Updated: Friday, 25th April 2014 @ 8:33am

Village Views: The LGBT Column - Why are there so few out gay people in professional sport?

Village Views: The LGBT Column - Why are there so few out gay people in professional sport?

By Owen Williams, MM Columnist

In many ways sport is the last bastion of homophobia in the celebrity world. Compared with the music, film and fashion industries, or even the comedy circuit, sport has a serious lack of successful out LGBT personalities.

It is a problem faced by gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered individuals alike, albeit to varying degrees, and it is a problem throughout the sporting world regardless of event or nation. 

On Monday night, Amal Fashanu, the niece of Justin Fashanu, the first professional footballer to come out as gay, presented a documentary on BBC Three about gay footballers. It was a thought provoking programme which highlighted many of the issues relating to gay people coming out in the footballing world, and specifically asked the question of why there are no out gay professional footballers in the UK. It is a question which the LGBT community has been asking for decades. It seems more than just a little bit odd that the United Kingdom has such good gay rights but one of the nation’s favourite sports is devoid of anyone willing to admit they are gay.

Football is played in every playground, and every school yard from Plymouth to Inverness and it is a staple of British PE lessons, for boys and increasingly for girls too. It’s like a national cult, and we have one of the most competitive national leagues in the world. Considering how widespread its popularity is, it is almost a statistical impossibility that there are no professional gay footballers. And yet, not a single British player has come out since Justin Fashanu in 1990. But football is not the only sport with an unforgivable under-representation of gay people; it is true across the board. 

There are of course gay people from various different countries who excel at sport and have been brave enough to come out. There are multiple out lesbian tennis players; Amelie Mauresmo, Martina Navratilova and Billy Jean King are just a few who have been particularly successful. Matt Mitcham claimed gold in Beijing in 2008 for 10 metres platform diving and was one of only 11 openly gay athletes who competed at the games. And in the world of figure skating Johnny Weir came out just after the Vancouver Olympics and has numerous medals under his belt.    

However, among all of these faces, very few seem to be British. We have a lack of out, professional LGBT sportspeople, even compared to other countries, some of which you could say had worse gay rights than us. Considering the number of people involved in sports in the United Kingdom and the fact that this decade is supposed to be a golden age for sport in the UK, with the Olympics later this year, the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in two years’ time, and the Rugby World Cup coming to England in 2015, it is shocking how few gay sportspeople are willing to come out. 

While those that are open about their sexuality should be commended for their achievements and bravery for hopefully paving the way for other LGBT sportspeople to follow suit, they are aberrations - a brave but tiny band of exceptions. Statistically speaking there should be far more gay people in sport generally. The number of gay people within wider society has always been a contentious issue, and very difficult to prove, however estimates range from as little as 3% - usually claimed by the political or religious right to undermine the gay rights movement - to as much as 10% of the population. Even if the figure was 3% of the population, there should still be hundreds, if not thousands, of gay people out throughout the sporting world, at professional as well as amateur level. 

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect every gay person who is good at sport to come all-singing, all-dancing out of the closet and become vocal advocates for gay rights and constantly talk about their sexuality. Some people are more private than others and that should be respected. However, there are undoubtedly sportspeople who are gay, know they are gay and actively try to conceal that fact about themselves.

There are obviously many reasons for this and I don’t pretend to know what is going through the minds of the hundreds of closeted gay sportspeople, but I can’t help thinking that there is something intrinsically built into the way sport is run and played that makes its more prone to, if not homophobia, then a less welcoming atmosphere for gay people.

The sporting world is incredibly sex- and gender-segregated. It both segregates men from women on the grounds of physical difference and talent, with men competing with men and women competing with women in most sports. But it also segregates actual sports. You have 'men’s sports' – like football, rugby and boxing - and you have 'women’s sports' – like figure skating, netball and ballet.

For gay men who compete in 'women’s sports' and lesbians who compete in “men’s sports”, the general public are rarely all that surprised when they come out, it’s almost expected. It is therefore arguably easier for sportspeople in these sports to come out. On the flip side straight men and women who participate in these sports must put up at least in some way with that stereotype. 

As such, I can’t help thinking that sport has been less successful in breaking down LGBT stereotypes. There still seems to be this belief, at least in part, that gay men are oversexed pansies, unable to throw, catch, run or kick a ball straight but totally willing to bum you in the showers and that lesbians are butch, almost freakishly strong tom-boys who are actually pretty good at sport but definitely not attractive sexually. These stereotypes seem to seep into the language of some fans and even sometimes other sportspeople - that much was clear from Amal’s documentary. 

Like most stereotypes there may be a smidgen of truth in it, for the odd person, within the wider group. I for one hated PE lessons at school, it was by far my worst subject and I never could kick a ball straight, if you’ll excuse the pun. But like most stereotypes the vast majority of it is based on unfounded fallacy. The LGBT community is vast and hugely different, just like the rest of society. Anyone who knows gay people, or are just willing to open their eyes and observe in an unbiased way, will know that in reality these stereotypes simply do not hold. And yet they remain a staple of football chants as well as attitudes within the general public about certain people in certain sports. 

If it is hard for gay men, lesbians and bisexuals in this highly segregated and stereotype-driven world, for transgendered and transsexual individuals this is an almost impossible battle. Due to the segregation of the sexes in many sports, many transsexual and transgender individuals, or even people who are perceived to fall into either of these categories, face difficulty in even being allowed to compete.

Consider the case of sprinter Caster Semenya. After taking gold in the 800m in the 2009 World Championships she was banned while she underwent "gender testing". There are even fewer openly transgender or transsexual sportspeople and this issue is talked about even less than that of gay and bisexual men and women.

This entire situation is surrounded by a culture of silence, particularly in football. It was one of the most obvious things to be highlighted by the documentary. Only one professional well known footballer was willing to talk to Amal Fashanu on the subject: Queen’s Park Rangers captain, Joey Barton. This lack of will to even talk about the subject, let alone actually do anything to make the situation better, simply means that the stereotypes which have been built up and the atmosphere that has created cannot be broken down. 

There seems to be a bit of a Catch-22 holding back gay people in sport. LGBT people are not going to come out of the closet until the sporting world is less homophobic. However, one of the best ways to do this would be to have a very high profile LGBT person come out at the peak of their game and continue to be successful. Sadly I think that day is still potentially a long way off for most sports, and for the FA they have a seriously difficult job on their hands. Still, they could be doing more to encourage gay footballers to come out, and creating a support network for them when they do.