New data shows that homophobia is still alive and well in Canadian sports and the study, which is the first of its kind, suggests anti-gay attitudes are deterring young people from being active in some athletic fields.
The survey, called Out on the Fields, was conducted online in six English-speaking countries — U.S., U.K., Ireland, Canada, New Zealand and Australia — and promoted through a coalition of sporting organizations. Of the 9,500 participants, 75 per cent were LGBT.
The data shows 81 per cent of the Canadians surveyed witnessed or experienced homophobia in sports, while 84 per cent of gay men and 88 per cent of lesbians polled faced slurs — like faggot or dyke — in sports.
In addition, 86 per cent of Canadian gay youth and 89 per cent of lesbian youth responded they were not open about their sexuality with their teammates. Of the Canadian participants, 66 per cent said they would feel unsafe in spectator areas if they were open about their sexuality.
For Jonathan Clarke, 31, those numbers aren't a surprise.
"Even when I went to college, I started rowing and I guess, based on all my experience with bullying before that, was afraid to come out to my team," he said.
'Show coaches ... how homophobia is manifest and what they can do about it.' - Jennifer Birch-Jones
Clarke lives in St. John's and is currently a rowing coach and has been active since his youth, but his life growing up in sport was a difficult one.
"I've had hockey jerseys that were full of sweat thrown in my face, almost suffocated me once, things thrown at me all the time. It was a hard thing," said Clarke.
While Clarke didn't come out until he was in university, he said as a child the other boys on his hockey team seemed to pick up on the fact that he was different — and made targeted comments about his sexuality, something Clarke said he didn't even know himself.
"It wasn't until I was in university that I did come out and felt comfortable doing so. It's not fair to a kid being told what they are before they even know … no kid should be told what other people think they are."
As a coach, Clarke said he makes an effort to pay attention to what people are saying to one another — something he thinks all coaches and parents should be doing more to prevent bullying.
"Just pick up on things. Don't let it slide, don't ignore it," he said. "Sometimes things are said and you're like, just brush it off, it's a one-time thing, but chances are it's more than that."
Best of a bad lot
Sandi Kirby, a sociology professor at the University of Winnipeg, was a member of Canada's first female Olympic rowing team and kept her sexuality private during her career as an athlete.
As an academic, Kirby has studied and worked to end discrimination in sport, but said she didn't publish her work on gay struggles for human rights until after she had tenure at the university.
For Kirby, the study suggests Canada is performing better than other English-speaking countries, but it's a case of the best of a bad lot.
"We used to think that if we worked on gender, we worked on gender equity, that the rest of the inequalities would follow along behind and it's pretty clear from this study that it just isn't so," said Kirby.
She said it's clear there is a lot of work to be done when it comes to creating equality on the field and ensuring athletes feel safe coming out while they are still at the height of their athletic careers, not just after retirement.
"I don't think coming out in sport is a particularly safe place yet, particularly for men," said Kirby.
Changing attitudes key 1st step
Canadian athletic organizations today promote acceptance, but the study suggests hostility toward perceived homosexual players starts at school age.
Jennifer Birch-Jones, of the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport, said putting a stop to those attitudes needs to starts sooner.
"Show coaches and other sport administrators how homophobia is manifest and what they can do about it in their own organization," said Birch-Jones.
According to Birch-Jones, trying to get the issue into the open is the biggest first step — and challenge — and everyone needs to be involved in the conversation.
"I think that this report will serve as evidence, as a call to action, where we finally have data that says this is a significant problem in sport in Canada and it's a problem at all levels of sport," she said.
Once attitudes shift to be more open to talking about the issue, Birch-Jones said that will allow for a change in perception and create a safer environment for all athletes.