Unity in diversity: How sport’s rainbow coalition is building a monument to acceptance and respect

Unity in diversity: How sport’s rainbow coalition is building a monument to acceptance and respect

In 2022, India’s Dutee Chand called for a world in which LGBTQIA+ athletes can live without fear of persecution or death. Three years earlier, the 100m and 200m runner from Odisha had revealed that she was in a same-sex relationship, her honesty igniting a moral backlash but also earning Chand kudos and support. The act of coming out is no less traumatic now than it was back when to do so invited scorn. But, in an age that’s more accommodating of our differences, Chand felt empowered to take a chance.

Sharad Kohli

In years to come, the 32nd Olympics will be seen as a significant moment in time in the journey towards acknowledging, recognising and celebrating LGBTQIA+ sportspersons. For, Tokyo played host to 121 athletes who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or non-binary, more than double the number at the preceding Games in Rio.

In the midst of a pandemic, it gave us a reason to hope. Yet, so much more remains to be done. For, when you put occasional homophobic comments caught on the microphone, or heard in the heat of battle, against the repercussions many gay athletes fear if they come out, you realise there are still battles to be won.

More than 40 years ago, a couple of the brightest lights in tennis became unwitting protagonists in two socially and culturally momentous episodes. First Billie Jean King and then Navratilova was outed, the former by her estranged partner, the latter by a reporter. In private, both considered coming out, only for events to overtake them.

In the 1970s and 1980s, and even into the 1990s, coming out was a luxury, a move fraught with potentially career-ending consequences. You left yourself exposed to an inquisition from a salacious and often prejudiced press, and from society’s self-styled moral arbiters. Such scrutiny in the media’s glare often took its toll on an athlete’s mental health, as it did with King and Navratilova.

Today, LGBTQIA+ athletes are less likely to remain in the closet, for which much of the credit must go to the American pair, especially Navratilova. As an 18-year-old, she escaped from the clutches of a Communist dictatorship in her homeland, Czechoslovakia, only to have to fight for freedom of another kind in her adopted country. Navratilova’s courage and obstinacy came to define her as much as her skills on the court.

“When people come out, it doesn’t make headlines anymore. It’s a non-issue, which I’ve always said, that I hope one day it will be a non-issue. That’s exactly what I’ve been marching for, for decades. I’m thrilled. I’m just so thrilled,” a vindicated Navratilova told the New Yorker in July 2019, as America’s women footballers, led by feisty LGBTQIA+ campaigner Megan Rapinoe, basked in their World Cup win.

The long, lonely road

For all India’s history of same-sex love, stigmas abound around non-heterosexual relationships. Which made Dutee Chand’s choice to come out as the country’s first unambiguously gay athlete, even braver.

“When I first acknowledged my relationship status, I did not know about the LGBTQIA+ movement. People derided me, told me I was ‘mentally sick’ and used swear words in public… I suffered a lot of mental harassment,” Chand told PTI last year. LGBTQIA+ athletes, she added, “should be made to feel safe and comfortable, (and) be their usual selves.”

Her candour sparked resentment from her family and fellow villagers, forcing her to move out. She couldn’t silence the taunts but the very act of coming out liberated Chand, allowing the sprinter to focus worry-free on her career. And behind her gesture of flying the pride flag at the opening ceremony of the 2022 Commonwealth Games lay a spirit that was both defiant and celebratory. For Indians struggling to come out, whether in the public eye or out of it, Chand became a lodestar.

Just like Rapinoe is for the LGBTQIA+ community in the US and the West. “Us just being athletes, us just being at the pinnacle of our game, is kind of a protest in a way and is sort of defiant in and of itself,” she told NBC News in 2019, after the US had won the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Rapinoe came out in 2012 and has never once shied away from taking a stand on behalf of women, women of colour, and LGBTQIA+ athletes. In thought, word and deed, she is the Navratilova of this generation. Fiercely candid and oftentimes provocative, Rapinoe is unlikely to ever censor herself when it comes to expressing what she believes in.

But not everyone is – or can be – as outspoken. During a high-profile career in and out of the pool, Ian Thorpe fought against divulging his sexuality. It took time for him to start feeling at ease in his own skin. “I’m comfortable saying I’m a gay man. And I don’t want young people to feel the same way that I did. You can grow up, you can be comfortable, and you can be gay,” the Sydneysider told Michael Parkinson in 2014, eight years after he left behind the adrenaline rush of competition, and a couple of years after attempting a comeback.

If Thorpe endured paralysing depression, footballers in England likely had it worse. More than 30 years after the gifted Justin Fashanu came out, 25 years after he took his own life, and 10 years after same-sex marriages were decriminalised, the number of players who have come out can be counted on the fingers of one hand, no matter that the sport has left behind its tough-lad image. And in rugby union – even more of a hard-men-thrive-weak-men-don’t game – the only top name to have come out was Wales’ Gareth Thomas, towards the end of his career.

Clearly, and sadly, the divide between the dressing room and society at large is still too big to be bridged.

We are family 

But, can love in all its rainbow manifestations dissolve the boundaries we so thoughtlessly impose on ourselves? South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya might be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

Semenya’s success on the track as an intersex woman – she won gold three times in the World Championships and twice at the Olympics – spooked athletics’ ruling body to insist that women like her take medication to keep their testosterone levels in check, in order to compete as female athletes. Suddenly, all that Semenya had worked for was about to disintegrate in front of her. The IAAF’s lack of sensitivity in its handling of the matter left her physically and psychologically scarred.

Which is why community is vital for LGBTQIA+ athletes. A team environment, for example, offers them a safer space. Rapinoe’s US is an obvious example but the promise of safety in numbers has given gay couples more confidence and freedom to be themselves in women’s cricket. Spouses Amy Satterthwaite and Lea Tahuhu (New Zealand), Marizanne Kapp and Dane van Niekerk (South Africa), and Katherine Brunt and Nat Sciver (England) have performed at their very best because they have been embraced as flesh-and-blood individuals with emotions and as cricketers.

Each is following the example set by accomplished Australian Alex Blackwell. Since she became the first international female cricketer to come out, Blackwell has been a strong advocate for legalising same-sex unions, and has batted for the rights of LGBTQIA+ persons. Alas, this normalisation has bypassed the men’s game, and Steven Davies of England remains the only man to have come out. 

Does that, then, imply that a group of women can ensure a more accepting, nourishing, empathetic and non-judgemental ‘workplace’? They certainly have each other’s backs, more so than perhaps the men, but that doesn’t mean male adults are incapable of creating a welcoming atmosphere. Indeed, the LGBTQIA+ family has room to grow. 

But, whatever the authorities and sponsors may feel, most everyday fans care little about your private life. After Navratilova endured a gut-wrenching loss to Tracy Austin in the 1981 US Open final, New Yorkers roared their appreciation for her. “I had never felt anything like it in my life. Acceptance, respect – maybe even love.” Today, acceptance, respect and love are a given for those who decide to come out. And that’s a major victory for humankind.