On Tuesday 19 February 2008 Northern Ireland’s DUP Sports Minister accused the Ulster Titan’s Gay Rugby team of attempting to “develop an apartheid in sport”.
Mr Poots stated that “it would be unacceptable to produce an all-black rugby team or an all-white team or an all-Chinese team. To me it's equally unacceptable to produce an all-homosexual rugby team and I find it remarkable that people who talk so much about inclusivity and about having an equal role in society would then go down the route of exclusion."
After Alliance Party Executive Director rightly exposed the Minister’s comments as nothing more than a homophobic rant designed to distract attention from current DUP difficulties I felt it was important to ascertain hard facts as to why Ulster Titan’s exist.
During the next few months The Rainbow Project undertook research concerning Homophobia in Sport which as released last weekend.
The research findings are startling but not surprising.
Three-quarters of respondents stated that they thought there was homophobia in sport, in particular in team sports, in NI that might stop gay or bi-sexual people from taking part and only four per cent said there was not.
Over three-quarter of the respondents who played team sports were not out to any or only out to some of their team mates.
Half of the respondents stated they had wanted to play a sport but had decided not as they were afraid they would not be accepted because of their sexual orientation.
Forty-one per cent had stopped playing a sport because they had experienced homophobia directed towards them or found the general attitude to be homophobic.
As Mark, one of the men who took part in the research stated: “I love watching and playing football and support Rangers. I am a member of a Rangers Supporters’ Club but only a few people know I am gay and if someone makes an anti-gay comment I just laugh and pretend it doesn’t matter. I did play for a (football) team in the past, but left when someone found out I was gay and I started to get bullied. Maybe I should wait for someone to set up a gay football team instead!”.
In the current climate in NI the need to have clubs where people who are gay or bi-sexual can get involved in sport without having to hide a large part of their identity or be fearful of homophobic comments is clear.
It also has to be noted that this research did not investigate the homophobia that exist in professional sports where homophobic chanting from the terraces is quite common, very few fans are openly gay and where in the mid-nineties the only openly gay professional footballer, Justin Fashanu, committed suicide after being subjected to ongoing and vicious homophobic abuse from fans and team mates.
As Jim Crawford, Physical Health Development Officer for The Rainbow Project states:
“Mr Poots was wrong when he made those comments; it is not the people who set up sports clubs for those who are gay or bi-sexual who create apartheid in sport. Our research has clearly shown that apartheid in mainstream sports is already alive and kicking and the ball, so to speak, is now firmly in Mr. Poots’ court. As Minister for Sport in NI he should take responsibility for commissioning further research and initiating actions to address this apartheid in sport in NI which is responsible for the exclusion of a substantial part of our society.”