Beyond the Out Games, gay sportsmen still remain in the closet

There have been a multitude of victories in fighting homophobia and anti-gay discrimination, but the world of sport still lags behind

The recently-passed homophobic laws in Russia, coupled with the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics taking place in that country, have brought the subject of homophobia in sports back into the limelight. The issue has been heavily debated in recent years, as the world of top athletes, both here at home and abroad, has failed to keep up with the rest of society.


“I believe that homophobia is always a big problem in very macho cultures, and that is exactly what the world of sports is,” explained sports psychologist Erik Østenkjær. “Sexuality is not something that gets discussed, and there isn’t really any sort of openness around it.” 


READ MORE: Government and Prince Frederik speak out against Russia’s anti-gay law


Just last week, Swedish high jumper Emma Green Tregaro sported rainbow-coloured fingernails at the IAAF World Athletics Championships in Moscow as a protest against Russia’s discriminatory laws. She was later forced to repaint her nails following accusations from her sport’s governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), that she was in violation of their code of conduct. In turn, an International Olympic Committee (IOC) member, none other than Denmark’s Crown Prince Frederik, said that discrimination against individual groups was a “breach of the Olympic charter”.


According to experts, it is this sort of pressure from major sporting organisations that is needed if any sort of advancement is to be made on the issue. “I truly believe that if anything is to happen to combat homophobia in sport, then the big international organisations, such as the IOC and FIFA, have to take action,” said Østenkjær. “But I don’t think that the way to achieve that is through one-sided criticism, but rather by starting a dialogue and asking questions.”


READ MORE: Up to 10,000 people protested against Russia's anti-gay laws in Copenhagen


The other side of Denmark


While Denmark is in many regards one of the world-leaders when it comes to gay rights, Østenkjær does not believe this is the case when it comes to sports.


“The sports world is a subculture and as such exists outside the boundaries of the mainstream,” he said. “I don’t think that the situation is better in Denmark than in the rest of the Western World, but obviously things are different in less open and less liberal societies.” 


According to Christian Bigom – the spokesperson for Pan Idræet, the LGBT sports association – the main problem lies within the more popular team sports.


The audience-friendly, team-based sports, such as football, handball and basketball, are the ones that deal with the biggest homophobia, he explained. 


“Often it’s not the teammates who have a problem, but rather the fans and the sponsors.”


Bigom agrees with Østenkjær that the solution lies in getting the major associations, such as the Danish Football Association (DBU), to be more vocal and supportive, which they haven’t been so far.


“So far the DBU has claimed that sexual orientation is a private matter and therefore it does not want to get involved in the issue,” said Bigom. “We have seen how successful major campaigns such as the fight against racism have been, and we feel that something similar is needed against homophobia.” 


Hiding in the sports closet

Before he joined a gay water polo team, Nikolaj Thomsen Rævdal was fearful that if he came out to his teammates, he might end up sitting alone (Photo: Elias Thorsson)

No openly gay man has competed in any of the nation’s major leagues. According to Bigom, there are players competing at the top level who hide their sexual orientation due to a fear of the backlash.


Lars Berendt, a spokesperson for the DBU, admitted to having heard the rumours, but claimed that the body had never been contacted directly by the footballers themselves.


“These rumours have been propagated by special interest groups who, with all due respect, might have their own agenda,” he said. “We actively work towards making Danish football more inclusive and therefore we are very upset to hear allegations that we are not doing enough.”


The national footballers’ association, Spillerforeningen, has criticised the DBU’s stance on the issue. But according to Berendt, the criticism was a diversion tactic “It was not serious criticism, but a remark that was taken up by an uncritical media,” he said. “The remark was made following the association’s failure to follow up on a proposed anti-homophobia campaign, and when it hadn’t done anything about the issue for months, it instead accused the DBU of not doing enough. It has still not really addressed the issue, while the DBU is among the main sponsors at Copenhagen Pride – to send out a message that we take the matter seriously.”


Spillerforeningen’s chairman Thomas Lindrup, however, retains his criticism of DBU.


“DBU believes that there just aren’t any gay football players, but what we believe is that young [gay] players get pushed out of the sport before they manage to reach the high point of their career,” he said. “And we think it is just terrible that we might have world class talents out there who leave the sport out of a fear of discrimination.” 


The gay water polo team reckon they might be in for a rough ride in the more serious 2 Division East (Photo: Nikolaj Thomsen Rævdal)The gay sport’s world


In 2009, the World Out Games came to Copenhagen, placing the issue of homosexuality and sports firmly in the national spotlight. The games were a massive success, even though two incidents of anti-gay hate crimes proved that the fight for equal rights was far from over.


Two weeks ago, the games were held in the Belgian city of Antwerp and participating on behalf of Denmark were the Mermates, the 180-member strong Danish swimming organisation, which is a part of Pan Idræt.


Captaining the association’s water polo team was Nikolaj Thomsen Rævdal, a 29-year-old who during the day works for the state auditor’s office, Rigsrevisionen. The team has 25 players on its roster and 14 partook in the games, where they finished fifth. The team regularly partakes in international tournaments within the LGBT community, including the Gay Games and big European tournaments.


“I have been with the team for two years now, but before that I played for a team in Aarhus for six years,” he said. 


Rævdal explains that he has never experienced any problems personally as a gay water polo player, but admits that when he played in Aarhus he did not discuss his sexual orientation with his team-mates.


“I just felt that there was me, the guy who played for the team, and then there was my personal life, and I didn’t want to mix the two,” he explained. “But people also take the news differently, and I just always assume the worst.”


The team has over the last couple of years been playing in the amateur 3 Division East, but will this winter rejoin the more serious 2 Division East. 


“I think that this will be the true test to see whether or not we get treated differently due to our sexual orientation,” he said. “The guys on my team have told me that the last time the team played in the league, they felt like they were treated more harshly due to the fact that they were gay.” 


Rævdal argues that although sports should remain non-political, major sporting events such as the Olympics often prove to be one of the best platforms to bring attention to big issues.


“I thought it was ridiculous when the IAAF forced Tregaro to repaint her nails, and I think it is a big problem the way the association handled the matter,” he said. “This might be a sign that major sports organisations are not willing to take up the case of homophobia in sports.” 

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