Homosexuality in sports: a great taboo

Have you ever wondered why it is still news every time an athlete “comes out of the closet”? Homosexuality in sport is a topic that to this day remains a taboo subject, a problem that affects many athletes who, for fear of what people will say and homophobia -especially those who belong to big clubs or elite sports-, must hide their sexual orientation or gender identity. Fortunately, there are more and more gay and lesbian athletes who have dared to take the step of breaking stereotypes, regardless of the criticism of a very polarized society, which is allowing to normalize the situation progressively. But to what extent? In this article we review the situation of homosexuality in sport and talk about several homosexual athletes who have given us a lesson of courage with their example. Read on!

Homosexuality in sport today

Society, globally, has evolved considerably in matters related to human rights, compared to just a few years ago. However, the road is long and there is still a long way to go. Although, fortunately, sexual orientation is no longer a limiting factor in many aspects of daily life, there is still a lot of hatred and homophobia. Moreover, there are certain sectors in which this is more latent and sport is one of them. Homosexuality in sport is something that affects many athletes who have not yet been able to take the step of showing themselves as they are for fear of reprisals and even internal team pressures related to the image of the club. But not only that, also because of the unfortunate situation they have to face later on by an important part of the fans, with all kinds of uncalled-for comments and homophobic insults in stadiums, pavilions or courts where the sport is practiced -whether professional or amateur-, among others.

This is the reason why there are fewer openly gay athletes in elite sports. Claims, in this sector, are usually minimal since sports such as soccer are very masculinized and hetero-normalized, which increasingly delays a necessary “coming out” and forces many athletes to pretend before the rest of society and even in front of their own teammates -especially in Spain, where the cases of declared homosexual athletes are very few-. Fortunately, at the international level, we are seeing more and more openness, which is leading to a greater awareness of this problem and less astonishment whenever homosexual sportsmen and women are mentioned.

Who is Víctor Gutiérrez and how did he improve LGTBI visibility in sport?

In Spain, the most prominent case of LGTBI visibility in sport was that of Víctor Gutiérrez, water polo player in the national team and Club Natació Terrassa, in addition to holding the titles of European U18 runner-up, U20 world runner-up and top scorer in the Spanish División de Honor for three consecutive seasons since 2016/17. The athlete made public his homosexuality in an interview conceived in 2016 to Shangay magazine, which made him the first elite team sport athlete in Spain to speak openly about his sexual orientation. Víctor Gutiérrez, in addition to improving visibility in the country and internationally, has achieved a change in the current panorama by the main sports organizers, as is the Spanish Swimming Federation (RFEN) that sanctioned the water polo player Nemanja Ubovic, from CN Sabadell, for homophobic insults against his person. The water polo player continues to add successes to his professional sporting career, in addition to being an active part of the fight against LGTBIphobia.

Athletes declared homosexual in elite sports

As we mentioned, the cases of declared homosexual athletes in elite sports are very small due to the hegemonic masculinity that continues to exist in the sector. However, there is an increasing visibility, as in the case of Víctor Gutiérrez. When talking about sport, LGTB and visibility over the years, the names of people as brave as the French tennis player Amelie Mauresmo (who is one of the most recognized lesbian athletes), the British rugby player Gareth Thomas, the British professional skier Gus Kenworthy, the Spanish skateboarder Javier Raya, the British footballer Justin Fashon, the British footballer Justin Fasher (who is one of the most recognized lesbian athletes in the world), and the British professional skier Gus Kenworthy, British footballers Justin Fashanu (who was also the first elite footballer to “come out of the closet”) and Liam Devis, Prague tennis player Martina Navratilova (a reference when talking about lesbians and elite sport) and many other names such as Caitlyn Jenner, Enrique Sarasola, David Denson, Keegan Hirst, Orlando Cruz and Rosie Jones who have given visibility in virtually all elite sports. And, not surprisingly, there is also the case of Jason Collins who was the first openly gay athlete to compete in a major American team sport such as basketball and who is credited with much of the beginning of this conversation about visibility and human rights.

Gay athletes in professional cycling

In international cycling we can also find several heroes who, thanks to their testimony, have brought visibility to the collective and have helped to reduce the stereotypes, prejudices and discrimination still existing in sport in general. This is the case of the legendary figure of track cycling Graeme Obree who, at the age of 45, acknowledged his homosexuality, revealing how he lived his situation for so many years and who even declared the following: “I grew up thinking that it was better to be dead than gay”. The cyclist gave an interview in 2005 to the British magazine The Sun where he explained all the mental problems he suffered from his pressure to hide his sexual orientation. He stated that much of it was caused by his upbringing: “I was brought up by the war generation, they grew up when gays were put in jail. Being gay was so unthinkable that I just couldn’t be gay. I grew up thinking it was better to be dead than gay.” At the professional level in sports the pressure intensified for fear of being criticized and ridiculed, an internal struggle that was eventually settled when he managed to raise his voice without fear of being who he is.

Fortunately, like him, there are more and more gay athletes who are not afraid to show who they are and everything seems to indicate that the international scene is moving towards an improvement in LGTBI rights in sport.

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