Comment: Tackling homophobia in sport

Encouraging more gay role models in sport will show young people that sexuality is no barrier to achievement.

By Iain Stewart MP

At prime minister's questions last Wednesday, I decided to raise the issue of homophobia in sport. Although I was not on the list of MPs selected to ask a question that day, I was delighted when the Speaker called me.

On the day that the PM was hosting a reception in 10 Downing St for the LGBT community with a particular emphasis on sport, I felt it was important to give the issue of homophobia in sport a wider airing.

While there are some excellent projects to address this problem, such as Rugby League's 'Tackle It', too often homophobic and transphobic attitudes can prevail; amongst fans and players alike.

And while there have been a few hugely courageous players who have come out – like rugby's Gareth Thomas, cricket's Steven Davies and football's Anton Hysén – many feel pressured to stay in the closet. Although those who have taken this admirable step have received a positive reaction, many others remain in fear about the loss of their standing among fans and colleagues and about a potential drying-up of sponsorships.

Why does it matter? At the most fundamental level, sport should not be different from any other walk of life. Sportsmen and women should be able to participate in their game without fear of being who they are. Racism is rightly not tolerated; why should homophobia be? And how many players do not reach their full potential because they somehow cannot be true to themselves?

Tackling homophobia in sport is not just important for sport itself however, it is critical to addressing wider LGBT issues, not least homophobic attitudes amongst young people and homophobic bullying in schools. Young people need role models and if we don't have enough positive role models then behaviour won't change.

It works both ways. For young people who are struggling with the idea that they might be LGBT, how reassuring must it be to them that a sport star they might idolise is also gay; to realise that their sexuality has been no barrier to achieving their goals.

And for those who are straight, understanding that their sport hero or heroine has a different sexual orientation to them will be hugely influential in challenging attitudes and widening understanding.

Bullying of all kinds, but particularly homophobic bullying, remains unacceptably prevalent in our schools. Government clearly has a huge role to tackle this and to make sure headteachers have the powers they need to address the issue properly. However, it's not just a government problem or a legal problem. It's a societal problem. Legislation and powers can only go so far in changing attitudes. Sport has a massive influence.

That is why I salute those in sport who have taken the brave step to come out, and I applaud the initiatives taken by the government and the governing bodies to tackle it. Much more needs to be done and I hope that my small action, in raising the matter at prime minister's questions, has helped to give the issue the publicity it deserves.

Iain Stewart MP was elected as Conservative party MP for Milton Keynes South in 2010.

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