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The International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia (IDAHO) is held annually on May 17th to celebrate sexual and gender diversity. This year’s global theme is “Alliances for Solidarity” which is appropriate for our work in Canada to make sport more welcoming for those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer or questioning, intersex and two spirited (LGBTQI2S). The research which follows demonstrates that we are making progress, but there is still much work to do. Leadership is key, and the coach’s role is especially critical.

Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia Remain Significant Problems in Canadian Sport

The results of the international Out on the Fields study (2015) found that in Canada:

  • 29% of all participants (heterosexual and LGB people) and 36% of gay men believe LGB people are “not accepted at all” or only “accepted a little” in sports culture;
  • 65% of all participants and 75% of gay men believe homophobia is more common in Canadian sports than the rest of society;
  • 81% of participants witnessed or experienced homophobia in sports (both heterosexual and LGB people), ranging from bullying and verbal slurs to physical assault;
  • 70% believe youth team sports are not welcoming or safe for LGB people; and
  • 66% of Canadian participants believe an openly gay, lesbian or bisexual person would not be very safe as a spectator at a sporting event.

More recently, research led by Guylaine Demers (2017) at Laval University involving a total of 1,008 Canadian athletes (aged 18 to 30, including 724 female athletes (71.86%), 282 male athletes (27.94%) and 2 intersex athletes (0.2%)) confirmed that homophobia, biphobia and transphobia is still present in Canadian sport and that it affects all athletes, regardless of their sexual orientation. Indeed, 30% of heterosexual athletes, 67% of LGB athletes and 85% of trans athletes experienced at least one LGBTQI2S -phobic episode. The most frequent forms of LGBTQI2S-phobia reported were verbal insults, disparagement and offensive remarks, and being ignored or excluded by their peers. LGBTQI2S athletes who are subject to this treatment say they feel pressured to stay in the closet (not reveal or talk about their sexual orientation or gender identity).

But Demers (2017) also found that there was an improvement – 97% of heterosexual athletes said they are very comfortable or comfortable with having LGBTQI2S teammates. The athletes who took part in Demers’ study indicated that sports culture is changing in keeping with Canadian culture, but they also felt strongly that schools, coaches and parents need to be made aware of negative experiences early on so that LGBTQI2S-phobia is taken seriously in sports environments and that sport participation is more welcoming.

Coaches Play a Critical Role

Common to the strategies for addressing LGBTQI2S-phobia in sport is the importance of education and strong leadership by coaches. LGBTQI2S identified athletes and coaches will be looking to their coach(es) for visible and positive signs of support and acceptance. CAAWS’ Leading the Way: Working with LGBTQ Athletes and Coaches resources identify three key strategies and underlying actions that coaches can employ to create welcoming and respectful environments for those who are identify as LGBTQI2S.

  1. Establish an inclusive environment of openness and respect for everyone, regardless of ethnicity, race, gender, religion, class, size, or sexual or gender identity.
  • Understand your own beliefs and feelings about LGBTQI2S-phobia, and assess how welcoming your team environment is to those who are LGBTQI2S.
  • Describe acceptable behaviours, clarify disrespectful behaviours, and highlight behaviours that demonstrate an inclusive environment of openness and respect. Act quickly to address LGBTQI2S-phobic behavior or discrimination.
  • Train staff, parents, supporters and other coaching staff.
  • Be aware that other countries have strict laws about being LGBTQI2S that may make a county or city you are travelling to with your team unsafe.
  1. Provide strong, positive leadership that models fair and respectful behavior.
  • Avoid assumptions or judgements based on stereotypes or rumour, but rather assume there are LGBTQI2S members involved with your team – either directly as athletes, coaches or training staff, or indirectly as family members or friends – and never ask someone about their sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • Be ready for when someone who is LGBTQI2S comes out to you
  • Make your support for LGBTQI2S team members visible and intentional, for example by using LGBTQI2S inclusive language or wearing a positive space pin or sticker.
  1. Become a visible ally and take part in ally initiatives such as the Canadian Olympic Committee’s (COC) One Team project with Egale Canada, and the You Can Play Project
  • Become more familiar with LGBTQI2S issues in sport, and know what resources are available to assist those who are LGBTQI2S and may be struggling.
  • If you are LGBTQI2S yourself, consider taking steps to live your sport life more openly as an “out” coach.
  • Work with your organization to put in place the necessary policy and process frameworks to assist you in working with LGBTQI2S athletes and coaches, including equity policies and codes of conduct that prohibit discrimination across the organization (e.g., from selection criteria and playing time to leadership nominations) and educational initiatives to raise awareness.

Individuals and organizations do not have to do this work alone – there are organizations with whom sport organizations can work – CAAWS being one of them. Let’s lead the way here in Canada to make sport more welcoming to sexual and gender diversity.

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About the Author: Jennifer Birch-Jones is the program lead for CAAWS’s Addressing Homophobia in Sport Initiative. She has been involved extensively in sport as an athlete, NSO board member, national referee and assessor. She was on the Organizing Committee for the first ever Pride House held at the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Vancouver.

About CAAWS: The Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity (CAAWS) is dedicated to creating an equitable and inclusive Canadian sport and physical activity system that empowers girls and women – as active participants and leaders – within and through sport. With a focus on systematic change, we partner with governments, organizations and leaders to challenge the status quo and to advance solutions that result in measurable change.

The information presented in SIRC blogs and SIRCuit articles is accurate and reliable as of the date of publication. Developments that occur after the date of publication may impact the current accuracy of the information presented in a previously published blog or article.