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LGBT+ History Month: The experiences of LGBT+ athletes in Welsh sport

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Wales internationals Lily Woodham and Cerys Hale both insist they have had positive experiences in their sports since coming out – but say more still needs to be done.

Reading footballer Woodham and Gloucester-Hartpury rugby player Hale are both full-time, professional athletes who pull on a red shirt for their country and wear it with pride.

But they also take pride in another sense – proud of who they are, their openness around their sexual orientation and the roles they can play in making their sports feel fully welcoming to all.

Woodham, 22, has been in the Wales squad for three years but it was two years before that when she came out – first to her mum and then to her teammates at the time.

“I was 17 and my experience was that everyone close to me was so supportive,” she says.

“I think the women’s game is still different to the men’s game.  In men’s football you still don’t get that many players coming out and it still makes massive headlines when they do.

“Perhaps there is still fear there because there are fans involved who might throw abuse at you with chants.

“Our game is different. I can say that no-one has ever said anything abusive to me at a game, or on social media, or anywhere else.

“I’ve never been made to feel uncomfortable. Within our women’s football community, thankfully, it feels normal and it’s accepted and hopefully, it will become like that in men’s football, too.”

For Hale, now a highly experienced 29-year-old who has won over 40 caps for Wales, her journey also began as a teenage player when she was 15.

“I got into a relationship with another girl and people on my team were aware of it, because the girl was someone else on the team,” she recalls.

“I don’t really think it was any more uncomfortable than if I’d been in a relationship with a boy. My teammates were really supportive and so were my parents.

“I felt more uncomfortable telling my friends in school. I was actually on a school trip to Barcelona and in a dorm late at night. When the lights went out, I said, “girls, you know that boyfriend you think I’ve got. She’s actually a girl!’

“Within women’s rugby, there are a lot of players in same sex relationships, whereas most of my schoolfriends aren’t.

“But they ask me questions and I like that. I welcome questions because it shows respect that people want to learn.”

For Hale, the issues most sports should consider are the same as any other organisation.

She believes they need to ask themselves a simple question: Does my sport do everything it can to make everyone feel comfortable?

“I remember when I moved to university, there were a lot of girls on my block and one of the first questions asked was, ‘do you have a boyfriend?’

“So, answering that question is much more uncomfortable than asking, ‘do you have a partner? Or, are you with anyone?’

“It’s the same for sports as it is for other organisations. I’m getting married to my partner soon and we’re planning our wedding. 

“We turn up at possible venues and they are still asking who’s the bride? Well, we both are!”

You see celebrities who can be whoever they want to be and that’s got to be the same for everyone at every level in sport
Lily Woodham, Wales Footballer

Hale will marry her partner and Pontyclun rugby player Emily Cuming in August.

For Hale, the negativity or abuse she has encountered has always been collective – directed at the sport of women’s rugby – rather than at her as an individual.

“It’s frustrating when you see comments online that say, ‘they’re just a bunch of lesbians.

“Well, actually, we’re not! We’re diverse. It’s not so much offensive, as just lazy stereotyping and that might become a barrier to some girls who are unsure about coming into the sport.

“Those people saying the abusive stuff are trying to be degrading or insulting, but the women in same sex relationships are proud of who we are and what we’ve achieved.”

For Woodham, more needs to be done to make every young sportsman and woman feel at ease with who they are.

“You see celebrities who can be whoever they want to be and that’s got to be the same for everyone at every level in sport,” says the Wales defender and teammate of striker Jess Fishlock, perhaps the one female Welsh player who has that genuine celebratory status.

“We need to do more to encourage people in sport to be themselves, so that when players do come out – men or women – it’s fine. No-one cares.

“In the women’s game, we are all aware that we have much more of a platform now. We are looked at a lot more, now.

“We have more of a voice than we’ve had before and we need to make sure we use that in a positive way.”

Woodham also believes there are definite performance benefits to be had from players able to live their lives as openly as possible.

“For sure. As soon as you accept and understand who you are, as soon as you feel there’s support, then you can just go out and enjoy playing football.

“It’s a weight off your mind and you don’t have to worry about carrying that weight around with you.”

Men’s football may be slowly changing in the willingness of players to come out, as seen recently by the disclosure made by Czech international star Jakub Jankto.

But there are plenty of sports where performers feel safer and more comfortable in declaring who they really are.

Wales’ top male swimmer, Dan Jervis missed out on the Commonwealth Games last year because of illness, but it had already been a momentous 2022 for him after he came out last summer.

“I just wanted to be me and stop hating myself for not being open,” he says.

“There are people who have ended up taking their own lives because of that state of mind, so it’s not healthy.

“So, if there’s just one person who sees what I’ve done – whether that be in swimming or anywhere – and thinks, yeah, I want to change how I feel and be honest, then I’ll have done a good thing I can be satisfied with.”

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