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Gays in sport? Don’t ask, don’t tell

Women’s football. The team captains greet each other with a kiss. England, Preston, 1920 (Collectie Spaarnestad)
Women’s football. The team captains greet each other with a kiss. England, Preston, 1920 (Collectie Spaarnestad)

A portrayal of homophobia and transphobia
in Portuguese top-level sport.


Do you know any Portuguese footballer who is homosexual? “No,” says Joaquim Evangelista, president of the Portuguese Union of Professional Footballers (SJPF). What opinion has the Portuguese Football Federation (FPF) on the fact that there are no gays in the national championship? “The Federation cannot have any opinion without knowing any concrete situations,” says Sebastião Lobo, FPF marketing director. Are there any Olympic Portuguese athlete who is homosexual or transsexual? “I have no information on this,” says Vicente de Moura, president of the Portuguese Olympic Committee (COP).

When the subject is homosexuality and transsexuality in sport it is difficult to get answers. Not only in Portugal. BBC Radio Five asked twenty coaches of football clubs from British ’premier league’ three questions about homophobia. It was in 2005. “We did not get a single answer,” says BBC website.

In recent weeks, press officers of Sport Lisboa e Benfica, Sporting Clube de Portugal and FC Porto – considered the “big three” of Portuguese football – for personal, telephone or e-mail interviews with their football coaches about this subject. “At the moment it is not possible,” said Ricardo Maia on behalf of Benfica. “We are not performing any type of interview,” explained Rita Matos by Sporting. “Coach and players talk only about the games,” said Diana Sources for FC Porto.

Former NBA player John Amaechi has no doubts: “Homosexuality remains a taboo in the world of sports.” Amaechi came out in 2007 through the autobiography Man in the Middle, three years after abandoning his career. It’s the only former NBA player out of the closet. Speaking to us, he says that any change in this area “can only come” from clubs and national and international federations. “Society is pushing them and sports leaders now worry about saying the right words. But today clubs are structures without any objective reason to change their behaviour. Fans don’t stop going to games just because a coach is homophobic.”

Everything indicates that this subject is invisible because no one wants to bring it to daylight. Regardless of the sport, league or country, professional sport seems to live under the same unwritten rule it was applied until 2011 to homosexuals in the U.S. military: “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Sports leaders are pointed as the main responsibles for this situation and athletes are afraid of harming their careers. But there are signs of openness from the amateur sport: there are teams made up mostly of gay men.

The President of the COP, who was asked for personal interview and chose to respond by email, admits that this “may be considered a taboo subject, not only in sports but in various areas of activity.” However from the COP “does not exist or is expected any policy” on homophobia and transphobia in sport. “We do not have a specific policy for these cases, as we don’t have any regarding religious discrimination, racism, politics or other. One of the values of Olympism is to defend the equality for all and is part of our mission to spread the values ​​of Olympism“, says Vicente de Moura.

Strictly speaking, the COP should have an anti-discrimination policy. On the one hand, the President of COP signed with the Portuguese Institute of Youth and Sport a contract for sport development, published on Diário da República [official law journal] on May 30, which provides for the transfer of 500,000 euros from the state treasury to the Portuguese Mission to the 2012 Olympics. The eighth clause establishes, with no other details, that “if the Olympic Committee fails to respect the legislation on combating all forms of discrimination the financial contributions may be suspended“. On the other hand, there is a recommendation from the Council of Europe (November 25, 2003) which, among other things, calls on European sports organizations to “launch active campaigns against homophobia in sport and broaden the scope of the campaigns on xenophobia in order to include homophobia.” Asked about this recommendation, Vicente de Moura argues: “The promotion of communication actions is something that we can activate at any time if we feel any kind of discriminatory practices.”

Fans_of_the_Portuguese_national_football_team_in_Cologne_1
“Fans don’t stop going to games just because a coach is homophobic”, says former NBA player John Amaechi

In Portugal we do not have any gay or transsexual athlete. “In over 40 years on sports journalism I didn’t know any gay players,” says journalist David Borges, who was founder and director of information at TSF radio station and TV host. “I just met two gay sports writers, I suppose that some athletes fear to ruin their reputation and career” if they assume the are gays. Is this the result of pressure from clubs, fans, sponsors or the athletes themselves? “I suppose athletes constrain themselves,” says David Borges pointing to a share of responsibility from clubs: “Given the knowledge of any case maybe there is some kind of pressure from structures the athlete work for.”

