Participating in sport can have many benefits for lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB) youth. Sport has the potential to bring joy, distraction and mindfulness that frees LGB youth from worry and fear in other domains of their lives. Sport can also provide important social connections and support for LGB youth as they negotiate coming out.
In this blog, we explain why LGB youth often feel unsafe in sport. Aligned with a movement to understand the nuances of different gender and sexual identities we focus on LGB identities. We also recommend 5 strategies that coaches and other sport leaders should consider to create more inclusive cultures in their teams and organizations for LGB and transgender, and queer or questioning (LGBTQ+) identities.
Unfortunately, many LGB youth miss the benefits of sport due to a variety of constraints and barriers that lead to a decrease in sport participation compared to heterosexual youth (Greenspan et al., 2017). For LGB youth who remain in sport, their experiences may be negatively affected or they may seek out other activities in which they feel less stigmatized.
Young athletes and participants experience sexual stigma from multiple stakeholders (for example, coaches, teammates, teachers, parents and guardians). Sexual stigma may not necessarily lead to obvious homophobic behaviours and violence toward LGB athletes and participants. However, that stigma is ever-present in their stories. Sexual stigma affects all young athletes and participants, regardless of their sexual identity.
An important reason LGB youth don’t participate in sports is because they feel unsafe. Obvious homophobia often happens in locker rooms with young people using harmful language (Greenspan et al., 2019). By linking words such as ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ to either weakness or mistakes, then individuals are displaying homonegative and heteronormative acts. Humour and anti-gay physical aggression are forms of obvious homophobia that create unsafe spaces for LGB athletes (Smits et al., 2021).
How an organization, team or coach prevents or responds to these acts plays a significant role in whether LGB youth feel safe in sport. But not all coaches feel equipped or prepared to support LGB youth. And, organizational resources to guide coaches aren’t always available.
Strategies for coaches and organizations
In an upcoming chapter in the Routlege Handbook of Coaching Children in Sport (in press), we recommend 5 strategies that coaches and other sport leaders should consider to create a more inclusive culture in their teams and organizations. Here, we summarize those strategies and link them to helpful resources:
- Recognize that participation alone doesn’t mean inclusion: Don’t define ‘success’ by how many LGBTQ+ athletes and participants are taking part in sport. Some may be questioning their identities or haven’t disclosed their identities to others. Safety is reflected in formal rules and policies as well as the more subtle ways we shape our interactions (Canadian Women & Sport, 2017). It’s important to develop an environment in which everyone feels safe, respected, equal, and like they can have a positive experience.
- Engage in education and self-reflection: Be an ally and do your homework. Learn about sexual stigma and work to find ways to counter these negative beliefs in your own actions and those of others. Remember that we may unintentionally express homonegative attitudes or insinuations within our sport or coaching practice (Krane, 2016).
- Develop partnerships: Seek out and build relationships with local and national LGBTQ+, transgender, and queer or questioning (LGBTQ) advocacy groups. They can help you find the resources and training you need. You can also find resources that are free and easy to download. In many instances, these organizations are already doing this work and you can invest in their efforts (for example, YouthREX 2019, Queersmart 2018, The Trevor Project 2020).
- Recruit and support individuals who identify as LGBTQ+: The intentional recruitment of LGBTQ+ young people as well as LGBTQ+ parents or guardians in leadership positions (for example, as coaches or directors) is a way to build safe and inclusive environments. They can provide diverse perspectives and raise questions about exclusionary policies and practices. However, be careful not to tokenize, that is recruit LGBTQ+ people as a symbolic effort. Be aware not to expect these individuals to contribute inequitably to work being done in your organization. Always being the one to educate and ‘wave the flag’ leads to burnout and fatigue (Trussell et al., 2018).
- Evaluate organizational policies and practices: Evaluate if your organization and leaders (for example, coaches) are using inclusive language. Examine if your policies and practices reflect and respect the diversity of the broader community. Consider policies and practices involving statements on websites, inclusive language on registration forms, LGBTQ+-friendly images and promotional materials, special events, and more. Websites and the language used on registration forms are often an important marker for families to decide if an organization will be a welcoming space or not (Trussell, 2020). Secondly, establish clear guidelines and codes of conduct for how instances of abuse will be treated. Athletes, participants and families need to know how they can report incidents of abuse and if they’ll be supported.
Coaches and other sport leaders play an important role in creating safe, welcoming and supporting contexts for athletes and participants. They can also be important allies in LGBTQ+ young peoples’ lives. All stakeholders in sport need to think critically about inclusion and how to create a more just and equitable sport system that serves all youth.