Timeline of Evidence Homophobia and Transphobia in sport
FIRST: Peer-reviewed scientific research on homophobia in male sport
British researchers Sheard and Dunning conduct a series of studies at male rugby union clubs.
Finding: Homophobic banter and derogatory jokes about gay people are common and a central part of social interactions. Studies with British rugby clubs in 2020 have found homophobic banter and jokes remain common.
More info: overview of studies
FIRST: Peer-reviewed sport science research on homophobia in female sport
American researcher Jan Felshin reviews research and public attitudes toward women in sport
Finding: The lesbian stigma harms all women. Playing sport is seen as acceptable behavior for men, but not women. Any woman or girl who wants to play a traditionally male sport is suspected of being a lesbian, regardless of her sexuality and is not a “real” woman. As the timeline illustrates, studies continue to report similar findings.
More info: overview of studies
FIRST: NY Times best-seller on gay athletes and homophobia in sport
Patricia Nell Warren’s novel, The Front Runner, is about a running coach and athlete who fall in love.
About: The characters experience intense discrimination from American sport leaders and become pariahs within their sport.
The book has sold 10M+ copies in 11 languages (link)
FIRST: newspaper investigation into homophobia in sport and the harm to gay athletes
Lynn Rosellini’s Washington Star (now closed) series was the first media investigation into attitudes toward gay people in sport, and the discrimination that gay people experience.
Key findings: the stories described hostility and unwillingness amongst sport leaders to protect gay athletes from discrimination, who hide their sexualities and fear losing their places on teams. As is the case in 2021, there were no openly gay athletes in the Big Four American sport leagues.
There was national outrage over Star’s articles, with many unwilling to accept- ‘there are “perverts” in the NFL’ Washington Post Story on the events
FIRST: Athlete comes out as gay in professional sport
NFL player David Kopay was the first professional athlete, male or female, to come out. His decision has been named the #1 event in LGBT sport history.
About: Kopay came out after reading the wave of hate and denial in response to the Washington Star article. His decision made him a target of global hate and he could not find work, until his uncle gave him a job selling linoleum flooring. However, he continued to speak out about homophobia in sport and gay rights, generally, including writing a book on the topic and chapters in academic text books.
Stories about Kopay are a powerful illustration of the lack of change over the last 44 years:
- 1977 (Washington Post): Kopay story tells of his struggle to be truthful
- 1988: (Seattle Times): David Kopay: Only NFL Player to open the door
- 1997 (NY Times): For gays in team sports, still a deafening silence
- 2012 (GQ): The NFLs closet case
- 2020 (NY Post): Years after coming out, gay athletes upset by lack of change
FIRST: Court case over homophobia in sport – Canadian Athlete
Canadian horse racing jockey and respected judge John Damian was fired for being gay. He filed a wrongful dismissal case that took a decade to settle.
About: The discrimination that gay people experience in sport was extensively documented in court submissions and many media stories. Sport leaders fought back hard at every turn. Damien as “ruined financially” and his health suffered. He died shortly after settling for one-year’s wages in 1986.
More info: John Damian, Canada’s forgotten hero
FIRST: Study of the population size of gay and bisexual athletes
Sport leaders and the public strongly denied Kopay’s claims of other gay NFL players. Garner and Smith surveyed American college football players to test his claims.
Key finding: The researchers described a “startling” response to their anonymous surveys about “male sexual behavior.” They originally planned to conduct surveys at one college to test Kopay’s claims. They expanded to other schools to confirm their findings (remember: this was at a time when homosexuality was illegal). Of the 82 American college football players at three schools who completed the surveys 36% reported having had sex with another man at least once in the last two years. Current research (2019) by the CDC reports 15% of high-school aged young people are not heterosexual.
Full study: Scientific Journal Website
FIRST: Court ruling that trans women cannot be excluded from female sport
Transgender athlete Renee Richards took US Tennis to court after she was banned from competing as a woman in the US Open. Sport leaders strongly fought the case up to the NY Supreme Court.
About: In 1977 (a highly conservative era) the NY Supreme Court considered detailed evidence about both potential advantage, and also harm from exclusion. It ruled sport organizations cannot discriminate against trans women. This issue is not new to the courts or the media, as the video above illustrates.
Important: The issue of transgender inclusion in sport is not new and historical context needs to be provided. It has been going in circles for nearly a half a century. There has been little research conducted to try to resolve these issue and no research has generated evidence that might have changed the NY Supreme Court’s 1977 decision. Despite this, trans women and young people, a highly marginalized group at very high risk of suicide, which could greatly benefit from playing sports, constantly and repeatedly have to fight the exact same fight, against the same arguments considered in 1977, for their right to play sport.
