Can We Make Sports a Safe Space for LGBTQ+ Community?

Justin Fashanu, a British footballer came out as gay in 1990. The young starlet killed himself, stating he didn’t want to ‘cause any more embarrassment to his family and friends.’

Image Credits: Pink News

Last April, the high profile Australian rugby league player Israel Folau, posted on Instagram a poster saying “WARNING Drunks, Homosexuals, Adulterers, Liars, Fornicators, Thieves, Atheists, Idolaters – HELL AWAITS YOU! Repent.” 

He was promptly sacked by Australian Rugby, with Cheika, Australian Rugby Union coach, stating it is unlikely he will ever play for Australia again. What followed was a very long and very expensive legal case for Australian Rugby, with Folau raising a A$2 million in a crowd-funding page, to pay for legal fees, in his attempts to sue Australian Rugby for A$14 Million on the grounds of freedom of speech and religious discrimination. The eventual result was an out of court settlement between the two parties. 

 Despite criticism and warning, it was announced last week that, less than ten months on from the original post, Super League’s Catalans Dragons would be signing the much discussed full-back in a controversial move. Robert Elstone, Chief Executive of the Super League, said that he deplored Folau previous comments and that it was a hard decision to allow him to join the competition – stating if comments are repeated an immediate ban will follow, along with a substantial fine to Catalans Dragons.

Many within the rugby community have been fast to lambast Catalans Dragons for signing him, with Keegan Hirst – Britain’s first rugby league player to come out as gay – posting on Twitter that he was shocked and disapointed by the deal. Wigan Warriors have, in a humorous protest, declared a ‘Pride Day’ for the day of their match with the Dragons – their players will also be wearing rainbow laces as a sign of support for the LGBT community.

The whole case of Folau is quite symbolic of LGBT in sport, many institutions, teams and players actively showing their support and vehemently expressing their displeasure at those exhibiting homophobic comments; meanwhile, a minority continue to show lack of awareness or acceptance. 

This is nothing new, and it shows the lack of progress in sport compared to the other expressive arts. LGBT discrimination occurs from grassroots to the highest level in sport.

 A 2015 study, Out on the Fields, found 84% of participants had heard homophobic jokes within sport, and a Stonewall study found that 72% of participants had heard homophobic abuse at a ground. I think part of the only reason that they are not higher is that many don’t even see the jokes as homophobic. 

While some may argue that these jokes bear no meaning behind them and that they are simply just ‘jokes’. There is a massive knock-on effect, besides the unfriendly environment it creates for children, it can lead to many from the LGBT community being put off sport for life. 

According to NUS study, 46.8% of LGBT university students do not participate in sports at university because of the unwelcoming, alienating culture. Furthermore, with those who do participate in sport 37.8% don’t feel comfortable being open about their sexuality with their teammates. The results are even more deafening when you get to the elite level, where no male professional footballer has ever come out as gay while playing in the Premier League. It must be added that the women’s game has made greater strides in its acceptance of the LGBT community with several high-profile players coming out – such as England internationals Casey Stoney, Kelly Smith, and Fara Williams. 

Ex-Chelsea and Brazil manager Luiz Felipe Scolari is on record saying that he would have thrown out any player whom he found to be gay. Graeme Le Saux often had to endure much homophobic abuse, because he enjoyed collecting art and antiques. 

Much of the fear is sadly understandable, especially after the story of Justin Fashanu Britain’s first black £1 million player, and the first player to in English football to come out as gay in 1990. 

Justin Fashanu when deciding to expose his story made the mistake of choosing to do an exclusive interview with The Sun who reportedly made Fashanu embellish and exaggerate any stories he had – and running the particularly crass headline ‘£1m Football Star: I AM GAY’. 

It is not only the tabloids which can be blamed though as in 1996 the BBC removed Fashanu as a candidate for BBC Sports Personality of the Year when they opened polling to email for the first time – after students had organised a campaign to help him win. 

In 1998, Fashanu was accused of sexually assaulting a seventeen year-old after a night out drinking in the States – where Fashanu resided. Fashanu fled back to the UK, before his arrest, and hung himself in a deserted garage in Shoreditch.

In his suicide note he pleaded his innocence, argued that he would not have been given a fair trial in the U.S. because of his sexuality, he ended the note saying that he didn’t want to cause any more embarrassment to his friends and family. 

The coroner, on his evaluation, said that the culmination of prejudices he had experienced, combined with the sexual assault case, probably overwhelmed him. It must be remembered that Justin Fashanu was the first and only English male footballer to come out as gay. 

Football, and sport as a whole, has traditionally let down the LGBT community, but there is no reason why that has to continue. There are some fantastic campaigns going on throughout sport, like that of the Rainbow Laces campaign, a joint-venture between LGBT charity Stonewall and the Premier League, where between the 3rd and 9th of December awareness is made through various events at different clubs while also changing colours of the Premier League to that of the Pride flag. Then there are ex-Rugby players like Gareth Thomas, who was recently diagnosed with HIV, has been doing brilliant charity work to reduce the stigma about HIV. 

Sport doesn’t need to continue to be such a harmful environment for those from the LGBT community, perceptions can change. 

Football banned women from playing the game in 1921, and this ban was not lifted for 50 years, let’s hope the same mistakes are not repeated with the LGBT community. 

Everyone within sport, from the average pub watcher to those playing at the highest level must continue to challenge those who continue to bring homophobic abuse and must champion those brave enough to stand-up.