Sexuality in sports

Why are there so few gay athletes?

I have to admit that I was a little nervous writing this article. Not because of what people will think, but because I am certain that I am bound to offend someone in some way. I am mindful that there might be a bit of a “poking your uneducated nose into something that doesn't really concern you” element. Still, I'm going to have a go anyway, because I think sexuality in sport is a relevant and interesting topic. Feel free to have a go at me – that's what the Facebook page is for anyway.

In my opinion I shouldn't really be writing this article, because it shouldn't be a point of interest. Sexuality has nothing to do with sports. Yes, sports are usually divided along gender lines, but who you want to have sex with after the game isn't really important. The big question, then, is why are there so few openly homosexual athletes? Why is it such big news when one finally ventures fearfully from the closet, usually long after their relevance to the sport they played has faded?

You’ll be relieved to know that Wikipedia has a comprehensive list of prominent athletes who are openly homosexual or transgender. They also have a list abruptly titled “Jews in Sports”. Wikipedia really is a bigot's paradise, but I digress. The point is, the “homosexual or transgender” list is disappointingly short.

The general consensus is that professional athletes don't come out while they are still competing because it would jeopardise their career. Why take the risk? Why would anyone potentially jeopardise their earning potential if they didn’t have to? This is understandable, but a disappointing reflection of modern society. On the other side of the coin, we have the undeniable fact that suppressing your sexuality for a long period of time can’t be good for your mental health, athlete or not. A successful sports career can last well into your thirties. That’s a long time to either keep your true feelings bottled up.

So, are we becoming more open to the idea that athletes can be gay? Take the London Olympics as a litmus test. There are nine openly gay athletes competing this year. That’s one less than in Beijing, and two less than in Athens. We are getting into a murky statistical area here, but it seems that in the last decade it hasn’t become noticeably more acceptable for athletes to be open about their sexuality. In most parts of the world the LGBT community has probably become at least a bit more accepted in that time, but apparently not by the majority of the sporting public. If even 1% of all athletes at the Olympics are not heterosexual (a conservative estimate), then there are actually 126 LGBT athletes at the Games. That means that 99% of gay athletes aren’t comfortable with coming out (I know the maths isn't exactly right, but you get the point).

But what about a little closer to home? There are definitely some closeted professional rugby players in this country. There have probably even been some gay All Blacks. It is a shame that they felt they needed to keep the fact a secret, but I really can't blame them.

It’s a real shame that more athletes don't feel comfortable enough to come out, particularly in a country that prides itself on its liberal attitudes. I feel like sport may end up being one of the last areas of life that remains at least mostly homophobic. As a sports fan, I find that extremely embarrassing.
This article first appeared in Issue 17, 2012.
Posted 10:46am Sunday 22nd July 2012 by Gus Gawn.