As a consequence of years of stereotyping, and in spite of wider acceptance of the LGBT community, the number of openly gay, bisexual, lesbian and transgender sportspeople has been hovering around nil for many years. However decisions by very brave individuals have been tackling this stigma and across the world the sporting community is becoming more welcoming of LGBT athletes, both past and present.
The LGBT community is on the precipice of breaking down one of the biggest barriers in Western culture: homophobia in the world of sport. In Britain LGBT youth have sporting role-models from a variety of disciplines however I believe that the recent decision by rugby league player Keegan Hirst is one of the most significant to date. Not only has Hirst’s bravery opened the door for other non-heterosexual players in rugby league but it also goes some way to combating the stereotype that all LGBT men are effeminate and flamboyant.
The significance of a team captain is also important to note because it shows people from all generations of fans that being LGBT doesn’t detract from you’re playing ability or leadership qualities. Another reason why I believe Hirst’s decision was one of the most significant is that rugby league is watched by a select fan-base and is very much in the culture of certain parts of the country; by coming out he is revealing himself to all age groups, some of who may have their pre-conceived notions about the LGBT challenged as a result of Hirst’s bravery.
When compared with another famous athlete such as Olympic diver Tom Daley, who came out in 2013, we can see that Hirst’s decision is tackling the problem of homophobia from a different perspective. Where Daley’s announcement differed from Hirst’s is both the different type of sport and the profile of the two people involved; Hirst’s coming out has resulted in increased media attention in him personally (had it not I wouldn’t have heard of him), whereas as one of the poster-boys of the 2012 London Olympics Daley’s revelation transcended his persona as a diver due to the relative popularity of the sport.
I would also say that Daley’s following is more numerous among young people who are more accepting of the LGBT community. I am not detracting in any way from Daley’s courage to come out, especially as such a high profile ambassador for his support, what I would say is that the different cultural reactions attack homophobia from distinctive angles. I would argue that Hirst’s coming out whilst captaining his team will work in two ways: to destigmatize the LGBT community among fans of rugby league, and to challenge the stereotype of non-heterosexual men having diminished masculinity as a result of their sexual orientation.
Former Welsh rugby union player Gareth Thomas also challenged the same stereotypes after he came out in 2009. Thomas’ decision was just as powerful as Hirst’s and Daley’s because of his influence as a national sporting hero in Wales, and his subsequent activism to continue to promote acceptance of other LGBT rugby players. Where I would say that Hirst’s coming out was different in terms of its impact, other than the fact that Hirst isn’t a Welsh rugby icon with 100 caps for his country, because Hirst is a current player thus showing that an LGBT player doesn’t have to wait untill the end of their career to come out, and that being open about your sexuality won’t result in a public backlash.
The final inspirational individual in a British context I would like to mention is Kellie Maloney, the transgender boxing manager who previously managed boxing legend Lennox Lewis. Where I believe a comparison between her and Hirst exists is that they both came out whilst be active in their respective sports, both of which are dominated by the mindset that venerates masculinity and aggressiveness, two traits that have stereotypically not been associated with the LGBT community. Maloney’s public transition also illustrated that any person can still play an active role in sport that they have loved for their lives, regardless of gender.
The progress of the LGBT community regarding sport as also been boosted in the US due to many people. Caitlyn Jenner is a prime example of a successful athlete turned transgender activist and now publicly speaks to continue the destigmatization of a community often met with hostility in the more conservative parts of America. Her transition is particularly influential as Jenner still identifies politically as a Republican which may do something to challenge the GOP’s hostility towards LGBT rights.
In recent weeks US sports news has been dominated by Michael Sam’s decision to quit American football citing mental health problems, two years after he came out as the first openly gay NFL player. Much like rugby in the UK, American football is dominated by the idea that players have to be aggressive and strong which had often meant discounting LGBT players. Although Sam’s time at the top of the sport was brief he opened fans’ minds as he was not only the first openly gay NFL player, he also shared a kiss with his then boyfriend Vito Cammisano on national television when he drafted for the St Louis Rams in 2014, which sparked a national conversation about societal acceptance of same-sex relationships.
However no sooner had Sam retired than another milestone had been reached as David Denson of the Milwaukee Brewers became the first openly gay baseball player on a team affiliated with the MLB. The way in which he came out is actually the most impressive as it was impromptu and unplanned; this is a testament to the shifting societal view of the LGBT community as historically such a conversation would have been avoided, especially in a sports team’s dressing room.
What all these examples from both sides of the Atlantic are showing is that the cultural stigma that has been attached to the LGBT community is being eroded. Furthermore these courageous individuals, from Hirst to Denson, are breaking down the cultural walls that make male sporting disciplines being the preserve of heterosexuals, whilst also challenging harmful stereotypes about the LGBT community. From a range of sporting backgrounds these people are proving themselves to be the role models that millions of young people, both LGBT and straight, rightfully venerate as living lives openly and honesty about who they are.