As painful as it is, try and cast your mind back to summer 2019. Aside from halcyon days of group hangs and holidays, you might recall the Women's FIFA World Cup: a time at which new levels of interest were directed at game. You might also remember how it felt like a watershed moment for visibility of LGBTQ+ players. Of English squad The Lionesses, six were openly lesbian or bisexual. In the competition at large, 41 players identified as such.
When it comes to shifting homophobic attitudes in sport, as well as education, this exposure is key. And such attidues very much persist. According to a study by the Equality Network in 2012, '73% of respondents felt that homophobia and transphobia were barriers to people taking part in sport,' while 57% would be more likely to participate, if sport was more inclusive.
To note, there are now a number of initiatives in the UK seeking to tackle those barriers. Pride Sports is an organisation seeking to work against discrimination against LGBTQ+ people within sport and improve access, while charity Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign asks athletes to wear rainbow coloured laces while playing to represent their allyship – in November 2020, Stonewall reported over 1 million pairs had been distributed.
To mark LGBT History Month, WH spoke to four athletes from the community. The women below are exceptional role models within sport, have championed diversity within their careers and are open about who they are in order to inspire a new generation.
While we have much more work to do in tackling discrimination towards the LGBTQ+ community, we have already made a lot of progress. Today, let's celebrate that.
Anita Asante, professional footballer at Aston Villa WFC
Anita Asante is a professional footballer playing for Aston Villa Women’s, having moved previously from Arsenal Women’s. She identifies as a gay woman and says that she has 'always been passionate about the sport from an early age.'
When Asante thinks about the 'trailblazers in this area of sexual identity and sport,' she thinks of tennis star 'Billie Jean King… at the height of her career, challenging the stereotypes and the people who try to diminish her achievements because of her sexuality.' LGBT progress is a hard thing to measure, she says, but believes that things are changing ('I think that football clubs in general are working much harder to try and make the spaces more inclusive and to try and shift the culture.')
She mentions Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign, as well as the prominence of rainbow flags at football matches, which provide 'a show of solidarity within the sport.' Asante views the women’s game as a place where minorities 'flocked to one space where they could be themselves and identify with whatever sexual preference they had across the spectrum and you would be accepted without any kind of judgment.'
Now that she is a professional footballer, Asante is eager to 'take up the discussion and use my platform to be my authentic self and allow people to see that there are people in sport who look like them and represent their community.'
Beth Fisher, broadcaster and former hockey international
Beth Fisher is a lesbian woman – and, incidentally, in a relatinship with Asante – who played international hockey for 20 years before retiring in 2017. She grew up in the eighties, when most people in her generation 'would have been subject to [Conservative party policy which stopped councils and schools 'promoting' homosexuality] Section 28… so there was no LGBT education. No one talked about it.'
Growing up, she found a lot of discrination was directed towards LGBT people, with the term 'lesbian' used 'to offend those who didn’t fit in or were sporty… and you instantly knew by their tone that it wasn't something you wanted to be.'
When it comes to homophobia within the sport world, specifically, she found that 'women’s sport is much more accepting than men’s sport.'
As to what comes next, in terms of making all of sport welcoming to the LGBTQ+ community? 'There is definitely more understanding now, but we’ve got a lot more work to do, within schools especially.'
Tess Harrison, USA Roller Derby captain
Tess Harrison is a captain in the USA Roller Derby. She identifies as a queer woman of colour, and has played a variety of sports throughout her life. Having grown up with lesbian parents, she was very aware of the community at a young age. After taking up Roller Derby nearly 11 years ago, she managed to 'rise in the ranks pretty quickly.'
Like Fisher, Harrison didn’t see many queer folk in sport when she was younger and 'even if they were [queer], they were hiding, so I didn’t have any icons that I could look up to in sports because it just wasn’t as accepted.'
She believes that attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people have changed for the better in 'the last 10 to 15 years,'and owes that to people who 'have a high status coming out and speaking out about [their identities].'
In terms of keeping things moving for the better, as ever, education is vital. 'There needs to be a level of education that is necessary in sport, a level of education that allows people to understand, dive into research, dissect, and get all the information about gender, about LGBTQ+ people, so that they know about it.'
Blair Hamilton, footballer at Montpelier Villa WFC
Blair Hamilton, a Scottish trans woman who lives in Brighton, is also a footballer. She started her transition back in 2017 and moved from playing men’s to women’s football in September 2018.
Being trans, her experiences of the world of sport is quite unique, particularly in light of the ongoing discussion over whether trans people put cisgender players at a disadvantage within sport. Hamilton says she’s been 'lucky' as she has never experienced 'any sort of homophobic or transphobic abuse' within the sport. After playing for the women's squad at university while studying, now, she plays for amateur club Montpelier Villa WFC.
Within her team, whenever someone new comes in, they sit in a circle and introduce themselves, with the chance to explain pronouns or sexuality if they wish. Hamilton believes that while this is a small change, it will pave the way towards a more inclusive society, and a more inclusive sport.
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