow tennis star Martina Navratilova both lost out on huge endorsements when announcements about their sexuality were made back in the eighties. The reaction to Australian swimming legend Ian Thorpe announcing his homosexuality last year was largely positive, yet the fact that his declaration came after years of denials further suggests that sport still has a long way to go in providing a welcoming environment for professional athletes. Similarly, England women’s football captain Casey Stoney tweeted a photo last September of a letter she received warning her of the health hazards of homosexuality, giving a stark reminder that despite the huge strides that have been taken in changing attitudes over recent years, there are still intolerant issues associated with homosexuality in sport.
Generally, the message seems to be that increasing the number of openly gay sports stars will help create an atmosphere where men and women feel comfortable coming out and continuing to play. The response to recent revelations has been hugely positive, and it can seemingly only get better.
Grassroots schemes are also being implemented to try and improve the situation. Increased education about the use of homophobic language has been introduced in schools across the UK so that homosexual schoolchildren are not deterred from participating in sport. It is hoped that someday soon, the sexuality of an athlete will have no bearing on their role in the sporting world.
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