FIRST: Academic textbook focused on causes homophobia sport
American Donald Sabo publishes a cited a collection of papers focused on ‘why’ homophobic behavior is common in male sport.
Key finding: Papers in “Jock: Sport and Male Identity” describe homophobic language and behavior as common, but not driven by irrational hate of gay people. Instead it seems to be used to demonstrate (perform) conformity with what men perceive to be the prototypical male athlete (the stereotypical jock) which they also strive to be. Research find this negatively affects all male athletes.
FIRST: Openly gay female professional athletes
Tennis stars Billie Jean King was outed and Martina Navratilova came out.
About: The events are a catalyst for extensive media, academic, and sport industry documentation and discussion of the stigma and discrimination that lesbians experience in sport, and why it is harmful to all women. Billie Jean also published a book that discussed the relationship between homophobia and sexism.
FIRST: Gay Games faces wrath of Olympic organizers
Olympian Tom Waddell and others organized the first Gay Games to create a safe space where LGBT athletes can compete.
About: Their plans, and a court case by Olympic officials, generated extensive media coverage and public discussion about why gay people need “special” treatment and their own international tournament. Organizers decided to drop “Olympic” due to threats of court action and public backlash.
Despite the negative press: the Games have consistently been used as a vehicle to raise awareness of homophobia in sport, and also conduct research with LGBT athletes. This includes the Out on the Fields study.
More info: Research by Australian academic Caroline Symons investigated the benefits of the Gay Games
FIRST: Canadian study on homophobia in female sport
Canadian academic Dorothy Kidd reviews other research and shares the results of qualitative interviews to understand the basis of homophobia in women’s sport.
Key finding: Kidd describes a code of ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality’ in sport settings which everyone must follow. She describes a culture of silence where lesbians are tolerated but if they come out, or refuse to conform to the code of heterosexuality, they experience discrimination and consequences such as losing their jobs or places on teams and rumours being started that they “are after little girls.”
FIRST: Connection made between suicide and homophobia in sport
FIRST: peer-reviewed paper on homophobia in sport in a mainstream medical journal
A paper published in the AMA’s “Clinical Psychologist” was the first in a mainstream health journal to highlight how homophobia harms all athletes.
Key Findings: Steven Heyman’s paper reviews the research and evidence (including media stories and books) and finds homophobia has a range of negative mental health impacts on all athletes. He describes how straight athletes fear being misperceived as homosexuals.
FIRST: Detailed investigation into why lesbians are stigmatized
Canadian Professor Helen Lenskyj’s landmark book ‘Out of Bounds: Women, sport, and sexuality’ inspired generations of female sport researchers.
What: In her highly cited book, legendary researcher Helen Lenskyj reported on a detailed, historically-grounded investigation into ‘why’ women face hostility and are stigmatized as lesbians if they play “inappropriate” male sports. She found roots going back to false claims by Victorian-era doctors, which were never strongly corrected, that women could lose “vital force” and be unable to procreate if they play sports, or they do other things (e.g. go to work) which require physical strength and mental stamina.
FIRST: Detailed evidence of impacts on officials
Respected MLB umpire David Pallone published a book, and became a regular media and public commentator, after being fired for being gay.
What: Pallone’s work detailed the stress that closeted gay officials experience and the need to live double lives because of the constant homophobic language, negative attitudes, and relative job insecurity.
More info: Bleacher Report Story
FIRST: Evidence of harm to LGBTQ students and school coaches
Legendary researcher Pat Griffin was on the expert panel of the Out on the Fields study and is often described as one of the global grandmothers of contemporary homophobia in sport research.
What: Griffin published many papers documenting the harm to LGBTQ young people from homophobia and discrimination in educational sports settings. She also publishes extensively on the impacts female PE teachers and coaches, but also researches how coaches can play a central role in driving change.
More info: Pat Griffin’s LGBT Sport Blog
FIRST: For many things in male sport
Thousands of news stories, academic articles, government reports, and feature movies have provided a detailed account of Justin Fashanu’s courageous decision to come out while still playing professional soccer.
What: Fashanu was one of the best soccer players in the world and remains one of the only athletes to come out while still playing his sport. He was also the first openly gay black athlete. Justin’s decision helped elevate homophobia in sport, and the harm to gay athletes, into mainstream public consciousness in soccer-mad Europe. 30 years later people still talk about him and he remains the only active top tier pro football player to come out.
