There’s more to queer sports than a fondness for balls
We caught up with Holmes to talk ball sports and role models.
Have you always been interested in sports?
I was always mildly interested in sports, but in my mid-teens I caught the football bug in a big way.
I’m from Devon, and my friends and family were all fans of clubs like Arsenal and Tottenham, but I wanted to go to games more regularly so I supported Plymouth Argyle. Then, Euro 96 came along, and my passion really took off.
I ended up studying sports journalism in Liverpool because I wanted to experience life in a major football city.
Ever played any sports?
I persist with five-a-side football, thanks to the unfailing patience of the London Titans, whose players put up with my general shin-kicking with only occasional complaints.
Is working for Sky Sports a dream job for you?
When I decided I wanted to be a football journalist, at the age of about 16, the thought of working for the Premier League broadcaster would absolutely have been a dream.
As it turns out, I’ve ended up in digital editorial at Sky Sports, and I feel very fortunate to work here alongside a great team of journalists.
Who are some of your sporting heroes?
Other than the Argyle players that I got to see in person – our very talented French midfielder David Friio was my hero in the early 2000s – it would probably have to be Zinedine Zidane, who was so effortlessly brilliant and a true artist.
Away from football, I’ve got loads – Roger Federer, Andrew Flintoff, Mo Farah, Serena Williams and Nicola Adams are a few that spring to mind.
Why did you decide to establish Sports Media LGBT?
From late 2016, I’d been increasingly covering LGBT inclusion in sport and related stories, but not getting too much opportunity to consult and communicate more widely with other journalists and editors in my industry who might also be interested in the same topics.
There was a growing visibility, particularly during the Rio Olympics, of sportsmen and women who are lesbian, gay, or bisexual, being open about their sexuality and talking about it in interviews and on social media – the effect that was having was really refreshing.
Sky Sports subsequently became a partner in TeamPride, which is a coalition of businesses and brands that support Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign. That opened up some more connections for me throughout LGBT media and sport.
There was also growing representation among football fans through Pride In Football – the alliance of club supporter groups for people who are LGBT and their allies.
There was already an established sports media network called BCOMS – The Black Collective of Media in Sport - which was looking to improve diversity and inclusion in the industry from a BAME focus, and they were also championing LGBT inclusion too. InterMedia, the UK’s LGBT media network, was also doing great work, but didn’t have much sports media input.
Around August of 2017, myself and a friend of mine – who’s also a sports journalist - started discussing how we could pick up the LGBT part of the picture and work with all other relevant organisations.
After a couple of meetings, the network was founded properly in November of that year. It’s a community for anyone working in sports media who is LGBT, and for anyone who’s an LGBT ally that also wants to connect.
What are some of the objectives of Sports Media LGBT?
Any type of professional network is a great vehicle to bring people together, of all experiences and roles. From a media point of view, whether you’re a senior editor or a young freelancer, you can always learn from others. So, first and foremost, the network exists to facilitate dialogue and encourage collaborative discussion.
We also want to provide visibility, as it’s important to show that there are no barriers to a career in sports media just because you happen to be LGBT – it’s not an industry that has much visible representation currently.
Historically, there have been problems with homophobia in sport, some of which persist today, so we hope we can play a part in smashing any stereotypes or assumptions. We also want to champion LGBT inclusion in sport in general, and celebrate diversity. If, for example, a journalist is covering a story about a transgender athlete for the first time and wants some advice or contacts, we’re here to help and happy to do so.
One of our other objectives is to highlight best practice in the coverage of those in sport who are LGBT – sometimes these stories can be sensationalised, or the language and context of the story is insensitive, or uses incorrect terminology. In the spirit of accuracy, fairness and education, we want to engage with editors and journalists alike to show the effects of that coverage.
Is professional sport becoming more accepting of LGBT athletes?
Definitely, but it’s still a very disjointed picture. What’s becoming increasingly clear in sport is that sexual orientation – being just one part of a sportsman or sportswoman’s identity, but an important one – contributes strongly to authenticity. In turn, that relates to performance.
Since coming out, and continuing to participate as openly lesbian, gay, or bi athletes, we’ve seen and heard from a host of people across all sports that they’re happier in themselves, and that their form has been better too.
Some have initially been reluctant to take on any sort of ‘label’ - whether that’s being the first ‘openly gay’ person in their sport, or being an LGBT role model in general. But after an initial period where their sexuality is newsworthy, the interest fades away and they’re able to focus more wholly on their sport, rather than worrying constantly that the public – and the media - might discover in some other way that they’re gay. That’s become inspirational to a lot of people, and not just in the LGBT community.
However, because sport carries such huge interest globally, and LGBT rights and acceptance vary so greatly from country to country, it’s often slow progress. Now and again, we get moments of significant change, such as at the Rio Olympics and the Winter Games in PyeongChang. Meanwhile, for athletes who are transgender, it’s still very early days in terms of awareness – some are making progress, while others are encountering opposition.
How important is it for young LGBT people to have role models in professional sportspeople?
It’s hugely important. Sport really should be for everyone, which is the message at the heart of the Rainbow Laces campaign. Whether you like swimming, running, team sports, racket sports, whatever it is – there must be opportunities for people to be active and follow their sporting dreams. Being LGBT should never be an obstacle to doing that.
Quite often now, when sexuality is mentioned in relation to sport, you’ll hear people say ‘who cares?’ – and actually, in a way, they’re right. But what is damaging is silence - the feeling for some people that they have to hide that part of themselves in order to be accepted. In doing so, they often find they’re inhibiting themselves and not fulfilling their potential.
The message that sends out - for example, the ongoing lack of any openly gay or bi male professional footballers - is actually quite damaging, because of the comparison to other walks of life where there are LGBT role models.
Which sports are leading the way in terms of diversity and inclusion of the LGBT community?
Athletics and the other major Olympic sports would be arguably the most prominent examples. There were 56 out LGBT athletes at the Rio Games, and 47 percent of them won medals. Also, nine of the 56 were British – the most of any nation.
It’s probably still more common to be openly LGBT in a sport where you’re competing as an individual, rather than in a team sport, but that’s changing too, particularly in women’s sport – gold medal winning hockey players Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh are very important role models in that regard.
Swimming is a sport that’s really making waves on LGBT inclusion – governing body Swim England was ranked in the Top 200 employers nationally on the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index, and have worked particularly hard to encourage trans people to get back in the pool.
Another sport that’s growing in popularity in the LGBT community, particularly for women, is roller derby – many who identify as queer have found inclusive groups where they feel comfortable to be themselves.
At the moment, there’s growing focus across all businesses of the importance of diversity and inclusion, and that’s filtering into sport through the governing bodies and other organisations. Some are early on in that journey, others are further down the road - but there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic.
As time goes on, we’ll see more and more examples of LGBT inclusion in sport. The media will no doubt want to report on that, and find the human interest in the stories, so it’s essential we all encourage responsible coverage that accurately and sensitively reflects those involved.