When English diver Tom Daley entered Birmingham’s Alexander Stadium during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony, he made a powerful statement.
The Olympic champion was the first athlete to carry the Queen’s Baton, and he was flanked by athletes and activists waving Pride Progress flags — to raise awareness of the 35 Commonwealth member states that criminalise same-sex relations.
It’s part of a wider campaign to spark reform across the Commonwealth.
“There are more countries in the Commonwealth that criminalise homosexuality than don’t,” Pride House Birmingham (PHB) co-founder Lou Englefield told ABC Sport.
“So Commonwealth Games is a unique opportunity for LGBTQI+ activists like myself and my colleagues to shine a light on these issues, and try and have a conversation about these things.”
Homophobic laws a colonial legacy
Pride House has been a fixture at many major sporting events since the first iteration at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.
The Birmingham edition is designed to be a safe space for all visitors, while providing a program of events and exhibitions.
And for the first time, there are also pop-up Pride Houses in three of the athletes’ villages, where trained volunteers can provide support to competitors.
“LGBT rights through sport, unfortunately, are being attacked right now,” Dr Ryan Storr, from Swinburne University’s Sports Innovation Research Group, said.
“They’re using sport as a platform to try and advance anti-trans sentiment, gay athletes still have a long way to go, intersex athletes are still being banned from running in races.
“The full spectrum of the LGBT community is getting attacked. It just shows you that these safe spaces are needed, because we’re nowhere near where we need to be.”
Dr Sheree Bekker from the University of Bath added that “feeling safe plays a huge role in” anyone, in this case elite athletes, being able to perform at their best on the world stage.
“I think athletes are often trained to kind of cleave off parts of themselves and just be this robotic athlete, specifically when it comes to elite competition,” she said.
“But we’re now starting to recognise athletes as whole human beings. And if they can bring their whole selves to into that space, their performances are definitely bound to benefit from that.”
One of the exhibitions provides an overview of the human rights situation for LGBTQI+ people across the Commonwealth’s 56 member states, including legality of same-sex sexual activity, marriage laws and whether they have anti-discrimination protections.
In some of the countries, homosexuality is punishable by life imprisonment, or even death.
“Many of the laws in these countries are a colonial legacy, they come from the UK,” Englefield said.
“It’s our place to talk about the legacy of colonialism. Not only on those countries in terms of economics and racism, but also around LGBTIQ+ inclusion and persecution.”
Dr Storr said the UK government must take responsibility for the effects of colonialism.
“I do find it quite ironic, in terms of [government] saying you have to change, but they caused often that, and I don’t know if there’s been as much involvement as there could have been or support in helping advance that,” he said.
“I think they could do a lot more to support LGBT communities. And I do think that sport can have a good role, because it is that universal language and it forces people to have the conversation.”