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‘Wearing my rainbow mouthpiece was a reminder of what I’d overcome’

LGBTQ+ athletes speak candidly about coming outIn sport, as in life, the decision of when to come out is a deeply personal one.People may choose to be out to some, but not to others – or, for any number of reasons, not come out at all.It’s a decision that takes courage and strength, which causes…

LGBTQ+ athletes speak candidly about coming out

In sport, as in life, the decision of when to come out is a deeply personal one.

People may choose to be out to some, but not to others – or, for any number of reasons, not come out at all.

It’s a decision that takes courage and strength, which causes reactions you can’t always predict, and there’s nothing wrong in deciding you’re not ready or able to do it.

As part of National Coming Out Day, people from across the world of sport have shared their stories with BBC Sport.

And there’s no doubt the guests we’ve spoken to over the past two years on the LGBT Sport Podcast feel happier, stronger and more confident as a result of being open and honest about who they are.

‘I wasn’t going to hide who I am any more’

Liz Carmouche made UFC history in 2013 when she took on Ronda Rousey in the first women’s fight.

She was also the first out lesbian to compete for the organisation, and wore a rainbow mouthpiece to the octagon for her bout with Rousey at UFC 157.

But reaching a point where she felt comfortable doing that was a journey in itself.

Before her mixed martial arts career, Carmouche served in the US Marine Corps at a time LGBT people would be discharged for talking openly about their sexuality, under a policy known as “don’t ask, don’t tell”.

“I was 22 when I came out, and by ‘came out’ I mean come to the realisation of what my sexuality was,” says Carmouche.

“That was while I was in the Marine Corps, so I had to hide it for four years. I was worried that I was going to be outed and kicked out, so I was constantly looking over my back.

“I wasn’t going to hide who I am any more.”

Carmouche admits concealing her sexuality took a toll on her mental health, and she was scared she might face violence from some of the people she served with if they found out she was gay.

“That was such a difficult, trying and depressing time – and that wasn’t going to be something that I was going to go through again when I left the Marine Corps,” she says.

“I certainly don’t want to throw it anyone’s face, but I’m not going to hide away in the dark and deny who I am.

“Wearing my rainbow mouthpiece was a reminder of what I’d overcome to be where I was at, and a reminder that I could do anything.”

‘He was sorry I’d had to go through it on my own’

Keegan Hirst in action for Batley Bulldogs
On 8 October, Keegan Hirst announced he was retiring from rugby league

Like Carmouche, rugby league player Keegan Hirst took a long time to accept his sexuality.

“With the benefit of hindsight, I probably realised I was gay when I was 14 or 15,” he says.

“But the only gay people I knew were George Michael and Elton John, and I wasn’t like them so I figured I couldn’t be gay – or that’s what I told myself.”

Hirst, by his own admission, became very good at hiding it.

He got married and had children and it was only when the stress of maintaining his double life became too much that he decided to open up to his then wife about his sexuality.

“I think it became unbearable for her to live with me,” says Hirst.

After telling her and the rest of his family, Hirst had to come out to his team-mates at Batley Bulldogs.

“I was dreading telling the lads, but after telling my family, that was the easiest bit,” he says.

“A couple of my closest team-mates had come round to my house after one game and we’d had a couple of beers.

“I’d been venturing into Leeds and gone to a couple of gay bars, so there must have been some rumours flying round.

“And one of the lads said: ‘What about these rumours? Are you gay? Is it true?'”

Hirst says he can still remember that moment, and the split-second calculation he made as he tried to decide whether this was the right time to tell them.

“It seemed to last for ages in my head, and I said: ‘Yeah, it’s true.’

“And when I said that, one of the lads said that he’d always known – and, to be fair, he’d always made jokes about it, so maybe he had.

“One of the lads cried and he was a big tough guy. He was crying because he was sorry I’d had to go through it on my own and he couldn’t be there to help me.

“And they asked me what they should do if any of the lads asked them? And I said it wasn’t a secret any more, so tell them.”

‘I told him I felt like I needed a hug’

One of the reasons Hirst struggled with his sexuality in the way he did was the fact that, for a long time, LGBTQ+ people seemed to be either unwelcome or largely invisible in the sporting world.

Initiatives such as Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign have helped bring about change and ice hockey’s first Pride weekend in the UK this year inspired one player to tell his story.

“I’d known for nine or 10 years, but I wasn’t willing to accept it to myself,” says Zach Sullivan of Manchester Storm.

“But in November, I’d had a really bad game and I messaged my best friend in Glasgow and said: ‘I need to tell you something. I like men and women.’

“And he was like: ‘Yeah, I know.’ And I was like: ‘Oh, OK!'”

Sullivan admits he was scared that opening up about his sexuality could cost him some of the relationships he had built over the years.

But the positive reaction from his friends and family persuaded him to share his story more widely, through a social media post timed to coincide with the start of the Pride weekend.

“I just remember coming to my room-mate after I put the message out,” Sullivan recalls.

“He asked me how I felt, and I told him I felt like I needed a hug.

“I don’t like the spotlight and I didn’t know the reaction would be as positive as it has been.

“It’s the first time in my life that I’m carrying a message [about inclusion] that I’m passionate about – so if I have to come out of my comfort zone to do that, I’m happy to.”

‘Eddie Howe asked what he could do to make things easier for me’

Sophie Cook, the former club photographer at AFC Bournemouth, with then-manager Eddie Howe
Sophie Cook says the staff and players at Bournemouth helped make coming out far easier

Coming out stories tend to focus on the lesbian, gay and bisexual community – but if you’re coming out as transgender, there’s an added layer of complexity.

“When you’re lesbian, gay or bisexual, you’re basically just telling people who you’re attracted to,” says Sophie Cook, the former club photographer at AFC Bournemouth.

“But when you’re trans, you feel that you’ve finally got to the place where you need to be, and you tell people who can then end up struggling with it and almost mourning for the person they knew and loved before.”

It’s never a simple process – but in Cook’s case, coming out was made easier by the reaction of the people around her.

“My last game as Steve was the match where we got promoted as champions,” she remembers.

“That summer I knew that I was trans, so I told the commercial manager and we all ended up meeting in the owner’s box overlooking the pitch.

“It’s me, the chairman and then manager Eddie Howe – who asks me what he could do to make things easier for me. And when you come out, not everyone understands right away, so if your boss can say something like that, it’s really all you can hope for.”

Once she’d come out to the management team, Sophie had to tell the players.

“I needed to meet them before a matchday, because the first time I met them as Sophie couldn’t be as they were running down the tunnel,” she recalls.

“So they called the players together and the assistant manager said: ‘I suppose you’ve noticed our photographer has changed a bit since last season. I’d like you to meet Sophie.’

“Our captain, Tommy Elphick, started clapping and the rest of the players joined in. And then Tommy said: ‘Right, let’s go and train.’ I was like: ‘Is that it?!'”

‘It just makes being LGBT feel everyday’

Perhaps no-one sums up the importance of coming out better than BBC Sport presenter Clare Balding.

“I realise the value of just being really comfortable and proud and happy,” she says.

“You don’t have to make grandiose statements; you don’t have to kiss in public.

“You just get on with it and that’s massively helpful to people because it just makes being LGBT feel everyday.”

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