While many gains have been made in addressing homophobia in sport, such as with the You Can Play Project or professional athletes coming out, such changes have not been reflected in the levels of B.C. queer youth participation in sports. In fact, a UBC study has unearthed some areas of curiosity and concern, including growing gaps between straight and LGBT students.
The UBC study, published this month in the Journal of Sport and Health Sciences, was conducted in collaboration with the McCreary Centre Society, a non-profit youth research organization.
The researchers note in the study that although British Columbian adolescents have a much higher level of participation in sports (88 percent of boys and 81 percent of girls) than the national average (54 percent), overall participation in sports and physical fitness is declining among young people. In particular, the study revealed that sexual-minority youth are becoming less involved in sports that their heterosexual peers.
Using data from the B.C. Adolescent Health Survey conducted by the McCreary Centre, researchers analyzed information about 99,373 British Columbia students from Grades 7 to 12 collected in 1998, 2003, 2008, and 2013.
Participants were asked how often they participated in formal sports (sports or physical activity with a coach or instructor), informal sports (sports or physical activity without a coach or instructor), and dance, aerobic, or yoga classes.
As mentioned earlier, participation in formal sports were on a general downward trend for all students across the board.
While straight male participation on formal sports remained fairly consistent from 1998 to 2013, mostly heterosexual male (66 percent in 1998 down to 55 percent in 2013) and bisexual male (59 percent down to 42 percent) participation results revealed decreases. Gay male participation in formal sports plummeted from 56 percent in 1998 to 33 percent in 2013, representing the largest drop among both males and females.
Female participation remained fairly consistent for heterosexual and mostly heterosexual females while there were larger decreases among bisexual (from 48 to 38 percent) and lesbian (from 62 to 52 percent) females.
Interestingly, the results for informal sports seemed to be the inverse of the results for formal sports.
Among males, gay results remained fairly steady while there were decreases among mostly heterosexual males (91 to 82 percent), bisexual (84 to 74 percent), and heterosexual (94 to 85 percent) males.
Similarly, lesbian participation remained fairly consistent (82 to 79 percent) while there were decreases among heterosexual (89 to 79 percent) and mostly heterosexual (88 to 81 percent) females. The largest decrease was among bisexual females: down from 82 to 66 percent.
Dance or exercise classes
Some of the results for dance, aerobic, or yoga classes produced the only area that showed signs of notable growth.
Among males, gay males increased their participation in this area from 27 percent to 32 percent, which represented the largest area of growth in all forms of sport or physical activity.
Heterosexual and mostly heterosexual male participation remained pretty much the same while the biggest drop was among bisexual males: from 35 percent down to 15 percent.
Participation in this area by heterosexual and mostly heterosexual females revealed the most stable results of all areas with percentages remaining consistent throughout the period.
However, there were some decreases among lesbian (41 to 35 percent) and bisexual (40 to 31 percent) females.
Disparities between sexual-orientation groups
There were some reductions in disparities between straight and sexual-minority youth in certain areas or within specific time periods, such as a narrowing of differences between both bisexual and gay males in comparison to heterosexual males in informal sports.
Despite these changes, overall, disparities remained persistent between sexual-minority and heterosexual youth remained relatively unchanged.
“In every year we measured, LGB youth were about half as likely, or even less, to participate in coached sports than straight youth were,” senior author Elizabeth Saewyc, a nursing professor who leads UBC's Stigma and Resilience Among Vulnerable Youth Centre, stated in a news release. “And unfortunately, that gap has persisted and even widened over time.”
Homophobia on the field
The study points to the increased involvement of gay males in informal sports compared to formal ones as an indicator of where challenges may lie.
"Formal sports participation…has been described as particularly unwelcoming for sexual minority teens, particularly gay males."
The study also notes that homophobic attitudes can vary among sports.
"You men participating on high school sports….such as football, baseball, basketball, and soccer were almost three times as likely to express homophobic attitudes as compares with participants in…swimming, track, [or] racket sports."
However, the study authors point out that the penalization of professional athletes for using homophobic language and Pride-themed sports events or initiatives are helping to change attitudes and visibility.
The study notes that further research is needed as to whether or not declining rates of participation by sexual-minority youth are related to negative experiences in sport.
Another area for possible future research that was not suggested by the study could be whether or not any increases in the number of sexual-minority students coming out has had any effect upon the levels of sports or physical activity participation.
As LGBT people and issues have become more widely accepted, more students could be coming out as the years progress.
While the numbers and percentages of both male and female heterosexual students remained relatively the same over the time period, all male sexual-minority youth showed a minor but consistent upward trend throughout the period.
Meanwhile, the most notable growth was among the number of mostly heterosexual and bisexual females, with some minor increases in lesbian females.
The fact that more students may be coming out—and as teenagers rather than in adulthood—could possibly mean that they may be dealing with personal issues or social and sexual development that could affect or interfere with their participation in formal activities.
As coming out isn't a uniform experience, it can vary quite a bit from person to person, depending on their situation or circumstances.
In some cases, it can require an adjustment period, may be confusing or disorienting, or may be very troubling. It may serve as a mental, emotional, or social distraction (such as tensions in relationships with friends or family, seeking out LGBT friends or support, dating, becoming involved in LGBT activities or groups), which may challenge the ability to commit time and energy to formal sports, compared to informal sports. Also, participation in exercise classes may provide more individual flexibility in attendance and effort and less pressure that comes with responsibility to a team or group.
As coming out is also an exploratory process, students who are coming out may also gravitate towards expressive, creative, individual, or self-care-oriented physical activities such as dance or yoga rather than non-creative, conforming, or competitive ones.
Recommendations from the study
The researchers conclude that policies and programs need to consider possible barriers that LGBT youth may face in participating in sport. As they point out that previous research has shown that mental health benefits from physical activity participation, increased participation in sport and physical activity by sexual-minority youth may contribute to their well-being and resilience in the face of obstacles, particularly as they face challenges of stigma, bullying, and other forms of discrimination.
“This study shows how important it is for grassroots and community sports programs to reach out to and create a welcoming, inclusive space for LGBT youth,” co-author Annie Smith, McCreary’s executive director who studies youth sports, stated in a news release. “The decline in participation in both informal and coached sports tells us that there should be a range of exercise opportunities for young people who may not want to play traditional team sports.”