Chris Creegan

Comment | Ideas | Opinion

LGBT rights and the Commonwealth Games: Equality begins at home

by Chris on 19th July 2014

LGBT rights

The recent LGBTI Human Rights in the Commonwealth conference in Glasgow provided a welcome and vital focus on the plight of sexual minorities in across the Commonwealth. It’s right and timely to highlight the abuses facing those in many of the countries who will be attending the games. Not to do so would be more than a missed opportunity. It would be irresponsible.

Homosexuality is illegal in 42 out of 53 Commonwealth countries. So congratulations to the organisers and all those who spoke and took part in the event. The imminent arrival of the Commonwealth Games also provides a fantastic opportunity to celebrate the changes that have happened at home over the last couple of decades.

But as the conference approached, several thoughts occurred to me about the position here. Most obviously, while the progress we’ve made has been remarkable, there is still a great deal to be done. Much has been achieved in terms of formal rights. However the prevailing culture remains uneven across institutions and other spheres of life. Our rights, hard fought for, are still new. They remain fragile and partial. There is a lot to do to embed them so that they become irreversible.

Turning to sport itself, the games provide a powerful reminder of its potential to celebrate diversity and create equality. For many young people, particularly those from less privileged backgrounds, that’s not a small matter. Here is an arena in which talents can be nurtured and thrive regardless of who you are and where you come from.

But this doesn’t happen by accident. To make the obvious point, if the Glasgow games legacy isn’t focused on real change for people in communities it won’t count. That’s about far more than LGBT equality of course, as the briefest of walks round Glasgow’s east end will remind you.

For LGBT people the drive towards inclusion in sport has a long way to go. I was privileged to be named in the Scotland on Sunday Pink List last year. When publishing the list, the newspaper acknowledged that there are some spheres of society where openly LGBT people remain under represented. Sport was one.

Much has rightly been made of that fact that in some Commonwealth countries you wouldn’t be able to achieve selection as an openly gay athlete. But the reality is that you’ll be hard pressed to find openly gay athletes competing for Scotland or any of the other home nations. We’re an increasingly tolerant society but as last year’s British Social Attitudes survey demonstrated, attitudinal change is still a work in progress. The assumption that LGBT equality has somehow become a British value is premature.

Sport remains a sphere where the presumption of heterosexuality, albeit often unintended, remains alive and kicking. And the sporting establishment, while doubtless consisting of people who aren’t prejudiced on a personal level, remains for the most part silent. Openly gay sports people are the exception and when they do come out, often after retirement, they acknowledge that the culture of sport itself is part of the problem.

My own passion as a participant and spectator is athletics. Think back to the World Athletics Championships in Russia last year where there was rightly a considerable focus on new homophobic legislation. Emma Green Tregaro, the Swedish high jumper, painted her nails in rainbow colours as a protest. Pretty mild stuff you’d think. But she was warned that she could be in violation of the competition’s code of conduct.

When the incident occurred our own media commentators, again not prejudiced on a personal level I’m sure, clearly found it awkward to talk about sexuality on air. Yet they found it no problem at all to talk about the relationship between one of athletics’ golden couples, Ashton Eaton and Brianne Theisen-Eaton who won Gold and Silver in the decathlon and heptathlon respectively. It was a great human interest story. But how hard is it to imagine the same story being told with ease about a gay couple?

It’s not just about the sport at an elite level. As a runner I returned to competitive racing about three years ago after more than two decades out of the sport. I love it and I’m proud to be part of a great award winning club with fantastic team mates and coaches. I haven’t experienced any personal prejudice and nor do I think I’m likely to.

But as I’ve written elsewhere, coming out is a lifelong process however open you are. When I joined the club I came out pre-emptively as I do in any new setting. I don’t make a big fuss about it, but just slip the gender of my partner into early conversations. It avoids confusion and saves embarrassment for everyone.

I’m happy to say it’s been plain sailing. And that’s a far cry from my experience as a young athlete in the late 70s and early 80s. Yet hard though it is to acknowledge, I am aware of occasional banter and language which I think I’d find alienating if I was a young athlete still struggling to come to terms with my sexuality.

So as we welcome the Commonwealth Games to Glasgow and delight in great sporting achievement, let’s not forget the human rights abuses facing LGBT people abroad. But let’s also remember that equality begins at home.

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