FIRST: Canadian study on homophobia in male sport
Canadian researcher Brian Pronger’s highly cited book reviewed two decades of research and other evidence (media stories, legal decisions etc.) and reported results from in-depth interviews with athletes
Key finding: Gay athletes try to actively change the stereotypes that reinforce homophobic attitudes and behaviors, but they also are deeply affected by their failure to conform to the ideal male, who is an athlete and heterosexual.
Important: Pronger describes little change in the experiences of gay athletes, despite 20 years of evidence that homophobia is a problem and numerous high profile athletes coming out. Though he does suggest a weakening of stereotypes.
FIRST: Sport medicine paper and peer-reviewed assessment of progress
Despite two decades of evidence of harm, Rotella and Murray found little change to homophobia in sport.
Key Findings: The paper reports “homophobia has been an issue of concern in the world of sport for decades” and “both heterosexuals and homosexuals are affected” but concluded few sport medicine professionals want to help solve this problem. A key factor was described as their fear of being suspected to be homosexual, and their own homophobic attitudes. It is noteworthy that the Brackenridge review, nearly 20 years later (2008), found the same problem.
FIRST: Statistical research on homophobia and sexism in sport
Joseph Harry conducted the first study in sport using the recently developed psychometric survey scales (social psychology) designed to measure homophobic and sexist attitudes.
Key findings: The paper is the first to compare the attitudes of athletes with non-athletes and males and females. Prior to this study, most research used qualitative (interview) data, observation, or non-validated survey questions. Harry’s findings were consistent with all prior research. He found male athletes were more likely than all others to express anti-gay, anti-lesbian, and anti-women attitudes and there was a strong relationship between homophobic and sexist attitudes.
FIRST: Australian male athlete and Rugby League player
Ian Roberts was the second male athlete in the world to come out while still actively playing.
About: Roberts decision generated extensive media and public commentary in Australia and throughout the Commonwealth. Like Kopay before him, Roberts has a reputation as one of the toughest and most aggressive players in his sport. Roberts helped to shift negative stereotypes and perceptions about gay men in Australia and received strong support from high profile figures in his sport.
“Empty promises from sport leaders“ is how Roberts describes the numerous unfulfilled pledges to address homophobia in sport. Academics have used identical words. The lack of progress, and the suicide of an Australian gay boy who was bullied, recently spurred Roberts to begin speaking out more often about the need to identify ways to generate action and actual change.
FIRST: Canadian male Olympian
Mark Tesksbury became one of only two elite Canadian male athletes to come out. He often talks about the mystery of the missing Canadian athletes.
Key findings: Numerous academic articles and media stories in Canada have highlighted the disconnect between Canada’s reputation as a friendly and inclusive country, yet there is a near total absence of any openly gay or bisexual males in its professional sports, particularly in ice hockey. The NHL is the only professional league without any gay or bisexual male players, and Canada is the only other western country to never have had a gay or bisexual male come out in professional sports. The other country is New Zealand.
Justin Fashanu found dead from suicide
Justin Fashanu’s death is used in the UK as a cautionary tale about the dangers of coming out in sport and the need to protect athletes from discrimination.
About: Fashanu took his life after he was accused of having sex with a minor (17 years old). He would have to face a judge in a homophobic, racist, and conservative part of the United States. Fashanu was recently inducted into Britain’s National Football Hall of Fame on the 30th anniversary of him coming out. He is recognized for his bravery and the many sacrifices he made to raise awareness of the need for change.
FIRST: Detailed investigation into the experiences of female coaches
A quarter-century after the first study documented the impact of homophobia on lesbians in sport, Pat Griffin described little improvement in her landmark book “Strong Women, Deep Closets.”
What: The book focuses on educational sport settings and “employs a unique combination of interviews, research findings, historical accounts, and personal experiences to graphically illustrate the discrimination and prejudice” that lesbian athletes and coaches experience in sport.
FIRST: dedicated news site on LGBTQ issues in sport
Outsports was founded by Cyd Zeigler and Jim Buzinski to profile the stories of LGBT athletes
Cyd and Jim believe that visibility of LGBTQ athletes in sport is key to driving change to sporting culture. They have profiled, and focus on showcasing, the positive stories of athletes that have come out in order to encourage others to follow in their footsteps and courageously lead change from within sport. Cyd has also written three books on the topic including one which he recently co-authored with retired NFL player Ryan O’Callaghan, who came out through a story on Outsports.
FIRST: National government tells sports they must stop homophobic and transphobic behavior
The Australian Government set a global legal precedent by becoming the first to clearly tell sports organizations that they must take action on homophobia and transphobia.
