Proud 2 Play : LGBT Inclusion in Australian Sport – by Ryan Storr

Introduction: counting down the days

Proud 2 Play seeks to promote participation and engagement in sport for LGBT+ youth. My aim is to share some of the work we have been doing at Proud 2 Play, and to highlight some of the ongoing challenges, but also opportunities to increase engagement in sport and exercise for LGBT+ youth. When we first started Proud 2 Play we spent a considerable amount of time engaging the LGBT+ community, and in particular LGBT+ youth. We wanted to hear exactly what young people’s experiences in sport and exercise were like, and how we might be able to help them become active, or if they were active, to ensure their experiences were positive and free from discrimination. We knew some key things before we started in terms of what the research told us:

    • Many LGB people (73%) do not perceive sporting environments as welcoming for LGBT youth (Denison and Kitchen, 2015).
    • Sport and PE are sites whereby LGBT+ youth experience homophobia, biphobia and transphobia (Symons et al., 2010).
    • The impact of homophobic bullying in PE has a significant detrimental impact on the mental health of young people, who report higher scores for depression and anxiety (Symons et al., 2014).
    • There are no participation rate figures in Australia for LGBT+ youth in sport, but research from the US and Canada (only on sexuality) indicates lesbian, gay and bisexual youth team sport participation is almost half that of heterosexual youth (CDCP, 2016; 2018; Doull et al., 2018).
    • We know that when LGBT+ youth are supported by their families, in schools, and by friends and peers, they can flourish and this support can lead to positive outcomes (Smith et al., 2014; Hillier et al., 2010).

The reality of this evidence base really hit home when we spoke to young people and their families about their experiences of sport and PE. One story stays with me and I often speak about it in presentations. We worked with Head Space and some of their queer support groups, and one day we did a focus group with some young people. It was a mixture of trans, gender diverse, and queer people. Their experiences of bullying in PE and sport were difficult to hear. One young trans person explained that they had written down a countdown in their diary until the day that compulsory PE was over, so much was the extent to which they had been bullied by their peers in a class which is supposed to be fun and enjoyable. Others shared stories of physical abuse, and were often targeted in contact sports.

Others were not allowed to do certain sports; one young boy loved to play netball and do dance, but these were ‘girls’ sports and therefore he could not play these sports. Another damning story involved a young trans girl around the age of ten, who had socially affirmed their gender identity. Although active and engaged in a range of sports prior to her transition, she didn’t think she could do sports as a girl because ‘girls didn’t do sports’. How a young girl is conditioned to think they cannot do sports, or even if a girl does do sport they might turn into a lesbian, continues to baffle me. In this respect, it is important to understand that the experiences and challenges for lesbian women, gay men, bisexual people, and trans people play out very differently, and their experiences are unique. Take for example, research by Lynn Hiller (2005) which demonstrates that sport, specifically Australian Rules Football, can actually provide a safe space and sense of belonging for lesbian women and girls. In the next section I discuss and outline the case study of Proud 2 Play.

Case study: Proud 2 Play

Proud 2 Play was started and co-founded by James Lolicato and myself in Melbourne, Australia in 2016. We started it at a time when there were significant concerns in the wider LGBT+ population in Australia; the Safe Schools program had come under attack, the marriage equality campaign was gaining momentum (and the No Campaign), and the atrocities at Pulse nightclub in Florida had left many in the community feeling scared and vulnerable. The sport sector too had not always been supportive, and stories of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia (HBT) were common within sport. There was a grassroots movement in community sport too around AFL, spearheaded by Jason Ball, and his inaugural Pride Cup in Yarra Glen. At the time I was doing my PhD which was linked to an Australian Research Council (ARC) grant, which explored how community sports clubs were responding to and dealing with diversity, with a specific focus on cultural, gender, and disability diversity. One of the biggest things to stand out to me as I worked in the Victorian sporting sector was the silence around LGBT+ diversity, or discussions around HBT.

After a closer analysis, there were no specific programs or organisations which specifically aimed to get more young people from LGBT+ communities into sport or exercise (or physical activity, active recreation, leisure etc). Note that Proud 2 Play is an LGBTI+ plus organisation, but within this short essay I mainly use LGBT+ where discussing a specific focus on sexual orientation and gender identity. It is important to not conflate gender identity with sex characteristics, but often the sport sector does. Secondly, I refer to communities, rather than one single community and one homogenous group of people under the LGBT+ umbrella. Under the LGBT+ umbrella there are a diverse range of people and communities. For example, within the gay community there are bear and leather communities, demonstrating that there is a range of identities within communities, and their experiences are diverse and cannot be homogenised.

