Why is a sport star’s sexuality so significant?

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I would love to be writing about another sports star who had the courage to come out as gay.

Well, I’m well aware of the significance of English professional soccer player Jake Daniels coming outthis week, oddly enough, I wish it wasn’t significant. 

I wish it wasn’t a remarkable act of bravery.

I wish that, by now, many would have already laid the groundwork. 

I wish these stories wouldn’t need to be commented on, that sportspeople wouldn’t have to announce their sexuality, that sexuality wouldn’t be assumed and we could all just be — that we could fall in love with who we fall in love with and not have a label slapped on us. 

I am aware of the current need for labels, a term to allow us be understood better, and sometimes allow us help ourselves better understand our being and our preferences.

Jake Daniels in action during the Sky Bet Championship match between Peterborough United and Blackpool at London Road Stadium on May 7. Picture: Lee Parker CameraSport via Getty Images

I wish that the remarkable feat that a young current professional soccer player wasn’t so remarkable. That day has yet to come. Is it any closer?

Given that this young professional is merely 17 years old and is willing to announce his sexuality in a sporting environment that has been more than shy in reflecting societies diversity gives me hope. 

It gives me hope that there is a new generation of youth that has grown up comfortable with their sexuality and people’s sexual orientation. 

I did have the same hope when Cork’s own Donal Óg Cusack came out back in October 2009 but I was naïve in thinking it would allow for more sportsmen to come out and be accepted. 

It is very unlikely that Donal Óg is the only gay man to hold a hurley or kick a ball for his county since. 

It baffles me that the sporting world hasn’t reflected a more progressive society — a society I have witnessed mature and develop in the context of sexuality and LGBTQI+ issues. 

Regression, not progression

If anything the world of male sport has regressed in my eyes.

There hasn’t been one male intercounty player to publicly come out. I sometimes feel uncomfortable with the announcement. I don’t think any player should feel obliged to come out and speak about their love life or private life. Why should they?

Heterosexuals don’t have to do it. I do understand the current need for it if we are going to normalise it and get to a point when it doesn’t become a big story and where the terms brave and courageous don’t have to be used for someone wanting to be their true selves.

So what are the factors that are causing players to not come out ? 

Is it a case that there are no gay men playing sport? Highly unlikely. 

Is there a fear of rejection, a fear of backlash, a perception that they won’t be accepted by their teammates? 

Is locker room talk warning them to be quiet and protect themselves? 

Is it a case that they feel their contracts will expire in the case of professional players?

I do remember an article years ago stating that professional soccer players were advised against coming out by their agents as they feared they would be negatively treated and that it would significantly impinge on any future career. 

Imagine, a young Jake Daniels deliberating with the idea that he would be better staying quiet about his sexuality — at least until he retired. 

Well, you don’t have to imagine, Jake did consider that, mentioning in an interview that he didn’t see himself coming out until he had retired. Then he realised that that would be too long. 

It would have been a travesty if he had to deny himself part of his identity and keep up an act just to feel safe in soccer. 

This unfortunately is the case for many. 

Jake explained that he didn’t want to keep up the lies and live a lie by dating girls to cover up his sexuality.

Donal Óg Cusack: Came out in 2009. Picture: Cillian Kelly
Donal Óg Cusack: Came out in 2009. Picture: Cillian Kelly

He spoke about how it had impacted on his mental health and stress levels.

Of course, it would if you are constantly checking yourself and hoping you don’t out yourself. Going to extreme measures to protect your secret.

I don’t know if Jake anticipated the positive commentary from household names in the world of soccer such as Gary Lineker, his teammates and the club. 

The reaction was overwhelmingly positive. He welcomed the questions and the interest — it shows  they care. 

British prime minister Boris Johnson even tweeted: “Thank you for your bravery Jake, it would have taken huge courage to come out and you will be an inspiration to many both on and off the pitch.”

But to anyone who believes we are in a time where this isn’t a talking point and of the opinion that no one cares, you only have to look at the negative comments that were attached to the tweet announcing his sexuality.

Sadly homophobia is alive and well with a certain element of society, an element loud and clear on their disdain for this man to be happy and live his life as his heart desires. 

Sky Sports had to remove the comments option in what I deduct was a protective step in blocking negative reactions from getting air time. 

Close to home in Dublin, two female women were recently targeted based on their sexuality and assaulted.

This is just weeks after the murders of the two Sligo men Aidan Moffitt and Michael Snee.

My own experience

Ironically, I have had a very positive experience of being gay. The hardest thing for me was to accept it about myself. I grappled with it for years and struggled to keep it a secret.

Looking back now, I made it such a big deal of it in my own head and lived in turmoil, afraid to be my true self for fear of rejection. A real fear of letting others down and a fear of being lesser. 

I was my own worst enemy, thinking worst case scenario, playing out unnecessary things in my head and having a negative narrative about what it meant being gay. 

I never once experienced homophobia by my team mates, the opposition or the general public. The only thing I fell victim to was a bit of gossip.

The female dressing room thankfully reflects a more progressive society and healthy safe space — space to be free and expressive. 

Valerie Mulcahy: Has had a positive experience of being gay but found it difficult to accept it about herself. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Valerie Mulcahy: Has had a positive experience of being gay but found it difficult to accept it about herself. Picture: Eddie O’Hare

Many female athletes in my own sport are confidently out and proud, something, I must admit, I envy. 

It is wonderful to see that players can bring their whole self to their passion. Essentially it will allow them to perform better knowing they are fully engaged and fully present. Not distracted with worry or fear that you might reveal your whole self, a self that you fear might be rejected.

I’ve taught in a secondary school for 15 years and it is heartening to see the level of education and awareness of LGBT community from those as young as first years. 

I had a student able to inform her classmates of the difference between non-binary and pansexual. (For those wondering, pansexual is not limited in sexual choice with regard to biological sex, gender, or gender identity; non-binary is used to describe people who feel their gender cannot be defined within the margins of gender binary).

Less taboo

There is less of a taboo around topics of this nature and conversations flow. Acceptance is a lot stronger.

There are more students identifying themselves in the LGBT community in their school years.

Allies are supportive and the support of our straight friends will go a long way to creating a more inclusive society where diversity is celebrated and people can feel valued and loved for who they are.

We all know the value of role models and trailblazers. Jake Daniels referenced Josh Cavallo, an Australian soccer player who came out as gay in October 2021. 

I believe that Josh can and will be a role model for others to be themselves in their public lives. 

I hope that one day the disconnect between soccer and sport in general and its LGBT members can merge a little closer so that the sporting world can reflect the wider society in which it encompasses.


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