Homophobic and transphobic bullies are driving LGBT students out of sport, with many victims blasting school and university cultures as "alienating and unwelcoming", it has emerged.
The National Union of Students' (NUS) Out in Sport report revealed only a third of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) students at college or university participate in organised team sport, with 37.8% of those saying they are not open about their sexuality with their teammates.
The statistics concerning those who do not participate in sports are more concerning however. Nearly half (46.8%) of LGBT students who do not take part find the culture alienating or unwelcoming, while 41.9% had a negative experience at school which made them avoid sports at college or university.
"In the winter, PE was compulsory and you had to play rugby and football. You have guys in there that are proper homophobic, they just like terrorise you and make you not want to go to PE. I used to never turn up to PE in winter. They can be really harsh sometimes and really horrible. They can say really horrible things to you."
- Workshop participant, man in further education (sexual orientation not given)
University graduate Jack Cullen, who now works as a writer and publicist, spoke to the Huffington Post UK about his experiences of homophobia in university sport.
"For me university was my first opportunity to go out on a gay scene and find myself a gay friendship circle," he said. "I looked into rugby briefly but decided to take a gym membership instead as it enabled me to keep fit while listening to Robyn on my iPod which I found preferable to homophobic discourse.
"Initiations and "hazing" events often deter LGBT students because these ceremonies are so intimidating and rife with loudly expressed homophobic views.
"I remember seeing naked boys crawling through Headingley [in Leeds] covered in eggs and flour with team captains behind them with water pistols filled with uring shouting "Come on faggots". I imagine a lot of straight students are intimidated by that environment too, an environment that stinks of repressed homosexuality."
Another 14.3% of LGBT students have experienced homophobia, biphobia or transphobia which put them off participating.
"It is easier to get thru a day/its activities without the fear of physical retaliation or verbal name calling/shitty look or even made to feel like the odd one out [in sport]." – Survey respondent, gay man, HE
Trans students revealed a particularly difficult struggle to get involved in sports. Nearly one in four are put off sport by gendered teams, 36.1% were put off by gender-specific kit, with the same amount feeling sports facilities, such as showers, are not inclusive.
Many LGBT students who participate in sport do have positive experiences; nearly two thirds are open about their sexual orientation or gender identity. One gay man who participated in a workshop held by the NUS said:
"College is like a blessing really. There's no judgment here, you don't get stereotyped, you don't get laughed at for being gay. It's just, 'he's gay,' that's it." – Workshop participant, gay man in further education
But of the 37.8% who are not open, a fifth are worried about verbal and physical abuse.
"I find 'lad' culture completely intimidating and fear being ridiculed," one gay student told the NUS. Another lesbian woman said: "[My athletic union's] parties are so straight-hookup focused that it did not feel like a safe space outside my team."
Nearly half of the students surveyed said the key to encouraging more LGBT students to be involved in sport was during their time at school and there was substantial support for celebrating LGBT role models in sport.
Gareth Thomas, the former Wales rugby union captain who came out as gay in 2009, said: “The NUS’ Out in Sport project is truly ground breaking and I am delighted to support it. Attitudes have changed and the time is right for sport to start accepting openly gay people in the same way other areas of society have in recent years.”
The report highlighted a "surprising lack of evidence" about LGBT students' of sport and added said the evidence available hinted at larger issues around the inclusivity of sport.
"Everyone says that it doesn't matter who you are and you should be true to yourself but it's hard when even in a day and age where everyone is considered to be more liberal and accepting, there are still those, especially in sport that would display a homophobic attitude." – Survey respondent, bisexual man in Higher Education
Football is least popular with bisexual men, who are the only group to have less than 5% in the sport.
Previous Stonewall research found 70% of football fans had heard homophobic abuse at games and more than a quarter believed football was an anti-gay sport. A Rugby Football League investigation discovered the experiences and perceptions of young LGBT people was stopping them attending matches.
One lesbian student who responded to the survey said:
"Hearing discriminatory language can stop people coming out which is a shame because most of the time if a gay person does come out team members are very supportive and aren't in fact homophobic at all."
A gay trans man responding to the survey said it needed to be clear whether or not he could compete as his preferred gender identity, while a bisexual woman called for "visible strict punishments for homophobia in sport". The report published several recommendations based on the student feedback, including:
- Publicise LGBT friendliness
- Adopt a zero tolerance to homophobia policy
- Provide guidance for trans students
- Provide more mixed-gender options
Single cubicle changing rooms were seen as a crucial way to protect trans people's privacy but were also important to LGB respondents who were worried about the potential for harassment or homophobia: "I'm concerned about playing in sport given that people have ignorant ideas regarding changing rooms," one gay man commented.
Sky Yarlett, one of the NUS' LGBT officers said: “Whilst many LGBT students find sports teams to be welcoming it is clear that many are put off by a fear of homophobia or negative past experiences which have created barriers to their involvement.
"We have seen a welcome increase in the awareness of diversity in sport in recent years but too many LGBT students still feel that it is a world closed off to them."
The report concluded the barriers preventing LGBT students from enjoying and participating in sport "need to be eliminated".
"Through changes to policy, practice, training, and facilities, sporting opportunities for students can be made more welcoming for LGBT students, enabling them to fully enjoy the contribution that participation in sport can make to their lives as students."