Due to the lack of programs and policies to promote LGBT+ inclusion especially at the grassroots level, Proud 2 Play was started. We had a simple aim: to increase participation and engagement in sport for LGBTI+ youth. We work with the premise that youth represents under 25, although now our work covers adults too. However, our focus and priority will always be around young people under 25. This is so that young people have positive and meaningful experiences in sport and exercise during their youth, which increases the likelihood of engagement in later life, and that they can develop healthy habits and positive relationships with sport and exercise. Many conversations with adults around our work lead to them sharing negative stories of PE and sport in their youth, which had turned them off sport, especially team sports. Whether that was PE teachers or peers bullying them, picking them last, or experiencing physical assault. We also get many heterosexual allies speaking of negative stories, whereby their sexuality was questioned or ridiculed if they did not adhere to strict stereotypes around masculinity and femininity.

Proud 2 Play has developed and grown substantially over the past several years, and we now have a more refined mission and vision. We started with a mission and vision centred around the need for all young LGBTI+ people to have access to safe and welcoming sporting environments, and although this is still a focus, we have refined it within the context of our strategic plan. Our new problem statement, vision and mission:

The Problem—LGBTI+ people are disengaged from sport and recreation, as these environments have not kept up with societal change.

Our Vision—A world where all LGBTI+ people are leading healthy and active lifestyles.

Our Mission—To ensure all LGBTI+ people feel confident to lead healthy and active lifestyles, in welcoming and inclusive environments.

Our work is varied and diverse, but central is the provision of assistance and support to LGBTI+ communities in helping them become engaged in sport and exercise. This could be getting people physically active and playing sport, or engaging through feeling safe to attend an AFL match, or working in sport, or volunteering and coaching. Some of our work includes:

    • Working with families and trans children to find them safe and inclusive sporting clubs.
    • Working with a sports club or organisation to develop inclusive policies and practices which welcome and affirm LGBTI+ people.
    • Working with a young trans woman who has been denied access to a women’s only gym, to find a suitable gym.
    • Helping a lesbian or gay athlete who has experienced homophobia whilst playing sport.
    • Partnering with a local council who wish to increase participation in their locality for LGBTI+ residents.
    • Working with sports to host inclusive come and try sessions, to attract new people to their sports.
    • Helping young trans and gender diverse people try a number of sports and activities in inclusive spaces, to help address mental health concerns.
    • Liaising and partnering with schools to ensure equal access and participation for trans and gender diverse young people.
    • Providing education to sports organisations, State Sport Associations and National Sports Organisations around LGBTI+ inclusion.

Most people engage in sport and exercise as a form of leisure, for the social benefits, and for enjoyment. If LGBTI+ people wish to do so in the same way but it is not fun and a space they do not feel like they can be themselves or are subjected to abuse, then the core principles of sport are lost.

Cricket Victoria: leading the way

Cricket Victoria was one of the first organisations we began working with, after my PhD research explored how community cricket clubs were engaging with diversity policies and practices. I also worked on several projects as a research assistant, specifically in cricket. We partnered with Cricket Victoria to help them expand their LGBTI+ portfolio, under Cricket Australia’s national diversity policy, ‘A Sport for All’. Our journey together started when we pitched and applied for funding through Vic Health (A health promotion organisation in Victoria) and their ‘Innovation Sport Challenge’. This funding round gave SSO’s the opportunity to apply for funding through innovative and social sport-based programs to get inactive Victorian’s active, through participation in sport and exercise.

We designed the program based around education and participation. Key features of the program included:

    1. Proud 2 Play would design and deliver education to cricket clubs in Victoria, teaching them how to run an inclusive cricket program.
    2. Cricket Clubs would attend education sessions and be given help and resources to run a four-week inclusive cricket program (to cater for LGBTI+ young people in particular).
    3. Participating cricket clubs would deliver a four-week inclusive program, engaging LGBTI+ participants in their local areas (as well as their friends and families) to come and try cricket for the first time.
    4. Those LGBTI+ people who wanted to keep playing or enjoyed their experiences, had a pathway into a cricket club that they know was safe and welcoming.

