Bringing the rainbow to the field

By Sebastian Aceves


45 athletes openly declared themselves as members of the LGBT community in the last Olympic Games held in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Nevertheless, inclusion and acceptance of queer players remains a challenging issue in the sports industry.

British football player Justin Fashanu became one of the world’s first openly gay athletes in 1990 – and one of the most brutally treated. After The Sun published his coming out-interview, other news media and sports colleagues started unprecedented attacks on Fashanu. In 1998, he committed suicide after having been accused of sexually assaulting a minor. His guilt was never proven.

Fashanu is only one popular example of LGBT people suffering exclusion and hatred in the sports world. NGOs have launched campaigns as a consequence in order to create a more tolerant environment. Their attempts included the first Gay Games held in San Francisco in 1982, founded by former Olympic athlete Tom Waddell.  

The Eurogames, launched in 1992 by the European Gay and Lesbian Sport Federation, mark another recurring event open to anyone regardless of sexual identity or preference. Edgar Castillo, a current treasurer at the federation, found his way to the games three years ago. The urge to open more opportunities for members of the LGBT community through sports inspired him to participate back then: “I am free to play tennis at my club but there are other players who cannot dress in a certain way without having to fear homophobic attacks”, he says.

Fighting discrimination across borders and disciplines
Although the federation has members spread across the continent, expanding to places where growing up gay is still not accepted remains a challenge: “Being gay has become more accepted in recent years. However, we face administrative problems in Eastern Europe. In Russia for instance, our members have to use different transaction procedures to pay their membership fees. This is necessary because they have to fear being punished by the government if their transactions were visible.” The Russian government has established laws set to disadvantage queers in the last few years, one controversial rule banning perceived “homosexual propaganda”.

Another area of concern for the Federation, which will host the coming Eurogames in Rome next year, is to establish fair categories towards all athletes regardless of gender, according to Edgar Castillo: “The hormonal balance of men and women differ drastically. Some argue that trans*women changing the categories in competitions might have an unfair advantage in physical and hormonal terms compared to biological women. Overall, we still need more members and experience to simplify the categorization”, he states.

His concerns are shared by Dr. Agnes Elling, a researcher on LGBT issues in sports. The scientist, who has competed in 400-meter-hurdles on a national level herself, also feels that breaking stereotypes in sports remains a difficult task needed to fight discrimination against members of the queer community: “Unfortunately, fans and sportswriters still commonly make fun of seemingly gay athletes. Female soccer players for instance are mocked as lesbians just because many categorize soccer as a male sport.”

Bright future to come?
Seeking to break traditional thinking patterns and discriminating cliches, various movements in the Netherlands proclaim social inclusion of non-heterosexual people, such as the All Together Challenge that encourages hockey and soccer players to wear rainbow bands during games.

Although the sports world has made a lot of progress when it comes to accepting queer community members, Dr. Ellis believes it will take long before players not fitting into traditional boxes will live in a fully tolerant and equal environment: “Years of struggling are yet to come before that utopia will be reality. I am lucky to spend a happy life here in the Netherlands but I wish this would be the case for anyone regardless of where they live.”