The only case appears to be Mário de Araújo Cabral, known as Nicha Cabral, the first Portuguese on Formula 1 by the end of the 1950s. He informed that he is homosexual through the book 3º Sexo by the journalist Raquel Lito (2009).

Twelve years ago footballer José Calado was victim of a rumour: he allegedly maintained a relationship with the singer Fernando Melão. The subject appeared in newspapers. On October 2, 2000, during a game between Benfica and Sporting Braga, Benfica fans used homophobic slur against José Calado, which did not want to play the second part of the game and that resulted in disciplinary proceedings moved by the club against him. “Leaving Benfica indirectly may have had something to do with that episode“, Calado said to Diário de Notícias newspaper five years later. The player moved to Betis de Sevilla and ended his career in 2010 in AEP Paphos from Cyprus.

We requested a personal interview or a written statement to various Portuguese athletes regardless of their sexual orientation. Some of theirs agents did not respond, others postponed the answer during weeks until they quit answering the phone. Others said their athletes “have no interest in talking about it.”

In the absence of athletes, we requested an interview to Joaquim Evangelista, president of SJPF since 2004, who agreed to speak personally. Homosexuality, he says, “has never been an issue while violence and racism in sport are very debated because there are concrete cases.” Hence the union where “about 80% of professional footballers playing in Portugal” are registered has never taken a position or initiated any specific campaigns on discrimination based on sexual orientation (homosexuals) or gender identity (transgenders) – although SJPF is involved in the organization of the Week Against Racism and Violence in Sport in Portugal. “As the subject of homophobia has not gained prominence in Portugal and is not a visible problem we have not acted,” says Joaquim Evangelista confessing he has “never been approached” by footballers to talk about this subject.

The absence of publicly out athletes appears as an evidence of frequent discrimination, because it is difficult to believe that there are no homosexual or transsexual athletes in Portugal. Sharon Wheeler, sports journalist since 1987 and professor at the University of Portsmouth in southern England, believes that homophobia in sport “reflects in some way, what is happening in society in general.” Still, “there are particular aspects of the sports world, related to masculinity and stereotypes: the prevailing idea that the perfect athlete should be muscular, strong and aggressive, which is immediately linked with heterosexuality. The heterosexual male is a dominant ideology in sport, which creates problems for gays, lesbians and to heterosexual women.”

In the same way goes the opinion of the Austrian MEP Ulrike Lunacek. “The sports activities are organized around strict divisions between sexes, that’s why heteronormativity is so ingrained in this area.” Out lesbian, elected by the Greens, Ulrike Lunacek is part of the Foreign Affairs Committee and is co-chair of the LGBT Intergroup [LGBT: lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) of the European Parliament. “There is the idea that the assumption of gays and lesbians in sport can damage the image and careers of athletes or even the image of the sport they practice,” she says. “The presence of gay men in sport undermines the masculine stereotypes, allegedly because gay men are effeminate, therefore, the are not real men and male sports require real men. With lesbians is almost the same, with one difference: many women who play sports have to fight the idea that they are lesbians, because the stereotype says that women are weak: if they are in sport that’s because they are strong women, so they can only be homosexuals.”

MEP Ulrike Lunacek (by Manfred Werner)
MEP Ulrike Lunacek (by Manfred Werner)

Regarding transsexuality, discrimination appears to be originated in more practical matters, says MEP. “Transsexual people are often excluded from participating in sporting competitions because they transcend the rigid definitions of gender used in sport. In particular, transgender male-to-women are rejected by their female colleagues and the sports associations because they believe that their background as men, prior to sex-change, makes them stronger and faster athletes than the others.

In recent years, the most well known case was the middle-distance runner from South Africa Caster Semenya – participating in the London Olympics and being trained in recent months by the former Olympic champion Maria Mutola from Mozambique, a former Portuguese territory. In August 2009, aged 18, Caster Semenya won the gold medal in 800 meters of the World Athletics Championships in Berlin. Shortly after, the International Athletics Federation (IAAF), the world authority of this sport, announced that the athlete would be subject to medical examinations to determine whether she was biologically male or female. In July 2010 she was authorized to return to women competition. It is speculated that Caster Semenya is intersexual (hermaphrodite) but the federation does not disclose test results.

