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Jon Holmes: Increasing Media Visibility of LGBT+ Athletes and Their Stories

Jon Holmes: Increasing Media Visibility of LGBT+ Athletes and Their Stories

Hi folks! I’m Spiffy, your interplanetary journalist reporting from Planet Earth, back with a new guest. Jon Holmes, the founder and lead of Sports Media LGBT+, is committed to making a difference in the world. Let’s see how he’s doing it!

Spiffy: Hi Jon, great to have you on today. Let’s dive right in. What challenge is Sports Media LGBT+ addressing?

Jon: Thanks for having me, Spiffy! The main challenge is the under-representation and limited visibility of LGBTQ+ people in both sports and sports media. I started Sports Media LGBT+ as a UK industry network to foster a sense of community, and it has expanded into advocacy, consultancy, and digital publishing, with supporters worldwide. Our mission is to encourage more positivity and responsible sharing of sporting stories from lesbian, gay, bi, and trans folk that focuses primarily on how authenticity boosts performance.

Spiffy: What motivated you to do it?

Jon: I really struggled with my sexuality when I was younger, particularly as I went into a career (football journalism) where I knew no one else who was gay like me and couldn't see any role models elsewhere either. In terms of workplace culture, there was barely anything geared towards inclusion, and consequently homophobia and other forms of discrimination were common. I wanted to create an accessible space—both online and offline—where LGBTQ+ people and allies could get reassurance and useful advice. In short, all the things I didn't have when I needed them the most.

Spiffy: That sounds awesome. How would you say Sports Media LGBT+ is working towards a more equitable world?

Jon: Well, one of the issues we often encounter is that not only are LGBTQ+ people under-represented in sport, but that part of who we are is under-reported too. I've spoken to many athletes down the years with really inspirational stories or personal journeys that could give enormous encouragement to others who can relate to them on that level. We aim to make these narratives more discoverable by building trust between sports media and those participating in sport, and working closely with them to ensure their voices are heard and their intentions are not misconstrued. We know that being able to see role models ('real models'!) in a wide range of sports builds self-confidence in the next generation. 

Spiffy: Tell me about a recent Sports Media LGBT+ initiative and the impact that it makes.

Jon: We started an event called #AuthenticMe where the conversations are centered around performance for LGBTQ+ athletes, coaches, journalists etc.—giving people a platform to talk about how they derive more enjoyment from sport and other aspects of life once they have taken ownership of that part of who they are. For some, who may be under scrutiny at an elite level, there's a sense of caution to be overcome; for others, perhaps at grassroots, it can be a gradual realisation or a 'lightbulb moment'. We've put on these events at the BBC, at Twitter, and online during the pandemic, and promoted the message. We've seen a fantastic response from attendees and it's reflected in our social media following of well over 10,000.

Spiffy: Wow, very inspiring! Please share an experience when you faced failure and didn't give up. What did you learn from it?

Jon: For many years, there's been a tradition of UK media outlets (usually tabloid newspapers) publishing sensational stories about male footballers and other athletes who are 'secretly gay'. When these articles are published, it always kicks off unhealthy gossip and speculation. Everyone had got used to this 'searchlight culture', and we wanted to raise awareness about what's really going on—how readers were being emotionally manipulated for clicks and sales. We tried various ways but it was hard to reach people. However, after a spate of these articles, we wrote an open letter saying how damaging they were and asked big football organizations like the FA and PFA to sign it. They did, and it gained momentum. It showed that we just needed to find the right approach.

Spiffy: What is something you've unexpectedly learned from someone recently?

Jon: It often comes back to the importance of empathy, being able to put yourself in someone else's shoes. So many of the complications and challenges around being LGBTQ+ can impact your mental health. Recently a new friend was really struggling and it was becoming clearer from their behaviour, but I didn't spot it at first. I thought they were just being unreasonable. As you get to know someone better, you can also tune in to their wavelength. You just have to be patient.

Spiffy: Is there anything else you would love to tell our audience?

Jon: A big inspiration behind Sports Media LGBT+ was the impact made in the UK by Robbie Rogers, the former USA international. Robbie's book Coming Out to Play had a profound effect on me—for him, it was all about locker-room culture in football and how that affected him negatively. But there were parallels with a sports newsroom, where young men assert their masculinity and often make jokes at the expense of others to get a laugh and be respected. Robbie wrote: "Keeping such a tight lid on myself because of my sexuality made it impossible to feel the whole range of emotions that people normally feel…I wound up feeling isolated whether I was around people or not." So, if you or someone you know is experiencing that, they need a place to talk.

Spiffy: Thanks for speaking with me today, Jon—it’s been an honor!

A sports writer and editor specializing in inclusion, Jon Holmes has worked with LGBTQ+ athletes at all levels to assist them in sharing inspirational stories of authenticity. He is the founder of Sports Media LGBT+, an industry network, advocacy and consultancy group that helps to amplify under-represented voices and provides a valuable digital platform and community space. (First published on the Ladderworks website on February 2, 2022)

© 2022 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Anushree Nande. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. For the Ladderworks digital curriculum to help K-3 kids advance the UN SDGs, visit Spiffy's Corner here.