Greet Minnen has been one of the most high-profile out tennis players for several years, since coming out as a couple in 2018 with then-girlfriend, Alison Van Uytvanck, the latter who recently married her partner Emilie Vermeiren during the 2023 Wimbledon finals weekend.
Minnen, from Belgium, has long been outspoken on LGBTQ issues in the sport, and this past week took to social media to shed light on the kind of threats that she is subjected to as an out athlete.
In an Instagram post, she shared a screenshot of a violently homophobic series of messages from an anonymized Instagram user.
“This really has to stop,” Minnen wrote, indicating that this hasn’t been the first time she’s received this kind of direct message.
The DM reads:
“nice lesbian shit
enjoy last month at life
degenerate lesbian piece of shit
you just killed yourself
we are coming for you”
The screenshot was taken Aug. 1 and we can assume that it was sent to her just after her loss in doubles at the Prague Open.
Sending horrific abuse to players after a loss is unfortunately nothing new to WTA players, and some have linked this problem in part due to a rise in sports gambling. Last year, Australian tennis player Priscilla Hon spoke out publicly about the abuse and even death threats that she receives regularly from angry bettors who lose money on her matches.
“Even when you win, sometimes you’ll still get hate because someone would have bet against you and you won the match. So they lost money,” she told SBS. “You can’t really win either way.
Just spoke to SBS about all the hate us tennis players get every single week. I think I’d be speaking for most of us by saying we’re quite prone to it but that doesn’t make it okay. It’s sad that humanity goes down to this level just for losing a bet on a tennis match. pic.twitter.com/4ly3ctfLUm— Priscilla hon (@pribo98) October 17, 2022
In the case of the abuse that players like Minnen receive, the threat of homophobic violence adds an especially insidious element to these types of messages that would be extremely upsetting to receive for any player.
Research shows that LGBTQ people are disproportionately affected by violence, and a comprehensive 2020 study published in the journal Science Advances concluded that sexual and gender minorities in the U.S. are nearly four times as likely to be victims of violent crime. In Minnen’s home country of Belgium, it was reported that almost half of recorded hate crimes committed against the LGBTQ community in the past year involved physical violence.
“This proportion is much higher than other hate crimes. It is also the highest figure in the past five years,” said Belgian human rights organization Unia in 2023.
What recourse do players have in these types of situations, since as independent athletes they don’t have the more regulated infrastructures of support that those playing on team sports do?
In the slightly muddled world of international tennis governance, and in the absence of more successful initiatives from the WTA, ATP and Professional Tennis Players Assn., individual tournaments have stepped up to provide at least some level of support online. This year, the French Tennis Federation debuted a new system of content moderation at Roland Garros that used artificial intelligence to moderate the players’ social media content during the French Open. This coincides with the tournament organizing its first Pride Day celebration.
French Open director Amélie Mauresmo, herself having firsthand experience with the kind of harassment that comes from playing as an out lesbian on the international tennis stage, hailed this new project as “great for the mental well-being of the players.”
“It clears the mind and will help everyone have a little more freedom on the court.”
Notably however, for obvious privacy reasons, this AI moderation does not extend to direct messages, which would not have prevented the kind of threat that Minnen received last week if the Prague Open had a similar system in place.
For that kind of necessary support, we can look again to the French Tennis Federation, which has been tackling the online front for several years. In 2019 it announced a toll-free number for French tennis players to call to access a support team of lawyers, psychologists and more to help manage online threats and the mental health impacts of online bullying.
While these kinds of initiatives are all laudable steps towards eliminating the kind of discrimination on social media felt keenly by LGBTQ players all too frequently, having an international patchwork of support systems with no regulated enforcement behind it is not a comprehensive or viable long-term solution to the problem of online harassment.
Could a players union effectively negotiate basic standards that could be implemented in every tournament on the ATP and WTA tours?
The Professional Tennis Players Assn., founded in 2019, is still very young, and since its inception has been criticized for its lack of buy-in from the women’s side of the tour as well as its inconsistent agenda. And while it’s not a true union, PTPA founders have insisted that their goal has been to represent the players in a similar way to player unions such as the NBPA or NFLPA, for example in trying to negotiate a higher percentage of revenue for players at tournaments.
Yet if athletes continue to feel that their interests and even personal safety are not being adequately protected by the WTA, ATP or even now the PTPA, it only exposes the need for true organized labor power in the sport. It may be time to reconsider the status of tennis players as simply independent contractors, and discuss how an international tennis union might benefit LGBTQ players in particular.