“For women players it’s not so difficult to come out, but for men it’s a different story,” said An De Kock, sports and ethics adviser for the Belgian Football Association. “There’s so much pressure on them, starting from their sponsors, who want to portray a specific image of the players. It just reinforces the expectations the player feels required to fulfil.” she concluded.
The setting is the Center for Fine Arts Bozar in Brusels, the context: a debate on the creation of an LGBTIQ inclusive society.
Despite all the efforts that have brought us closer to a more inclusive society, namely legislation and initiatives to change collective perception, sports remains an area where a lot of challenges still lie ahead.
“It’s the way sports like football have operated for decades,” continued Miss De Kock. “With all the jokes during training, if you’re weak for instance, it’s so common to call each other names that can be offensive. And when you speak to the coaches they say, ‘Oh, but we don’t mean it that way.’ They get all defensive, and it becomes difficult to talk to them.”
In many sports the pressures to comply with the norm seem to come down from top to bottom, the economics playing a determining factor.
“When a coach or a higher executive happens to find out, they come to the player in private and say, ‘Hey, we understand you, we really do. But for your own sake, it’d be better if you kept it private. Otherwise the press will eat you.”
And what about other domains, like humanities and the arts?
“Well, the opposite happens in the art scene,” said Saskia De Coster, a writer. “Plenty of men feel the need to act gay if they want to be accepted. Yes, it’s all really messed up.”
When asked if she thinks there have been changes in the way LGBTQI people are perceived in society she said, “Well, sometimes people mean well, they try to mean well. The say nice things to me like, ‘Really? You don’t look like a lesbian.’ Which is actually an insult. To me, they’re saying, You don’t really look like the person you are, which is a different way of saying, You don’t look the way I expected you would.”
The event is organized under the hospices of the Malta Presidency of the Council of the European Union, and Malta is a country where things have changed for the better for the LGBTQI community in the recent years.
“Malta is a very conservative country,” said Geert Sciot, Honorary Consul of Malta. “Four, five years I would have named Malta as a country where the situation for LGBTQI was challenging. But that has changed a lot, and it just shows you that being secular or not, being religious or not, is not necessarily linked to how people will think and react. Change is possible.”
Mahmoud Hassino was born in Syria but grew up in Saudi Arabia. There he witnessed the beheading of two men who had been in a same sex relationship.
“I started questioning religion when I was eight,” he said. “Even before I realized I was attracted to my classmates, to some of my teachers too.” He chuckled, then continued, “Look, I was four when I arrived in Saudi Arabia and women didn’t need to wear headscarfs. It all changed later, and I asked myself, Why was it ok and now it’s not? I couldn’t get my head around it.”
Among other activities, Mr. Hassino works in Germany at a shelter for LGBTQI asylum seekers and refugees.
“These people live in constant fear,” he said. “First, they flee their countries because they are in danger, then they come to Europe and they are grouped with their countrymen – that’s the way the welcoming centers operate here. Can you imagine? They are placed with their assailants, so to speak.”
During the Q&A someone raised a hand. “My name is Julia from Transgender Europe,” the person said. “I’m sorry but I don’t think the way the panelists were chosen is representative of the LGBTQI community.” People in the audience cheered. “Besides,” she went on, “I don’t think addressing the audience as, ladies and gentlemen, is appropriate.”
Saskia De Coster chose to answer. “We appreciate the criticism, which I think is a bit harsh, because this is the first time an event like this happens and I know the organizers put a lot of effort into it. Something we would be very receptive to hear instead is, What panelists would you have suggested?”
After the event I approached Julia and asked about the appropriate etiquette for addressing people in the audience. “It’s simple,” she said. “You can say, ‘Hello everyone, good evening.’ Of course this is when it’s an informal event. You can even use a variation and say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, and everyone else.’ Something like that could be fine.” She pauses for a moment, grins a little. “Or you can even say, ‘Good evening, distinguished everybody.’ How about that?”