The Sports Media LGBT+ Review of 2021

In a sporting year dominated by pandemic-delayed major events – the Olympics, the Paralympics, and Euro 2020 – new heroes emerged while several established stars stepped up to be stronger allies, with both groups inspiring LGBTQ+ people everywhere; alas, there were villains too, attempting to split our community; here’s a look back at what happened in our world in 2021…

By Jon Holmes

Joshua Cavallo’s coming out had arguably the greatest global impact of any LGBTQ+ sports story in 2021

If 2020 felt like a year you largely wanted to forget because of the chaos caused by Covid, 2021 has featured many of the moments that remind us why we love sport in the first place.

Of course, the global pandemic ploughs on, with Omicron recently wreaking havoc in a way that has been immensely frustrating but not as devastating as the early waves of the virus. As the year ends, there are reasons to be thankful. The games we play and watch remain very special aspects of all of our lives.

Jon Holmes

Since 2017, our network group has provided a space to explore and appreciate sport through an LGBTQ+ lens, elevating our communities and shining a light when lesbian, gay, bi and trans folk are stuck on the sidelines because of who we are.

This article is a look back at our 2021, the emotions and the experiences. There are mentions of Tokyo 2020, which delivered great drama but was sadly played out behind closed doors; Euro 2020, the continent-wide celebration of football that partied hard although not always in a way that made everyone feel part of it; and most importantly, we praise the people that made the good moments happen.

Some heroes don’t wear capes; they might wear helmets, for example. Some once had ‘secret identities’ but they welcomed us into their worlds with authenticity and we embraced them back wholeheartedly. Meanwhile, others were muddled, perhaps misguided, even malicious, in their attempts to push LGBTQ+ people out of sport.

Read on for our month-by-month recap, which has a UK focus but a wider world view too, and do let us know your reflections on 2021 in the comments or on social media

Out in the openside

“I want to start 2021 by celebrating the love of my life,” wrote rugby player Devin Ibanez, coming out publicly via Instagram in late December. His post had real power, picking up media interest in the US and the UK throughout January. Coupled with the uplifting love story of Devin and Fergus was determined advocacy – the flanker raised over $8,000 for the Transgender Law Center, built a platform to amplify his voice and brighten social feeds, became a Stonewall Sport Champion, all while forging ahead on the pitch with Richmond Rugby and Mystic River in his native Massachusetts.

Devin Ibanez

“Know that you may impact people in ways that you didn’t think you could just from pursuing a sport that you love,” Devin told us in a Q&A. The force is strong with this one.

We welcomed the launch of Pride House Birmingham and its ‘Celebrate, Educate, Participate’ motto – big things to come from PHB in 2022, in and around the Commonwealth Games (July 28 to August 8) – and we helped to honour Out To Swim Angels Steph Ramsay and Stephen Adshead, who made a splash at the Out For Sport Awards.

Major winner Justin Thomas’s use of a homophobic slur was a major disappointment from men’s professional golf. The PGA Tour punished him but kept the details private; Thomas made a fulsome apology, although Ralph Lauren dropped him; while another sponsor, Citi, retained him with the proviso that a “meaningful” part of his fee had to go to LGBTQ+ good causes. It was a big story (the Tour’s fifth-biggest of 2021, according to Golfweek) – with the incident itself now consigned to history, it can only be hoped that the former world no 1’s allyship might grow in a meaningful, active way in 2022.

Wholly holistic history

The theme of LGBT History Month in February was ‘Body, Mind, Spirit’ and BBC Sport certainly put together a body of work that broadened the mind and bolstered our spirits. Highlights from their content included Clare Balding’s ‘Sporting L Word’ documentary, Nick Hope’s long reads on Matthew Mitcham and Gus Kenworthy, and 10 installments of Jack Murley’s LGBT Sport Podcast covering the Gay Games, rugby league ref James Child sharing his story, HIV in sport, and Jack being interviewed about his own journey. The content was consistently enthralling and we can’t wait to see what the team has in store in the coming weeks.

