Comment: Equality minister Lynne Featherstone on the drive to tackle homophobia in sport

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As a Liberal Democrat in government, fighting for a more equal society is my driving force and I am lucky to be in a position as minister for equalities to be able to do so much.

But sometimes you are reminded that simple government diktat doesn’t change much. We can declare equality but unless people understand what that really means, there’s only so much you can do. Societal change doesn’t happen because a minister says it must – it happens because everyone out there works towards it.

I was reminded of this during our spring conference in Sheffield, where I visited a local support group for young people struggling with their sexuality and/or gender, Sheffield Fruitbowl. The charity running the group, the Sheena Amos Youth Trust, had also invited a number of young people along who take part in the Side by Side project, a peer education initiative to tackle homophobic bullying in schools.

I was struck by the enthusiasm and commitment of these teenagers. Here were a group of people who saw an injustice in their schools and instead of standing by the sidelines, instead of shrugging their shoulders and keeping their heads down, they went out into schools in Sheffield to tackle homophobia and prejudices towards gay and transgendered people, through drama and workshops.

They quite rightly asked me what I was doing to support people like them and the Charter for Action to tackle homophobia in sport, which I launched on Monday, is one of those ways. Sport is such a key element in our society, so many people enjoy playing sports and watching them. But it remains an area where homophobia remains prevalent. So many gay sportsmen and women fear coming out and those that do are often well-established in their careers. It is a shame that homophobia, and probably more importantly the fear of becoming the target of homophobic jibes, leads to many LGBT people simply not partaking.

The fight against racism has been so successful in football and other sports, through programmes like Kick it Out. Given the role sports can play to change attitudes in society, it’s crucial that we break down the culture that allows spectators and participants to get away with homophobia. The Charter for Action is the first step in bringing people together to start doing just that.

I’m glad that the Football Association, the Lawn Tennis Association, the England and Wales Cricket Board, the Rugby Football League and the Rugby Football Union joined the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in becoming the first signatories of the charter. Their clear intention to make sport welcoming to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people will be a first step. We will work together to change the culture of sport, to educate and to show just how hurtful and damaging homophobia is – to people as well as the sport.

Imagine the Welsh rugby team without Gareth Thomas, imagine England’s cricket team without Steven Davies, imagine diving without Matthew Mitcham or speed skating with Ireen Wüst. You can’t because their sport would be poorer for it without them. It is in everybody’s interest that people can be themselves because then they will perform at their peak.