Referees and the LGBT+ discussion: An undeveloped topic?

Rugby official James Child in action in 2015 (Source: Gerard Barrau via Wikimedia Commons)

By Eva Rodericks | Contributor

LGBT+ discussions have always been taboo within sporting circles, especially so among the referee and officiating arenas . Not a single Premier League player has publicly spoken about being homosexual, suggesting the stigma remains. So as LGBT History Month reaches it’s conclusion, we explore some key figures in the officiating area of sport, an area often overlooked in discussions around social issues in sport, and examine the struggles specific to referees place in the sporting world.

In 2007, rugby referee Nigel Owens publicly came out as gay. Before this, Owens had attempted to take his own life during his battle with depression. He admits he was terrified of coming out, no one else was openly gay in the Rugby Union at the time, and he believed public knowledge of his homosexuality would risk his career. Most people were supportive, but Owens has still been subjected to homophobic verbal abuse whilst refereeing, on multiple occasions. 

One incident occurred at a semi-pro game Owens was officiating between Llanelli and Neath. With only a couple of hundred people in the crowd, it was much easier to hear what was being said. Owens says he heard a Neath fan shout a homophobic comment, but because no one substantiated the abuse, it was simply Owens word against the fan. With such a small crowd, Owens said pretty much everyone heard. 

On the 25th of February, seasoned rugby referee James Child spoke publicly about his homosexuality for the first time on BBC’s ‘The LGBT sports podcast’. Child has made clear this is not a coming out story, his friends, family and colleagues have known his sexual orientation for a long time. He has always posted photos of him and his partner on social media, essentially he has made it no secret. 

Alarmingly, Child says he has received death threats, some of which he says are directly related to him being gay. 

Around ten years ago he was a victim of homosexual abuse by an unnamed coach. At the time Child’s colleagues were not aware of his sexual orientation, which he said made the situation even harder to deal with, as he did not wish for the homophobic nature of the attack to be revealed. He was scared the abuse may have become physical. More recently, Child has been victim to abuse by former Leeds full-back, Zak Hardaker, who was heard calling Child an inflammatory phrase focused on his sexuality. This second attack was different, because Child’s colleagues were by this time aware of his sexuality, meaning he could discuss the abuse more frankly. Hardaker said it was a ‘heat of the moment’ comment.

Child says he is speaking out now because he wants to educate the public, and hopes sharing his story will inspire people to show more respect to others, regardless of their background. No-one can deny knowing about his sexuality now. Growing up, Child said he never saw anyone he could relate to in the media, which made coming out even harder. By sharing his story, Child is creating a role model for someone else. 

Nigel Owens says the best way for abuse to be dealt with is by others calling it out there and then. Not only does this require courage, but a complete change in sporting culture, which will only be made possible through open discussions around homophobia and sexuality which the sporting sector is lacking. Child points to the fact that statistics tell us far more sporting professionals are likely to be gay than the number of professionals that have publicly come out. He believes that if more sportspeople felt they could be honest about their sexuality, it would make life easier for all homosexual sporting professionals. A stronger support network could be built, and more honest conversations could happen. 

Stonewall’s rainbow laces campaign has been one of the most famous attempts to create the conversations needed to eradicate homophobia in sport. In 2014, Arsenal FC endorsed the campaign with an advert encouraging people to use the #rainbowlaces to show their support. But has enough changed?

For meaningful discussions to be initiated, fans, players and club staff must be committed to a simple message – there is no room for homophobia in sport.

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