Homophobic Bullying particularly in Youth Sport

The item below reflects the advice from the Child Protection in Sport Unit, but can easily relate to adults.


Every child in every sports club or activity has the right to participate, train and play free from the fear of bullying of any form. Everyone involved in children’s sport needs to work together to ensure that this is the case.

Sports club, governing bodies and activity providers should take steps to prevent bullying behaviour wherever possible, and to respond to incidents when they occur. A preventative approach to bullying means that organisations safeguard the welfare of their members. It also means that sport is playing its part to create an environment and society in which people treat each other with respect. Sports clubs and activity providers may already have general anti-bullying strategies in place. Preventing and responding to homophobic bullying should be part of these existing strategies.

Social attitudes have meant that there has been a reluctance even to acknowledge participation in sport by those whose sexual orientation is anything other than heterosexual, which can be challenging for that individual. Discrimination can run deep: it may be implicit through "heteronormative" attitudes as well as explicit through more overt homophobia, and often results in self-censorship by LGBT people.

Discriminatory views about heterosexual and homosexual behaviour are evident in all areas of society but are especially prominent in sport. Homophobia is often driven by a lack of understanding which only serves to strengthen stereotypes and can potentially lead to actions that may cause LGBT people to feel excluded, isolated or undervalued. If these values and actions operate at an organisational level then the organisation itself should be deemed to be "institutionally homophobic".

Many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in sport face discrimination simply because they are perceived to be different from the heterosexual "norm": This is called "homonegativity". As well as leading many LGBT athletes to leave clubs or sport, in the worst cases such negative treatment has resulted in self harm or suicide.


The sports councils in the UK have recognised the social and legal imperatives for sports bodies to support participation among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and to oppose homophobia and related discrimination in sport. Through including and valuing them, sport offers opportunities to transform the lives of a substantial number of young people, regardless of their sexual orientation.



All bullying has the potential to cause permanent harm (physical, emotional or psychological) to young people and blights the sport where it takes place. Homophobic bullying can be hard to identify because it may be going on in secret. It may include a person being made to feel unwelcome, belittled, or harassed (through gossip, name-calling, jokes and other hate acts: both on-line and in the "real" world). Sometimes, athletes witness homophobic bullying and even if they are not LGBT and the subject of the abuse, they may be reluctant to report it in case participants, coaches or other adults assume they are gay.

Generally, homophobic bullying looks like other kinds of bullying, it may include:

Facts about the impact

*The School Report: Stonewall (2006) **Out on Your Own: The Rainbow Project (2006)


The most important step is to recognise that all sorts of bullying takes place in sports clubs. The homophobic aspect of bullying may be hidden from view. If you record the incidence of racist/sectarian bullying, you can do the same with bullying involving homophobia. Don’t assume that all members, participants, coaches or staff will be heterosexual.

Coaches are often unaware of the nature and extent of this form of bullying in particular. Other young people are often reluctant to get involved and don’t know how to help. Effective interventions involve the entire culture of the club and sport, rather than just focusing on traditional notions of perpetrators and their victims.

Challenging Myths

All Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender people choose to be "that way". All individuals discover, rather than choose, their sexual orientation, this process often happening over time during adolescence. For LGBT young people the only point at which choice seems to come into play is when around their decisions about how they will a cknowledge their identity i.e. choosing if and how to "come out" and choosing who to tell. This process includes self-acceptance, and responses from other people (both supportive and offensive) can have a profound impact on the person’s wellbeing.

Young people cannot be Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual or Transgender

Many people who identify as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual or Transgender are aware of being same-sex attracted between the ages of 12 and 14. It can take a number of years for the young person to fully acknowledge it themselves and those close to them. This can be a difficult and emotionally-charged time. It is difficult to gauge how many LGBT people (and therefore young people) there are in the UK as this relies on people self-identifying as LGBT (something which many LGBT people are reluctant to do). The position of The Rainbow Project (NI) is that LGBT are approximately 6-10% of the population.


Responding to homophobic bullying

Many ways of tackling homophobia are quite simple to implement. Even the act of explicitly stating that homophobic bullying is wrong, and why, has an impact on the behaviour and attitudes of members. Coaches should be aware of sexual orientation issues so that they will not only recognise homophobic language but avoid using such language and know how to respond confidently and effectively. It is important that there are consequences for those who use homophobic language or engage in homophobic behaviour in the same way that a club should challenge any form of bullying. It must be explained to young people why the words and behaviour are wrong, how it affects young LGBT people and that it will not be accepted in sport.

Homophobic language is common in sports organisations but, if it is not challenged, members may think that homophobic bullying is acceptable. It is therefore important to challenge homophobic language when it occurs:


What does the law say about sexual orientation in sport?

LGBT people in sport are likely to experience issues that are currently covered by a number of different legislative instruments related to:

The Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007 and the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) (Amendment No 2) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2007 require any providers of goods, facilities or services to ensure that they do not discriminate against actual or potential users based on their sexual orientation. This applies to all individuals and organisations that provide services, whether these are paid for or not.

These regulations cover:

Under the Sex Discrimination (Amendment of Legislation) Regulations 2008, from April 2008, it became also unlawful for providers of goods, facilities and services to discriminate against or harass people on grounds of gender reassignment.

The Equality Act 2010 provides a new cross-cutting legislative framework to protect the rights of individuals and advance equality of opportunity for all; to update, simplify and strengthen the previous legislation; and to deliver a simple, modern and accessible framework of discrimination law which protects individuals from unfair treatment and promotes a fair and more equal society. The majority of provisions came into effect on 1st October 2010. However, some provisions will not come into force until April 2011. see here for details.


Equality issues around sexual orientation and gender identity are still seen differently from comparable issues on race, gender or disability. Although the underlying prejudices are different, the impact on the young person is often the same as it can cause distress, fear or isolation. Therefore bullying and abuse on the basis of a person’s sexual orientation must be challenged with the same energy as other equality issues.

Homophobic discrimination and gender stereotyping are not just damaging to those who may be LGBT but risk affecting performance and participation amongst far wider groups.

Much of the prejudice and negativity around LGBT issues in sport can be traced back to the application of gender stereotypes and perceptions of masculinity and femininity. Attitudes within sport both reinforce and are underpinned by wider social attitudes. It would be unfair to judge sports organisations by higher standards than those demonstrated elsewhere, but it is important that sport clubs (which play a significant part in a young person’s life) develop and disseminate responsible advice, guidance materials and systems for athletes dealing with sexual orientation issues.

Young people are seen as key to effecting change because they often express more enlightened attitudes to diversity than older generations. Sport can be a powerful influence both on young people’s own personal development and on their attitudes to others, so young people’s openness to diversity is likely to continue even after their personal involvement in sport ceases.

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