Following an inquiry into racism in football, the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee launched an inquiry into Homophobia in Sport. The inquiry looked at experiences of gay sportsmen and sportswomen, and how schools, clubs and governing bodies dealt with homophobic abuse in sport.
Last week the Committee heard oral evidence from UK academics and I wondered how our own research on the topic would translate into the UK context. The ‘Equal Play’ project was funded by Beyond Blue, a well-known mental health charity in Victoria Australia, and focused on LGBT youth aged 14-23 and homophobic bullying in sport and PE.
My interpretation of the expert views was that there are almost no problems associated with homophobic bullying in sport in the UK. Our findings present a stark contrast to the evidence presented.
LGBT youth in Victoria Australia have reported significantly higher mental health and wellbeing concerns when compared to heterosexual youth. Verbal homophobic abuse such as “That’s so gay” was strongly associated with poor mental health and wellbeing. However, strong LGBT identity served as a protective factor.
Interventions to improve self-acceptance and provide an LGBT friendly environment were considered essential to combat problems surrounding gender and sexual identity formation which is what 57% of young people in the Equality Network’s (EN) “Out for Sport” wanted too.
I found John Nicolson’s comments in the House of Commons evidence very insightful regarding this matter. I think he is right to explore sport participation in schools. Similar to EN’s report, our findings showed that verbal abuse was the most commonly experienced homophobic bullying, and it took place predominantly in the school PE environment.
Club-based sport was the most protective environment for youth, with over 70% reporting that they had never experiencing such bullying in this setting. Similar to our findings, 98% of youth in the EN study reported experiencing verbal abuse, 13% reported physical and 5% other forms of abuse.
Consequently, in the EN report, 66% of LGBT youth identified both homophobia and transphobia as a barrier to sport participation, which lead to dropping out of sport whilst at school. Perhaps more concerning, as Mr Nicolson pointed out the most worrying mental health issue is the high suicide statistics amongst LGBT youth. The Metro Centres’ Youth Chances (2014) report stated that 44% of LGBT youth reported to have thought about suicide. The Equal Play study’s findings concur that.
We found that 60% of our participants had thought about and/or engaged in suicidal behaviour or self-harm. Over one third had actually harmed themselves and 15% of these reported to have attempted suicide. Homophobic bullying in sport and PE therefore puts young people at a very high risk of mental, physical and social health (e.g. discrimination, inequality).
The House of Commons’ inquiry reports a lot of qualitative data, which also lies in stark contrast to Dr Emma Kavanagh’s research findings. In her study, athletes highlighted significant anxiety surrounding ‘being found out’, especially amongst gender-questioning youth.
This supports our Beyond Blue quantitative findings that LGBT identity strength might be a protective factor in adolescent years. All of the qualitative & quantitative data reviewed in her work identified that homophobia in sport is a frequently normalised behaviour and athletes can be persistently and publically ‘measured’ for their conformity to heterosexist norms and ideals.
This quote from a female elite athlete in her work illustrates this point:
“When I was younger I remember talking about it, like so and so is a lesbian, it was talked about. But it was so negative, there was one team and they were known for being all gay or mostly gay and I remember being talked about. Stuff like that team are a bunch of dykes, or it’s just like playing blokes so it’s not fair. At school because I played sport and because I played X (named sport) it was always people saying oh you must be a lesbian, or make sure they don’t turn you into a lesbian. So yes it was negative, I associated being gay with negativity at first. I didn’t want to be another lesbian.”
Both of our work at Bournemouth University suggests that homophobic and transphobic bullying is a serious mental health risk in youth sport participation. Therefore, its impact needs to be better understood to help safeguard LGBT youth.
Creating supportive environments that value equality and provide a safer space for LGBT youth should be a priority for all schools. There is a strong need to quantifying this risk in this population, especially focusing on equal opportunities in sport participation in and outside of school environment.
Dr Erika Borkoles & Dr Emma Kavanagh, Department of Sport & Physical Activity