Below, Jon Holmes, founder of Sports Media LGBT+, shares his advice for LGBTQ+ athletes choosing to go public with their sexuality.
“I know that sometimes it can be daunting to speak to strangers,” says Michael Gunning. He recognises the obstacles that prevent us from opening up, particularly to those outside our circles of trust.
As the international swimmer explained on his recent BBC LGBT Sport Podcast chat alongside fellow BEAA Ambassador Robyn Love, the scrutiny athletes face hardly encourages them to share their innermost feelings.
When you’re under pressure, the prospect of going public with what could be a closely-guarded secret – or just part of your life that you’ve previously thought of as private – is hard to contemplate.
❤️ “Celebrate who we are, celebrate our identities”
We asked BEAA Ambassador @MichaelGunning1: why is #PrideMonth important to you? 🌈#BEAAWithYou pic.twitter.com/TW4ay7DKFk
— British Elite Athletes Association (@GBEliteAthletes) June 5, 2023
You might think putting yourself out there in the world is daft or, worse, potentially damaging.
Yet when the circumstances are right, and the tension has eased, just articulating a part of who you are makes perfect sense. In many instances, it turns out to be the best decision an LGBTQ+ athlete makes.
Swimmer Dan Jervis discussed this with curler Bruce Mouat for Team GB’s Pride Month coverage, saying that his public coming out was “really empowering… an amazing experience.”
But how do you prepare for that moment? Having first accepted yourself, it’s important to know there’s no set path to follow here. It won’t be non-stop sunshine and rainbows the entire way – but rest assured, there is plenty of good advice available.
These are roads that are still rarely travelled, more so in certain sports than others. We are still in a time of trailblazers.
However this isn’t a sprint; you set the pace.
Having a solid purpose on the start line is paramount. One approach is to advocate for good mental health among fellow athletes who can relate to you when you reflect on your struggles.
Both Jervis and Dame Kelly Holmes made such an impact when they did this last summer, and whether you’re a past, present or potential Olympian or Paralympian, your unique story will have power too.
Raising awareness of a charity or cause, like the NFL’s Carl Nassib did when he came out by donating to the Trevor Project, is commendable. Sharing happy news of a relationship or another life event is also an invitation to celebrate.
🌈 What does #PrideMonth mean to our LGBTQ+ Ambassador, @Robyn_Love13?#BEAAWithYou pic.twitter.com/7ijLwVpLVM
— British Elite Athletes Association (@GBEliteAthletes) June 16, 2023
Wanting to be the role model that the younger you never had, stating your gender identity, or silencing your inner saboteur, are among the acts someone has in mind when they share their truth.
But before you even reach that first water stop, there’s a high probability you’ll consider turning back. It’ll look like the safer option, and close friends and family might suggest as much, citing the need for protection, making gloomy predictions or just playing down the significance.
However well-intentioned this advice is, it defeats the purpose you previously decided upon. Give up now and the restlessness around achieving your ambition will remain. Ultimately, an ambitious athlete must choose their own adventure.
And it doesn’t matter if you clatter the odd hurdle. Perhaps words others use that don’t sit comfortably with you are the obstacle. The LGBTQ+ lexicon is there to help us all articulate who we are, whatever our orientation or identity, but while language can be liberating, labels often aren’t. At the Tokyo Olympics, German diver Timo Barthel just wanted to be seen as “human” – and that’s okay.
It’s only human to worry about what we don’t know, and visibility arrives suddenly when you come out publicly. How will you be perceived? There’s a relevant quote attributed to Dr. Seuss, whose books for children made him a household name: “The best advice I ever heard: ‘Be who you are and say what you feel because people who mind don’t matter and people who matter don’t mind.’”
The ‘newness’ of the news that you’re sharing, combined with the diverse audiences that sport attracts, as good as guarantees interest in your story.
This is when the pillars of security in your life will help you keep your feet on the ground – race walker Tom Bosworth uses that analogy when he publicly speaks about his journey as a gay athlete.
Knowing in advance that different outlets – from large international publishers to local papers, from LGBTQ+ media to independent blogs – will want to carry their own reports of your story can work to your advantage.
What’s proven to be particularly effective for athletes in recent years is a synchronised approach. You post to your social profiles; around the same time, your club, team, NGB and other relevant organisations acknowledge your personal news and affirm their support for your message.
Through all this, the most important voice is yours. You could choose to record a video where you look into the camera and connect directly with the viewer. It might look very slick and professional in the way it’s produced, as with Australian footballer Josh Cavallo in October 2021; it could be very casual and matter-of-fact, like Nassib on Instagram a few months prior to Cavallo; or followers may just see a Pride flag, accompanied by text that’s short but sweet.
As for speaking to a stranger – such as a journalist or media officer – there’s no denying that can be daunting. However, taking this route can help you to frame your narrative across the wider media.
You might prefer to be the author of a first-person article; you can show your creative side on social media through artwork or fashion; or collaborate on an interview where you’re in control.
Look around at what’s on offer. Which platform can deliver the audience that you want to reach? Who can you turn to in confidence who has a proven track record?
One more piece of advice: let someone else monitor your social media before, during and after your announcement, such as an agent, manager, trusted friend or family member.
Say what you want to say, then let it breathe. While the weight is lifting off your shoulders (you might suspect this is a coming-out cliche, but it does happen!), everything else can wait.
Then… apprehension over. You’ve unlocked your next level and that courage deserves to be applauded. Coming out isn’t a one-off event for anybody, but for those in the public eye it’s a milestone others will want to mark with you.
And for an out athlete, the best is yet to come: the power-up, the turbo boost, the spring in your step, with a whole community cheering you on. Now you get to go and deliver your personal best.
Jon Holmes is the founder and lead of Sports Media LGBT+, a network and consultancy that is helping the sports sector communicate inclusion. Find out more here.