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New study shows widespread fear of homophobia for gay athletes

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A new international study - Out on the Fields - says 82% of lesbian, gay and bisexual athletes have witnessed or experienced homophobic actions in sports.

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new study reveals that lesbian, gay and bisexual athletes fear homophobia in sports at a widespread level. The study, "Out On The Fields," surveyed about 9,500 LGB athletes in six countries - Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the United States and the United Kingdom. It's the largest number of LGB athletes every surveyed for a single study.

Some of the key takeaways:

  • The study features the responses of almost 10k LGB athletes from six different countries. It's a significant number, and that they had that many responses is a reflection of a real shift in the sports world toward inclusion. When I talked with Sue Rankin, she was over the moon about the high level of participation;
  • It's clear that homophobic actions by coaches, athletes and officials create an environment of fear for LGB athletes. Of the respondents, 80% said they had witnessed or experienced homophobic actions in sports.That's a big number and not surprising;
  • The most powerful conclusion the study illuminates is the direct correlation between homophobic actions and athletes being unwilling to come out: "Half of gay men (48%) and nearly 1 in 3 lesbians (32%) said they hid their sexuality in youth sport because they were worried about being rejected by teammates while 31% of gay men and 15% of lesbians were worried about discrimination from coaches and officials."

After reading the lengthy study cover to cover, it's clear that to change the environment of sports, we must change the language and actions of athletes, coaches and officials even when they believe LGB people are not listening or watching. The fact is: They are.

What the study doesn't show is how accepting the sports world actually is for out LGB athletes. The study focuses on the perception of homophobia - either what athletes have seen or just general thoughts about how homophobic sports might be. The study says 78% of respondence believe youth team sports are not safe for LGB people - but it does not explore whether youth team sports ARE actually safe for LGB people.

The study says 19% of gay men and 9% of lesbians reported being physically assaulted, and that at least 82% of respondents had heard anti-LGB slurs. But again, we don't know from the study how these environments have responded to athletes coming out. Overwhelming anecdotal evidence has demonstrated that people in sports behave very differently when an athlete actually comes out - that dynamic was not studied.

As we've seen over and over and over again, there is a disconnect between the actions of people in sports - namely the use of anti-gay slurs - and how they welcome LGB teammates. Almost all of the hundreds of coming-out stories Outsports has featured over the years follow the same trajectory: Athlete hears homophobic language on her team, assumes her team will reject her once she comes out, finds open arms when she actually comes out, teammates apologize for past language.

Still, the fear these athletes have in the sports world - and that is reflected in the study - is very real. When you hear your coach call an athlete a gay slur, or you hear your teammates say something is "so gay," this drives LGB athletes to stay in the closet and hide in their own fears.

Interestingly, while the study says anti-LGB language and behavior is seen most in American sports, the USA also ranks in the top three countries where LGB athletes are most likely to be out and largely outside the top three in countries where athletes are most likely to stay in the closet.

The bottom line: In addition to anecdotes, there is now an international study of almost 10,000 LGB athletes saying very clearly that homophobic language and actions are hurting them and keeping them in the closet. This is unacceptable.

To read the full report, visit outonthefields.com.