Game Changer: Discussing LGBT issues in sport

On February 4th as part of its Pride week, De Montfort University (DMU) hosted a forum to discuss LGBT issues in sport. DMU’s QEII Leisure Centre is RDL’s main training venue, and when invited to participate we jumped at the opportunity. RDL skaters Karen Laurie and Moji Green report on the event below.

The session began with a viewing of the documentary Game Changer. This detailed the plight of retired rugby star Gareth Thomas, who came out as gay whilst still playing professionally. We saw how his inner battles and the fear of judgement and prejudice left him close to ending it all, but also how sport had given him a positive focus for facing these difficulties.

Because of his sporting successes, however, Gareth’s struggle became one played out in the public eye. With the pressure eventually affecting his health, Gareth laid his true self bare. His fears proved unfounded when he received overwhelmingly positive reactions from his family, his friends, his fans and his sport. Personally and professionally, Gareth’s successes have gone from strength to strength since he came out.

This documentary was moving, inspirational and educational. Furthermore, we found it useful for evaluating our own experiences. As a transgender person, one aspect Karen identified with strongly was the pressure and strain of having to portray a different, untrue self to the world. The guilt and the practicalities of living a lie was for Gareth, as for Karen, perhaps the single most difficult dimension of the struggle.

Like Gareth, we also share a strong passion for sport. Sadly, as LGBT issues in sport have often been left unaddressed, it can remain a daunting world for LGBT people to inhabit.

A panel discussion followed the documentary. The panel was chaired by DMU’s Dr Helen Owton, and also included psychologist Dr Kate Russell from the University of East Anglia, Paul Fitzgerald from the Leicester LGBT centre, Gareth Miller from the Leicester Wildecats (an LGBT football team), and of course Karen and Moji representing RDL.

The panel was asked to deliberate on the importance of LGBT sportspeople ‘coming out’. The general consensus held that this was important for achieving the larger goal of sexual orientation and gender identity becoming irrelevant in sport.

Thankfully, the sport of Roller Derby has a framework and a collective desire to strive for equality, and a positive culture which is already bringing this about. Because of this, when the panel went on to discuss how best to tackle prejudice in sport, we could put forward our sport as an ideal template. The UKRDA’s progressive and active outlook is well exemplified by their excellent transgender policy and their use of a Transgender Liaison Officer. We were keen to show the panel and audience alike that Roller Derby is truly leading the way.

We discussed why Roller Derby was such an inclusive sport, and Moji suggested that as a relatively new sport it has developed good practice from its roots. Within our sport there is a culture of working with, and developing further, the skills of each person as presented, rather than determining them through preconceptions and prejudices. As such, inclusiveness is naturally seen as a positive rather than a policy imposed from above that has to be clumsily shoe horned into place.

As a black woman, Moji found it interesting to hear the audience and panel make comparisons with how black sports people were treated 20 to 30 years ago in terms of racism on and off the sports field. While the issues they faced then have not completely gone away, there are widespread examples that good practice can achieve equality and inclusiveness. As such, the panel felt hopeful that while it may take a number of years to achieve, sport can change, and more LGTB sportspeople at all levels will be out without fear of discrimination or physical and/or verbal attack.

The panel concluded that it will take progressive policies and practices to achieve this change, and Roller Derby was held up as a positive example and role model. Most importantly, we all agreed that the best way to foster change was through educating children and young people. RDL’s representatives will now join a group organised by Dr Owton to go into schools to discuss issues of inclusiveness and diversity.

We can proudly state that Roller Derby Leicester has proven itself to be a supremely inclusive sports club, where differences of all kinds are seen as simply an irrelevance. We are looking forward to representing RDL in the Leicestershire community to fight against prejudices of all kinds.

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