Two papers published in the top sport industry scientific journal report little meaningful action to address homophobic behaviour in sport
Six academic studies and a UK Parliamentary Inquiry have found little meaningful action or change following highly publicized commitments by sport leaders in UK,Australia, New Zealand to “stamp out” or “eliminate” homophobic language and create inclusive environments for gay athletes in their sport (see timeline of commitments).
A lack of action by the English Football Association has attracted the most attention in light of the suicide of high-profile player gay Justin Fashanu after he came out. In response to political and public pressure, the FA has made numerous commitments since 2004 to be a leaders on this issue so other players do not feel the need to hide their sexuality and experience discrimination. In 2020, there are currently no openly gay football players.
UK Parliamentary Inquiry
The UK Parliament conducted an inquiry to examine progress on homophobia in 2017. In the final report the parliamentarians wrote:
We are very concerned that, despite the significant change in society’s attitudes to homosexuality in the last 30 years, there is little reflection of this progress being seen in football, particularly in terms of LGB visibility. Indeed, it is often LGB supporters who provide the only LGB visibility at football stadia.
Best of the bunch
Although researchers have found most sport organizations have put few resources toward addressing homophobia or transphobia, two Australian sport governing bodies have received praise for their leadership: Cricket and Rugby Australia.
Cricket was one of the first national governing bodies to dedicate resources to conduct research to develop evidence-based solutions. Relative to other sport bodies, it has made meaningful progress on the lesbian stigma/stereotype that deters women and girls from playing the sport. It is also the first governing body to conduct extensive consultation and research prior to releasing a comprehensive trans and gender diverse inclusion policy.
Rugby Australia has also been praised for it’s stand-alone policy on homophobia which it recently enforced when it terminated the contract of one of the best rugby union players in the world, Israel Folau, months before a world cup, for a series of homophobic and transphobic social media tweets. Rugby Australia also supported the world’s first study which tested the effectiveness of an anti-homophobia program delivered to teenage players, by professional rugby players from the Melbourne Rebels.
Two studies investigated the benefits of pride games in amateur and professional sport settings and reported nearly identical results.
These studies are some of the first in the world to investigate the effectiveness of current approaches being used in sport to address homophobic behaviour and attitudes in male team sport.
The studies found teams that hold pride games and receive education use much less homophobic attitudes than other teams in their leagues.
More research is needed to understand why holding these events seems to help drive change to behaviour, but the findings suggest that holding the events in community and collegiate sport settings could be part of the multifaceted approach that is likely needed to stop harmful homophobic language and behaviour in sport.
Two studies have found male athletes on sport teams that hold pride games use much less homophobic language. The first study collected data from an international sample of players (a quarter from North America) on all eight teams in the semi-professional Australian Ice Hockey League (AIHL). The researchers compared homophobic language use and attitudes toward gay people of the players on the two teams that have held pride games with those of players on the six teams that have not held the games.
Hockey players on the teams that held pride games used close to 40% less homophobic language.
The hockey study found large, and statistically significant differences in the use of homophobic language between hockey teams. One third (38%) of hockey players on teams that have held pride games self-reported using homophobic slurs such as ‘fag’ in the past ‘two-weeks’ compared to 61% of players on the teams that have not held these games.
A separate study examined the use of homophobic and sexist language by amateur male athletes in three sports (cricket, field hockey, and Australian football). It randomly selected six community sport clubs that have held pride games and received education following a model developed by an Australian charity called Pride Cup (adapted from the approach pioneered by the NHL). These clubs were compared to six clubs that have not held pride games or received education. https://www.youtube.com/embed/S31XAVfxSQk?autoplay=0&mute=0&controls=1&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fsportinclusion.wixsite.com&playsinline=1&showinfo=0&rel=0&iv_load_policy=3&modestbranding=1&enablejsapi=1&widgetid=1
The study found similar differences in language use to the hockey study, but also found clubs that held the games used less sexist and racist language and had more positive attitudes toward transgender people. The differences seem to be primarily attributable to the pride game participation and education.
Scott Greenspan and his team of American researchers systematically reviewed and synthesized of all research they could find on the experiences of gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth and gender diverse youth in sport settings. Systematic reviews aim to find as much research as possible on a specific topic or questions (e.g., what are the health impacts to gay kids from homophobic behavior in sport) and this research is then reviewed to look for common findings.
The researchers found evidence of a wide-range of harms to young people, particularly gay and bisexual males from homophobic behaviors, exclusion, and discrimination in sport.
“There is ample data to suggest that the prejudicial nature of sport spaces can serve as a deterrent for athletic participation for gay males in particular, as this population appears to be targeted harshly”
These conclusions are just the latest example of research and evidence since the 1970s that has found homophobic behaviors are common in sport (see the timeline). Just a few years ago, the UK Parliament conducted an inquiry into homophobia in sport, with MPs from all parties expressing “serious concerns over the effects of low participation among LGB youth on their mental and physical health and well-being.”
Public health and United Nations agencies have identified an urgent need for effective solutions to stop the discrimination experienced by LGBTQ young people. Being the victim or being exposed to homophobic behavior is a key driver of the high rates of suicide and self-harm in this population.
However, girls and women (regardless of sexuality) are often assumed to be lesbians if they play traditionally male sports, and thus avoid these sports because the worry about experiencing stigma. Youth from ethnic communities with rigid gender norms (social rules) around appropriate behavior for females are most affected.