Is visibility important?
What LGBTQ+ representations have you grown up with? The earliest one I can recall was my brush with the trans community in Delhi during a marriage ceremony? The Hijras, as they are labeled in India, came to the house of a neighbor. They were loud and boisterous. I was perhaps 8 or 9 years old, surprised and curious at the hard claps and aggressive posturing for their demands for money before they blessed the newly married couple. The elders in the house sent me away from the unfolding drama, instilling fear that the trans folk kidnap young children. This event happened in the early eighties.
The first time I heard about homosexuality was in relation to AIDS disease in medical school. As part of our general medicine curriculum, we studied the causes and management of the disease. What was disturbing was the correlations on this topic in our Forensic medicine class, where all non-heterosexual activities were labeled as illegal. The course material and the teachers did nothing to mitigate the stigma built around LGBT persons. The raging AIDS epidemic colored any material one could find on this topic in newspapers. There was no cure for the disease at the time. The first celebrity I realized as gay was Freddie Mercury, But this was only because his death in 1991 was attributed to AIDS. Till that news, he was the lead singer of the rock band Queen and had links to India.
I don't recall any positive role models or personalities from the LGBTQ community from my childhood through to my early twenties. Perhaps I was living under a stone or was not reading the right newspapers.
Visibility is important. It is the beginning of realization, understanding, and acceptance because the unseen is scary. The hidden becomes a mystery, a conjecture. Our minds struggle to understand and hence conjure worst-case scenarios by default, leading to negative portrayals.
LGBTQ+ relationships in modern India are miscolored. Wrapped in hush-hush tones, mocked, derided, or despised. Ignorance and the glasses of age-old beliefs mold the color palette of perceptions.
This miscoloration is despite many examples of gender fluidity and queer relationships in Indian stories or texts. Some of which date back to centuries before Christ (BC). The Indian listens with rapt attention to the fall of mighty Bheesma at the hands of Shikhandi (Shinkandini) or is amused to learn about Mohini (the female form of Lord Vishnu). In South India, people worship her son Lord Ayyappa conceived from the union with the other prominent male Hindu God -Lord Shiva. The general crowd has no qualms to learn about the final year of the exile of the Pandavs in which the greatest archer, Arjun, lived as Brihnnala, a trans person.
Queerness is not new to India. Yet the mention of a non-heterosexual relationship or person sends people scurrying to hide behind tradition, beliefs, or religion, thus driving the LGBTQ+ community further into darkness and invisibility. The general Indian has few modern-day examples to relate to or understand the queer community. Few prominent Indians in political, acting, or sports field are proud and out about their sexuality. For the queer folks watching from behind closed doors, there are no persons to emulate or point out to their parents or peers.
Can visibility in sports provide a platform from moving beyond the decriminalization post-Sep 2018 Indian Supreme Court verdict?
Sports. The mere mention of the word elicits emotions of exhilaration, joy, and freedom. Sportspersons are driven, committed, hard-working and competitive. Even if played for recreation, sports activities are supposed to be liberating. Sports build character and team spirit apart from health. Sportsmanship is conduct (such as fairness, respect for one's opponent, and graciousness in winning or losing) becoming to one participating in a sport. (Merriam Webster). Despite these lofty ideals, is it easy for people to be proud of their sexuality and gender in the sports field?
Even outside India, in the developed world, the prejudice and discrimination prevalent in society against the LGBTQ+ community carry into the locker rooms and stadia, providing few safe spaces for anyone on the queer spectrum. Thus many abandon their love of sport, fearing the 'hate' inside the "macho" environment on the playing fields.
They have a difficult choice. Either focus on their passion for accessing the limited opportunities in the highly competitive world of sports OR come out and live a life as their authentic selves under a constant cloud. Unsure and insecure about reactions from their teammates, coaches, managers, and the fans, they remain hidden, bidding their time- to be proud of their identity.
Marco Lehman (BasketBall)- It's like in team sports, there are no gay men. Being gay in that setting is taboo. He goes on and narrates an incident with a coach (You are playing like gays, like pu**ies! ). Another incident on a team bus with a teammate. (For me, homosexuality is a sickness. They should kill themselves.)
Andy Brennan (Australian Soccer Player) "It's so hard to put your finger on why people wouldn't do it [come out]. But the fear is so real. The fear that you won't get equal opportunities after putting so much time and effort into making it and to suddenly have that all put in jeopardy is a scary thing."
If the world even gets a whiff of their sexuality, athletes face slurs and hate from the spectators like the Brazilian volleyball player Michael dos Santos.
"The deafening chants roared from the packed bleachers each time the volleyball player stood and focused on his serve: "Bicha! Bicha!"
(the Brazilian slang word for "faggot") during the playoff match in Brazil's widely popular professional volleyball league."
Sammy Walker (Football) "I've been the subject of a load of online abuse, and the last thing I want is for people to start protesting at games where I'm not even playing.
"There is always a potential for people to say, there's a target. I also don't want to scare the chairman. He has taken a big risk in accepting me and inviting me to play for the team."
On my Pinterest board, I am gathering their stories one LGBTQ+ sportsperson at a time. If you are interested in queer representation in sports, hop over and click on the links. Read about their struggles (internal and external) and their triumphs.
Some of these are painful. Even the most formidable and successful athletes have faced mental health issues trying to live two lives.
"My own death felt preferable to anyone discovering I was gay."- Dan Palmer (Former Wallabies; Rugby player)
Gus Kenworthy (US – Ice skating) "I was not out of the closet, so I was hiding a huge part of myself and my life, and there was so much time and energy put into harboring that secret that I think it took a toll on my mental health,"
"I struggled with depression and at moments in my life thoughts of suicide." He said when he did finally come out publicly in 2015, "it was the best thing I could've ever done for my mental health."
