Out of Bounds – gay sports stars
5th Feb 2015
We asked Matthew Todd, editor of the UK’s best-selling gay magazine Attitude, to take a look at the recent history of gay men in sport.
Back in the late summer of 2009 I took a phone call at Attitude’s office, the gay magazine where I am editor, from a person claiming to be from an agency that represented one of the UKs most famous professional sportsmen who, they said, wanted some advice on a sensitive matter. They wouldn’t tell me who it was, what sport he played or what he was seeking advice about, but it seemed excitingly obvious what the latter might be.
Coming out in sport remains a hot topic. The locker room, the field, the football pitch, in particular, are frequently cited the last bastions of homophobia. After Justin Fashanu hanged himself seven and a half years after he came out in October 1990 as the UKs first gay premiership footballer – after striking ‘an agreement’ with The Sun – his complicated story* has served, rightly or wrongly, as an almost mythic warning that the sports world and gayness do not mix. Back in 2009, that someone might be about to become the first professional out British sportsman since Fashanu nearly 20 years before was a huge deal.
(*Fashanu reportedly became a born again Christian, made ‘desperate attempts at relationships with women’ according to his friend Peter Tatchell and was accused of sexual assault by a 17 year old boy in Maryland. In his suicide note he wrote that the incident was consensual and believed that if prosecuted he would not get a fair trial due to his sexuality.)
“Max Clifford famously stated that he had advised a bisexual footballer to stay in the closet”
After a frustrating week of waiting and guessing I went along to an office in Holborn where I met one of British rugby’s greatest heroes, an uncharacteristically nervous Gareth ‘Alfie’ Thomas, then the most capped Welsh Rugby Union player. Like anyone about to tell the world a secret he’d lived with for the best part of his life, he was a jittery mixture of emotions: fear, relief, excitement, and with a steely determination not to embarrass his family or ex wife with whom he remained close. He did a stellar job. The press were balanced, the rugby community supportive and the public welcoming.
In the years since, other notable sportspeople have followed. Just over a year later 25-year-old England cricketer Steven Davies came out. Then a year after that, in February 2013, 25-year-old Leeds United winger Robbie Rogers blogged that he was gay – and that he was retiring, believing being an openly gay pro footballer was impossible. Three months later 35-year-old American NBA basketball player Jason Collins acknowledged his sexuality, as did, in August of that year, 23-year-old American footballer Michael Sam. On 2nd December British Olympian and national sweetheart Tom Daley uploaded a video declaring he was in love with another man and, months later, in summer 2014, after years of explicitly denying it, 31-year-old Australian swimming legend Ian Thorpe also came out.
In the mainstream gay people’s lives are always told through a filter of what academics call heteronormativity: how does it affect straight people, how will the macho sporting world react, what must it have been like for Gareth’s ex-wife, something which of course is important, but less so, you might argue, than the question of why a decent man might feel the need to marry in an effort to somehow melt his gayness away and, when that failed, consider throwing himself off a cliff.
Much of the explanation of the lack of openly gay sports people centres on a financial assumption of the loss of potential earnings from sponsorship deals and so on and hostility from supporters. This certainly powers the resistance of panicky agents; Max Clifford famously stated that he had advised a bisexual footballer to stay in the closet in order to protect his career. But Gareth, Robbie and Ian Thorpe’s story all, I believe, provide more insight.
Robbie Rogers who has pleasingly gone back to professional football, currently at LA Galaxy, has talked extensively about his difficulties accepting his sexuality. He said in his Attitude interview in February 2014 that ‘definitely in my career there were so many times when I struggled with my mental health.’ In his autobiography he writes of his immense struggles resolving his sexuality with his Christian faith.
Two big misconceptions about gay people is that we all come joyfully skipping out of the closet waving a gay pride flag and that we all love and support one another like members of a secret society. When Ian Thorpe came out, gay people heavily criticized him online in significant numbers because he had repeatedly denied being gay in the past – seemingly forgetting that he had also well-documented mental health issues, alcohol addiction, depression and suicide ideation. The year before he came out he was found stumbling around the Sydney suburbs in a confused state.
“The idea of the tortured homosexual is old fashioned and not one that the gay rights movement is comfortable with”
The idea of the tortured homosexual is old fashioned and not one that the gay rights movement is comfortable with, believing it plays to a homophobic portrayal of gay people as intrinsically unhappy and unfulfilled. But there is now growing awareness of the painful fact that although it is by no means everyone, clearly, statistically, gay people have higher levels of depression, anxiety and addiction. It is not the gayness that causes the problem but the experience of growing up isolated and absolutely unsupported in a homophobic society that does the damage.
Homophobia is insidious and affects people in different ways. Gay men who are effeminate and stand out as being ‘gay’ are more likely to be bullied earlier because they’re more easily identifiable. In later life though they are better represented in media as openly gay TV presenters, comedians and actors etc. There is a more accepted template for camper, Will & Grace style gay men to come out but not one for more traditionally masculine men. I recently met a newly out builder who had seriously contemplated suicide because he believed, not being finger snapping and interested in Beyoncé, that he would not have a place in ‘the gay world’ (whatever that may be).
The final frontier of gay liberation is, to my mind, about society not tolerating gay people but actively supporting us at school level, teaching in an age appropriate way respect for all people, and thus enabling our young people to fully accept and like themselves. LGBT people too must be more understanding when our famous brothers and sisters struggle with the prospect of coming out in front of the whole world. There is a wide difference between a famous person hiding in the closet because he or she wants to remain bankable and another doing so because they are simply struggling to come to terms with who they are. I know of examples of both.
When society understands the screamingly obvious point that children, such as 14 year old Ayden Olsen who took his own life in March 2013 or 14 year old Elizabeth Lowe who did the same in September 2014, are the children of straight people, and all of societies responsibility, then maybe we will get to a place where lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender kids will be able to fulfill their potential whether they aspire to be hairdressers, plumbers or rugby superstars. Gareth, in his own way, by overcoming his demons and being true to himself has played his own part in moving us further down that road.
Matthew Todd is the editor of Attitude magazine; and the author of the play Blowing Whistles and the forthcoming non-fiction book Straight Jacket about gay people and mental health.
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