One of the most important lessons from this work was that unless there is a specific pathway or inclusive program to invite LGBTI+ people into sport, they are very unlikely to go and join a club of their own accord. So many LGBTI+ people have had negative experiences and hold the perception that sporting environments are unsafe and unwelcoming. Unless we show them an alternative and that sport can be enjoyable and not-gendered, they will not engage or play; this is extremely important for the trans and gender diverse community in particular.

Most sports are binary and based around single sex competitions and opportunities. At Proud 2 Play all of our social programs and opportunities to participate, are done on an inclusive basis—all genders, all sexualities, anyone can come and play. This specifically caters for non-binary people or gender nonconforming people, where sport is incredibly challenging; on most occasions there is nowhere for them to play due to binary categories of sport. So for example, in netball or basketball, people play in teams of people, rather than gender.

There is an inherent assumption that male and female bodies are different and that men are superior and overall better at sports. This is not true. Especially at the grassroots level, there are many women who could outperform and beat their male counterparts in a range of sports. I am often beaten by women tennis players, and no matter how hard I train, they will probably continue to beat me. Likewise, at the gym when instructors in HIIT classes or circuit classes suggest that women don’t lift as heavy as the men, or go for less reps, then again there is an assumption that women cannot do the same as men even though this is not the case.

Lessons from the field

In this section I offer some lessons I have learnt from working in the space of LGBTI+ inclusion in Australia as practitioner and researcher:

    1. Administrators in Sport are crucial: I have worked with numerous sport administrators across a wide range of sports organisations including National and State Sporting Organisations (NSOs/SSOs). Administrators hold the key to unlocking inclusion efforts, and are the gatekeepers into a sports organisation. These could be diversity and inclusion officers, the CEO’s, or an LGBTI+ ally who works in marketing. Administrators have the ability and power to introduce and design new polices, allocate funding to an inclusive participation program, or help fund education to a range of clubs who want to be more LGBTI+ inclusive.
    2. The Business Case for LGBTI+ Diversity: It took us about a year at Proud 2 Play to work out that promoting LGBTI+ inclusion from the social justice perspective and human rights approach did not hit the mark in trying to engage sports organisations. After a year or so of meetings, pitches, hundreds of coffees, we radically changed how we approached sports organisations. We had to sell LGBTI+ inclusion as a product from the business case; sports administrators’ key aim is to grow their sport, but also to make revenue. Engaging a market in which they have never engaged with before was scary, but an interesting prospect for many sports. We began to see a lot more traction when LGBTI+ inclusion was seen as good for their business, whilst ALSO doing good for wider society. The work of American scholar George Cunningham is useful for outlining how LGBTI+ diversity engagement in sport leads to higher organisational productivity.
    3. It’s Good to Talk: Sports do not respond well to either being called out for discriminatory practices or when they get things wrong; whether it be responding to an incident around homophobia, or a discriminatory policy around trans players. We need to avoid shouting down organisations and not offering alternatives or help in addressing their faults. People working in sport generally have little knowledge around LGBTI+ issues, and they often want to talk and learn about the area. But often they become scared to speak out or ask questions in case they are shot down or get things wrong. Overall in my experience, sports do not know how to do LGBTI+ inclusion. Therefore, we need to show them how to enact LGBTI+ inclusion within their organisations on a daily basis. Pride rounds are good and very much needed, but often they can become a substitute for action, and organisations can simply reduce LGBTI+ inclusion to a one-day event in the calendar. Embedding LGBTI+ inclusion across the institution will result in true social change.
    4. Institutional Support: Having an ally or champion in an organisation is crucial, but to bring about real culture change, it requires a whole-of-organisation approach and institutional support. This is important so diversity and inclusion does not become the job of one person, but every person in the organisation. Having the support of the CEO and senior leadership is very important; if they are not on board, it becomes very difficult to engage in the space, including getting things signed off, allocating resources to an initiative or simply organising drinks and snacks at a LGBTI+ event.
    5. LGBTI+ visibility: We need LGBTI+ people in decision making roles and to be present and visible within administrations across the sport sector. There are few out administrators within sport. Given sport has not always been as welcoming or a safe space for LGBTI+ people, it is not surprising. We need to encourage LGBTI+ people to take jobs in sport, to volunteer in local community clubs, to coach their children’s football or basketball team, to score or officiate a cricket match in their local community, to apply for CEO positions within professional sporting clubs, and to take up positions on boards. The more visibility and people we have taking up positions across the whole sport sector, the more we will see inclusive decision-making.
    6. Change IS happening: Whilst often we might feel like we are going backwards, especially around trans inclusion, change is happening. We have lots of outputs and evidence of change at Proud 2 Play, through tangible programs, practices, the creation of new polices, pride rounds, or funding being directed towards LGBTI+ causes. In a recent study I led around LGBTI+ supporter groups in sport, with a focus on AFL, one participant highlighted that five years ago, we would never have been having these conversations… never mind pride rounds, supporter groups, or being invited to social functions as recognised members of LGBTI+ groups. Social change is messy and can take a long time (the marriage equality bill and progress there took over a decade). The fact discussions are taking place, and sports are engaging in the space, is a positive step forward. Whether sports are doing enough is a different question.