On our website, hockey writer Jay Forster contributed a quartet of insightful interviews with Kurtis Gabriel, Zach Sullivan, Jessica Platt and Brock McGillis; there was a triple triumph for Charlton Athletic, their fans group Proud Valiants and their affiliated LGBTQ+-inclusive team Invicta at the annual Football v Homophobia Awards; while the ‘Fare v Homophobia: What’s Next?’ online conference delivered forward-thinking debate on how sexuality and gender identity relate to global soccer.

We closed February with cricketer Georgia Adams – who would go on to win the inaugural Hundred with Oval Invincibles – telling Danyal Khan that “this month is all about people… not being afraid to be who they really are”. We’re always here to celebrate consigning those horrible feelings of fear to history.

The LGBT History Month channel on YouTube gathered some of BBC Sport’s best content into one playlist

Turn on, tune in… kick out transphobia

As many outlets in the wider UK media continued to ramp up their anti-trans rhetoric, the Football v Transphobia Week of Action in March helped to tackle discrimination and raise awareness of inclusion in the nation’s most popular sport.

FvT lead Natalie Washington appeared on Sky Sports News to discuss the campaign, and also chaired two must-listen podcasts covering playing and the media – the latter was supplemented by Emma Smith’s excellent feature about football writing and being trans that ran on our site. “The most significant thing [allies can do] is show a willingness to listen to issues and amplify trans voices discussing the subject, rather than simply staying confined to the conversations of big established cis journalists,” wrote Grace Robertson, aka @GraceOnFootball.

Natalie Washington talks about Football v Transphobia with Sky Sports News presenter Vicky Gomersall

Meanwhile, two trans guys who found LGBTQ+-inclusive football – Samuel Bailey and Harri Messenger – generously shared their stories with Sky Sports. Samuel was also a guest on an FvH Youth Panel ‘Talking Trans’ virtual event, alongside Sammy Walker and Caz Fields. Overall, many more people received and understood the ‘#TransFootyAlly’ message this year.

Elsewhere, Sam Schofield deserves applause from the pavilion for getting an LGBTQ+ fans group for Surrey County Cricket Club off the ground, while in a hint of things yet to come, Sebastian Vettel and Mick Schumacher were among the drivers at the Bahrain GP wearing T-shirts bearing ‘Love Is Love’ slogans in rainbow-coloured text. Although really, F1 was just revving its engines at this point…

Long walk towards liberation for LVW

Emma Dodds and Becky Morgan

One of our most-read articles of 2021 – a Q&A with broadcaster Emma Dodds and her fiance Becky Morgan, for Lesbian Visibility Week in April. “Growing up, I didn’t see people who were like me,” Emma told Zoe Vicarage. “I often wonder if I did, would it have taken me so long to come out publicly? I don’t think it would have.” Picked up by Women & Golf, it was another example of our community offering new narratives and breaking into fresh territory as a result.

FIFA referee Stacey Pearson started a petition to fight for fertility treatment equality, with coverage on BBC Sport and in an LVW series on Sky Sports that truly celebrated out LGBTQ+ women in sport, featuring Katie Sowers, Lianne Sanderson, April Hunter, Chloe Morganwho claimed the DIVA Sport Award – and Polish activist Suzi Andreis. The #Visible100 list which also ran in print in The Guardian included two of our members – Jo Currie and Beth Fisher.

Anita Asante, Chris Paouros, Sam Adams and Amazin LeThi joined Dawn Airey for a sport-themed chat to mark LVW

The month ended with a social media boycott as we joined a national movement seeking to #StopOnlineAbuse. While abuse is sadly still prevalent on timelines and in DMs, pressure was certainly squeezed on the social media companies. In happier news, there was the official launch of the Rainbow Wall – an LGBTQ+ and allies fans group for the Wales national team, one of many welcome activations from Wales FA. Within a few weeks, Carys Ingram told us all about the Wall in a Q&A – shout out too to FAW EDI manager Jason Webber for all his hard work in 2021.

