In Out, In Out, Shake it All About

England Women’s football captain Casey Stoney recently added her name to the slowly lengthening list of professional sports people who’ve declared themselves to be gay. It follows that of Olympic diver Tom Daley, who did likewise before Christmas and who probably stands as UK sport’s highest profile figure to have come out thus far. Winds of change are also blowing across the Atlantic where sensational 24 year-old Michael Sam has just startled the American football fraternity with the announcement that he too is gay.

Casey Stoney

Meanwhile, over in Russia the rest of the world continues to lampoon and scoff at Russia’s Vladimir Putin, presiding over a winter Olympic Games tournament that seems to have become a lightning rod for anti-homophobic protest. Not even in the desperate, dying days of the cold war did this former great superpower seem as out of touch with modern sensibilities as it does today.

However, for many people a person’s sexuality is simply a fuss about nothing. All my football loving friends for example (every one of them heterosexual to my knowledge) have shrugged a ‘so what?’ at the revelation of each new gay sporting star. It seems that for the average punter the only perplexing aspect of being gay is why there should be any kind of fuss in the first place. Frankly, in the 21st century, why should coming out be such a big deal?

I think this is does gay people a huge disservice though (unless you’ve walked a mile in someone else’s shoes, as the saying goes). Those of us not in the same position can’t possibly understand how hideously difficult it must be. As far as sport goes this isn’t just about being able to take a little bit of laddish banter in the dressing room. It’s much more serious than that and in the wider world it remains a salient fact that in five nations on earth being gay is punishable by the death penalty. In another seventy it’s a statutory crime. This is far from being a non-issue.

In Europe sport is one of the last bastions of rigid heterosexual conformity left in society. Whole careers are on the line here for those who declare themselves to be gay. Footballers in particular have not yet demonstrated that coming out has no ill effect on a burgeoning career though the list of those who’ve tried to do so is practically zero. Justin Fashanu is the saddest and most well-known case while other more recent comings out involve lower profile players (Anton Hysen, Robbie Rogers) or those who’ve reached the end of their careers (Thomas Hitzlsperger).

Perhaps one day we’ll see players erroneously assumed to be gay ‘inning’ themselves as heterosexual as often as we see those ‘outing’ themselves as gay. Who knows? I’m sure we’d all agree that the sooner the day arrives where a person’s sexuality is utterly irrelevant, the better.

Gareth-ThomasThough we’re not there yet clearly something is in the air. Until Daley’s revelation former rugby union British Lion Gareth Thomas was the highest profile gay sports star in the UK, coming out as he did in 2009. It’s inconceivable that subsequent comings out could match the shock and surprise of that announcement. The Rubicon has been crossed and surely the perceived stigma is waning fast.

Often it’s the world of football we look to as our benchmark on all sorts of issues. For example, it’s been the very public arena a war against racism has played out, and though it’s a war not yet won, great strides have been taken in the right direction. Yes there are still plenty of race battles to be fought but black players now form a strong bedrock at all English professional club sides. Football has led the way for other sports to follow, and even for society as a whole.

In the matter of homophobia it has to be said that sport now lags behind societal attitudes. I think it’s to football we must look to put this right. This month the England Women’s football captain may have played a crucial part in dislodging the last remaining barriers for gay sports stars, at least in this country. Given the fight women have had to wage to gain equal status in our society that seems fitting to me. Take a bow then Casey Stoney, this may be your finest moment.

 The Puma 

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