With the recent revelation of former Aston Villa and Everton midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger that he is openly gay, there has been somewhat of a media whirlwind discussing the current culture of sport and the difficulties of being a homosexual professional athlete.
He is one of an extremely small minority of footballers to come out as gay, the notable exceptions being former Leeds and United States player Robbie Rogers, and the tragic case of Justin Fashanu who retired in 1997 and took his own life three years later.
Tom Daley announced last year that he is in a relationship with a man, but the fact that he had to release a video to confess about his private life in order to avoid media scandal demonstrates that being homosexual is still viewed as being ‘different’ to our societal norms. A young man’s choice of sexuality making such national news is a sad insight into the inequalities and social pressures that gay athletes face on a regular basis when deciding to be honest.
While I commend both Hitzlspeger and Daley for their braveness and wish them the very best with their personal lives, I still worry that their openness has done little to change the perceptions of homosexuality ingrained within our society. Here at Loughborough, while there certainly would be no media frenzy over gay athletes, there is still a myriad of issues to overcome for players within some sports to be openly gay.
I am fully aware that this is not the case across the board; without wishing to stereotype it may be understood that being gay in female sports such as football or rugby is more widely accepted and normalized at Loughborough than for their male counterparts. If this is the case, then why?
Is it that for a woman to be gay she is therefore viewed in a more butch or masculine light, with desirable characteristics for football and rugby attributed towards her? Whereas for men being gay is sometimes viewed stereotypically as being feminine and camp, ostracizing an individual from the culture of masculinity that University sport can create?
We all like to think that we are tolerant individuals, that we would not change how we treat someone or our perceptions of them based on their sexuality. But what if it was your best friend, your housemate or your teammate who announced he or she was gay? Everyone is a liberalist until suddenly it affects them directly. It shouldn’t matter in the slightest, but in some sporting cultures it seems there is still a taboo over homosexuality and an undercurrent of social homophobia that tells people being gay should be a hidden secret.
Furthermore, a gay athlete would have to consider the social issues of coming out and the way it affects their friendships and bonds within the team. Would people avoid changing next to you, or feel awkward near you in the showers? These all seem like fairly silly and trivial matters, but I imagine that these are the fears and worries that gay people face when considering being open about their sexuality. Sex is such a huge part of University culture that it is hardly surprising that nobody wants to take that first stand and be the ‘other’ when you are part of a team.
For the gay athletes at Loughborough, I commend you and hope that a relaxed and equal sporting environment welcomed your sexuality. That is how it should be. I fear that this is not the case across the board though, and that as a culture, in Loughborough and on national and global levels, we are still a long way from the true social equality for gay people that professionals such as Hitzlsperger and Daley are fighting for.