Good work ongoing – a labour of Lev

I enjoyed chatting to Dominic Stevenson for Mental Health Awareness Week – his football book ‘Get Your Head In The Game’ and our subsequent conversations really got me thinking. “There’s no education like getting out there, speaking to people and engaging with communities,” said Dominic. In these Covid times with endless WFH-ing, it was a reminder that on inclusion, genuine human interaction is essential. We also made a firm friend in moguls skiing star Makayla Gerken-Schofield who spoke to us for Pan Visibility Day.

For IDAHOBIT, we helped promote FvH’s ‘I’m An Ally’ short film featuring, among others, the great Landon Donovan; and for Sky Sports, I asked why the FA’s Integrity Unit was advising county FAs not to treat the ‘rent boy’ insult on the pitch as homophobic and discriminatory. When we say ‘there’s still a long way to go’ to make gay and bi men feel welcome in sport, it’s stuff like this we’re talking about. We also counted our blessings here in the UK as we recommended the ‘Hating Peter Tatchell’ documentary, which included stark footage of the violent opposition to the activist’s protests at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Leviathen Hendricks

In late May, there was terribly sad news as we learned of the death of Leviathen Hendricks at the age of 51.

Inquisitive, creative and unfailingly passionate about equality, Leviathen’s light will never go out so long as East End Phoenix FC flourish and global progress is made via the Gay Games and EGLSF.

Just before Christmas, on what would have been his birthday, we celebrated the life of Lev with photos, memories, and the playing of a short film about EEP made by CALM.

Released in December, this short film about East End Phoenix contains a tribute to the club’s founder, Leviathen Hendricks

A little rain but a lot of rainbows

At the start of a packed Pride month, Racing Pride accelerated off the grid with a groundbreaking Aston Martin F1 partnership; rugby league did Rainbow Laces; and Danyal Khan dived deep into inclusive football for a series of features on our site.

Pippa York

Pippa York was in Lennoxtown for the official unveiling of the splendid Robert Millar tribute mural; and another trans-in-sport trailblazer was Washington Spirit’s Japan international forward Kumi Yokoyama, who came out after encouragement from his girlfriend. By the end of 2021, they were engaged – congratulations! Meanwhile, here in the UK, Sports Media LGBT+ made a significant connection as we officially partnered with the Football Writers’ Association, marking the occasion with our ‘Taking Pride’ online event in conjunction with FvH.

The rain relented to allow Birmingham Unicorns and Graces CC to stage a historic match – a first in cricket between two LGBTQ+ clubs, backed to the hilt by the ECB – while across the pond, the NFL had its first active, out gay player in Carl Nassib who shared his truth and made a $100,000 donation to The Trevor Project. A classy way to come out, and the Las Vegas Raiders really missed their dynamic defensive end while he was injured.

Tiny Football Car was a hit at the Euros

UEFA stumbled over rainbows before eventually trying to embrace them, but it was allies like Neuer, Goretzka, Kane, Henderson and yes the little car, who genuinely made us feel welcome at Euro 2020. Need another hero? How about Finn-Luca, the 18-year-old from Cologne who ran in front of the Hungary players in Munich while holding aloft a Pride flag? Fellow fans crowdfunded his fine. Or maybe Ouissem Belgacem, whose autobiography ‘Adieu ma honte’ about growing up gay in Toulouse FC’s academy sent shockwaves through French football and wider society?

Finally in June, a first for FIFA – the Pride flag flying at the governing body’s HQ in Zurich. A small symbol perhaps, but nevertheless a moment to cherish for many, not least FIFA employees including our friend and supporter Joyce Cook. An announcement made 11 years ago at FIFA House awarded the World Cup – a tournament that should be free for absolutely everyone to enjoy – to two countries where LGBTQ+ people are not free. We await the day when human rights and hosting rights are fully aligned and enacted.

Tom, Tokyo, and a trio true to themselves

England felt more united – but soon, yet again, the divisions and ruptures of this splintered isle showed, amid the off-field mayhem of the Euro 2020 final on July 11. Thankfully, attention quickly turned to Tokyo – it was, at long last, time for the Olympics.

