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By Matt Handley
Matthew Handley on what the first openly gay boxer means for equality in sport
On Friday afternoon a marvelous thing happened; Orlando Cruz, a featherweight boxer, became the first active fighter in his profession to come out as gay. The 31-year-old declared in an interview that he has “always been, and always will be, a proud gay man”.
It is awful that even in supposedly liberal and tolerant societies, many are still made to feel uncomfortable about revealing their sexuality. It is depressing that in the entire history of professional sport, the number of openly gay players is still in single figures and that even within that tiny minority many were met with vitriol and rejection after coming out.
Take the experience of Justin Fashanu, the only openly gay footballer in British history, who came out publicly in 1990, only to be disowned by his elder, more successful brother, John. He was ridiculed by fans, and, ultimately, tragically took his own life after unfounded allegations of sexual assault. After such horrendous treatment by fans and peers, and a lack of support from players’ groups, it’s unsurprising that other gay sports stars have been reluctant to spring from the closet.
But therein lies the problem. Whilst there are next to no openly gay sports stars, there is no visible example to counterbalance the Neanderthal notion that gay players would spend their time either jumping out of, or eyeing up, tackles, that still pervades the minds of many.
Even more pernicious is the lack of role models who can shatter misconceptions and provide solace for those who struggle to come out and support for those who do.
Sports stars can alter the way people think. The latently homophobic perception which still pervades certain sections of society of homosexuals as ‘fairy boys’ who are less than other men would become thoroughly untenable were openly gay middleweights, or rugby centers commonplace. That day seems far away but the bravery of figures such as Orlando Cruz makes it hearteningly closer.