At the beginning of this year, Belgian Under-23 cyclist Justin Laevens came out of the closet. He thought it was a big step himself because, he said “‘I personally don’t know anyone in the cycling world who has already come out.’
Now, fortunately, something is moving in sports: there is the annual ‘Football for all’ campaign of Voetbal Vlaanderen, ACFF, the Pro League and the KBVB, which not only targets racism but also explicitly homophobia. You had the Sport4All campaign of Mr. Gay Belgium 2019 Matthias De Roover who had footballer Jelle Van Damme, basketball player Ann Wauters, former boxing champion Freddy de Kerpel, Olympic figure skater Jorik Hendrickx, nine-time world boxing champion Daniella Somers and referee Robin Lefever, among others, record a message against homophobia in sport. And then last year there was rower Simon Haerinck who, together with his rowing team, took up the fight against homophobia in the sports world under the slogan ‘same sport, different sexuality’.
The only thing is that it hasn’t produced a great deal of results yet. Indeed, I can’t think of any openly gay professional cyclists. Well, there was Graeme Obree who broke the world time record twice in the 1990s but that was a very long time ago and the man was only able to come out for his gayness years after his career.
Just last year, Swedish international Albin Ekdal testified in a video message to the European Parliament that homophobia in soccer is so great that until now barely eight top football players dare to be open about their homosexuality.
Justin is right: it is a big and courageous step on his part. And we should support him in it unconditionally. And fortunately, at first glance, it seems that many people do.
But then why aren’t there more Justins? Do LGBTI+ people do less sport? Or are they more likely to choose the ‘softer’ sports and stay at the amateur level?
The cliché that gays and sports don’t mix is old and hard to eradicate. According to ‘Homosexuality and sport’ (2008), a report by Movisie, the Dutch national knowledge institute for a coherent approach to social issues, this is because sport was seen at the end of the 19th century to ‘breed’ healthy and strong men. And later, when men felt even more threatened in their ‘masculinity’ because women also provided the income and were allowed to be increasingly independent, sport remained the last domain where they could express their macho side uninhibitedly.
It could explain why lesbians in sports are more easily accepted or can be openly out. Where the cliché says that gay men are ‘not really men’, lesbian women are seen as ‘man-women’. That they like sports is ‘logical’ in this way of thinking.
It is a cliché, a generalization and to be taken with a spoonful of salt. Of course, there is the stereotypical gay man who is absorbed in the song contest and loathes anything remotely or closely related to sports and exercise. But I have straight friends who fit into this picture just as well.
On the other hand, the biggest LGBTI+ associations are just the ones where LGB, trans and intersex people can exercise together. Active Company in Antwerp and Brussels Gay Sport in the Capital Region organize weekly badminton, cycling, futsal, pilates, volleyball, water polo, swimming, walking, running, tennis, yoga and so on for several hundred members.
According to the personal coach of my fitness club, half of his clients are LGBTI+ individuals.
Every 2 to 3 years there are also the World Outgames and the Gay Games, two international sporting events that, although open to everyone, are mainly aimed at an LGBTI+ audience. The goal is to be able to play sports with people from all over the world in a positive atmosphere, free from homophobia. Both the Outgames and the Gay Games attract more than 10,000 participants.
At the Olympic Games in Japan, more openly LGBTI+ athletes participated than ever. In fact, they achieved 56 Olympic medals. Team LGBTI+’ thus won more medals in 2021 than any country that bans homosexuality. And also at the Paralympics there were at least 30 openly LGBTI+ athletes.
Therefore, that sports and the rainbow would not go together is a huge misconception. It is high time that this is put to rest.
So are there perhaps gay sports and straight sports?
At first glance, it seems so. Ask the average Flemish person what sports he thinks of for LGBTI+ persons and I guarantee you will hear things like figure skating or diving. There are indeed quite a few athletes in those sports who are openly gay: Tom Daley, Matthew Mitcham, Markus Thormeyer, Ian Thorpe won one medal after another in swimming or diving and are all out of the closet now. In figure skating there are even so many gay skaters that our Kevin Van der Perren had to constantly underline that he was not.
But soccer? Rugby? Cycling? Boxing? … Those sports have a ‘virile’ image and the average gay man apparently doesn’t belong there.