Not being accepted as your true self is unsettling for anyone. It becomes an uphill task with an added label that segregates one from the 'common.' Even for the accomplished, these fears can be overwhelming. Insecurity leads to mental health issues. Discrimination can end careers.
"The day the interview came out, I was filled with insecurity, and I was second-guessing my decision. What if this affects opportunities in the future? What if I lose a sponsorship because I decided to come out? What if this affects the way judges see me at competitions?"
As individuals and society, we need to introspect on what do we fear from LGBTQ+ persons? Why can we not accept them? Are they less in any way? Why do we fear their influence? Or are we so deep in our bigotry we find it difficult to peek out of our wells? Sexual orientation is only another human trait. It should be seen and accepted as just that.
Danell Leyva (US – gymnast) I hope to one day live in a world where your sexuality is as irrelevant as to whether or not you're right or left-handed. You know, it's such a non-issue. It means nothing that if you're just like, 'Oh, you're left-handed? That's cool. Oh, you're bi? That's cool.'
Victor Gutierrez (Spain- Waterpolo) "I hope my coming out serves to break a taboo within the sport."
"You have to be judged not by your sexuality but by your sporting merit."
Each sportsperson who has come out and raised their hand has helped take one step towards greater acceptance of LGBTQ+ persons and athletes. They have provided visibility. For the many still inside the closet, a ray of hope, a possibility. For the general public, an opportunity to understand and accept even in the most conservative societies.
Tom Daley (England- Diving) - 'Boycott. Don't go.' But, do you know what? I think that going there (Russia), in a married relationship, and being able to compete and climb onto a podium as a gay man – I think that speaks louder than boycotting. I think it shows we're real. Visible. I think it's powerful."
Dutee Chand (India- Athletics) "Out of 1,000 people, 100 will say something negative. Everyone won't be positive, but some of my family and fans have been supportive and said, "Your life is yours." So, I haven't paid attention to the rest."
Marta Silva (Brazilian Soccer Player), "A homophobe might rethink because of the influence of Marta, but I think the gain from Marta's wedding is much more through what it represents. An LGBT child can see themselves represented in one of the greatest idols in the history of football; they can take strength from that to continue living."
Visibility in the form of positive role models provides an opportunity to dent the adjectives used to demean or lessen an LGBTQ persons' existence. Such visibility also provides hope for the curious or queer-identifying people. In school, when a teacher or coach cites Pele, the LGBTQ identifying kid has Marta and Rapinoe to relate,
One has only to look around and read about the stories of LGBTQ Sportsperson to realize the immense contribution they make to sport and society in general. Does a world cup win or an Olympic gold medal becomes less if it comes at the hands of an LGBTQ+ person? Does it not bring the same sense of joy and pride in one's club or country? A large number of LGBTQ persons leave sports because of toxicity or prejudice. Imagine the contribution they can make if safe spaces are provided, and discrimination is removed.
Organizations focused on LGBTQ+ athletes are working to support policy changes in the sporting world. No tectonic shifts at present, but the movement is pushing open one door at a time. Sporting bodies are adding inclusion policies. Many sports, especially in the developed countries, have clubs and fan groups from the queer community. The road is long. For one inclusive organization, hundreds of others are oblivious to the need to provide safe environments for their athletes and spectators.
In India, things are a long way off. Even after the Supreme Court lifted the archaic Article 377 in 2018, Dutee Chand is the only major sports personality to come out. Cricket dominates the minds of sports enthusiasts in India. The day a player from the national cricket team comes out will be a significant milestone for the Indian LGBTQ+ community.
However, that journey has to begin with building trust and safe spaces. In the face of social prejudices and lack of understanding, the absence of an inclusion policy in India's sporting associations may hinder the participation of LGBTQ+ people in sporting activities. No organization in India is working to push for change in the sporting field. Unlike, for example, Australia (Pride in Sport) and the UK (Stonewall and PrideSports). These organizations work to provide visibility and safe spaces for LGBTQ+ athletes and spectators.
While there are infinite areas where the LGBTQ community needs support, the threads are so entangled that picking just one sometimes becomes difficult. If one has to choose - information, acceptance, and safety should be the priority. Greater visibility provided by sports icons to this cause can aid this journey.
"There's a prevailing notion that sports are a microcosm of our society, but I believe the greater truth is that sports are the conductor of our society, a sculpture of what we hope to be in the future." - RK Russell (ex-NFL player)
The bare minimum LGBTQ+ visibility in sport can do, is to inform, particularly the young. As an age demographic, 10-30-year-olds are the most active participants in sporting activities. They are most interested in sporting events and icons. LGBTQ+ or ally sportspersons can influence the negative perceptions in this age group. Some of these youngsters will go on to be in positions of influence in the future. They can support removing some of the barriers to the LGBTQ+ community.
Most important of all, visibility and positive representations will give hope to a young LGBTQ+ person. Who knows, the safe space and inclusivity in sports or their working environment will motivate them and propel them to excel in their field.
I leave you with this screenshot from Twitter as an example of the positive impact visibility in sports can provide.
I want to thank Prarthana for her feedback and positive suggestions to make this post more meaningful. Prarthana Khot is a well-known and recognized yoga teacher and fitness expert based in Mumbai. She has shared teachings related to Yoga and Spirituality all over India. She has her own institute in Mumbai, which teaches yoga based on classical, traditional Hatha yoga techniques. She also likes to write about diverse topics. Her writings act as a catalyst for breaking mental boundaries and thinking out of the box. You can read her posts at www.aaryalife.wordpress.com .
Pic credits: All illustrations by the author. Graphics on Canva.