Saturday July 16, 2011
A couple of weeks ago I attended the Prime Minister's reception for the LGBT sports community at Downing Street. The event was held to promote the Government's charter against homophobia and transphobia in sport and was attended by 'famous and gay' athletes such as Billie Jean King and Gareth Thomas, along with a few 'famous and gay' non-athletes such as David Furnish and a sprinkling of Hollyoaks actors. In between the champagne and frantic networking, there was a enough time for a quiet moment of reflection; regardless of one's personal politics, here was an official event crammed full of athletes, charity representatives, artists and politicians who were taking seriously (or at least pretending to) the Prime Minister's speech emphasising his belief in eradicating homophobia. Had these words been uttered at Downing St twenty years ago they would've been greeted with nothing but sneering disdain. We operate in a different political world in 2011 and as a charity, our focus is not on which party holds the reins but on promoting positive dialogue with any group who will engage with us on eliminating discrimination and bullying.
There have been questions raised regarding the current administrations's focus on sport. Is homophobia on the playing field really as bad as it's made out to be? Surely people can just get on and play sport together without the need for gay-only teams or international events such as the Gay Games - doesn't this labelling simply marginalise the LGBT community further? Certainly if there were NO homophobia, and sexual orientation was considered as relevant as hair colour when welcoming somebody onto a team, I would concur. However, for heterosexual men at least, sport involves more bodily contact and post-match nakedness than any other arena provides. Therefore there is an opportunity to enjoy what is quite natural sporting comradery, but without a good deal of self-awareness many men still dutifully prove their heterosexuality by making homophobic jokes, aka 'boys banter'. This is hardly an environment in which an openly gay man is going to willingly place himself in his spare time; for some, avoidance of personal discussions at work is difficult enough and 'hey lads, dont drop the soap!' wears thin a nano-second after its first utterance.
And there are totally different rules at play for women. While there is still homophobia in women's sport (I recall a male coach jeering at two young players who greeted each other with a hug: 'that's illegal in 48 states'), sexism is a far greater problem. Women don't have the same recognition as men which means they don't have access to the same financial support, training opportunities, coaching or facilities. A closeted women's coach once told me that her battle was simply being a woman in a man's world, fighting for her players' recognition and enabling them to play their international matches on a quality pitch. She didn't feel she could possibly be out as she would instantly lose the respect she'd fought so hard to earn. And I understand that. Women's sport is perceived to be full of lesbians and for cultural and historical reasons, it is indeed a place that many lesbians are drawn to. But it just doesn't matter. Having a social game of squash, doing your best to remain at the top of the premier division in your chosen sport or doing a fun run with a group of friends - none of these activities should be even remotely relevant to the sex of a team mate's partner. And if that boring stigma remains about showering with gay people; firstly, I was always too exhausted and frankly disinterested to study the bruised anatomy of others after a match. Secondly, even if you do find a team mate attractive, you make damned sure your eyes are glued to your feet at shower time to avoid looking like a big gay perv!
Our business at DRM lies with eliminating gender and sexuality based bullying from schools. Having a physical education background leads me to believe that sport is an ideal vehicle to transmit a message of acceptance and to discourage bullying. The 'kick it out' campaign is a perfect example of how sport changes attitudes. Students with the most challenging behaviour and highest incidents of bullying were often the boisterous, energetic boys who loved escaping the classroom and having a football dropped at their feet. The same young men respond to the actions and words of their sporting role models, whether they be a Physical Education teacher or a high profile footballer. All it takes is an influx of PE teachers who have been taught how to challenge homophobia and gender based slurs, along with some high profile straight allies such as Ben Cohen, and the road to acceptance will be far shorter. We welcome the opportunity to deliver our workshops though the medium of Physical Education, although our message would be more impactive if national governing bodies of sport followed the lead of rugby league in terms of diversity awareness. Islington Football Development have recently approached us to conduct training with their young coaches around the new government charter and how to respond to casual homophobia when they work in schools. This is exactly how we can use a multi-agency approach to eliminating homophobia from the playgrounds and sports fields our young people frequent. The reception at Number 10 ended with some inspiring words which were a great endorsement for DRM: 'Role models in sport are also needed to tackle bullying in schools, young people look to the stars they admire and if we don't have enough positive role models then behaviour won't change'.