Within the framework of the ENGSO Equality Within Sport Committee (EWS) and our new campaign #StandUp4Equality, we are sharing personal stories of acceptance and empowerment through sport, shared by our friends from the LGBTQI+ sport community.
The following story comes from David Thibodeau, swimmer and coach, activist and Sports for social impact podcast founder, Young Sport Maker at Global Sports Week Paris 2020, and Program Analyst at Government of Canada (Canada).
Sport plays a really important part in my life. From life long friends, to building a stronger connection to my community and my city. My relation to sport has changed over the years from being a competitive swimmer to now being a coach, being involved in LGBTQ inclusion in sport efforts, and starting the Sports for Social Impact podcast. Despite the pandemic disrupting much of our lives over the past two years, sport often taking the brunt of the public health restrictions, I think that it has reinforced the importance of having sport in our lives.
My journey in sport and my identity outside of the pool really came to a point in my second year of university in 2015. Before this point I always hid who I was around the pool deck, at school and at home. Despite being with all of my friends on the swim team, I felt very alone and unable to be my full self. These conversations about LGBTQ+ inclusion in sport were not present to the same extent that they are now. There weren’t many out athletes, and I kept telling myself “No, that’s not me.”
University is often a time of great discovery for a lot of people. Discovering new interests, meeting new friends; it’s a time of a lot of change. And so was how I felt about my sport. Over the course of my second year of university, when I finally started to accept who I was and started coming out publicly, I couldn’t wrap my head around how I could be both an athlete, and be gay. To me, I couldn’t be both.
So, I quit at the end of my second year of university.
I didn’t see a space for myself in sport as an athlete. All of my friends who were part of the LGBTQ+ community, none were even remotely interested in sports. And none of my friends in sport were part of the LGBTQ+ community.
It took me a long time to reconcile that being gay does not mean that you cannot be an athlete. I was fortunately able to get back into swimming a few years later when I started my Masters Degree. Despite having not swam in almost two years I came back stronger and was able to keep getting better as an athlete. I believe that I was able to compete at a higher level because I was able to be my full self the second time around. I wasn’t constantly thinking about how others might perceive me and I was able to focus more on my swimming.
Thinking back on my time as a swimmer, I think that more visibility of LGBTQ+ athletes and coaches, officials and other people in sport would have made a big difference. The culture on my team was accepting, I do not think that my teammates or coach would have made me feel unwelcome if I had come out and wanted to keep swimming, it was the whole of sport culture that made me feel unwelcome. Articles like this are essential for showing LGBTQ+ youth that they do belong in sport. If more conversations like this were taking place I would have been able to see that LGBTQ+ belong in sport. I’m very excited to see more organisations and projects working to fill the visibility gap.
Now that my competition days are behind me, I’ve been focusing on coaching. Being an out coach also has a different set of challenges. As a coach of younger athletes (ages 9-12), I often get asked if I have a girlfriend. I always say no. I’m still worried about how parents might react if they find out their child’s coach is telling them that he has a boyfriend, because they are ‘too young’.
My advice to other LGBTQ+ youth is that you belong in sport. Sport is for everyone. If you ever feel that you do not belong, that you cannot be an athlete because of your gender expression or gender identity, always remember that there is a space for you.
I also want to give some advice to LGBTQ+ allies. Being an ally means knowing when you need to listen, and when to use your voice to advocate. Being an effective ally means that you listen to the concerns and problems of the LGBTQ+ community and work to make changes based on what they say. They may be subtle comments, remarks, or even discriminatory practices and policies that hurt LGBTQ+ people. You do not have to be a vocal ally to be an effective ally, but recognizing when you have done something hurtful and changing is important.
My final piece of advice to everyone reading is to be yourself.