Tom Daley and Matty Lee celebrate gold

Outsports informed us that over 180 athletes were LGBTQ+ and out; this was news that had a massive worldwide media impact. An early Games highlight was Tom Daley and Matty Lee won diving synchro gold, with Daley stating unequivocally in the post-event press conference: “I feel incredibly proud to say I am a gay man and also an Olympic champion.” Stood alongside his best mate on the podium, Tom shed tears of joy, while we all held these two brilliant boys even closer to our hearts.

There was cause for sadness too – Caster Semenya, Christine Mboma, and Beatrice Masilingi were all barred by World Athletics from competing in their chosen events, while Japan hosted the Games having ultimately failed to introduce long-awaited legislation that would help protect its own LGBTQ+ citizens from discrimination.

We cheered three more coming-out stories in men’s sport – cycling’s Clay Davies, football’s Jahmal Howlett-Mundle, and in an NHL first, Luke Prokop. The teenage defenceman would go on to become the closing contributor to Brock McGillis’ epic ‘Hockey Pride’ series of over 120 interviews, which began in late June with our own Jay Forster, who wrote about how it was born out of the NHL’s seemingly short-sighted inability to locate any actual queer fans, staff, officials or players within the sport over the course of the month. Brock and Jay soon found a few and it turned into an avalanche of ice-cool representation.

The ‘Hockey Pride’ series concluded with Luke Prokop talking to Brock McGillis about coming out

Caz Fields joined us to mark International Non-Binary Day; Blackpool was the summer venue as the GFSN gang got back together; while just outside Budapest, Sebastian Vettel showed once again why he’s a true champion, stepping up his support for LGBTQ+ people by wearing a rainbow ‘Same Love’ T-shirt in Victor Orban’s Hungaroring backyard. The gesture earned Vettel a minor telling-off (the German and four other drivers were reprimanded for failing to remove their T-shirts in time for the national anthems) but it also garnered him a lot of goodwill.

Romance blooms, para-athletes prosper

Sam Kerr and Kristie Mewis

A comment on a cute photo of Sam Kerr and Kristie Mewis sharing a post-match cuddle after the USA beat Australia in the Olympic women’s football bronze-medal match sent Twitter into a meme maelstrom. We shipped ‘they’re lesbians Stacey’ almost as much as the love story that sparked it all off. The bigger picture – ‘Team LGBTQ+’ would have landed seventh spot if included in the Tokyo medal table. Quinn triumphed alongside their Canada team-mates, and Laurel Hubbard also made trans history just by competing, while Raven Saunders’ silver in the shot and Yulimar Rojas’ world-record-breaking triple-jump gold were standout successes.

In the Paralympics, Sir Lee Pearson again proved to be the knight to remember as, aboard his home-bred steed Breezer, he secured three more gold medals, taking his Games career tally to 14. The success rate for out LGBTQ+ Paralympians was a staggering 53% (thanks again Outsports for the stats), with rowers Emma Wiggs and Lauren Rowles joining Pearson in the ParalympicsGB golden circle. Special mention for Crystal Lane-Wright, who claimed a silver hat-trick in cycling.

Sir Lee Pearson’s incredible achievements in para-equestrianism may never be matched

There were headlines aplenty elsewhere in a busy August. Wolves and England’s Conor Coady was the Football Ally winner at the British LGBT Awards; the EuroGames went ahead successfully in Copenhagen, although hardly any British athletes participated due to Covid-related travel complications; a second Rainbow Rovers FC match was held at Whitehawk FC; The Hundred held a Rainbow Laces weekend in cricket; and there was a happy conclusion to the asylum-seeking saga that had put Bristol Bisons rugby player Ken Macharia in such unnecessary peril.

Alas, with the return of football fans to stadiums, incidents of homophobic chanting returned too. In the first of several examples where young players with Chelsea connections were targeted, a section of Liverpool supporters watching their team win at Norwich directed ‘rent boy’ abuse at Billy Gilmour. In a positive development, within a few days Jurgen Klopp recorded a video alongside Paul Amann, the chair of the club’s LGBT+ and allies fans group Kop Outs!, imploring Reds fans to stop the offensive chant. Allies with platforms and power were becoming more minded to use both in a bid to drive change.

