Like the Syrian women competing on the track and in the pool, like the black rower who broke the colour bar on his way to gold at Eton Dorney, Mitcham – who begins his Olympic diving campaign on the 10 metre platform on Friday – is evidence of the civilising power of sport. You only have to scroll down that Twitter feed to see what a hero he is to young gay men, and how much he revels in the role.
But hang on a second. Mitcham is one man, albeit a highly influential one. There are a fraction under 10,500 athletes competing at this Olympic Games.
And while he does not quite stand alone — the Federation of Gay Games lists two other ‘out’ gay men at the Games, plus 18 gay women — he is alarmingly close to doing so.
Estimates for the proportion of homosexual adults range between three and eight per cent. Such statistics are clearly problematic, because human sexuality has too many subtle shades to be turned into a pie chart. Still, it is hard to argue that an ‘out’ ratio of 0.05 per cent among gay men is a reflection of healthy, open-minded attitudes within the Olympic Village.
There is an argument – vehemently made in some quarters – that athletes should be under no obligation to reveal who they choose to sleep with. The logic is undeniable, but the counter-argument is that the closeting of so many potential role models represents a massive wasted opportunity.
The symbolism of sport has effected great changes throughout modern history. Fanny Blankers-Koen’s four golds at the 1948 Olympics did more for women’s emancipation than any number of feminist tracts. The sporting boycott of the 1970s was arguably
the prime factor in the fall of South African apartheid. On that basis, the impact of two or three high-profile Olympic athletes following Mitcham’s lead and revealing their true sexuality would be seismic.
“The lack of ‘out’ athletes at the Olympics is embarrassing,” says John Amaechi, the British basketballer who became the first NBA player to come out when he published his autobiography five years ago. “It does matter. People have this misconception that time will automatically bring progress, and that homophobia is on the decline. But in certain parts of America things have gone backward.
“If you’re associated with a word that has so many pejorative connotations — ‘gay’ is routinely used to mean bad, weak, wrong, sinful — it’s going to affect you.”
Progress has been made, and significant battles won. Graham Norton hosts the BBC’s biggest chat show, while it is now more common for senior politicians to come out without the fear that they are jeopardising their careers by doing so. Yet we are still exposed to a narrow range of gay stereotypes, mostly from the worlds of theatre and light entertainment.
This is where gay athletes come in. Here we have a group of people who are self-evidently strong in mind and body. If only those people were more visible, sport could do more than any other walk of life to break down the well-worn associations between homosexuality, campness, and effeminacy.
It is not that there is anything wrong with being a “fabulous” gay man – Mitcham posts YouTube videos of himself playing Beyoncé songs on the ukulele, so he is clearly comfortable with the cliché – just that other options should be available.
In sport, as in society, gay men are stigmatised more than gay women. Lesbianism has never been illegal in this country, and
the concept still tends to be treated with wisecracks and innuendo. When homophobia does pop up in women’s sport, it usually surfaces in the idea that lesbians have an inbuilt athletic advantage — a prejudice that goes all the way back to gay tennis champions like Martina Navratilova and Billie-Jean King.
For whatever reason, women athletes have moved closer to that utopian moment where — in the words of the trailblazing diver Greg Louganis — “sexuality becomes a non-issue”. When United States footballer Megan Rapinoe came out a month before the Olympics, the news produced a few small headlines and a new section in her Wikipediaentry.
Now imagine that same story repeated by a Premier League footballer. He would go straight to the front pages as well as the top of News At Ten. And the attention could potentially be destructive, as it was in the tragic case of Justin Fashanu. The only British footballer who has ever come out, Fashanu hanged himself in a Shoreditch garage in 1998.
“When gay athletes ask my advice,” says Amaechi, “I always tell them ‘safety first’. For some people sport is their lifeline, the only thing they can do. If you’re 16 and you come out your chances are diminished, sometimes extraordinarily diminished, depending on the sport. If I had come out as a teenager, as people sometimes tell me I should have done, I would now be a moderately fat psychologist in Manchester.”
You might expect the going to be a little easier for Olympic athletes, given that most are competing as individuals. They don’t have to spend so much time around the testosterone-fuelled banter of the locker room, nor is there the same potential for alienating their team-mates.
