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Equality and Diversity

August 2nd, 2012

What being ‘Out in Sport’ means for LGBT students: Diversity in Sport


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Equality and Diversity

August 2nd, 2012

What being ‘Out in Sport’ means for LGBT students: Diversity in Sport


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

The front looks dismal – there aren’t many LGBT sports role models to look up to, ‘lad culture’ still prevails in sport, and homophobic abuse on the field is not uncommon. The National Union of Students (NUS) has been researching sporting experiences of LGBT students for its ‘Out in Sport’ project. 

In this post, third in our Diversity in Sport series, Finn McGoldrick, NUS LGBT Officer , shares the preliminary findings and recommendations of the Out in Sport research project and discusses the powerful and positive role sports can play in fostering inclusiveness.

© Flickr user encosion

For many students, sport is an important part of college and university life. Yet many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans (LGBT) students feel excluded or uncomfortable participating in sport because of worries about homophobia, transphobia or uninclusive sporting culture and facilities. 

In this year of increased attention on sport and its relationship to society, the NUS LGBT Campaign launched the Out in Sport project, which aims to better understand the sporting experiences of LGBT students in further and higher education. Ultimately, we hope the work will help us to better support students’ unions to promote LGBT equality in sport.


Anecdotally, NUS was aware that barriers exist for LGBT students in sport, resulting in students either choosing not to participate in sport, or choosing not to come out to peers if they do participate. The existing evidence is troubling; it hints at the barriers to participation, but does not explore them. The Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) has found that 62 per cent of higher education LGB students who participated in sport were not out amongst their team. In further education, the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) found that only 35.2 per cent of LGB learners and 30 per cent of trans learners were fully or partially out in sports clubs and societies—a much lower figure than those who were out to their tutors, for example.

More widely, numerous studies have documented the impact that homophobia and homophobic bullying in schools have on LGBT people’s interest and comfort in participating in sport throughout their lives.

The Out in Sport project is an attempt to understand the barriers LGBT students face in entering sport and their experience once there, and to investigate how we can equip students, students’ unions and institutions to tackle these barriers, and make sport more inclusive for all.

Out in Sport research

With this in mind, NUS set forth on the first phase of the Out in Sport Project, a piece of research investigating LGBT students’ experiences in sport in both further and higher education. The mixed-methods research project consisted of:

  • An in-depth literature review looking at the available evidence on LGBT people’s sporting experiences, both in and out of education, in the UK and abroad;
  • One-to-one interviews with experts;
  • A national online survey of LGBT students with both quantitative and qualitative elements;
  • A series of focus groups across the UK with both LGBT and non-LGBT students in further and higher education.

The research was also shaped by a steering group of key stakeholders including representatives of organisations dealing with LGBT issues, equality and diversity, sport, and further and higher education.

Preliminary Findings 

The full findings of the research will be released in early autumn as the nation’s thoughts turn to the legacy of London 2012.

Initial analysis suggests that some of the most common barriers to LGBT students’ participation in sport are:

  • The culture around sport in further and higher education, including ‘lad culture’;
  • The gendered nature of sport, and stereotypes about masculinity and femininity;
  • A lack of gender-neutral changing facilities, as well as gender-specific teams and kits;
  • Fear of homophobic abuse from spectators.

When students did choose to participate in organised sport, they most often participated in individual sports and fitness.

Many of the research participants who were involved in sport were open about their sexuality, but a large proportion were not. For those who did participate in sport, but were not open about their sexuality, a main reason was that they did not consider it relevant, but a considerable proportion of research participants were not open because they feared abuse or alienation.

We also asked the research participants about how sport could be made more inclusive for LGBT students. Many pointed to the importance of tackling homophobia and transphobia at younger ages and in schools. Increasing the visibility of LGBT role models in sport also came up frequently. Within further and higher education, research participants strongly favoured training for students’ unions and sports staff on how to combat homophobia and be inclusive to LGBT students. There was also a high demand for more mixed-gendered teams and sports, as well as gender-neutral facilities and kits.

Next steps

In the lead up to the Olympics, the government launched an initiative to promote LGBT equality in sport. A Charter for Action on Tackling Homophobia and Transphobia in Sport was produced, with the backing of major sporting organisations, such as the Football Association. NUS LGBT is a signatory to the charter and has encouraged students’ unions to sign it as well; we will continue to publicise the charter as an important point of accountability for organisations and an opportunity to publicise organisational commitment to LGBT equality in sport. We will also be producing guidance for students’ unions on how to put the principles of the Charter, and of LGBT equality and inclusiveness more generally, into practice. You can expect our research findings to be published, along with a toolkit for students’ unions, in the autumn.

Sport can play a powerful and positive role in the lives of individual students, their campuses, and their communities. NUS LGBT believes that all students should have equal access to the benefits of sport. It is our hope that our work on the Out in Sport project will help students, students’ unions, and institutions to promote LGBT equality in sport so that all students feel comfortable and welcome to enjoy participating in sport.

Finn McGoldrick is the NUS LGBT Officer (women’s place). For more information on the Out in Sport research project, email You can also follow them on Twitter @NUS_LGBT.

We have more articles lined up for our Diversity in Sport series, if you haven’t seen it yet, do check it out – Diversity in Sport.

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Equality and Diversity

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