What: Australia issued national “Guidelines to address homophobia and sexuality discrimination in sport” which told sports organizations that any failure to stop this form of discrimination, as well as discrimination against transgender people, is a violation of the country’s human rights laws. Case studies were also provided to help sports managers understand their legal obligations. (read guidelines)
Interesting development: Consistent evidence that homophobic behavior remains common in Australian sport, and LGBTQ children feel unsafe, has led to recent discussions about using the courts to drive action and ensure sport organizations understand their legal duty to protect young people from harm.
30 years of evidence – researchers finds little change
Three decades after the first study described homophobic language as common in male sport, the world’s three leading scholars on the topic (Sabo, Messner, & Pronger) found little improvement.
Key findings: The collection of research arrived at an overall conclusion that homophobic language continues to be used regularly in male sport, gay males continue to feel unwelcome, professional athletes fear losing their careers, and sport leaders are reluctant to take action. The collection of research also finds male norms seem to be a main driver of homophobia, as well as sexism in sport (link to book)
FIRST: Replication of statistical research on homophobic attitudes
Jan Quarless measured the attitudes of American college students toward gays and lesbians.
Key finding: The study replicated the findings of the 1995 study by Joseph Harry. Out of all population groups, male athletes were the most likely to express homophobic attitudes. This finding has been replicated many times over the last 20 years, in multiple countries (link to abstract)
FIRST: UK Sport Minister says ending homophobia is of “great importance”
The Times of London, one of the most influential papers in the world, published an investigative series on homophobia in sport.
Key findings: The stories contain descriptions of sport which are nearly identical to those in the 1975 Washington Stars articles. Britain’s Sport Minister Richard Carbon read the series and pledge to take action and ensure the FA solves this issue of “great importance” (Times Article)
Progress: See 2004, 2011, 2012, 2017, 2020
FIRST: Statistics on LGB youth harassment in school sport settings
Diane Elze conducted the first quantitative research with American LGB youth. Previous studies used qualitative methods, with small samples, due to recruitment challenges.
Key finding: 60% of young people reported some form of sexuality-based victimization in school. Sport settings were identified as a prime setting for victimization to occur. Half of participants (49%) reported sexuality-based harassment in school locker rooms. More recent research has found an even higher proportion of students report this behavior in school sports settings.
FIRST: Statistics on student and PE teacher experiences
Morrow and Gill conducted a range of pioneering studies on homophobic behavior in PE classes and in American school settings.
Key findings: 96% of students (all sexualities) reported hearing homophobic language (57% “a lot”) in PE class, while 79% of American PE teachers reported hearing this language (22% regularly). These findings have been replicated numerous times over the past 20 years in multiple countries (link)
FIRST: Evidence of a disconnect between attitudes and behavior
Sports Illustrated conducted a national survey of Americans to understand their views on gays and lesbians in sport and the response from sports leagues.
Key findings: The survey provided the first statistical evidence of a disconnect in responses to hypothetical questions about attitudes toward gay people, and questions that measure their behavior/responses to non-hypothetical, real-world situations.
Much has been made in recent years about research which has found the majority of athletes say they would be welcoming or comfortable with a gay person in sport. This research finding is not new, yet it is used to support claims that homophobia is no longer a problem in sport.
Fifteen years ago, the majority (81%) of participants in the Sports Illustrated survey said they would be comfortable with having a hypothetical gay teammate. However, when participants were asked a much less hypothetical question, just 33% believed it is appropriate for a gay person to coach their children.
FIRST: IOC Scientific Consensus Statement on homophobia in sport
The International Olympic Committee’s Scientific Panel released a Consensus Statement which defines homophobia as ‘sexual harassment/abuse.’
The IOC Panel also said sport governing bodies have a legal requirement, and ethical obligation as member countries. to prevent discrimination against LGBT people because it can cause them mental and physical harm.
Progress 2007 – 2021: The IOC has released two subsequent Consensus Statements (2016/2019). They find no change. See later years.
FIRST: Comprehensive & international investigation into research and action on homophobia in sport
UK Government sport agencies commissioned legendary child safety expert Celia Brackenridge to lead an international review and investigation into why homophobia remains problematic. Her team systematically searched for research, conducted interviews with a range of stakeholders, and examined the international responses of sport organizations and governments.
- The researchers found and reviewed 600+ pieces of research and conducted interviews/surveys;
- Homophobic attitudes and behaviors are harmful to the mental and physical health of LGBT people, but also impact everyone;
- There is a lack of leadership and interest by sport leaders and government policy makers to fix problem;
- Discrimination against LGBTQ people is ignored because sport leaders claim they lack evidence of a problem or uncertainty about solutions
Progress 2008 – 2021: Most (60-70%) of the recommendations have not been implemented, and have been made repeatedly by others since.
