Contrary to popular myth there are Lesbigay (gay and lesbian) sportspeople out there and some of them do compete at the top of their sports. What does life entail for them?
Which sports have openly gay participants?
It is easier to find openly gay participants in individual sports, and the reasons for this are covered in some of the points which follow. Also it appears that there are more open lesbian sportswomen than gay sportsmen. The reason for this is possibly that other female competitors are less homophobic than their male counterparts so therefore there is a greater ease in competing as an 'out' homosexual.
There have long been rumours in the public domain about certain sports especially female sports being full of homosexuals1. This entry is dealing with facts and personal experiences from a number of researchers and trying to convey how to cope in the world where you are often seen as a freak and in a non-vocal minority.
One of the first things you realise in a locker room is how homophobic an environment it generally is. A lot of it is banter, but for any gay sportsman who is in anyway insecure it can be like entering the Coliseum in Rome to face the Lions.
Straight men see the locker room as the one bastion where they can be naked in public with other men. They don't want to think that other men get naked with men for any other reason than to change and shower. So the locker room becomes some macho environment which, by definition, leads to gay jokes being intended as insults.
There is also great speculation about the number of lesbians in certain women's sports. This is particularly true with golf and tennis where the long seasons and constantly moving from one hotel to another leads to such rumours springing up. Certainly there are a number of top performers on both these tours that have acknowledged their sexuality but it is probably no more out of proportion than any other section of society.
How to handle the Joking
It does seem hard and unfair, but if you are in any way athletic and gay you still have to suffer the humiliation that first entering the locker room entails. As you grow in stature as a sportsman, there are one of three things that you will eventually have to do:
- Ignore the homophobic jokes and mocking that tend to go on around you.
- Join in, therefore feeling more scared that someday you will be found out.
- Tell them you're gay. Now this does not mean you should wear the pink and lavender "Hi, I'm gay and oh, by the way, my name is [insert name] ..."
The Pub Discussions
You and your team-mates will invariably end up down the pub after your match. On occasion the conversation will get around to the sexuality of certain other players or stars. This can cause certain tension especially if you and your partner are both in the conversation or your boyfriend/girlfriend is the subject of speculation.
How you react will depend on how out of the closet you or the person the conversation is about is. If you or your boyfriend/girlfriend are not out, leave it to them to let these fellow sportsmen know the full story.
It can also affect you if you are in a position of coaching young people as one researcher has found.
When I came out, it didn't seem to bother [the young people] at all; their parents at the club and a number of the older male players reacted very adversely. The most hurtful and objectionable comments suggested that I was a paedophile.
Somehow it remains difficult to satisfy people that just because you are gay you are going to want to have sex with minors any more than a heterosexual in the same position of responsibility.
What About if You are a Coach?
One researcher faced this very dilemma - for various reasons after he came out he moved away from the area in which he lived. However, when he did return, he found that:
A large majority of the male players just ignored me or were downright rude ... the younger players seemed not to be bothered by my sexuality, nor did the majority of female players.
As he says there were two major issues involved: firstly, those who responded badly felt there was a threat to their masculinity, and secondly, the assumption that he was a paedophile simply because he was a gay man.
The second issue is sadly one that any gay person in a position of responsibility over young people will have to face. Even worse, the people who raise such an issue in this way are also the least likely to be able to get engaged in sensible dialogue about the issues. Is it any wonder that a lot of gay people in positions of responsibility like this feel afraid to be out, as they are aware that the local media and parent tend to jump on the band wagon and support this viewpoint?
Once you are out
It may have been the hardest thing to do especially in such a testosterone-driven environment, where some people may not know another gay person except from television. Is it worth it?
85% of the people in the locker room that found out I was gay just treated me like everyone else. The rest just left me alone. One asked me, and I accepted, to be the best man at his wedding after we had known each other for almost ten years! Some become close friends and chat with me about who I'm dating, etc.
The people who will support you the most are actually those you have played sports with previously. The reason being that they have already judged you solely on your ability to compete and the fact that you are gay does not make it any easier for them to compete against you. If anything it may make you a harder opponent as nothing they can throw at you can be as hard as coming out in your sporting circle.
Some Examples of Top Gay Sportspeople
There are a growing number of top class sportspeople who are now openly gay, lesbian or bisexual. There is no way to keep up to date with a fully comprehensive list but here is just a sample of a few that have come out from a section of different sports.
Greg Louganis - Arguably the greatest diver of all time. Competed in three Olympics from 1976 (when twelve years old!) until 19882 winning four gold medals and one silver medal.
Martina Navratilova - The greatest women's tennis player of all time. Winning more titles than anyone else, this Czech-born athlete became an American citizen and speaks openly about her sexuality as a role model to many.
Ian Roberts - An Australian Rugby League player, came out as gay in the rugged world of Rugby in 1994 and has been a role model to many gay sportsmen and gay Australians. He retired from professional sport in 2000.
David Gourley - One of the first and certainly one of the biggest names in the world of lawn bowls to come out. Lawn bowls for so long considered to be an old man's game finally achieved the breakthrough when David's boyfriend watched him win the World Bowls from the stands in Preston. Now every bowler seems to know David is gay, and seem to cast aspirations on others by saying 'is he a Gourley?'.
Billy Bean - Baseball player, retired in 1995. Realised during his six-year baseball career that he was gay, the first major league sportsman in the USA, active or recently retired, to be openly out and admitting being out whilst playing. Like many top sportsmen in team events had to sit there when homo-bashing and jokes where whirling around the changing rooms from his team mates.
Sue Wicks - Women's basketball player for WNBA team New York Liberty until 2002, said in a press interview that 'I think it's important that if you are gay, you shouldn't be afraid to say who you are'. She received the league's Sportsmanship Award for the 2001-2 season. Currently serves as basketball coach for the women's basketball team at Saint Francis College in Brooklyn, New York.
Alyson Annan - From Australia, one of greatest female hockey players in the world. She has appeared over 200 times and scored over 150 goals for her national team the Hockeyroos.
John Amaechi - At one time the highest-paid English basketball player in the NBA, having played for the Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic, the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz between 1995 and 2003. Came out of retirement to represent England during the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne and helped the national basketball team win the bronze medal. He came out publicly in February 2007 and is the first NBA player to do so. Currently works as a broadcaster and political activist in the UK.
Matthew Mitcham - The first Australian diver to win a gold medal at an Olympic Games (in Beijing, 2008) since 1924 and the only openly gay medal winner at those games. Was one of only eleven openly gay athletes out of over 11 thousand competing in Beijing, having come out publicly three months previously, and his partner Lachlan Fletcher and his family were seen together on TV watching his win on the 10m platform event.
There are also entire teams that consist of predominately gay/bisexual players and compete in various non-professional leagues as positive role models for the gay community. These include rugby union teams such as the Kings Cross Steelers and the Manchester Village Spartans, and football (soccer) teams including the London Titans and Stonewall FC.