Out on the Pitch

How have LGBT athletes experienced mental health?

Posted Sep 11, 2017

In 1990, English soccer player Justin Fashanu came out as gay in the British press, the first in his sport to do so.  Eight years later he had committed suicide, having been accused of sexual assault in Maryland, a state in which homosexual acts were illegal.  In the years that have elapsed a microscopically small number of male professional athletes have come out in a range of professional sport, however, there is no 'out' soccer player in the English Premier League, let alone most other leagues.  Although the situation has been somewhat different for women in certain sports, many also find it very challenging to admit their sexuality in public.  Casey Stoney, the captain of the England soccer team from 2012-2014, came out in 2014, but admitted being frightened of coming out earlier.  What burden does keeping such an important part of oneself a secret have upon mental health?  If there is a significant burden now, how have athletes dealt with their sexuality in the past?

These are the questions addressed in my new project, "Out on the Pitch: Sexuality and Mental Health in Men's and Women's Sport, 1970-Present," which has been generously funded by a Wellcome Trust Seed Award. During the course of the project we will investigate the mental health of LGBT athletes. Why have more women athletes come out than men? What role has sport played in facilitating or preventing LGBT athletes from coming out, and what positive and negative effects has this had on mental health?

This is a scoping project for a future application for a collaborative study focusing on sport and mental health which has three research strands: sport as therapy; narratives of sport and mental health; and sport as a challenge to mental health. While planning the larger bid, sexuality emerged as an increasingly important theme for its three research strands, but it was also the one that needed the most development, planning and support to research.

We will test methods for recruiting and interviewing athletes about their sexuality, bringing together academics, athletes and activists to inform our approach and to exchange knowledge. We will consult archives to assess their importance to the future project and construct a database of sport autobiographies that deal with sexuality. We will also look at engagement possibilities, including filming a documentary.

As oral history will be our primary methodology, we will certainly be looking for interviewees (LGBT athletes willing to talk about their mental health - both the good, bad, and otherwise). Please do get in touch if you are interested in participating in the project.