Being able to see someone like you competing at the highest level is such a powerful thing, and will help so many young people know that they don’t need to choose between their love of sport and who they are.
As a kid, I would spend my summers submerged in whatever international sports event was on at the time. I had the France ‘98 wall chart and was glued to the screen for the Sydney Olympics in 2000. I made myself a laurel wreath for Athens in 2004 and (much to my neighbours’ annoyance) I rang in the 2010 World Cup with a vuvuzela.
Season after season, my screen was filled with athletes I aspired to be. Their heroics, determination and endurance – I hoped I could see parts of them in my own sporting performances. But I couldn’t see any openly gay athletes on my screen. The part of me that hoped to follow in the footsteps of my sporting heroes was stifled.
Growing up as a young Black, working-class kid in a small northern ex-industrial town, football was my escape, my church. The toxic combination of racism and homophobia, often bubbling below the surface, could easily be ignored when I lost myself on the football pitch. I remember being eight years old, buzzing from scoring a goal (uncharacteristically so, for a wingback), when an older boy called me a chocolate bar and pushed me over. It may seem innocuous compared to the abuse that Jadon Sancho, Bukayo Saka and Marcus Rashford recently received after the Euro 2020 final, but it’s made of the same stuff.
That year, I was lucky enough to be picked up by a Premier League club, and began playing with the girls’ youth team. My dreams were finally coming true. I had coaches that believed in me, and the chance to play the sport I loved. It looked like an open goal but homophobia blew the whistle. The transition into high school came around, and my football passion garnered slurs in the playground, instead of admiration.
Being known as a “girl football player” became synonymous with “lesbian” and my own internal shame took over. When I tried to talk to my coaches, they brushed it off and told me to forget about that part of me. As a young LGBT+ person, hoping that the “beautiful game” was becoming more inclusive, it was a devastating response. Looking to my sporting heroes for inspiration, I couldn’t see people like me thriving as themselves in the sporting world. I left at the end of that season.
One of the things to celebrate at this year’s Olympic and Paralympic Games is the record number of lesbian, gay, bi, trans and queer athletes that are competing – from New Zealand’s weightlifting trailblazer Laurel Hubbard to Brazilian swimmer Edênia Garcia. Looking at where we are now, it’s awesome to see how far LGBT+ acceptance has come. While it might not solve everything, representation really does matter, and LGBT+ athletes have never been more visible. Being able to see someone like you competing at the highest level is such a powerful thing, and will help so many young people know that they don’t need to choose between their love of sport and being who they are.
Yet despite the incredible bravery of so many visible LGBT+ athletes, we know that not everyone who comes out is met with the same support. The NFL player Michael Sam found that his contract wasn’t renewed after coming out. Laurel Hubbard and tennis player Renée Richards have faced virulent transphobia for competing in sports they have dedicated their lives to. Hidden inequality remains in the sporting world and must be eradicated.
I love the Olympics and Paralympics because we get to see the best athletes in the world perform incredible feats of wonder. But to see the best of the best, we need to make sure that everyone can get to the pitch. Earlier this month, World Athletics banned Namibian sprinters Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi from competing at this year’s games for having natural testosterone levels that “surpassed” regulatory requirements.
Usually, we praise athletes at the top of their field for having, alongside their perseverant training and natural talent, a unique physique that allows them to excel in their sports, but Black athletes that are trans, intersex and LGBT+ are not afforded the same privileges or praise for being exceptional. Instead, their bodies are monitored, restricted, and even excluded from the sports they have dedicated their lives to.
These discriminatory systems are sadly ingrained in the sporting world and bodies such as the IOC and World Athletics need to interrogate any internal biases. To truly enable the best athletes to thrive, we need a regulatory system that judges athletes based on what they can do, rather than who they are.
This year’s games are an exciting time for so many reasons, and – despite the reports of misogyny, transphobia and racism that surrounds them – I’ll be cheering on my favourite athletes. Every single one of the LGBT+ athletes competing – whether they are out or not – should feel incredibly proud of all they are doing both on and off the field.
Football, meanwhile, is now a different game and – if 12-year-old me were around now – she wouldn’t be giving up on her dreams. Clubs today are better funded, loudly celebrated and churning out countless role models for young LGBT+ kids to follow. Whether it’s Chelsea Women’s power couple Magda Eriksson and Pernille Harder opening their DMs to talk to LGBT+ young people, or our own England men’s players wearing rainbow laces and scoring goals, it feels like the tide is turning, and we’re starting to see real change. We still have a way to go, but these moments of community and solidarity will improve both men’s and women’s football.
My football dreams are still going. After years of choosing to watch the sport instead of playing, I decided to get back on the pitch in 2018 with Goaldiggers FC, a London based grassroots team that centres around women and non-binary people, and is proudly LGBT+ and trans inclusive. Here, I feel at home. Although even here improvements can be made – the leagues we play in are not as welcoming as they should be – and as we look to elite sport for leadership, we sadly don’t see any leading by example.
From grassroots football to the 2020 Olympic games, inclusion sends a powerful message that being an LGBT+ athlete isn’t an obstacle to excelling at the sport that you love. Unity is a key theme at this year’s games – unity and diversity go hand in hand – and as my hero and United States soccer superstar Megan Rapinoe says “you can’t win without gay players”.
Liz Ward (she/her) is director of programmes at Stonewall