The visible presence of sexual minorities in professional sports is very recent indeed. It really began in the last decades of the twentieth century, which practically coincides with the beginning of the organized movement for the defense of gay rights in 1969 in the USA. The American David Kopay came out in 1975 and is today considered the first athlete to have done it during his career. The tennis player Martina Navratilova was also a pioneer: in 1981 se came out of the closet. In 1990 Justin Fashanu come out. He is until now the only British football player to have done it. Fashanu played for clubs like Manchester City and Southampton, but his life ended in tragedy. In 1998 he was accused of sexual harassment of an underage in the US. Weeks later, he committed suicide.

The list of gay and lesbian athletes has grown rapidly in recent years and the new examples seem peaceful. The Australian swimmer Matthew Mitcham, 24, who participates in the Games in London, said he is gay in 2008 on the eve of traveling to the Beijing Games. The British rugby player Gareth Thomas came out in 2009, one year before retiring. And swimmer Mark Tewksbury, gold medal at Barcelona Games in 1992, came out in 1998 and currently is head of the Canadian Mission to the London Games.

Even heterosexual athletes begin to appear in defense of LGBT rights. Olivier Giroud let appeared semi-nude for french magazine Têtu in May 2012. He played in Montpellier and weeks after that cover he signed by Arsenal. Belgian Carl Hoefkens, captain of Bruges, appears at Inch magazine in July issue. And some days ago Portuguese judoka Joao Pina was photographed for the July issue of Quir, Portuguese gay magazine.

A rare case of a heterosexual who after leaving the sport involved himself as LGBT activist is Ben Cohen, 33 years professional rugby player in England and France between 1996 and 2011. The fact that he played rugby is relevant because, according to Sharon Wheeler “the sports authorities of rugby in the UK have supported vigorously campaigns against homophobia in sport, which is far from what happens in football.” Ben Cohen appeared on the cover of gay magazine Attitude in October 2009 under the title “Big Ben”, and last year he created the Stand Up Foundation. “The violence has affected my personal life through the death of my father and then I realized I had a legion of male fans, many of them homosexuals, who through the Internet wanted to share with me their experiences as victims of homophobic violence,” said the former player to us by email. Ben Cohen says he “never saw” homophobic situations in sports but he “heard of cases” and he is convinced that “if an athlete does not feel safe in his workplace he hardly achieves the highest level“.

David Cameron and former rugby player Ben Cohen in 2011
British PM David Cameron and former rugby player Ben Cohen in 2011

From the viewpoint of sports, what happens in the dressing room, away from the spotlight has a decisive importance in this matter. “The environment in which the athlete moves, especially the dressing room, has a big role because athletes may fear the collective reaction,” says David Borges. The journalist also points to the “fear of some exacerbated fan reaction if the sexual orientation of the athlete is revealed.” This element (fans) was considered irrelevant by other sources.

Ulrike Lunacek notes that “athletes spend much time with same-sex athletes including physically.” Hence, “if we do not make prevention campaigns against homophobia this turn to be very problematic. For gay athletes physical proximity with same-sex colleagues puts them alert and that can be one of the reasons why they decide to stay in the closet.”

That’s one of the reasons that led to the appearance in 2009 of the first gay rugby team in Portugal (a Lisbon amateur team). Their name was then BJWHF (Boys Just Wanna Have Fun), and it changed to Dark Horses. A sports association named BJWHF was formalized last year.

The founder of Dark Horses had a bad experience in a rugby team. He almost felt compelled to certain heterosexual behaviours“, says Ricardo Morgado, 35, president of the association. “Our existence is a certain response to homophobia in sport,” he explains. Currently, Dark Horses are incorporated in the Portuguese Rugby Federation (where there are only amateur teams) and they participated in the league of emerging teams. “At first I felt that other teams had doubts about what we wanted and how we were going to carry, but the federation has always had an excellent relationship with us“, says Ricardo Morgado.

Dark Horses would eventually inspire the creation of Oporto Spartans team. In 2011, the association BJWHF witnessed the birth of Lisbon volleyball team named Crows. “And by February of next year would like to be able to create an inclusive team of amateur football,” says Morgado.

The International Gay Games championships (San Francisco, USA, 1982), Euro Games (The Hague, 1992) and Out Games (Montreal, 2006) have been hosting similar to those teams.

