UK Politics

Gay sports stars in No 10 to back anti-homophobia plan

David Cameron with rugby player Gareth Thomas in Downing Street
Image caption Mr Cameron said successful role models were vital in helping tackling homophobia in sport

Leading gay, lesbian and transgender sports stars have met David Cameron in No 10 to show their support for an initiative to rid sport of homophobia.

Rugby player Gareth Thomas and multiple Wimbledon champion Billie Jean King were among those present.

The governing bodies of football, rugby union, rugby league, cricket and tennis agreed a "charter for action" in March.

But Home Secretary Theresa May said the small number of openly gay sports stars showed more work needed to be done.

Recently retired England rugby star Ben Cohen was also at the event. The heterosexual World Cup winner recently launched a campaign against homophobic bullying and highlighted the issue on a recent trip to the US, where he has a significant gay following.

Billie Jean King, who shares the record for the most Wimbledon titles won, said athletes should be given the space to talk openly about their sexuality when they felt ready and not feel pressurised into doing so.

'Sign of fear'

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Media captionBillie Jean King: "I just hope that this'll help someone out there who's on the fence"

"The difficulty is are you going to be criticised or isolated in your job environment?" she said. "Sometimes it depends on their environment and the people around them. The most important thing is they have to be safe."

While homophobia was still a real issue in sport, she said there had been progress in the 30 years since she was "outed".

"I lost all my endorsements in 24 hours, I lost a lot of money. Today that would not happen. When Amelie Mauresmo came out she did not lose any endorsements - in fact she got extra ones."

No 10 also received a message of support for the initiative from fellow Wimbledon champion Martina Navratilova.

"Too many gyms, locker rooms, and playing fields are often perceived as unsafe places for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) students," she wrote. "That can discourage the spirit and natural gifts of athletes.

"Athletes themselves should not fear coming out. Nobody should be able to stop you from playing. If you are good enough, you get to play and you get to win."

'Clear signal'

The home secretary said Wednesday's event sent a "very clear signal" that the government and national sporting associations took the issue seriously and "wanted to make a difference".

While attitudes were changing, she said homophobia was still "very much a problem" in sport.

"Just look at how few sports people have come out," she said.

"I think that is a sign of the fear and the concerns they have about being able to do that. They don't feel able to be themselves, they should feel able to be themselves."

The behaviour of some spectators also needed to change, she added.

"I think a lot can be done in a number of sports but particularly, I fear, on the football terraces. Spectators often feel themselves hearing the sort of comments they should not have to hear."

'Overcoming barriers'

The Football Association, English Cricket Board, Rugby Football Union, Rugby Football League and Lawn Tennis Association all signed up to an initiative earlier this year to strive to eradicate homophobia and transphobia.

The governing bodies agreed to work individually and collectively to make sport a "welcome place for everyone", to ensure the LGBT community had a voice in sport and to "challenge unacceptable behaviour".

The head of the Professional Footballers Association, Gordon Taylor, said that, as the most popular sport in the country, football had a responsibility to "set the best example".

"We have to follow the lead set by other sports, such as rugby, cricket and tennis, and... from that point of view, footballers who want to come out have every confidence they can come out and be equally respected by both spectators and supporters alike."

Welcoming the charter initiative, he added: "Sport can get to places where politicians, police, schoolteachers can't get to. From that point of view, sport in its finest aspect can overcome these barriers."

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