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Sports against homophobia: yes, you can PLAY!

Lusiana (@uglylusiana)

I am an avid sports fan, I have played them, I follow them...name a sport, I dig it! As many fans like me, I adore watching live sportive events, so I well know the language and criticism surrounding most of them. Believe me when I say that many people don’t actually consider what damage the words coming out of their mouths can do, in life and in sports.

Openly gay Australian football player Jason Ball gives us an insight on what homophobic language can do to a growing gay athlete, "From my own experience being gay and playing sport, homophobic language was a constant reminder that I wouldn't be accepted if I was to come out, that language made me second guess everything that I ever said or did out of fear that someone would figure it out,” he said, commenting on another big athlete’s coming out that has been big news during Summer 2014: Gold medalist swimmer Ian Thorpe’s. He’s come out at 33, admitting he has lied in more than one occasion about his sexual orientation in fear of his friends, family and fans’ reaction.

Staying in Australia, homophobic slurs and insults have become first page news when last July a sport commenter insulted a player during a rugby match broadcast. This brought Australian NRL to start a study about slurs during sport events, the results of which show a difficult situation.
Nearly 2,500 players and spectators of many sports and at all levels took part in the Out on the Fields study, with the most common form of homophobia reported being verbal abuse such as ‘fag’, ‘dyke’ and ‘poofter’.Of the 1,200 respondents who were lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB), 84% reported hearing such verbal slurs, while 74% of straight respondents reported the same.

In the wake of such revelations about the current environment in which gay athlete practice their disciplines, a few campaigns have started to spread awareness about homophobia in sports. The first that unites different sporting bodies is YOU CAN PLAY, supported by the National Rugby League, Football Federation of Australia, Australian Football League and Australian Rugby Union who have agreed to take measures together against homophobia in the sport fields. They have put together a framework before Sydney Bingham Cup, the World Cup for gay rugby, held last 27 August. This campaign has been promoted with a video starring Australian most iconic sports figures.

Thankfully, what has started in Australia finds companions internationally. The beginning of 2015 has seen UN Secretary General, Ban-Ki Moon meeting celebrity gay and lesbian athletes, and activists for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) and intersex people on the role of sports in the fight against homophobia at the UN Headquarters in New York. Among them there was tennis star Martina Navratilova, who talked about how, applying for U.S. citizenship in 1981, she could not speak about being lesbian because it was a “disqualifier” for citizenship. A lot different is NBA basketball player Jason Collins’s experience, in fact, he received a call from American president Barack Obama congratulating him for his public coming out. Participants have clearly seen how much things have changed during the years and what there is still to do to make things easier for LGBT athletes.
During the meeting, Ban-Ki Moon has said something that, in my eyes, sums up how influential an athlete can be, “Professional athletes are heroes to their fans and when they speak out against prejudice they are heroes to the United Nations.” A celebrity athlete, who comes out or takes a stand, becomes an example of courage for young athletes struggling with their sexuality, lying about their true identity.

Among many difficult stories of discrimination and pain, one that makes surely understand the good that sports can actually bring to a young gay athlete is Marty Fynn’s, who plays for the Sydney Convicts, Australia’s first gay inclusive rugby union club. When Fynn was playing in the Lower Hunter league, a couple of men in his club realized that he was gay and held a meeting with his team without him and the outcome was heartwarming, Fynn told his story for the Out On The Fields study: “The team was full of country boys who came from all walks of life, and I had been playing with them for six years by the time they found out I was gay, they had a team meeting, and that was when they decided to keep it to themselves, because they believed it was my decision to come out whenever I was ready. And they decided that when the time came, they would be as supportive as they could be.
I was quite overcome by their support.
” Adding that “I was never victim of homophobia among my team, who loved me for who I was, not who I was attracted to.”

Teams work mostly like family, if players support and understand one another, the team will be successful and, for younger people, team sports become a fun experience which will improve their self-esteem.
Outside of the team, it is fans and audience’s duty to be respectful and mindful of the words used criticizing an athlete. Performance has nothing to do with sexual orientation and, in any case, respect is always the rule. “If you can play, YOU CAN PLAY"
Hopefully in the future we will hear more stories like Marty Fynn and Jason Collins’ and to see more athletes feeling comfortable enough to live their nature for what it is, which will mean that we will have all worked hard to make sport fields a serene environment for everyone.

Have you ever witnessed episodes of homophobia in sports? Do you think homophobic slurs can influence gay athletes’ growth? What can be done to improve the situation?
Hit the comments and let’s talk about it!

Sources:
  •     ABC: “Ian Thorpe to reveal he is gay in Michael Parkinson interview”  link;
  •     The Guardian: “Homophobia, sport study abuse still widespreadlink;
  •      OHCHR: “Sports stars come out against homophobialink;

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