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How BBC Sport is trying to empower LGBTQ+ Athletes to speak out

Lucy Wilde argues that LGBTQ+ icons in sport need to be remembered across all time, not just in LGBTQ+ History Month

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Image Credit: Jamie Smed

Given the circumstances, you may be forgiven for giving up watching the news in an effort to avoid the steady stream of negative press that floods our media platforms day in and day out. But this month is LGBTQ+ History Month, and the BBC have been trying to raise awareness of past and ongoing social justice issues in sport.

In a year defined by so much hardship, which tested us to our limits, 2020 also brought to the fore long-standing issues of social justice and inequality. Conversations behind closed doors quickly spread to multimedia platforms, and then swiftly across the world in the form of mass protests.

Photographs of impassioned protestors. Hand-painted messages of support. Footballers taking a quiet moment of reflection before matches to show their support of the Black Lives Matter movement. All of this served as refreshingly unifying displays of humanity in an otherwise unnerving time of Coronavirus crisis.

But where is the news coverage of the ongoing struggle for inclusivity and equality now? As we gear ourselves up for some kind of return to normality, have the efforts of those directly and indirectly involved in last summer’s social justice movement been pushed aside?

BBC Sport have dedicated this month to the retelling and sharing of personal stories of sportsmen and women across disciplines which has once again raised the profile of the modern drive for equality, particularly in sport.

Tennis legend Billie Jean King recently spoke to former British tennis player Sue Barker, about her experience after she was outed in 1981, and consequently lost all of her sponsorship.

When asked about how it took her until she was fifty one years old to feel comfortable in her own skin, King’s immediate reaction was to laugh. “Young people now will be like what was the big deal,” she says candidly reflecting on how generally speaking the world has become a far more accepting and supportive place. “No life goes perfectly, sports teach us about people who can react to life’s ups and downs and be resilient.” There is no bitterness in King’s reflection of her difficult experience, but her courage in staying true to her authentic self despite the hostile social attitudes of her time towards homosexuality should not be undervalued for its power to encourage others to do the same.

Last week former footballer Thomas Beattie reflected on the mental and physical freedom he now feels after coming out last year. “The chains are off and that’s a really powerful thing.” As an athlete the desire to leave a legacy of success can no doubt be an all consuming life goal, yet Beattie admitted that he came to realise there was so much more to life. “I get to live my truth, love fearlessly.”

In line with this increasing media coverage and recognition of LGBTQ+ athletes, this month’s GQ front cover featured US football star Megan Rapinoe, and her WNBA basketball fiance Sue Bird. Not just are they celebrated sports stars, but both have been active in the Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name movements as well as the ongoing fights for equal pay and treatment in sport.

The couple have faced opposition, both personally, professionally and as a duo, but there is something powerful in their story that prompts hope for future sports stars to be confident in themselves above all else. Billie Jean King has been amongst the many who have recognised the importance of having the pair publicly celebrated in GQ this month: ”This is why having Megan and Sue out in front like this, being comfortable in their own skin, is so huge. It allows other people to be more comfortable.”

In line with this, NFL player, Ryan Russell, the first active player to be openly bisexual, has recognised how the media industry are doing more, but maintains “there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done in sports culture.”

It goes without saying that these stories of triumph in the face of adversity only cover one side of the narrative, and other athletes have faced, and continue to face, unequal treatment as a result of their sexuality.

But in adopting a hopeful approach, recent efforts by the BBC and other media outlets seem to be moving in the right direction. The media will continue to play a key role in liberalising attitudes, as well as framing the narratives of LGBTQ+ athletes.

It remains to be said that true acceptance might only be achieved when lesser known athletes feel able to be open and honest, and are equally accepted in the same way as high-achieving, celebrated athletes.

This month’s BBC sport programme does much to remind us of the prominent and central role media plays in raising contemporary social issues in sport, but we should hope these ongoing issues will become increasingly prevalent across time and spaces, not just in LGBTQ+ History month.

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