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LGBTQ+ People in Cycling and Sport

Written by: Richard Hearne

The coronavirus pandemic has all-too-easily highlighted how important exercise and social connections are for our well-being and the impact it has when these activities are restricted. Sport helps give us a sense of accomplishment and happiness through meaningful human connections.

My name is Richard Hearne and I’ve always loved cycling since being a kid. But it wasn’t until 2015, aged 32, that I took up cycling seriously as an adult. Since then I’ve cycled 17,000 miles and it has vastly improved my physical and mental health. I’ve made countless new friends too. It’s no understatement to say it has transformed my life and wellbeing.

I once cycled with a ‘traditional’ cycling club but I felt anxious about ‘coming out’ and disclosing my sexuality. It’s hard to quantify why I felt like this because it’s complex, but I feel it is a legacy of societal prejudices that I grew up with which have made me feel I’m different. I’ve also learned to self-censor in some situations to stay safe or to have an easier life. I have to be pretty sure it won’t be a disastrously uncomfortable situation before choosing to utter the words ‘I’m gay’. Society often presumes people to be ‘straight’, so unless I choose to say otherwise, it can result in my ‘coming out’ over and again, which isn’t  always much fun.

For these reasons, I founded a nationwide grass roots cycling network called PRiDE OUT in May 2019. My goal was simply for me to make new friends to cycle with and encourage more lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning (LGBTQ+) people to start cycling. I wanted to remove one extra barrier to joining a sports group, which to some people can be a daunting experience.

Cycling is one of the most popular recreational sporting activities. Statistics show that access and ownership of bicycles vary by nation of the UK: In England 42% of people aged 5+ own or have access to a bicycle (around 20 million people); In Wales it’s around 51.6% for those aged 16+; In Scotland 35% of households have one or more bicycles that can be used by adults. National cycling statistics suggest women cycle roughly three times fewer miles than men; black and South Asian people are three times less likely to cycle compared to white people; and people with disabilities are 253% less likely to cycle a few times a week compared to people with no disability.

However, no cycling data appear to exist for LGBTQ+ participation in cycling and no-one knows exactly how many LGBTQ+ people there are in the UK.

This is partly because the national census has never questioned sexuality or gender identity, but this is all set to change with questions on the next census in March 2021. One of the largest studies into homophobia in sport carried out by Out On The Fields suggests 10-15% of under 24s in the UK identify as LGBTQ+, which if correlated into the whole population, suggests there are 7-10 million people. To me it is bizarre that cycling participation statistics exist for other underrepresented groups in cycling, but not for LGBTQ+ people … which begs the question why?

A study by the National LGB&T Partnership in 2016 doesn’t paint a pretty picture. It found that 55% of LGBTQ+ men were not active enough to maintain good health compared to 33% of men in the general population; 56% of LGBTQ+ women compared to 33% of women in the general population; and 64% of LGBTQ+ people who identified as something other than male or female (e.g. gender-fluid or gender-queer).

It wasn’t until 1967 that being gay was decriminalised in England & Wales and as late as 1981 in Scotland. There are studies to show LGBTQ+ people earn less money and 52% of LGBTQ+ people will suffer depression each year. They are also more likely to be lonely, drink, take drugs or be inactive. When you combine these factors with bad experiences of sport at school, experiences of prejudice and historic events which brought a sense of shame (such as Section 28 which banned ‘promoting homosexuality’), it’s possible to see why there are problems of participation in sport and society.

The lack of statistics is a crucial part of the jigsaw in my opinion. This is why I am actively pushing to uncover the true numbers so actions can be put in place that will make meaningful differences for opportunities to access cycling.

Issues with representation in cycling are not confined to grassroots level, it’s a problem at elite level too. Role models do exist but they are few and far between. Former Great Britain senior academy elite cyclist Emily Bridges came out as a trans woman in October 2020. Justin Laevens is a Belgian under-23 cyclo-cross racer who recently came out, possibly making him the first openly gay elite men’s cyclists in the world, ever. Coming out is often a brave thing to do and unfortunately runs the risk of unpleasant comments on social media, so it’s easy to see why some people may choose to keep their true identity secret.

I commend Science In Sport for starting difficult conversations about the lack of diversity in sport including ethnically diverse communities. A high level conversation about the lack of LGBTQ+  representation in cycling doesn’t seem to have begun, but it’s something I want to help change. I feel visibility and education is vital  to ensure diverse communities feel accepted and their presence is considered ‘normal’. It is to be applauded when high profile organisations use their influence to promote acceptance of everyone in sport, regardless of their ability, sexuality, gender identity or ethnicity.

Written By

Richard Hearne