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Column: There is a glass ceiling of homophobia in Irish sport

Social inclusion and sport go hand-in-hand – but, within Irish games, there remains two distinct playing fields: one for LGBT people and one for straight people. The time has come to change this, writes Phil Prendergast MEP.

Phil Prendergast MEP

TODAY CROKE PARK hosted a Youth and Social Inclusion Conference, organised by BeLonGTo. Given the historic setting of the event and the critical fight for LGBT rights, not just in Ireland, but across the European Union, I think this is a a great opportunity to talk about how sport can be used to bring LGBT and youth communities together.

I work with the LGBT Intergroup, which is an informal cross-party grouping of 153 MEPs committed to upholding LGBT rights in the day to day work of the European Parliament. Its Irish Members include myself, my two Labour Party colleagues Emer Costello and Nessa Childers, as well as Paul Murphy and Marian Harkin.

There have been some extraordinary successes of the Irish Presidency of the Council of the European Union on broad issues of interest to LGBT individuals and their families, particularly on the issue of bullying and cyberbullying where the first discussion on how to tackle the growing problem across the 27 Member States took place under the stewardship of the Irish Presidency.

LGBT rights require transnational political and legislative responses

It seems to me that we will see specific LGBT themes emerging in future Presidencies as the idea gains favour that many issues related to LGBT rights such as discrimination, employment, social inclusion and health are not issues which can be effectively dealt with at the Member State level but rather require transnational political and legislative responses. At national level, Minister Fitzgerald has been an enthusiastic activist for the cause, working constantly to tackle bullying and cyberbullying.

If we think about Irish society and the role of the GAA and the FAI in communities all over Ireland, social inclusion and sport go hand-in-hand and any comprehensive discussion on strategies for welcoming LGBT young people in from the cold margins of an unjust, unfair society must include a strong focus on sport.

The LGBT sports movement, which has flourished in Ireland and across the EU over the past twenty years, has done outstanding work in breaking down barriers between LGBT people and eliminating isolation. It has brought a community closer together and made it broth stronger and more cohesive.

Two distinct playing fields within Irish sport

Popular and prominent events such as the Gay Games have helped tackle prejudices and unfounded stereotypes surrounding what it means to be L,G,B or T. But there still remains within sport, and within Irish sport, two distinct playing fields: one for LGBT people and one for straight people. I think the time has come that the young gay person should play on the same field and on the same team as his straight best friend, without fear or favour.

There is a glass ceiling of homophobia which acts as a barrier to full participation of LGBT people in sport in Ireland. Sometimes the homophobia is expressed outwardly and can be shot down openly. On top of that though, there also exists a more subtle almost bureaucratic barrier to LGBT participation. This is the barrier that says there is no active problem with LGBT people playing sport, or that there’s no need to make a big deal of it.

This type of argument is much more potent and much more prevalent. What is required to get more LGBT people playing hurling, rugby or soccer at a young age, is not a negative “we have no problem” but rather positive , proactive encouragement of LGBT involvement. The days of a sportsman or woman being afraid or ashamed of their sexuality should already be long in the past. We rightly applaud those who take that first step into the spotlight and we remark on their courage, strength of character and perseverance.

Sports organisations must act as a positive force for social inclusion

All members of the LGBT Communtity should feel safe, welcomed, and valued in the event they decide to take that step – but it shouldn’t be a necessity, and it shouldn’t be something to fear. We need to do better on that front- much better, and this is particularly true of the sporting world.

Sports organisations, and particularly sports organisations which receive public funding through the Lotto or Department of Sport, must live up to their responsibility to act as a positive force for social inclusion in Ireland through their policies, procedures, guidelines and strategies. They must examine all of the possible boundaries to LGBT young people participating in sports, and then, one-by-one, begin the process of removing those barriers.

It would be my strong conviction that grant awarding bodies such as government departments or the lotto should include basic and measurable targets for LGBT inclusion before the awarding of any grant.

In the Intergroup we have begun the process of examining the issue of homophobia in sports across the European Union. In September we will introduce a written declaration into the European Parliament which calls for the adoption of a charter for best practice for sporting organisations and government departments across the EU.

A full study of LGBT involvement in sports

If successfully passed, the declaration will call on the Commission to conduct a full study of LGBT involvement in sports across the Union, something which is critically missing from the discussion at European level at the moment.

It is undoubtedly true that sport plays a central role in Irish society, possibly more so than in other member sates. That makes it even more critical for us to encourage and promote LGBT Youth in playing our games and sports, as without their participation we cannot say as a society, that we have reached a stage of full inclusion.

Phil Prendergast has been an MEP for Ireland South since 2011.

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Phil Prendergast MEP

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