Post COVID-19 Community Sport forum: How do we keep the inclusion of LGBT+ people on the agenda?

Today I am participating in a community sport forum for Play By The Rules, on how to keep LGBT+ inclusion on the agenda post COVID-19. I offer some extended thoughts below.

Early observations suggest diversity and inclusion are being sidelined in recovery efforts post COVID-19, with several diversity and inclusion positions being axed from sporting organisations. Diversity work in particular has often been seen as add on across the sport sector, something peripheral to the core operations of an organisation, and often seen as too hard or of no specific benefit to the organisation (think gays can’t play sport or aren’t interested). But with significant progress being made in recent years around LGBT+ inclusion, it is important the sector continues to advance social progress for LGBT+ people in Australia.

I want to start the article with a preface – I personally don’t think LGBT+ inclusion was on the agenda. Yes, the sport sector is talking about the issue and visibility has increased, but there is little engagement and enactment of LGBT+ inclusion across the sport sector. There is traction, especially in Victoria, and sports have started to engage with LGBT+ inclusion through awareness raising, support of LGBT+ initiatives and programs, and conversations have started. Getting it on the agenda has been hard work though, and has required sustained efforts from a range of advocates across the sector.

However, my recent research in Australia has identified that overall, there is a lack of institutional support and commitment to the enactment of LGBT+ inclusion across sporting codes. Efforts to tackle homophobia in particular, have fallen flat, and we are seeking new ways to engage sports to help make sporting spaces safe for all LGBT+ people. The business case for LGBT+ diversity appears to be promising; the creation of LGBT+ supporter groups can attract new fans to a sport, pride rounds can lead to new sponsorships and merchandise sales, feel good stories can mean good PR and positive press, but ultimately, inclusive practices and policies lead to better health outcomes for LGBT+ people.

Although we cannot provide population estimates for those who are LGBT+, let’s go with the often cited 10%. If you are a sport or organisation looking to rebuild and survive in the future, I just don’t think it’s possible to ignore or exclude 10% of the population anymore. Add to that women and girls, other minorities such as disability, indigenous, and culturally diverse communities; sport participation and governance should reflect the diverse communities it seeks to represent.

LGBT+ supporter groups have been very successful in helping drive change and engaging clubs with LGBT+ inclusion efforts. Picture: The Purple Bombers

However, one thing that strikes me in doing this work, is that often there is no ill-intent, and I have met many sports administrators who have supportive attitudes and a desire to help make sport more inclusive. For those who work and dedicate their lives to sport, they want to see more people playing and engaging with their sport. The problem however, is that they do not know how to do LGBT+ diversity work. What does LGBT+ inclusion look like? How does it play out in their organisation or sport? What might inclusion feel like for an LGBT+ person? Ultimately then, at the heart of the matter, is a lack of education and knowledge in enacting LGBT+ inclusion. Therefore, in order to establish LGBT+ inclusion as a key priority area post pandemic – we need to equip those in sport with the tools to enact and sustain LGBT+ inclusion in sporting environments and organisations.

Some top tips for the sport sector in keeping LGBT+ inclusion on the agenda, from my own research and the current evidence base:

  • Converting supportive attitudes into behaviours: Marriage equality showed that attitudes have changed. However, we need to convert and begin to change supportive attitudes into behaviours and actions. A recent research project I led, with a State Sport Organisation, showed that although many staff have supportive attitudes to LGBT+ inclusion, they were not willing to enact these attitudes through behaviours which supported inclusion. In other words, I believe in supporting this work, but I’m not willing to do anything about it.
  • Institutional support in senior leadership: unless we have senior administration believing in the merits of LGBT+ inclusion work, and willing to commit resources and time to engage in this work, it will be very difficult to make progress. Senior leadership and CEO’s need to believe that this work is important and it is work they should be doing. Using the business case for diversity will be crucial for this.
  • Education and training: a thirty-minute awareness raising session is a good first starting point, but is not going to educate your workforce and sufficiently equip them with the skills to feel confident to enact LGBT+ inclusion. Ongoing education and professional devleopment takes time, and culture change does not happen in half an hour.
  • Engage LGBT+ people: we need LGBT+ people in decision making roles, across all levels of sport. From coaches, volunteers, officials, boardrooms, to players. To help make plans, execute strategies, design participation programs, engaging the communities you seek to serve will help advance inclusion efforts. Simply reach out, connect with organisations and key individuals to get some help. It’s OK to ask for help and admit that as an organisation you would like to do better.
  • Sport for Development: we need to really start using and calling upon sport for social good and explore the merits of promoting sport amongst LGBT+ communities. Social connection, social isolation, mental health, community regeneration – we need to address these social issues amongst LGBT+ people. We know sport can work and there are many great and wonderful sport for development projects in Australia, let’s do the same for LGBT+ people and positively impact and enrich the lives of LGBT+ people. Evangelical thinking yes, but my recent research with the LGBT+ tennis community I have nearly finished, is promising in this regard.
  • Building an evidence base on the social impact of sport on LGBT+ people: most research documents discrimination and the detrimental impact sport has on LGBT+ people and that homophobia and transphobia persist in sporting environments. However, we know LGBT+ people engage with sport in meaningful and enjoyable ways. We need to document this and explore this. In recent research with Tennis Australia, we have explored the impact of tennis on LGBT+ people. The results are very positive and encouraging, specifically around social connectedness, social support, and creating social capital. Let us hear and share more positive stories from the sector. I think this will inspire more LGBT+ people to start playing and engaging with sport.

We need to acknowledge that LGBT+ diversity work might be challenging, and solving the wicked problem of homophobia in sport is no easy feat. Transphobia in particular is still extremely prevalent in sport also. But sport can and does provide positive experiences for LGBT+ people, and serves as a platform to address heath inequalities and offer social connections to those who might really need them at the moment. We need to use and harness the power of sport in recovery efforts, and include LGBT+ people, and hope to look back on this period as a defining moment for inclusion efforts and the sport sector in Australia.

Thank you to everyone who plays their part in advancing LGBT+ inclusion. Active allyship is extremely important, and everyone can play their part. It really is a team effort.

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