YOU may have already noticed, but a gay athlete is currently the face of international sport. Megan Rapinoe led the United States to their fourth World Cup title, and accrued some personal awards as well: the Golden Boot and Golden Ball.

These trophies represent just a sliver of Rapinoe’s greatness, as her work off the ball also provides inspiration to the masses.

She’s an ambassador of Athlete Ally, a non-profit working to end homophobia and transphobia in sport; she’s done philanthropic work for the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network; and she’s forever advocating for the equal rights of women.

Though her message transcends all genders and sexualities, there is no male equivalent of Megan Rapinoe.

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“You want to see people that are like you, but you don’t,” says Craig Stephen, Stirling University’s president of basketball. As an openly gay man, Stephen is left with little choice for a role model.

Estimates suggest that at least 5% of men are gay, but across the United States’ five major sports – meaning more than 4000 people – only one man, openly, is. You do the math.

“They’re worried about public backlash”, says Stephen. “They know their team’s going to accept it. It’s not wider management.” The fans are the largest problem, he explains, and their mass unacceptance of certain people’s identity.

Sporting organisations are historically scared of controversy. Stephen brings up the Colin Kaepernick situation: an NFL player who protested racial injustice, amongst other things, by kneeling during the national anthem. Not a single NFL team would sign Kaepernick the following season.

The National:

“They got rid of him. They can’t deal with the controversy,” says Stephen. Organisations are too concerned with making money to make a powerful statement against an oppressed athlete, and this is a serious problem for gay men in sports.

Instead of removing the problem altogether, Stephen believes that organisations should use the opportunity “to further the athlete’s voice and choose something which is going to be better for society as a whole”.

“And something like that, a sort of breakthrough moment in terms of gay men in male orientated sports. We need something like that.”

Being supported instead of shamed, respected instead of removed. “That wholehearted support is something which I think will bring about change.”

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Alongside physicality, sport also demands emotion if athletes hope to perform well in games, so what happens when these players are suppressed?

Before coming out as gay, and despite playing for years, Stephen felt that he couldn’t relate to his teammates or even basketball as a culture. He felt distant.

It extended to his play on the court, as he worried more about other’s opinions instead of their operating as a team. After coming out to his teammates though, everything became a lot more comfortable.

“Once you get it out there in the open, and nobody has an issue with it, you’re free to essentially do what you need to do on court.”

But a basketball game features two teams, and the problem is amplified when it’s the opponents using disrespectful language. It’s happened too many times to count, Stephen explains.

Though not specifically targeting him, it’s the “that’s gay” jokes that are frequently thrown around. “It’s the connotations that you don’t want to be gay,” which is a prominent issue within male sport and greater society beyond that.

It’s easier to explain the problem amongst friends, but “I’ve been on court against other teams, and I’ve heard people making comments and I didn’t feel comfortable in that kind of scenario”.

“You can’t stop and think about it because you’re in the middle of the game, but you still want to act on it and point it out.”

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THIS extra level of pressure exists on top of the already intense scenario that is competitive sport. That just isn’t fair, “but that’s a constant battle you have as a gay man in sport.” Trapped, not knowing where to draw the line in terms of what’s acceptable and what’s not.

Stephen spends a chunk of his free time advocating for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, which encompasses all sexualities and gender identities.

He commits himself to helping others, but still endures homophobic comments on a regular basis, and the additional conflict of not knowing whether to act. “It puts you in such a vulnerable position.”

While these comments may seem insignificant to some, and even if they’re said in jest, “it’s never just a joke”. Even if you don’t mean it, what does it tell the people that do?

It fosters an environment where it’s okay to say those things, Stephen explains. It is not: “There is no such thing as just a joke.”

Small acts can create positive movements as well though. Rainbow Laces, for example, is an initiative where athletes don rainbow laces to show support for the LGBTQ+ community.

Those participating may not realise its significance, but Stephen explains that getting involved is so incredibly important. For someone who may be gay, it’s amazing.

Imagine an athlete who’s nervous about their sexuality, wanting to enjoy a sport like so many people do. To see others wearing rainbow laces, “you know you’re walking into a room full of people who aren’t going to make a big deal out of it.” That’s invaluable.

It’s this aspect that reiterates how problematic homophobia is. For gay men, feeling comfortable in your own skin can be an uncommon relief.

Stephen displayed this too, mentioning that he was “fortunate” to receive positive reactions after coming out, or “lucky” to be relatively masculine and therefore judged less.

But sport is meant to be wholly inclusive. A gay man can take part, but that doesn’t mean he’s treated equally.

Homophobia is prevalent within male sport that needs to be tackled. No one should have to feel fortunate for being treated as a person, and being respected should not be a privilege.