It’s not from not being able to. I already cited the example of Graeme Obree from cycling a moment ago. In soccer, there are people like the former international and player with the German national team Thomas Hitzelsperger. In Brussels, for example, there are the Straffe Ketten, an inclusive rugby club. Gareth Thomas, Ian Roberts or Keegan Hirst are top-level international rugby stars and all turned out to be members of the “family”.And the Puerto Rican boxer Orlando Cruz was not exactly a softy either.
So it’s more about ‘not feeling welcome’. Young LGBTI+ players still do not feel welcome in soccer clubs or in the world of cycling. They think they won’t be accepted there and don’t go there or keep their orientation to themselves anxiously.
According to the Movisie report ‘Homosexuality and sport’ (2008), one of the reasons could be that gay men often associate team sports with the fact that they used to be bullied by other boys at school during that kind of sport. Now I can tell you from personal experience that school sports were hell for me (and for a few other friends who, like me, struggled with their gayness in high school). That sports could also stand for fun I only discovered afterwards. Guess I wasn’t alone when I read the report, and so this seems like a very plausible reason for the reluctance many (young) gay men have. If you are already in search of yourself you don’t want to end up in a club where you have to constantly watch your step. In other words, it starts as early as school.
If you then see that feeling confirmed on and around the field or on the circuit, the desire of those who dare to take the step naturally also disappears. “Homo, sissy, jeannette, …” are words of abuse they use constantly, and even if it is not meant personally, it still sends the message “you don’t really belong, there is no place for you here”. Especially if the supervisors do not act or if the trainer or the coach also participates.
The Dutch sports journalist Thijs Smeenk, himself gay and as a teenager dreaming of a soccer career, put it this way in an interview in the newspaper Trouw: “It is a macho world where I did not feel safe. It was in the jokes and comments, the atmosphere in the stands. No one was gay, there were no examples. I had it in my head: you can’t do that in this world. If I come out with it, I’ll have a big problem.”
Players who dare to protest against this are moreover often dismissed as oversensitive and if there is one image you don’t want as a gay athlete, it is that.
If, in this way, the impression is given that gays cannot be good sportsmen because they are not macho or masculine enough, a coming-out becomes even more difficult of course. After all, suppose you suddenly lose a match after coming out, won’t your ‘gayness’ be seen as a reason for that? It is one of the reasons why so many gay athletes only dare to come out of the closet after their active career. They want to be judged on their performance and from the moment they are openly out and proud, people reduce everything to their orientation.
This is also why so many LGBTI+ individuals prefer to play sports in a rainbow club. Not because they want to talk about being gay, lesbian, bi, trans or intersex all the time but just because they don’t want to. It is often the only place where it really doesn’t matter because everyone is that way.
(Top) athletes who want to keep their orientation hidden, however, often face tremendous stress which in turn can affect their athletic performance. Read the coming-out stories of many athletes and you will come across stories of stress and depression time after time. Graeme Obree said that he grew up with the idea that it was better to be dead than gay and that this had contributed to him attempting suicide twice. Markus Thormeyer talks about the feeling that you can never do good: if you keep it hidden, then you are lying and that keeps you from building a good relationship with your team; if you are open then they may not accept you (and you can never go back in the closet).
If you let this happen as a federation, then you deprive yourself of a lot of potential top athletes, potential medals and people who enjoy your sport. That is why the campaigns and awareness-raising actions absolutely must be continued. Changing mindsets is not something you do lightly. But more will be needed. In addition to the campaigns, there must be a reaction. Walk the talk.
I realize it’s hard for many straight people to realize but a little swear word like ” queer” can carry enormous weight when it’s repeated over and over again, week after week, match after match…. When they attack you every time, not because of what you can do but because of who you are it is unbearable.
So both racism and homophobia must be dealt with more consistently. Do so-called “supporters” call players or other athletes names in a racist or homophobic way? Take them out and make them miss the game. Do they do it again or are there too many? Then punish the team so the ‘supporters’ see that they are harming themselves. Only in a drastic way can you ensure that sports and games become a pleasure for everyone. And that the next coming-out of a footballer, cyclist or darts player no longer has to make the headlines because it has become something natural.
In the meantime, I am keeping my fingers crossed for Justin Laevens. Even though he did not become Belgian Champion, someone so young will go far. I am sure of it.
>> Please note that this is a machine generated translation. A more correct version is coming soon.