LGBT History Month is about a celebration for me and raising awareness that we’re all different and that fact alone is a beautiful thing. I was born with no left forearm but, thanks to my parents, was brought up to believe there was no such word as ‘can't’.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to represent Great Britain at the highest level for 15 years and now, as a retired athlete, am very passionate about inspiring the next generation to be the best they can be.
Sadly, for a lot of young people, being LGBT can have a link to mental health issues. The thoughts I experienced caused me to worry, created stress, made me not want to be me, and, led me to socially exclude myself. LGBT History Month is therefore an opportunity to highlight that it’s ok to not be ok and to remember that things will get better, and, the support is out there; all you have to do is have the courage to ask. You can guarantee you’re not alone in your thoughts; there will be someone else thinking the same as you, and they will also feel like they’re the only one experiencing those thoughts and feelings.
As an athlete mentor for the YST, it’s now really rewarding to use my experiences in elite sport to transform the lives of young people; helping them to lead more positive lives and make good choices. The YST athlete mentor team are a majorly-inspiring group of athletes who motivate me every day to go out and pass on that knowledge and wisdom to everyone I meet. Over the last seven years, YST has upskilled me to become confident in sharing my story and delivering a wide range of programmes for young people.
‘I wasn’t delivering my best, in or out of the pool, as I simply wasn’t being myself’
In 2009, I started to explore my personal life and network with LGBT people. It was never a conscious decision but more of an action that I had to address as it was having a crippling effect on me as a person. I wasn’t delivering my best, in or out of the pool, as I wasn’t being myself. It felt like I was carrying around weights on my back that after a while I had to put down. I didn’t really know what was going on. I didn’t feel myself but I was so focussed on my sport that, detrimental to health and performance, I didn’t dedicate much time or energy to listening to my mind and body to help figure out what all the thoughts, feelings and urges actually meant.
The experience of coming out was, ultimately, a bit of an anti-climax. No one really cared. I’d built up a fear of backlash and negative comments but found that thankfully, people were just happy to see me happy. Ten years on, I don’t actively advocate my sexuality but at the same time, I never hide it and continue to answer questions about it if people ask. I see my sexuality as part of me but not something that defines or limits me. I think a lot of people can’t help but quickly judge you if you restrain yourself to a box or a category or put a label on things. I’ve always wanted people to get to know me and not try to assume they know me because of my sexuality and the stereotypes or social norms that I ‘should’ then conform to. I think it’s important not to restrict your potential by categorising yourself.
‘I'm really thankful to sport for moulding me into the strong and resilient person that I am’
Sport has given me the confidence to be whoever I want to be and made me proud to be me. I'm really thankful to sport for moulding me into the strong and resilient person that I am, to face anything in relation to my disability and my sexuality. I think sport and physical activity is a powerful tool that everyone can access to feel better about themselves, both mentally and physically. If you do some research, there are often clubs of like-minded people around you too, so you don’t have to do it alone and it’s guaranteed to be a welcoming and safe environment.
If I could now give anybody some advice, I’d say be proud of who you are, be brave to say where you want to get to and be courageous to make it happen. It’s so important to be true to who you are. Everybody’s different and different is good. I can remember a time at school when I just tried really hard to blend in with everybody else but then there came a time when I was in front of potential employers and I was promoting myself in any way I could to stand out from every other candidate. I desperately wanted to be different and to show my individuality.
Athletes need to be made aware that support is out there for them. The British Athletes Commission (BAC) has an athlete advisory service and is your voice to support you with anything that might be affecting your performance. I sit on the athlete advisory group as the LGBT ambassador to ensure there’s fair treatment for all athletes, regardless of their sexual orientation. If you feel like you’re being treated differently in your team, then I’d encourage you to get in touch.
How to be an LGBT ally now and in the future
Being an ally is about listening to people and being openminded to learn from someone else's story. I believe that really listening to someone without judgement is the greatest way of showing your support for them. There are many ways to help spread positive messages for LGBT people, such as joining online campaigns like Stonewall’s ‘Come Out For LGBT’, putting posters up at your workplace or school, or wearing the Rainbow Laces at sporting events. It all goes some way to educate and promote the reality that diversity exists in the communities around us and we’re all entitled to be accepted.
LGBT rights have come a long way but there’s certainly more change we’d all like to see happen in the future. The stats on reported hate crimes against LGBT people is saddening and such actions need to be stamped out. This is why allies are so important, so we can all look out for each other. Within the sport industry, I believe we could have a greater presence of LGBT at performance sport events to advocate the fact that LGBT people can and do get involved in professional sport at the highest level. Support for those athletes at the top needs attention too, with education for coaches, media training for athletes, and workshops for National Governing Bodies to understand the needs of LGBT athletes and the language they can adopt.