Last week, the world was shocked (or not) at Olympic medallist, Tom Daley’s post on YouTube in which he declared that he was in a romantic relationship with another man. The general reaction was one of indifference. Most people did not seem to think this was newsworthy, having suspected it for years while others deemed the announcement a publicity stunt. Although it divided the public, as a sportsperson, Daley’s honesty was brave and inspiring coming from an environment where there are few openly homosexual/bisexual professional athletes.
This university is famed for its sporting excellence, and Daley’s revelation, despite the fact that he refused to label himself as gay, sparked debates on homosexuals in the sporting world, and Loughborough sports specifically.
A Loughborough University first-team footballer explains that “the athletic identity is one of competitiveness, aggression, and mental toughness –all rather masculine features which are not stereotypically associated with the homosexual man.” Femininity, particularly in men, is viewed as a gentler characteristic, linked to weakness in a butch setting where winning is paramount.
In terms of professional sport, the fear of emasculation is heightened under negative and abusive treatment from the media and fans. Chants and taunts have accused players of being gay, which for someone trying to come to terms with their sexuality, public disapproval can be overwhelming.
A prime example of this is Justin Fashanu, the premiership’s first openly gay male footballer, who committed suicide in 1998 after being subject to horrendous abuse and accusations of sexual assault. He was the first of two openly gay players in English professional male football history, begging the question, how many others are closeted because of the potential backlash?
Athletes, whether they like it or not, are role models. If the sporting world could embrace homosexuality like other strands of society, perhaps certain young fans and aspiring athletes would not feel ashamed of who they are, hiding their sexuality like a dirty secret.
Both the hockey and football players I interviewed revealed that there were no openly gay players on their teams. This got me thinking about the contrast between the gay communities in larger cities and here, where I have never seen a gay night at any of the clubs in town. Living in ‘the bubble,’ seemingly sheltered students are less exposed to homosexuality than if they were in a more urban area. This ignorance can sometimes lead to unacceptable homophobic verbal and/or physical abuse. Unfortunately, there are bigoted people everywhere so this isn’t a Loughborough-specific problem.
Despite this, a gay friend of mine has praised the welcoming nature of Loughborough students, saying that he was pleasantly surprised by their openness. His flatmates have had no issues with his sexuality and don’t make a fuss over it. He believes this acceptance is the reason why “those who are out, are unashamedly out.” Another extroverted gay friend was voted Telford Hall Chair and was embraced by the entire hall with light-hearted banter and approval.
This openness is something to be commended, and despite the ‘lad’ culture, general consensus is that someone who has come out as gay in a sports team would be met with friendly banter, rather than abuse. Obviously it is personal as to what constitutes as going too far in terms of mockery, but a first team hockey player expressed that “as with any guy friendship groups, you're always trying to get one up on your peers so coming out as gay might cause banter/attention for the rest of the group to pick on.” This aligns it with the harmless fun that comes with male-male banter, largely due to the close-knit nature of sports teams. As a footballer explains, “if someone was to 'come out' I think the initial reaction would be one of amusement. However,once that had subsided I'd like to think that it would be accepted by the group.”
Despite this reassurance, those wanting to ‘come out’ are unsure about the reaction, not only from their family and friends, but also from their teammates because of the fear that people might act differently around them. For example, the hockey player admitted that he would feel uncomfortable because “[they] all shower together after the game,so that would be awkward for all involved if someone were to come out.” It is ironic that whilst sport provides a platform for close male bonding, any suggestion that there could be more to this than playful joviality is instinctively met defensively.
This demonstrates the paranoia surrounding gay men. This fear is potentially damaging, and more work needs to be done on eradicating homophobia in sports by changing attitudes.There are campaigns that aim to tackle the stigmatisation of homosexuals in sport. As a leading athletic university, it is important that our students remove the stereotyped perceptions so that sport can be an open and accepting environment. Sexual orientation is unrelated to talent and should form no part of our judgement about someone’s athletic capability, whether they are a student wanting to participate in IMS or an international sporting champion.