LGBTQ+ sportswomen

How LGBTQ+ friendly is the sports and fitness world?

Posted by for Wellbeing

How many openly gay fitness influencers do you follow? What about openly gay or bisexual female footballers or basketball players? Writer Emilie Lavinia explores the apparent disconnect between the fitness and sporting industries, when it comes to LGBTQ+ women.

At first glance, the sporting world might not seem a likely safe space for the LGBTQ+ community. British football fans are still scarred by the tragic death of Justin Fashanu died by suicide shortly after coming out in the late 90s, and there are very few openly gay male cricketers, rugby players or athletes around today. Look at women’s sport, however, and it’s a different story.

We’ve got Nicola Adams, Megan Rapinoe and footballer Fara Williams to name but a few openly queer sportswomen. From grassroot communities like LGTBQ+ friendly female football teams Goal Diggers FC to playing at very top of the professional tree like Lioness Lucy Bronze, gay and bisexual women seem to be well-represented in sport. 

It seems, at least from the outside, that the sporting world is far more accepting of female sexuality than the fitness industry. How many openly gay fitness influencers do you follow or know of? 

Why is women’s sport more accepting of gay and bisexual athletes?

“The media plays a strong role in how the world sees LGBTQ+ people,” Amazin LeThi, athlete and Stonewall and Gay Games Global ambassador, tells Stylist. “In men’s sports, it’s perhaps harder to be out but that’s not necessarily the case in women’s sports.”

“Look at the Women’s World Cup. Across the whole tournament there were at least 41 female players or coaches who are openly gay or bisexual. Women’s sports do have a different atmosphere; they’re more family orientated and often have a more diverse group of people going to watch matches.”

That’s not to say that everything is perfect in the sporting world, however. LeThi believes that there’s still more work to be done, namely in providing the press and official bodies with more media training “around language, pronouns and how our stories are told.”

LeThi, the first openly-queer Asian athlete to appear in Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign, suggests that coming out might be easier for those sportswomen who excel at traditionally ‘masculine’ sports, like football, rugby and hockey. Rather than being a sign of progress, she believes that fact is proof that misogynistic, homophobic stereotypes of gay women persist.

Amazin LeThi
Amazin LeThi believes that stereotypes make it easier for gay women to find acceptance in traditionally 'masculine' sports like football.

Queer women of colour and trans women are still on the margins

Of course, the queer spectrum is a diverse one and no conversation around LGBTQ+ acceptance would be complete without delving into the experiences of women of colour and trans women. They, of course, experience the industry quite differently.

“I do think we are lucky in women’s football,” says Ella Masar, a professional footballer and the co-founder of Doyenne Sport. “We are able to feel comfortable. But you don’t see male players coming out and that is because they are very much scrutinized and feel as if their lives could be threatened. I also still believe that football still focuses on the ‘LGB’ side of things — where the ‘TQ’ fits in is still not really being looked at.”

Arguably, social media is one arena that hands control of one’s image back to the user. Through curating their own social media presence, LGBTQ+ women are able to craft and nurture their personal brands and connect with a wider community. However, it’s hard to deny that heteronormative beauty standards reign supreme across Instagram and TikTok, with the fitness influencers banging on about building glutes and honing abs to create a ‘womanly’ hour-glass shape.

Nicole*, a personal trainer from south London says: “As a woman of colour, I don’t think it’s as easy to be out and be a fitness professional unless you already have a sizeable following. Black women’s bodies are fetishised and sexualised to such an extent that dealing with the male gaze is challenging. Yes, I deal with it every day and I deal with it on Instagram.”

While she’s out to her closest friends, Nicole feels uncomfortable about connecting her sexuality with her business. “I don’t run a queer Black personal training business, I just run a personal training business because I don’t want to give anyone the ammunition to marginalise, sexualise or mistreat me.”

Sex sells — even in the fitness industry

The fact that women-only gyms seem to be increasing in number may pay testament to the fact that some women — queer or not — can feel a little uncomfortable in mixed gender fitness spaces. Research from Mindbody back in 2020 found that 57% of women have felt inappropriately looked at while working out

Emilia Richeson runs Pony Sweat, an LA-based aerobics brand and proudly queer-centric space. Her experiences as a fitness professional have been varied during the seven years she’s spent building her business. “As a femme person, I am and have been hypersexualised throughout my life and as someone who works with their body, it is difficult and frustrating to always have to confront and defy that gaze,” she says. 

“Representation does make a difference in that when we see folks that look like us, we may be more likely to start our own exercise routine, or aerobics class, or dyke-soccer club, or whatever it is! We have a better chance of shifting this culture when there are more of us in it. Oftentimes we make choices about being visible or not to ensure our safety, and that is ok, but I think the solution is not to hide.”

Does Instagram’s algorithm work against queer creators?

The creation of LGBTQ+ friendly fitness spaces — groups like Stonewall Sport, businesses like Doyenne Sport and media outlets that celebrate and champion out athletes and fitness professions — has undoubtedly helped with encouraging more women in the industry to come out. There’s still a long way to go, however, until everyone feels safe and comfortable to do so.

“We have come a long way but there is still such a long way to go. Abuse and comments on social media are still very common,” explains Masar. She adds that, despite being out for almost eight years and making her identity visible on her social media channels, “the (homophobic) comments still come.” And then, of course, there’s the fact that heteronormative ideals of beauty persist online, regardless of personal sexuality. “If I do a workout video – one with my shirt on and the other with my shirt off – the view rate is considerably higher for the shirtless one,” says Masar.

There are forums encouraging young women to post ‘sporty’ pictures in gym gear to accrue more followers and ‘fan’ accounts dedicated to collating photos of women exercising. It’s clear that Instagram’s algorithms, which in simple terms favour images that receive a high level of engagement and hides those that do not, promote a particular aesthetic where women’s bodies and sexuality are associated with being fit.

Of course, this algorithm affects not only the visibility of low-ranking images, but the visibility of LGBTQ+ women, the visibility of women of colour and the visibility of athletes and fitness professionals who don’t create content that subscribes to the algorithm’s standards. It doesn’t even matter if you want to engage with more authentic content; if you’ve engaged with a classic, sexualised gym selfie image from a certain influencer, Instagram will show you more content like that. Eventually, you’ll find yourself in a fitness echo chamber that could preclude gay content makers entirely.

Both industries are progressing forward

“On social media, many athletes and fitness influencers can control their own image but stereotypes still affect them.” says LeThi. “It’s still more challenging for Asian and black women to be out in sports (or anywhere else, for that matter) because of cultural differences, negative stereotypes and lack of representation. We struggle with a double layer of discrimination. These issues create and impact future barriers to being openly out.”

It’s clear that there’s still a mammoth challenge on our hands to level the playing field between LGBTQ+ communities and heteronormative players and fitness influencers, but progress is being made. All the women we spoke to believe that more  LGBTQ+ role models in the industry are needed, alongside better allyship from media and fans and more spaces in which talent and passion are the chief concern for anyone playing the game. 

For now, let me leave you with this heartening fact: according to Out Sports, over 100 openly LGBTQ+ athletes are expected to compete at this year’s Toyko Olympics — the latest number ever. The tide really is turning.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of individuals 

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Images: Getty

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