Comment: Always picked last – rediscovering sport as a gay adult
It’s like a gritty northern drama – but with extra fog. I’m a weedy kid in dripping specs, shivering in the mud, dreading the prospect of the funny shaped ball coming my way. Then: a wet torpedo from the strong arms of Big Phil.
I duck. I probably squeal. And the games teacher’s yelling at me through the mist: “What’s wrong with you, you big girl’s blouse? Would you rather be inside playing tiddlywinks?”
Looking back it’s a funny story. At the time it was hellish. Such experiences, and such comments from teachers, left me humiliated, ashamed and scared of being found out … That kind of experience is bad for your health. Monday morning was double-games. Sunday nights were often sleepless.
Twenty-five years later, though, I’ve found myself re-engaging with sport. Last year I joined a gay-friendly running group. My sense of my own abilities has changed fundamentally. I’m even watching the Olympics.
So how much did my sexual orientation have to do with being turned off sport as a teenager?
Certainly I’m not alone in my grim sportsfield experiences. For many people, just a few phrases (‘communal showers’, ‘mud’, and the dreaded ‘last to be picked’) can trigger memories of real humiliation. Perhaps we should be stoical about it, see it as another all-too-British rite of passage … or is there something more sinister going on?
Members of Glasgow FrontRunners, a gay-friendly running group, join me in concluding that PE in British schools is institutionally homophobic. Some of the stories are horrifying. One involves a boy, suspected of being gay, being made to get undressed in a separate corner of the changing room, while the teacher turned a blind eye to this blatant bullying.
This year’s The School Report by Stonewall finds that 99% of young gay people hear homophobic language regularly at school.
“Your sexuality does make you vulnerable in sport,” Andy Beglin explains. “Especially for boys playing team sports, which are all about masculinity.”
Maxwell agrees. “I did karate for seven years when I was younger,” he says. “At school I was getting As for gymnastics, but for football is was Ds and Es. School was focused on team sports that were perceived to be masculine.”
LEAP Sports Scotland is funded by the Scottish Government as an umbrella body for gay sports groups. Frazer Robertson, a member of its steering committee, describes his own experiences. “I detested football,” he says, “but I was okay at it, so as a gay person I flew under the radar. The stereotype was that if you were gay you couldn’t be good at sport. You were thin, weak, limp-wristed. If you were male and bad at sport, you were labelled gay. On the other hand, females who were good at sport must be gay.”
Suzanne Bell, now a devoted member of British Military Fitness, agrees that these stereotypes are powerful. During sixth form Suzanne played rugby. “We spent a lot of time trying to convince each other that we were very definitely straight,” she says, adding with a chuckle, “At least five of us have come out since.”
So do we as members of the LGBT community reinforce these stereotypes?
“I think we do,” says Deborah Hill, who runs with Glasgow FrontRunners. “We’re all guilty of it. I, with others, presumed our PE teacher was gay. I liked the idea because I quite fancied her. I believe she’s married with kids now.”
“It’s there in the language,” Deborah says. “What are we really saying about someone when we can call her a ‘tomboy’.”
Frazer, of LEAP Sports Scotland, agrees. “We all do it – we use words without thinking. We talk about ‘straight running clubs’ and ‘straight football teams’, when that’s not what we mean at all.”
There’s a serious point here. There’s a powerful discourse at work when even out-and-proud people talk about ‘straight’ teams. We’re normalising the discrimination when we should in challenging it.
Last year, Pink News reported cyclist Graeme Obree’s warning to closeted athletes not to come out until they’d retired. There was some unhappiness in the gay community at what was seen as a defeatist attitude.
For Frazer homophobia is always toxic, and it doesn’t just affect gay people. “I saw hetero guys who weren’t good at sport being labelled as gay,” he points out. “It’s time to say ‘enough’s enough’.
Frazer believes we need to make sport a feature of the gay community.
“People talk about the community” he says, “and they mean: tans, drinking shedloads and wearing branded clothes. Sport hardly features at all.” He adds, “Pinknews.co.uk is a widely read news website, but it doesn’t have a sports section.”
But maybe things are changing. The 2012 Olympics have been heralded as the gayest yet, with 23 openly gay athletes (though, tellingly, only four of them are men).
Running groups aimed at the LGBT communities are springing up in cities all over the world. There are eight groups in the UK and Ireland who run under the banner of International Frontrunners. Such groups seems to be having an impact.
“I never liked going to the gym,” Deborah Hill tells me. “It sapped my confidence. I like Glasgow FrontRunners because I don’t feel judged in any way. I can go on a run with these lovely friendly people and don’t care that I’m looking hideous in an old T-shirt.”
Andy Beglin is equally enthusiastic. “GFR has helped my confidence,” he says. “Since leaving school I didn’t do any sports. I knew I would be more motivated with other people, but I didn’t want to enter a team environment where I knew I would have to hide my sexuality.”
Andy claims he used to hate running. “After two years I’m just about to do a half-marathon,” he says, and laughs as if he can’t quite believe what he’s let himself in for.
It’s true that sport has a lot to offer. There are the obvious physical benefits, the stress-busting wellbeing that physical exercise provides, but sport also offers a place away from the traditional gay scene with its tendency towards individualism and hedonism.
Patrick Harvie, a Member of the Scottish Parliament, and the first openly-bisexual leader of a political party in Scotland, agrees. “Health is a positive state, not just the absence of disease. We need to engage with physical health, mental wellbeing, and confidence right across the community.”
For me, those memories of dismal games lessons aren’t going to go away. They still affect my confidence today. I may be running now, but the thought of team sport – especially rugby – frankly fills me with dread. But what I’m realising is that at least some of my difficult relationship with sport is down to a school environment that tolerated, even encouraged homophobia. Being in a supportive environment that encourages LGBT people to participate and excel is gradually changing my relationship to sport and exercise.
For Frazer Robertson the future is rosy. “We have a real opportunity in Scotland, with the Commonwealth Games coming up in 2014,” he reminds us. “The organisation I volunteer with has time to nurture new and existing LGBT sporting groups to be more effective about what they offer the LGBT community, and to really break down some of the barriers that LGBT people face in sport.”
Daniel Sellers is a writer and educational consultant who lives in Dublin.
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