In professional sports, things are less explicit. John Amaechi, who between 1995 and 2004 he played at clubs such as Panathinaikos, Limoges CSP, Houston Rockets and New York Knicks, says that “most athletes know perfectly what are the gay teammates but nobody comes to the dressing room and announces being gay. “

There are two common forms, although indirect, of coming out to the team: the language used in conversation or the regular presence of companions in the social life. “Athletes are more than two hundred days a year with their teams. Traveling together, shopping together, they are the company each other throughout most of the time. And there is always impossible to use a neutral language to refer to the person with whom we live“, he says.

The other way is more evident. “There are some players who have someone who will watch games and is always in social events. It is said to be the agent but from some point everyone realizes that agent means boyfriend.”

Bearing in mind this description, we asked Portuguese Football Federation if some gay footballers sought help or complained or even if clubs themselves asked information how to combat homophobia. “We have no record,” says Sebastião Lobo. Asked whether the federation is planning to adopt sensitization campaigns against homophobia and transphobia – in line with what was done five years ago by the German Football Confederation – the marketing manager did not answer, but noted that the institution “develops all its activity under the law and under the rules issued by FIFA and UEFA.”

The rules of FPF, dated May last year, refer that sexual orientation is a characteristic according to which the federation “does not admit any kind” of discrimination. Violating this and other principles “constitutes cause for suspension or expulsion” of clubs, states the document.

To the COP we asked what assurances can be given to Portuguese gay and transsexual athletes wishing to come out. Vicente de Moura said that COP “is available to support athletes in all aspects” and “rejects any kind of discrimination.”

The President of SJPF believes that “the football players are now much more open to the theme of homosexuality” because “the majority of them pass through international championships and live in countries with more liberal cultures.” Moreover, in the words of Joaquim Evangelista, the players “are increasingly required for social events and they talk and make friendship with homosexuals.”

John Amaechi see things changing, but very slowly. “Today’s teenagers may find support in family when they come out. But the problem is when you expect a positive reaction and it is negative. Then, for homosexuals, the consequences are terrible: they are placed in the street or do not receive money for their studies. In sport it is the same: if there are positive reactions, is all right, if not, the sporting career that we about may disappear.”

Amaechi points out: “For most fans, the sexuality of athletes is an irrelevant issue, they just want to see a good game. They pay the ticket and they want to watch sports. The problem is not the fans, the problem is with people who sign the check at the end of the month“, he says.

Former basketball player gives as an example of homophobia the fact that in today’s schools there are public campaigns against homophobic violence while little is done in sport. “In business life is no longer possible to climb to the top places if you are racist, for example. Not that the companies want to be nice, they just know that discrimination destroys their business. As leaders of sports organizations can be homophobic, racist and sexist at ease. See ‘Sepp’ Blatter [FIFA President]. It is clear that he is racist and homophobic.”

Joaquim Evangelista does not fully agree. “Imagine that a great player says he is gay. Do people think that a club like Real Madrid would lose its interest in the player just because of that? Clubs just want performance,” he says. However, he criticizes officials. “The sports culture is not different from the culture of the country and until recently homosexuality was a taboo in all sectors of our society. It is normal that as the country changes, so sports begins to change. The older leaders may still have constraints, because they were raised in a culture where homosexuality was taboo. The younger face it another way.”

Regarding the role of brands that support teams and players, none of our sources attached importance to it. Through the agency of communication Bird Song, we asked what is the policy of Nike. The brand refused to answer. As for Adidas, one of the main sponsors of the Olympic Games in London, they said through spokeswoman Sonia Fernandes that “Adidas does not discriminate against anyone based on religion, skin colour or sexual orientation.”

For now, summarizes Sharon Wheller, homophobia in sports “is ignored and treated as a non-issue.” “There has been progress in fighting racism and sexism but as for homophobia the road is still long. In the UK, I think the problem lies not in the fans, but within the institutions, particularly the presidents of clubs and coaches. Max Clifford, one of the most important PR in the UK, says he advised some football players not to come out. Only a very brave player will take the first step, but probably he will do so at the end of his career“, she predicts.

Ben Cohen is perhaps more optimistic: “We are today in relation to homophobia as we were in relation to racism 20 years ago. Sport is a key element of social change, so you need to support athletes to become role models and to be able to show their true strength and character.”

Bruno Horta

A version of this article appeared on the Portuguese daily Público, July 29, 2012.

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