Making the case for conversation

With in-person meet-up events still somewhat uncommon due to Covid, it was more than a delight to be at the Pride House Birmingham event at The Loft in early September. The PHB project offers so much potential for 2022 and deserves strong support from across the UK sport and LGBTQ+ sectors.

The launch of Pride House Birmingham was one of 2021’s best in-person get-togethers

We were also pledging as part of the #GetOnside initiative from Women In Football, and we helped to document the first-ever outing of trans-inclusive team TRUK United FC who took to the field for a charity cup match at Leatherhead.

We celebrated Molly McCann’s superb UFC victory in Las Vegas, while the FvH Podcast chatted about being bisexual in football in another collaboration with our network group – we were grateful to host Sam Clarke, broadcaster Michael McCann and Proud Rovers’ Hannah Parys for sharing their experiences.

In late September, the UK’s Sports Councils published the findings of a review undertaken by its Equality Group (SCEG) into trans inclusion in sport, and accompanying recommendations to national governing bodies. To date, a significant proportion of inclusion policies in the UK have operated on a case-by-case basis for trans women wanting to play competitive women’s sport but the SCEG advice – filtered through the prism of a consultation that heard from only “20 transgender individuals or family members” – encouraged NGBs to do away with this approach entirely. Before the year was out, the International Olympic Committee had issued its own updated guidance, suggesting a strategy that swerves sharply away from blanket bans.

‘I’m a footballer – and I’m gay’

From Salford to El Salvador, from an 82,000-capacity stadium to a motorway service station, our annual #AuthenticMe event in October served up surprising locations and refreshingly chaotic chat! It was all in celebration of 200 episodes of Jack Murley’s BBC LGBT Sport Podcast, and a dazzling dozen of great guests made it possible alongside our friends at Pride Sports in an hour-long live Zoom show helmed expertly by Jack himself. Missed it? It’s well worth a watch on the replay.

Josh Cavallo

On Coming Out Day, football referee James Adcock came out publicly via Jack’s podcast, and a couple of weeks later, an announcement arrived from South Australia – a young left-back called Josh Cavallo, playing in the A-League, told the world via a video on social that he’s gay and proud. His club Adelaide United, friend Thomas Beattie and Cavallo’s media manager David McFarland empowered the 21-year-old to not just own his truth but harness it in a way that gave everyone who truly loves the game, whatever their sexuality, hope for the future.

Unless money was your overriding motivation, there was far less optimism around the takeover of Newcastle by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia. Amid shouts of ‘sportswashing’, The Athletic‘s Adam Crafton listened intently to people from Saudi who had undergone so-called conversion therapy or who could speak from personal experience about the persecution that those who are gay face in the Gulf kingdom. Adam’s outstanding 2021 output on LGBTQ+ themes in football deserves the highest praise.

Adam Crafton’s Athletic investigation into the lives of LGBTQ+ people in Saudi Arabia was turned into a Tifo Football video

Earlier in the year, he had written wonderfully about how Justin Fashanu lived, weaving memories from those who knew this sporting icon on and off the pitch. Meanwhile, in October, the Foundation that now bears the much-missed Norwich star’s name again found its way into the pages of a tabloid newspaper as sensationalism about the mental health of mystery closeted gay footballers made an unwelcome comeback. Two years ago, Justin was posthumously honoured by the Football Black List; those commended on the 2021 roster included Aston Villa’s Anita Asante, Stonewall and Goal Diggers FC’s Liz Ward, and LGBTQ+ Award winner Amy Allard-Dunbar of the FvH Youth Panel.

Helmets, heroes, and homophobia

Turning heads at speeds of over 200mph is just part of the job for Lewis Hamilton, and his activism has also been thoroughly well established in recent years. Yet the F1 star showed what symbolism combined with vocal allyship can achieve as he ensured LGBTQ+ rights could not be forced off the track on Qatar’s flashy Grand Prix debut weekend in November. Hamilton also wore his Progress Pride helmet in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi and alongside the visibility provided through 2021 by Vettel, it turbo-charged the sport’s ‘We Race As One’ message.

