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A look at LGBT and its history in sport.

People in the LGBT community have faced much stigma and struggle historically in society. LGBT and its iterations (LGBTQ, LGBTQ+, etc..) have become an acronym to represent those who have faced prejudice based on sexuality or gender. So with the significance sport plays culturally, it is no surprise that LGBT athletes have faced these same struggles. It would be hard to list them all athletes who are out and proud, but it is essential to reflect on the issues that were once faced, the problems that remain and celebrate the successes and victories that have been achieved. There are many social and religious factors that have contributed historically to the persecution of members of the LGBT community. Sexuality, gender identity and social norms breed areas of huge conflict, within ourselves and between each other. Often it is hard for humans who live different lives to see beyond their own and understand others. Especially when a person struggles, they have to live a certain way to survive, and this can make them blind to others struggles. They may turn to others and depending on who they are; they can either confirm their world view or challenge it.

Sport, of all institutions in our cultural fabric, is one that is built very much on communal values. People of all backgrounds are unified under a single banner, a club or team that they celebrate and players or athletes they love and idolise. Therefore it is not only brave but essential when LGBT athletes come out.

Part of the struggle that many people have faced is the conflict with stereotypical gender identities. In sport this was no different, men were supposed to be aggressors and women on the sidelines, very much a culture of the ‘quarterback’ and the ‘cheerleader.’ So if masculinity and femininity were important in sport in general, they were emphasised even further when gay or lesbian athletes competed. So when athletic men or women came out as gay, they challenged multiple stereotypes. For example, Gareth Thomas was the first openly gay rugby player. Not only is this a deeply personal and important step for himself, but essential for the wider society. It showed a gay man, previously stereotyped as ‘Unmanly’, could very much be an ‘alpha’ male. Now I don’t think the concept of the alpha male should be indulged, but to put it in terms of the normative rhetoric, the point is more poignant. A gay rugby player is two ends of a stereotypical spectrum; it showed existing stereotypes were unfounded and wrong. This is but one way open athletes have challenged hurtful stereotypes.

Within sport, more and more transgender athletes are now starting to compete as the fight for transgender rights progresses. Of course, due to its deeply personal nature, and its conflict with the traditional values and views on gender, transgender people have faced much stigma over time. However, as LGBT communities have gained more rights and social understanding, gender and sexuality are high points of academic and political discussion; traditional ideas and things held as truth are now under examination with institutional reform occurring all the time.

Sport has traditionally separated by gender. With the emergence of athletes that are transgender, this separation now becomes an important issue; One that is contentious even within the transgender community. For example in March of 2019, transgender TV personality India Willoughby and Olympic medallist Sharron Davies debated Ellis Cashmore (professor of Sociology at Sheffield University) on Good Morning Britain. The debate was a discussion of whether transgender athletes competing is fair. One may approach this issue from a social point of view, the stigma and norms established in the past have no basis and should be abolished. Such as Ellis outlined, in a time of social reform when gender dynamics are re-examined, it is time to be more accommodating.

For some, not allowing a transgender athlete to compete as the gender they identify as, is founded in prejudicial norms on gender identity. Gender identity and consciousness are still debated topics in bio-psychology and sociology. It is hard to determine whether there are specific differences between males and females, with new research being produced all the time. So a significant argument for the transgender community is why judge and shame how they feel if you don’t honestly know yourself? Scientifically these complicated ideas are still far from being completely understood. This is an important sentiment, but with sport, organisers face a clash between fighting unfounded prejudices and maintaining fairness in founded biological differences.

Hopefully, a solution will be found that supports both inclusive participation and fairness, but it will take a lot of discussions beforehand. As long as that discussion is undertaken with the due care and comes from the right place, a solution that helps people be their best selves should be reached. Sport should be about the recognition of athletic excellence, not a representation of the prejudices that are present in society. For this reason, although there is still much to be figured out, we must also celebrate transgender athletes in supporting the message that one can be true to themselves and also pursue excellence.

The point we have reached is fantastic, as out and open members of the LGBTQ+ community are celebrated for their achievement. It’s a long way from where we came from. There is much more to be discussed, and much progress hopefully still to come in the fight for equality. Sports stars have the ability to cross boundaries, by inspiring people, by coming out they break down peoples preconceptions of what it is to be gay or lesbian or trans or anything else. The message is that we should focus on the content of a person’s character, their drive to be great and not judge people based on our prejudices.

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