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Study: NZ athletes most likely to hide sexuality

Sun 10 May 2015 In: Our Communities View at Wayback View at NDHA

A study into homophobia in sport has found gay and bi New Zealand athletes are more likely to hide their sexuality than those from five other major English speaking nations. The Out on the Fields study found 88 per cent of gay respondents and 76 percent of lesbians who took part in New Zealand had kept their sexuality from team mates in their youth. In all, 71 per cent of the New Zealanders who took part said they believe youth team sports are not supportive or safe for lesbian, gay or bisexual people, while 78 per cent reported witnessing or experiencing homophobia in sport. Gay men in New Zealand were the most likely to play team sports in their youth and more likely than gay men in any other country to play rugby, at 30 per cent. Kiwi gay men were also the most likely to keep their sexuality secret in both youth and adult sports, with many saying they feared bullying from teammates and discrimination from coaches and officials. The Out on the Fields study is backed by seven international experts from six universities and it is the largest ever conducted on homophobia in sport. It was carried out in the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and Canada. Nearly 9,500 participants of all sexualities took part including 631 gay, lesbian, bisexual and straight Kiwis. Overall the study found New Zealand gay and bisexual men were more likely to experience discrimination and hide their sexuality than gay and bisexual women. The study also highlighted particular problems in team sports and school physical education classes. While gay men in New Zealand were the most likely to participate in youth team sports, this participation dropped much more dramatically than in most other countries when they became adults. Many gay men cited negative experiences in PE class and fears of discrimination as reasons. Openly-gay speed skater Blake Skjellerup Olympic speed skater Blake Skjellerup is one of few openly-gay elite athletes in New Zealand. “I love team sports, but I shied away from it during my high school years as the constant homophobic bullying and language used in that environment made me feel isolated and inferior,” he says. “I found it was much easier to come out and be myself in an individual sport because I wasn’t afraid of letting anyone down when the only person I was representing was myself.” He says youth suicide in New Zealand is high and there are also much higher rates of suicide among gay youth due to homophobia, lack of education, and diverse identities in New Zealand. “I think this study clearly shows that homophobia in sport needs to be taken much more seriously in New Zealand. The All Blacks are the epitome of sport, leadership, and representation of New Zealand. I believe the All Blacks and New Zealand Rugby could play a very powerful leadership role by making a statement and initiating a campaign to eliminate homophobia and highlight diversity in New Zealand Rugby. “We can look across the pond for inspiration and at the leadership by Australian Rugby and superstar athletes like David Pocock. Rugby organisations in New Zealand could play such a strong role in leading positive change to sporting culture.” Former NPC rugby player Ryan Sanders agrees with Skjellerup that the All Blacks and New Zealand Rugby could play a leadership role in the same way as Australian Rugby. Sanders, who also played semi-professionally in Scotland, didn’t feel safe coming out of the closet until he retired from rugby in 2004. “I knew I was gay in pre-school but I became very good at leading a double life and hiding my sexuality. It’s a bit depressing to see the study has found so many gay men in New Zealand still feel the need to do the same while playing rugby and other sports. The biggest problem I think is the language, I used to hear the word fag all the time and it sent me a strong message that coming out was not an option, it was very stifling.” Sanders believes a lot of the fear of rejection might have been in his own head, reinforced by the homophobic behaviour. Homophobic language was the most common form of discrimination reported by participants in the study. “When I came out of the closet to my teammates after I retired we all just had a big laugh and moved on from the topic within 10 minutes. It wasn’t the big issue I thought it would be, but I was also a lot older. “I’m not sure they would have reacted the same way if I had come out as a teenager but looking back I wish I had the courage to be open as it could have helped others,” says Sanders, who started Haka Tours after leaving rugby and was named the 2010 Young Entrepreneur of the Year. One of the international experts who sat on the review panel, Dr Caroline Symons, from Melbourne’s Victoria University, says some LGB people can thrive in sport. She says many others feel compelled to remain closeted to keep playing the sport they love, monitoring every word they say, to ensure they keep up the appearance of being heterosexual which is seen as the ‘normal’ way to behave. “All this effort to hide their identity can distract from enjoying their sport and improving their performance. LGB athletes need to be supported by officials, coaches, teachers and also fans in order to feel safe to come out of the closet.” Another reviewer, Dr Grant O’Sullivan, also from Melbourne’s Victoria University, is also a former gay athlete. “The casual homophobic language such as jokes heard on the playing fields, in the locker rooms, in the stands and in the media can send the message that LGB people are not welcome in sport. Often this language is not meant to be hurtful but can be very damaging when heard by those struggling with their sexuality. “Even more concerning is that these early negative experiences in school sport and PE can lead to LGB people avoiding sport for the rest of their lives and missing out on all the physical, mental and social benefits that can come from being active and part of a team. "I think that PE teachers, in particular, need to be trained on ways to support and also protect LGB students because often the teachers aren’t sure of how to deal with bullying or they may worry about complaints from parents if they talk to students about homosexuality.” Key Findings: - 88% of gay and 76% of lesbians said they kept their sexuality secret from all or some of their team while playing youth sport (gay men higher than any other country) - 61% of gay and 27% of lesbians said they kept their sexuality secret from all or some of their team while playing adult sport (gay men higher than any other country while lesbians are lowest) - Only 1% of Kiwi participants (all sexualities) thought lesbian, gay and bisexual people were ‘completely accepted’ in sporting culture while 76% thought they were ‘not at all accepted’ or ‘only accepted a little’ or only ‘moderately accepted’ - 78% of participants witnessed or experienced homophobia in sport - More than half (55%) of gay men, nearly half (45%) of lesbians and 27% of straight men said they had personally experienced homophobia, with slurs such as ‘faggot’ or ‘dyke’ being the most commonly reported  Jacqui Stanford - 10th May 2015    

Credit: Jacqui Stanford

First published: Sunday, 10th May 2015 - 8:24am

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