It was the perfect assist for the annual Rainbow Laces activation, and Premier League and EFL clubs picked up the pass with aplomb. Coady, Ben Davies, Henderson, Klopp, Tyrone Mings, Ben Mee, Mark Noble and Zanka were among those in the men’s game to go far beyond mere lip service and it was warmly appreciated by fans.

A reminder of the scale of the challenge in the MENA region was provided by an attempt by beIN SPORTS pundit Mohamed Aboutrika, reacting to Rainbow Laces, to shame LGBTQ+ people and cast the inclusion campaign as somehow ‘anti-human’. His employers issued a meek response, considering how a deeply homophobic viewpoint had just been vocalised influentially, and gone unchallenged by anyone, on their network.

Conor Coady came to the fore during the Rainbow Laces activation, such as in this conversation with Stonewall FC

Of course, the online world is far from perfect either, as shown when Instagram suspended Rainbow Devils – Manchester United’s LGBTQ+ supporters group – after malicious users reported their account. The Devils were simply celebrating the news that their banner would be displayed at Old Trafford alongside those of many other fans group. After an outcry, Insta restored the account – but didn’t even offer the most basic of apologies.

Weeks after it was confirmed that the next Gay Games, due to be held in Hong Kong, would be moved to 2023 due to the pandemic, the multi-sports event’s 2026 hosts were ratified – and it was Valencia in Spain that won out over Guadalajara and Munich.

Happy Hammers and hope for 2022

Another host city announcement, this time for EuroGames in 2024 – Vienna was elected by EGLSF, which meant disappointment for what was a well-delivered bid from Birmingham. There’s hope yet, however, for London’s application to host in 2025; they’ll have to see off stiff competition from Lyon. A decision on that cross-Channel contest is expected in March.

The Athletic UK‘s editor-in-chief Alex Kay-Jelski was among the out-and-proud high-flyers in sport to be recognised on the annual Attitude 101 list, and Rainbow Laces concluded – Rosie Jones’ visit to West Ham Women with Mark McAdam for Sky Sports’ ‘I’m Game’ series certainly brought a big smile to our faces.

Rosie Jones became coach for the day at West Ham Women as Sky Sports supported Rainbow Laces

As Strictly fever gripped the nation once again, we learned all about dancesport and ‘Queer Tango’ from Trudi Clark, while Marissa Callaghan whetted our appetites ahead of Euro 2022 by sharing the story of how she came to captain Northern Ireland and become an LGBTQ+ role model in a part of the UK where the struggle for equality has been more difficult.

For the last word on 2021, let’s hear from one of Britain’s Tokyo medal winners. Wheelchair tennis star Lucy Shuker discussed her Paralympic career with Sky Sports and those who inspire her – and being a huge F1 fan, it was Lewis Hamilton who came in for praise. Asked about his powerful rainbow helmet gesture in the Middle East, Lucy said she hoped it would create conversation and help shift opinions about same-sex relationships. “It’s not something that’s offensive or should be frowned upon – we should embrace love,” she explained.

2022 offers lots of opportunities to share this message through sport. We have the Women’s Ashes, the Winter Olympics, the Include Summit in March, the Safe to Be Me Conference in London, the Women’s Euros, the Commonwealth Games, the Rugby League World Cup, the Women’s Rugby World Cup, and the men’s football World Cup in Qatar. The latter tournament looks the most challenging but we will be sure to make ourselves heard, whether we are cheering or campaigning.

If the Cavallo, Hamilton and Euro 2020 tales taught us anything, it’s that sports media really matters in the fight for LGBTQ+ equality. It’s up to all of us to ensure that its impact makes a difference to those who need help the most.

Coming up next on Sports Media LGBT+… LGBT+ sports activists share their ups and downs from 2021, and their hopes for the New Year…

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