Focus

Homophobia alive and well on European sports scene

30.10.10 @ 00:08

  1. By Andrew Willis

THE HAGUE - Discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation remains a serious problem in the world of European sport, say activists, while transgender issues raise a unique set of difficult questions.

  • South African athlete Caster Semenya (l) won the 800m gold at the world championships in August 2009 (Photo: José Goulão)

"The main problem is at a grassroots level," says Pepe Garcia Vazquez, co-president of the European Gay and Lesbian Sport Federation (EGLSF). "For example in schools, gay people frequently don't feel free to express themselves."

The subject was one of many addressed at the ILGA-Europe annual conference in The Hague on Friday (29 October), a major gathering of organisations that campaign for gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI) rights.

"Another problem is the question of language, trying to prevent insults," says Mr Vazquez. "Yet another is the simple issue of the invisibility of gay sports players."

Despite the many obstacles, considerable progress has been made in recent years, say campaigners, with, for example, the numbers of participants in the EuroGames - the European Gay & Lesbian Championships - rising from 300 in 1992 to over 5,500 in 2008.

On top of this, EGLSF recently received funding to fight homophobia at the 2011 Women's World Cup in Germany, and has targeted the 2012 European Championships in traditionally conservative Poland as a future battleground to fight prejudice.

A new source of revenue has been opened up under the EU's 2009-adopted rulebook - the Lisbon Treaty - providing European Commission funding under the "sport" heading for the first time, although sums remain small.

Transgender

Transgender and intersex issues in sport been brought to public attention a number of times in recent years, for instance the case of South African athlete Caster Semenya who underwent gender verification tests after winning the 800m gold at the world championships in August 2009.

"Transgender "is usually defined as a situation where an individual's self-identification as a man, woman, both or neither, does not match the gender "assigned" by others. Intersex involves a combination of physical features in an individual that usually distinguish men from women.

As well as the Semenya controversy, trans and intersex issues have also sparked controversy in the gay community in the past.

At the 2008 EuroGames in Barcelona, a group of formerly male volleyball players registered for the women's competition, causing anger among lesbian groups participating in the event.

"There's a real blind-spot within the gay community as well on this issue," said one transsexual woman at Friday's event, adding the rhetorical question: "Do we really need gender in sport?"

The answer, says Louise Englefield, is "no". Also a EGLSF co-chair, she points to a series of recent studies which suggest capability rather than gender could be a better criterion to divide up categories in competitive sport.

As an example under the proposed system, competitions between top-flight sprinters, as defined by past performance, would likely be all-male affairs due to the physiological advantage of extra muscle. By contrast, lower categories would become mixed male and female events.

Popular among many trans, the radical idea is not accepted by all in the LGBT community. "I think I might miss women-only tennis competitions," one gay man told this website in the conference margins.

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