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Legal Reform or Attitude Reform?

June 28, 2011

As efforts against homophobia reach new heights every day, we turn the spotlight on the difference between the formal and substantive aspects of this worldwide campaign. The issue has become more prominent as well-known athletes from around the world, such as the UK’s Steven Davies and Gareth Thomas and Sweden’s Anton Hysen, have publicly come out and shone a light on the need to make sports culture more gay-friendly.

There remains, however, a gulf between ideas on how to approach the problem: whether to launch top-down moves focused on legislative reform, or to concentrate energy in bottom-up movements aimed at changing attitudes within communities. As our cause remains in its early stages, we see that such conflicts are often tougher to reconcile than one would suspect.

In Canada, there is no prominent national organisation or campaign aimed at eliminating homophobia in sport, though the prevalence of homophobia in sport has become increasingly scrutinised. Last year, the group Downtown Soccer Toronto (DST) released a pro-gay sports calendar but had no local organisation for which to raise money, sending profits instead to the UK-based Justin Campaign.

The reason for this is the fact that efforts against homophobia in Canada tend to centre around political, especially legislative, reform, and not the cultural focus of European initiatives which target attitudes rather than laws. Avery Miller, a spokesperson for DST, explains, “In the UK, things like soccer and rugby, whether you’re gay or straight, it’s engrained. There’s more of a movement for gay people playing it. Whether they’re out or not, there are more gay people playing professional soccer than there are here.”

Such an attitude presents a significant problem. The idea that “there are more gay people” in European sports than in North American sports is a mere perception, unable to be justified by any kind of statistic or evidence. Indeed, it is this presumption that holds back the creation of a Canadian equivalent of the Justin Campaign. If the existence and oppression of gay people in sport is not recognised, how can it be fought? The executive director of the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity, Karin Lofstrom, argues: “There are lots of gays and lesbians playing in mainstream sports. While they may be out in their team frame, they’re not out publicly. They are leery of coming out publicly and losing sponsorship or losing their chance to get it.”

The problem is exacerbated when one considers the fact that homophobia in sport stems from inside the locker room as much as it does from the stands, the media, and the overall political environment. Political reform remains of paramount concern, but we need cultural reform to accompany it or it will be meaningless. Until the climate within the sporting world becomes more gay-friendly, legislative change may constitute mere formalities still in need of genuine, substantive, attitude-based change to support it. The communications officer for the Justin Campaign, Tim Ridgway, points to the need for progress to move from the inside out. “Having positive attitudes from management down will eliminate this issue,” he says.

In contrast with the denial that characterises Miller’s perspective, Ridgway highlights how difficult it is for professional gay athletes without strong support systems within the sport: “Pro athletes are not just coming out to friends and families. They’re coming out to millions of people who don’t know them and who can and will judge them. It takes a really strong person to do that.”

Greg Larocque, Human Rights chair for 2011 Vancouver Outgames, echoes this concern. “There’s this preoccupation of ‘I can’t have a gay guy on my team because he might try and cruise me.’ It is fear. Somebody checks you out and you start making your assumptions. And the guy may be married, have three kids and he’s not trying to do you in the locker room. I don’t think these things will go away until an athlete’s sexual orientation is irrelevant.”

We at Red Card Homophobia applaud efforts by groups such as DST to push for legislative change as part of the global movement against homophobia in sport. However, we stress and will continue to highlight the importance of promoting more progressive, accepting attitudes within sporting communities towards the LGBT population which deserves as much right to be recognised in the public and media as its straight counterpart. Formal and substantive reform cannot be tackled separately: the two are entwined, and one cannot be meaningful without the other standing beside it.

– I.G.

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