Conclusion

Sport is an important institution within Australia, and can help advance and achieve equality and equity within society. The fight for gender equality is currently at the forefront of that. A request I have for LGBTI+ inclusion efforts is to move the narrative away from a deficit discourse to an asset-based one, where LGBTI+ people are celebrated for achievements and contributions to sport. LGBTI+ people have positive experiences playing sport all across Australia; we need to hear more of those stories. We need to acknowledge that there are challenges and transphobia in particular is still extremely prevalent, but that sport can and does serve as a platform to address heath inequalities and offer social connections to those who might need them the most. My call to action is for anyone involved in sport across any level, to help ensure it is inclusive and welcoming, especially for LGBTI+ people. To get involved in the movement, head to Proud 2 Play’s website: http://www.proud2play.org.au.

References

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2016) Trends in prevalence of physical activity and sedentary behaviors national YRBS: 1991–2013.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2018) Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance—United States, 2017. Morbidity and mortality weekly report. Surveillance summaries (Washington, D.C.: 2002)67(8), 1–114.

Doull, M., Watson, R.J., Smith, A., Homma, Y., Saewyc, E. (2018). Are we levelling the playing field? trends and disparities in sports participation among sexual minority youth in Canada. Journal of Sport and Health Science, 7(2), 218-226

Denison, E., & Kitchner, K. (2015) Out on the Fields. The First International Study on Homophobia in Sport, Sydney, Australia.

Hillier, L. (2005). Safe spaces: The upside of the image problem for same sex attracted young women playing Australian rules football. Football Studies8(2), 51-64.

Hillier, L., Jones, T. Monagle, M., Overton, N., Gahan, L., Blackman, J., & Mitchell, A. (2010) Writing themselves in 3: The third national study on the sexual health and wellbeing of same sex attracted and gender questioning young people. Melbourne: Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University.

Smith, E., Jones, T., Ward, R., Dixon, J., Mitchell, A., & Hillier, L. (2014). From Blues to Rainbows: The Mental health and wellbeing of gender diverse and transgender young people in Australia. Melbourne: The Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health, and Society.

Symons, C., Sbaraglia, M., Hillier, L., & Mitchell, A. (2010) Come Out To Play. The sports experience of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people in Victoria, Institute of Sport, Exercise and Active Living, Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia.

Symons, C, O’Sullivan, G, Borkoles, E, Anderson, M and Polman, R, (2014) Equal Play: The Impact of Homophobic Bullying during Sport and Physical Education Participation on Same-Sex-Attracted and Gender- Diverse Young Australians’ Depression and Anxiety Levels. Beyondblue, Melbourne.

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Dr Ryan Storr of Western Sydney University is co-founder and director of Proud 2 Play, a LGBTI+ youth sport charity, which aims to increase participation in sport for LGBTI+ youth, their friends and families. This work has involved consultancy and partnerships with State and National Sporting Organisations and working with sports to engage them with LGBTI+ diversity. Proud 2 Play was a winner in the Vic Health Sport Innovation Challenge, in partnership with Cricket Victoria, and received a grant of $100,000 to run the ‘Proud Cricket Program’, an education and social cricket program for the Victoria LGBTI+ community.

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