Pride shouldn’t feel perilous - let’s get sports speaking confidently

Paddling with Pride ()

To kick off Pride Month 2023, the Sport and Recreation Alliance invited Jon Holmes, founder and lead of Sports Media LGBT+, to share his thoughts on LGBT+ inclusion in sport.

Jon has previously delivered an incredibly well-received webinar on inclusion for Alliance members during a previous Pride Month and continues to support equality and inclusivity in several professional roles.

Jon takes a look at the role sport is playing for the LGBT+ community and how you can enhance your involvement for Pride Month 2023

Kayaks, canoes, colour and celebration, captured in images taken on a sunny summer’s day.

This was the scene at ‘Paddling With Pride’, put on by British Canoeing last year in partnership with Pride House Birmingham, the LGBTQ+ inclusion project at the Commonwealth Games which I was working on.

As the people taking part cruised down the city’s canals, there were cyclists and pedestrians on the footpaths stopping to smile, wave and take pictures.

It proved to be the ideal introduction to a sport that most of the paddlers - a diverse group of over 60 LGBTQ+ people and allies - had never seriously considered before.

Watching the short film produced later by British Canoeing, one word you hear frequently in the interviews is how “welcoming” the event was. It’s the kind of positive feedback that any National Governing Body (NGB) would hope to receive.

I’m keeping this in mind as we head into June and Pride Month, that time of year to show a festival spirit of freedom - whether marked on a grand scale, or more personally - and follow in the footsteps of courageous LGBTQ+ activists who have fought for our human rights.

The Fight for Equality

Those battles for equality are far from over. More than a third of nations continue to criminalise same-sex love, while in many others, members of LGBTQ+ communities are at increasing risk of violence or are being made to feel more unwelcome and unsafe.

Here at home, the situation needs attention. The most recent Home Office figures for recorded hate crime in England and Wales showed a 41% rise in cases relating to sexual orientation, and a 56% spike relating to gender identity.

Taking a visible stand against prejudice has been at the heart of Pride since it started as the ‘Christopher Street Liberation Day March’ in New York City back in 1970, one year on from the historic Stonewall riots.

The UK’s first Pride was held in London in 1972. Over half a century later, around 180 such parades, events and get-togethers will take place on these shores in cities, towns and regions nationwide in 2023.

Inclusion in Sport

For an NGB like British Canoeing, delivering a Pride activation makes perfect sense when you consider results from its annual Inclusion Survey.

More than 13% of respondents to the NGB’s most recent survey said that they are not heterosexual, while 1.2% of respondents said they are trans or non-binary. This data shows healthy representation for both groups interested in paddling through the survey.

The survey also asked for suggestions as to how British Canoeing could build upon its LGBTQ+ inclusion work, resulting in the launch of ‘Paddling With Pride’.

However, introducing an initiative like this in sport is rarely straightforward and will often attract a few naysayers. “We received several comments about what sexual orientation had to do with paddling,” noted British Canoeing in its survey report.

A YouTube user commenting on the short film took a similar tack, questioning the need for the event before adding: “Who cares?”

What the data says

While data from Sport England’s Active Lives Adult Survey suggests that lesbian, gay and bisexual people in England are on average more likely to be physically active than heterosexual people, they do experience challenges that affect participation, particularly in team sports and group activities.

Respondents to this survey were asked if they thought they had sufficient opportunities to be active and whether they derived enjoyment from sport and recreation. Gay men were significantly below average on these metrics.

Meanwhile, feelings of loneliness expressed in Active Lives jumped sharply for gay and lesbian respondents. For bi people, the statistic is even higher.

Equivalent data for trans and non-binary people isn’t yet available but studies into grassroots sport have cited “discrimination, lack of education/awareness, binary gender classifications and sex-segregated changing areas” as common barriers to their participation.

Any sport that successfully tackles these issues should therefore be assured of some growth, especially with young people who are more likely than older generations to identify as LGBTQ+.

Creating a Pride project can not only shift perceptions about a particular sport but also generate a strong sense of community. This work must be considered time well spent for any ED&I professional who is looking to grow participation and boost engagement.


Paddling with Pride ()

 All images in this article courtesy of Nick Hynan

Listening to the LGBT+ community

What is also worthwhile is partnering with an organisation that works with and advocates for the group of people you want to reach.

Pride Sports, which delivered Pride House Birmingham, was established in 2006 and is a member of the Sport and Recreation Alliance. The organisation delivers education and learning via workshops and webinars; produces resources; runs campaigns such as Football v Homophobia; and supports NGBs, inclusive clubs and network groups on their sports-specific objectives.

Sports Media LGBT+ has assisted Pride Sports and its partners for several years on communicating this LGBTQ+ inclusion work, advising on messaging and producing content that amplifies under-represented voices.

Reflecting on the success of ‘Paddling With Pride’, British Canoeing’s Helena Russo wrote: “It was easily one of the highlights of 2022 for me... and as a person belonging to the LGBTQ+ community, this was an event I felt so personally connected to.”

For summer 2023, there are two dates scheduled so far (Camden on 4 June, and Birmingham again on 23 July) and I’m particularly encouraged to see the sessions being promoted at a time of rising anti-LGBTQ+ toxicity on social media platforms and in the wider media.

All that noise can be draining, and it makes people nervous about their use of language and terminology. When the Oxford English Dictionary expanded its definitions of the word ‘woke’ in 2017 to include ‘alert to injustice in society’, lexicographers could hardly have imagined how weaponised it would be just six years later.

So this Pride season, it’s even more important to listen to those from LGBTQ+ communities within your sport, alongside their allies. This will inform your approach and enable you to reach out more widely with confidence.

Take some inspiration from the paddlers. One first-timer, Kim, said the Birmingham session had been “a really great way to get out, meet people and have conversations”.

The rainbow flags will catch the eye but it’s the warm welcome that people will remember most. It might just be the beginning of their love story with your sport.

Sports Media LGBT+ is an industry network and consultancy that helps organisations deliver communications inclusively - you can follow them on Twitter here and access their free Pride Month resource here.

Sport and recreation are for everyone, and there are some fantastic resources around LGBTQ+ inclusion on our Inclusivity Hub.