The Closet in The Changing Room: Coming Out in Sport

I’m a lesbian. Why does that matter?

A close friend of mine asked recently why on Earth I was writing about being gay: wasn’t it risky? Wouldn’t it be better to stay quiet? The fact that this friend’s first thought was about the risk is exactly why I am writing this. When you’re hiding something about yourself, it’s hard to be 100 per cent yourself.

So. To me, gay is as normal as having brown eyes, blue eyes, or grey hair. However I do not feel I am treated as normal. Until being LGBTQ is as vanilla as hair colour, I feel like I am in a position where I should get naked, down to the bone honest, and try to normalise the playing field by pointing out that I am a gay athlete.

No– I am an athlete who happens to be gay. There, much better.

Seven years ago when I was basically forced to come out in sixth form, I kept telling myself: look at how far things have come in the last ten years; maybe when I’m in a position to be a grown-up, life will be different. Sort of my own “It Gets Better” pep talk. And I wasn’t just thinking about things improving for gays and lesbians, but for everyone I share the LGBTQ umbrella with.

In the last seven years so much has already happened:

However the amount of ‘out’ people in sport has not really increased by the same amount. I would like to explore why this is.

There’s a closet in the changing room

My own experience and what I’ve heard from friends and people I know leads me to believe that LGBTQ people in sport share many of the same problems regardless of gender. But for me as a girl (and then woman) always interested in sport, there was one issue in particular: people instantly assumed they knew me.

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They’d look at my lackluster approach to my appearance, my preference for running around fields and generally being a huge tomboy– much like my (awesome!!!) mother — and then once they started to find out about my sexuality they would say ‘I always knew’ or ‘I could have guessed’. Strictly based on my inclination for sport!

I’m sorry, but people seriously need to open their eyes and not label people as one thing based on a few traits. This is so harmful:

  • You are trying to force people to suit your normal when there is no normal.
  • Labels and boxes suck. It’s exhausting to have to constantly fight to get people to see you and not the labels they put on you or the boxes they stick you in.
  • You assume masculinity and femininity are set for males and females, and that women who like women must be more ‘masculine’ (and vice versa).
  • If you ‘always knew’ or ‘could have guessed’ about a friend’s orientation, especially if they were obviously struggling with it, why didn’t you talk to them about it?

These stereotypes don’t just hurt athletes like me. Rigid ideas about what is ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ in sport puts straight athletes off doing what they want to as well. Women’s football, hockey, and rugby, for instance, are stereotyped as gay and that can make straight women wary of participating as they don’t want to risk being labelled. Same with men who want to dance, cheerlead, or figure skate and not constantly be called ‘gay’. This needs to stop.

I’m on the right in my good old Elmo cap

So what happened after I came out?

There were a number of problems I had after coming out that I didn’t expect. Name-calling is one thing, but there was also:

  • Getting kicked out of changing rooms
  • Being outed in the middle of classes
  • Female friends asking if I now fancied them
  • Getting asked if I was ‘the man’ in my relationships
  • How lesbians have finger sex (I hope reading that sent similar shivers down your spine as mine when being asked it at 17)
  • Feeling alienated, like I had no one to relate to or talk to
  • Guilt
  • Self-disgust
  • Depression and anxiety
  • The imaginative nickname of ‘Gayville’. It’s GLAMville. Get it right.

Other people I know have faced even worse problems:

  • Aggression and assault
  • Segregation from friends and family
  • Discrimination in their sport or at work
  • Not being allowed to compete

There’s also the continuing issue of international sports discrimination that prevents LGBTQ athletes from competing or even training in certain countries.

It’s going to be an issue until it isn’t an issue

Being a lesbian does not change my ability to be an athlete or play any kind of role to determine the sport I wish to participate in. The work, time and effort I put into training does. And that’s what I want to shout from the rooftops: not that ‘I’m gay!’ but ‘I’m gay and it doesn’t matter to my performance!’ Which is not as catchy. But my sexuality doesn’t and shouldn’t factor into me being a good athlete or person, with hopes and dreams.

I’m now comfortable enough in my skin that I can happily work my ass off and not let anyone stand in the way of what I want. And I can ignore people when they say that of course I should be good at a ‘man’s’ sport as I am supposedly super-masculine.

But I had to get here mostly on my own. I wish I had someone to tell me all these things as I was coming out. That’s why I’m doing it: it’s really important to me to use my personal experience to help others. I never want anyone to feel like I did.

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And the problem is that people still do feel this way, because of the continuing stigma against LGBTQ people in sport. Others in the community need to stand up and speak up to help clear the path for those coming behind us.

When we are visible and normalised, there will be less hate in the world. And people of all kinds will be able to come out of their closets, whether it’s the closet of sexuality or the ‘I’m a big butch man but I gotta dance’ closet.

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Why sport role models matter to the LGBTQ community

There’s another reason we LGBTQ athletes need to make ourselves more visible. There are a lot of self-destructive and unhealthy behaviours in the wider community that need combating with positive, healthy role models. For example:

  • Higher smoking rates
  • Binge drinking, drugs, and hard partying as social norms
  • Difficulty meeting people within health and fitness
  • Hyper masculinity and femininity is pretty hard to fit into
  • Poor body image
  • Bullying at school
  • Lad culture

Some wise person said ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’ Having LGBTQ role models in sport will inspire more people to discover how training and competing can give them purpose. I know that sport has always helped give me purpose. Gravity and the barbell don’t care about who I love. They only care about how hard I fight them.

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Aslan is fat, so come out of the cupboard and get in the gym!

Let’s start something

Now I need your help. Let’s throw a few ideas around that may help make LGBTQ athletes of all levels in all sports more visible and less stigmatised. I also want to present an alternative to the hard partying lifestyle. Right now there are fewer campaigns than you think:

They are doing great work, but I know we can do more, whether we are LGBTQ or straight allies. Nowadays something as small as a hashtag might actually be able to help. What do we think about:

  • #LGBThlete
  • #LGTBTraining

Let’s get something going and share the pride as well as share the grind.

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