“Explosion” of research into homophobia and transphobia in sport
A recent Systematic Review identified 2000+ academic papers discussing homophobia, and more recently, transphobia in sport.
It is not possible to adequately summarise or reflect the depth and breadth of research conducted since the Brackenridge Review. The review inspired many studies, including Out on the Fields. The inclusion of questions about sexuality in national public health surveys of students in recent years has also generated rich data that has been used in many recent studies.
We summarised much of the key research, or research areas, conducted in the years after this review in the paper linked below. We will only include key pieces of research on the timeline after 2008.
NOTE: If you see research missing in this timeline, or other key events that should be included please email us and let us know!
FIRST: Large and national representative study
UK Charity Stonewall’s Leagues Behind was the first large-scale survey, It had 2005 heterosexual and LGB participants.
Findings: Similar to the Sports Illustrated research in the United States, in which participants said they had positive attitudes towards gay people, most participants in this survey also said they would be comfortable to have a gay teammate. The survey also found 70% of fans had heard homophobic language while at a football game in the past five years. This is a nearly identical finding to the 80/82% who reported this language in Out on the Fields study (2015)/Outsports (2019).
FIRST: Large scale study on experiences of trans/gender diverse people in sport
Legendary campus safety researcher Sue Rankin, a member of the Out on the Fields expert panel, and Genny Beemyn, conducted 3500 surveys and 400 interviews with trans and gender diverse Americans.
Findings: This study was the first detailed, scholarly account of the lives of trans and gender diverse people and the many systemic, interpersonal, as well as personal barriers they face, and what is needed to support this community. The study found participants felt excluded from almost all sport settings
due to the typical binary gender divisions.
FIRST: International and large-scale study on homophobia in sport
The findings from Out on the Fields provided the first large-scale, international, quantitative evidence that homophobia remains a problem in sport.
The study, which is a legacy of Bingham Cup 2014, chaired by Andrew Purchas and hosted by the Sydney Convicts, had nearly 10,000 participants, primarily from the United States, Canada, UK, Ireland, New Zealand, and Australia. The results have been widely cited and used to help shift the discussion, as hoped, from ‘is there a problem?’ to ‘what are we going to do about this problem.’ In Australia, this led to the creation of Pride in Sport, which is the world’s first industry group set up to monitor progress on LGBTQ sport inclusion.
SECOND IOC Scientific Consensus Statement on LGBTQ discrimination
A second Consensus Statement from the IOC’s Scientific Panel says LGBTQ people need special protection in sports due to the uniquely high-risk they will experience physical and psychological abuse from others.
Key Findings: The IOC scientists also found the continued discrimination experienced by LGBTQ people in sport is due to a lack of effective “leadership by the major international and national sport organisations” which have a legal obligation to protect these athletes.
FIRST: Parliament Inquiry delivers findings
The UK Parliamentary Inquiry into homophobia in sport found little evidence of progress in Britain, or anywhere in the world.
Key findings (full report):
- “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.”
- “We have serious concerns over the effects of low participation among LGB youth on their mental and physical health and well-being.”
- “The casual use of homophobic epithets and terms has a wide-ranging and damaging effect.”
- “A zero-tolerance approach to the use of all homophobic language and behaviours should be implemented.”
SECOND: International study on homophobia and first on transphobia
The EU funded OutSport study surveyed more than 5000 LGBT people from all EU countries.
Findings: The study reported many of the same results of Out on the Fields, including an identical proportion of participants who heard discriminatory language in sport. The study also helped satisfy a long-standing need for data on whether LGBTQ feel discriminated against when they hear both overt and more casual forms of homophobic and transphobic language, and the need for large-scale data on the experiences of trans people.
THIRD IOC Scientific Consensus: LGBTQ athletes at uniquely “high-risk” of abuse
The International Olympic Committee’s Science Panel has released three Consensus Statements since 2007 that say LGBTQ athletes need unique protection from abuse and discrimination.
Findings: The Scientific Panels are tasked with reaching consensus on matters of scientific concern to sport governing bodies. The 2019 Consensus found, yet again, that LGBTQ people have a uniquely “high risk” (relative to all other groups) of experiencing physical, psychological, and sexual abuse (e.g. verbal, bullying, exclusion, assaults) in sport settings.
New: The 2019 statement also concluded “transgender athletes often have negative experiences in sports and may struggle to be accepted even after they meet criteria allowing them to participate.”