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September 9, 2013 | by  | in Opinion |
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Playing the Field

At the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, there were 21 athletes who identified as gay or lesbian, plus another two at the Paralympics. There would have been more, but softball is no longer considered an Olympic sport (this is not a joke). There were 12,602 athletes competing in the games, making the proportion of openly queer athletes only 0.17 per cent. The super-cute Blake Skjellerup, a speed skater, is New Zealand’s only current queer Olympian, and will likely soon be the first gay man to compete in the Winter Olympics while openly so.

There is certainly a strong association between organised sports and homophobia, not just on the field, but among fans too—if you’ve ever been in town for the Sevens you’ll know what I mean. I have no doubt that the homophobic reputation of team sports acts as a barrier for queer people, and the tiny, tiny number of people who come out while playing pro sports indicates that it’s not an easy environment to be in as an openly queer person. There has never been an NFL or Division I College Football player who has been out while he’s been playing, but six NFL players have come out after retiring. Only one NBA player, Jason Collins, has come out while playing.

Gender plays a significant role, with 18 of the 21 Olympians mentioned above being women (adorably, two of them, hockey players, are a couple and have announced their engagement). There is homophobia in women’s sport, but it’s worse in men’s sports, and possibly the lower media exposure of women’s sport puts less pressure on players to toe the sexuality line. Louisa Wall gets an honourable mention for being an openly queer woman representing NZ in the Olympics (as a Black Fern), as well as a Silver Fern!

The traditionally queerphobic environment of mainstream team sports has fostered the development of queer sports groups like Different Strokes Wellington (a queer swim group), and the NZ Falcons, NZ’s queer men’s rugby team, not to mention the AsiaPacific Outgames, which were held in Wellington in 2011, and these safer (though still male, cis-dominated) spaces are a positive step.

Progress is being made through fledgling positive action from large organisations like the AFL, FA, and ARU, but there’s still so much more they could be doing, and it’s frustrating that this only makes news when male sportspeople come out. In the meantime, prominent sportspeople coming out makes a huge difference, and it’s encouraging to see straight allies like David Pocock, an outspoken and well-informed rugby-union player in Australia.

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