The Problem With Men...

20/07/2016 11:51


In 2009, I started producing a naked calendar featuring male university rowers who wanted to raise funds for boat repairs.

What began as a simple student fundraiser went on to become a expression of straight allies' support for LGBT rights, and a example of how diversity and inclusion can benefit us all.

Now, through the work of Sport Allies, the charity we have helped to set up and fund, we have recognized that to challenge homophobia, we must examine and address the role of sport in perpetuating unhealthy models of masculinity.

Rigid and constricting models of masculinity, we have learned, are at the root of a range of problems far beyond the homophobia we set out to address.

Sadly, the shoots for our 2017 calendar have been bookended by two acts of bewildering violence that demonstrate the extreme and tragic results of fostering just such values.

As we celebrated the end of our last day of filming and photography in Spain, we were unaware that a few hundred miles north, in Nice, a man was driving a truck through a crowd of innocent bystanders who were celebrating one of the great milestones in the history of freedom and equality.

Equally horrifically, our first day of photography took place in the immediate aftermath of the mass slaughter at a gay nightclub in Orlando. I want to share with you the message that I sent to the rowers at that time.

I am sure that, like me, you have been deeply affected by the horrific events in Orlando. On the eve of our first day of photography for our 2017 calendar, I think we can best honour the victims of Omar Mateen by reflecting on why this tragic waste of life makes our work more important than ever.

The media are describing Omar Mateen as a gay man. He was not.

People who are LGBT+ have made a choice. They have recognized that their sexuality or gender is different from other people's, and have gone through a process to make sense of that - one that includes rejecting much of what has been taught to them by everyone they have ever respected.

It can be both a lonely and a hazardous process but, if they succeed, these people can hope to come to terms with who they are, and embrace their difference, even if only in private.
In some parts of the Western world, these people may also feel able to share their identity publicly, and to go on to build a normal, healthy life within our society.

But that happy outcome is not the case for everyone, not even in the most liberal of our cultures. Nearly half of LGBT+ people in the UK aged 16-24 have considered suicide, and more than half have self-harmed. These are shocking statistics in this culture at this point in time.

Sadly, Omar Mateen went further than most. His cultural conditioning was so at odds with his actual identity that for him it was not enough to harm just himself. As a result, fifty people are dead, and as many again are injured.

The horrible irony is that the people Mateen killed were the people who had successfully risen to the challenge of defining their own identity, along with the straight friends who had also not just accepted but embraced them.

Our project has received acclaim from professionals working in suicide prevention for its impact on young people struggling to come to terms with their sexual identity. You, as competitive male athletes at a top university, represent a world from which they feel excluded. It is a world that for centuries if not millennia has confined sexual freedom, power and legitimacy to heterosexual men.

To stand naked and vulnerable in front of people who have been historically disempowered is to make very clear, both to them and to the wider world, that you are committed to playing your part in creating a world that shows respect for everyone's gender and sexual identity. It is a more powerful weapon than anything that Omar Mateen was able to carry into that nightclub, and ultimately it will have a greater impact. Because if we can believe in anything, surely it must be that love is more powerful than hate.

You will stand naked in front of me tomorrow, and so I want to share something very personal with you now. When I was a teenager, I twice tried to take my own life. Both attempts were a direct result of my inability to come to terms my sexuality or overcome a profound sense of failure to achieve the masculine ideals against which I felt I was being measured, particularly in school sport. These were not cries for help but the outcome of what felt like a rational thought process that led me to conclude there was now no place for me in the world as I knew it.

That experience, and my attempt to make some sense of the great pain that I felt then and, to some extent, am still processing now, is very much a part of the Warwick Rowers project.

The brave and selfless support of the many rowers who have contributed to the calendar over the years has helped me to heal, and has helped many others to do so, too. For me, it is part of the authenticity of the Warwick Rowers project that you and I are now working together to show that - in sport, in life, in everything - it's not where you start, it's what you become.

You are heroes to me, and to many others around the world. Orlando has now made it more necessary and more relevant than ever that you show the world that love is not the product or property of ideology, but the outcome of free will.

The rowers have told me of how profoundly this message impacted upon them and, as I sift through the images that we have captured over the last month in both England and Spain, I am proud of how powerfully and bravely these young athletes have used their naked bodies to restate their commitment to freedom and diversity.

The core objective of terrorism is to distort and dominate our perceptions of reality. The two men who perpetrated the outrages in Orland and Nice sought to deny, among other things, the progress that we have made towards freedom and equality for women and LGBT minorities. But as we struggle to make sense of what happened in Nice last week, I find it comforting to know that for every disturbed gunman or deluded jihadist, there are other young men who are challenging outdated patriarchal views of masculinity to create a fairer, more compassionate and more inclusive world. We must support them in their battles, and celebrate their victories.