By Robbie de Santos, Head of Campaigns at LGBTQ charity Stonewall
On Tuesday night, a Twitter account known as The Gay Footballer (@FootballerGay) was deleted a few hours before it was set to reveal its identity as a Championship footballer.
The account first appeared online earlier this month and quickly amassed nearly 50,000 followers, becoming somewhat of a media circus. The user attracted public support from former England striker Gary Lineker, and Burton Albion forward Marvin Sordell.
Like many others who saw the account, I felt a mixture of curiosity, scepticism, and hope. The question on so many people’s lips seemed to be: "Was this actually happening?"
Now we know it’s not and the account is gone, people are feeling frustrated, discouraged, and even disappointed. This doesn’t surprise me.
Lesbian, gay, bi, and trans role models in sports are hugely important.
Athletes like Megan Rapinoe, Tom Daley, Chris Mosier, Charlie Martin, Billie Jean King, Jason Collins, and many others have the power to inspire other LGBTQ people, particularly young people, by letting them know that LGBTQ people can also succeed in sport, feel proud in their identity, and help create a more inclusive culture in sport.
The fact the #GayFootballer account may or may not be a hoax after being deleted is irrelevant to me. What's more important is that in 2019 no footballer has yet felt able to come out & just be who they are because of fearing the reaction. It's sad & football must do better! 🌈🌈— Hayley Garrod (@GRODSTER) July 24, 2019
Because growing up gay & seeing none of your heroes out and proud makes you feel worthless, lonely and like there's something wrong with you - which is why you're 5 times more likely to commit suicide if you're gay.— Jack D 🌹 (@JackDunc1) July 24, 2019
A an out role model can change and save lives. #Gayfootballerhttps://t.co/SrXXBksU64
Almost two-thirds of young people (60%) say that openly LGBTQ athletes would have a positive impact on the culture of sport.
But we need to remember that someone coming out doesn’t mean our work is done.
High-profile role models are just one part of a much wider cultural shift to make sport more inclusive. It’s not fair to place the burden of tackling anti-LGBTQ attitudes and behaviour solely on the shoulders of LGBTQ athletes.
We do not live in a world that is accepting of everyone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Some of the negative tweets directed at The Gay Footballer were a clear reminder of this.
We can’t rely on the bravery of individuals alone. It’s important we understand and respect why not everyone can be out.
Coming out is a personal decision and the more support everyone shows for lesbian, gay, bi, and trans athletes in sport, the easier it will become.
So when the mediawrite stories speculating about professional footballers’ sexual orientation it’s dangerous and only makes it more difficult.
These kinds of stories create a frenzy around gay and bi professional players, singling them out and ignoring the many valid reasons a person may have for not being open about their sexuality.
I don't care if #gayfootballer account is/was real or not. And those saying 'it doesn't matter, no one cares who's gay or not' have no idea of the fear, difficulty, daily concerns of LGBTQ people. It does matter. All the time.— Stella Duffy (@stellduffy) July 24, 2019
2/4— Football And The City (@ballandthecity) July 24, 2019
Whether or not you think he was real - it raises a serious point about why gay, male, players still don't feel they can come out.
We should not, in 2019, have a society where this is still an issue. #gayfootballer 🏳️🌈
What we should be focusing on is having a conversation about how we improve all parts of the sporting environment, so that all LGBTQ people in sport feel comfortable being open about who they are.
This conversation also can’t just be about football — homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia exist in all sports, and we need leaders in each sport to step up and change the culture.
It’s the responsibility for everyone who cares about sport and equality to make it more inclusive. This includes sport governing bodies, sponsors, and the media. That’s why our Rainbow Laces campaign focuses on allies coming out in support of LGBTQ equality across all sports at all levels.
There’s been real movement from the football industry as a whole to create an environment where a player could feel comfortable talking about their sexual orientation.
Change is happening. Just look at the openly lesbian and bi women professional footballers who are such brilliant role models. Just look at the growing scale of support for Rainbow Laces from across football.
So, please, don’t fuel the speculation. Be a good ally. Actively support, champion, and promote an inclusive culture for all LGBTQ people. If everyone who loves sport comes together, we can make sport everyone’s game.
No LGBTQ person should live in fear that someone might out them before they are ready. We will always stand with and support all LGBTQ people, whether they are out or not. Our work won’t be finished until all LGBTQ people, from fans and players alike, are accepted without exception.
This op-ed was originally published by Stonewall. You can view the original piece here.