But there are other challenges for the likes of Mitcham to face. “Olympic athletes are very dependent on sponsors,” says Hudson Taylor, an American wrestling coach and LGBT activist, despite being heterosexual himself. “There isn’t much money in the sports themselves. So the fact that sponsors tend to drop gay athletes sends a very strong message to anyone who is thinking of coming out.”
There two Olympic sports that have moved ahead of the pack are diving and dressage, which features a gay couple in the shape of Dutch riders Edward Gal and Hans Peter Minderhoud. Ironically, the two men found themselves competing for the final place on the Dutch team for London: Gal won, but Minderhoud has come along to help with the training.
According to Lee Pearson, the Paralympian dressage champion who is also openly gay, Gal and Minderhoud are far from being lone voices in the wilderness. “A friend of mine formed an organisation called SMID — Straight Men In Dressage — and I think he had three members,” said Pearson. “Dressage is a traditional sport but for some reason it seems to be quite progressive.”
One possible explanation lies in precedent. There have been openly gay riders in dressage since the 1980s. The message they sent was that homosexuality was acceptable within the equestrian world, just as Louganis proved that gay divers could also be champions. Once again, role models make a difference.
So why don’t more sporting stars follow Louganis’s example and come out at the end of their careers? The bigger names often go on to broadcasting jobs which are every bit as competitive and insecure as their previous lives.
And then there is the typecasting argument. As Amaechi explains, “Sometimes it makes me sad to think that I was one of the best basketball players that Britain has produced, but now I am just ‘that gay guy’.”
It is a classic Catch-22: until there are more gay sportsmen in the public domain, coming out will remain an off-puttingly big deal. Which only exacerbates the problem.
Straight allies required
How, then, to square the circle? Taylor, who has set up an organisation called Athlete Ally, believes that the solution lies in the hands of the straight community. “I was an All-American wrestler in college, as well as a theatre major,” he said. “I heard so much homophobic language in the locker room, and then on the arts side it was so much more open and accepting.
“I took the leap into activism in my second year. I gave an interview saying I was a big ally of LGBT causes. I had 2,000 emails in my in-box, a lot of them from closeted kids. There’s a void for LGBT athletes. More straight allies are required.”
Taylor’s organisation is still at the nascent stage, but he is already working with the athletic departments at 40 American universities, and is preparing an athlete education programme for the NBA rookie camps. He also believes that the International Olympic Committee could do more to further the cause of diversity.
“I see homophobia as a weapon of sexism more than anything else. When you look at Olympic sports they are subtly reinforcing traditional gender roles. The unnecessary bikinis in beach volleyball, the refusal to allow men into synchronised swimming.
“The assumptions they are making, about certain types of masculinity and femininity, make it harder for people to come out of the closet.”
Last year, the cricketer Steven Davies took the bold step of coming out at the age of 24 — unusually early in a sporting career. The public response to the story split into two camps: people who commended Davies for his courage, and those who questioned why this was even a story.
The split suggests that plenty of internet-savvy youngsters are growing up sexually colour-blind, which is an encouraging trend. Yet the scoffers fail to appreciate that they are the lucky ones, and that millions of people are still living with intolerance. In 73 of the countries that have sent a team to the Olympics, male homosexuality is illegal. In many parts of the Middle East, it is punishable by death.
Generation of dinosaurs
The idea that athletes have a duty to heal society is an uncomfortable one and nobody has the right to expect full disclosure of their private lives. Yet, at the same time, there should perhaps be a realisation that they have a unique opportunity to further the cause of sexual tolerance.
That goes both for gay athletes and straight ones such as the cricketer James Anderson, who posed in Attitude magazine two years ago. Imagine how effective a British Olympic Association campaign featuring the stars of the Games could be as a weapon against homophobia.
“I do see encouraging signs,” says Amaechi. “I haven’t been able to leave the basketball arena because everyone wants to shake my hand or take pictures with me. There is a generation of young people for whom achievement is important and sexuality is secondary.
“But there is another generation who are dinosaurs. Who want things as they used to be without those pesky women, black people and gays getting in the way. And quite a few of those people work in sports administration.
“In the end, perhaps we will get to the point where it doesn’t matter so much, it doesn’t define you. But we need help to get there.
“No minority in history has gained any measure of acceptance without the help of the majority.”
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