Athletes And Activism: How The Naked Rowers Are Giving Back To The LGBT Community

Discrimination, harassment, bullying, and physical violence are all too common experiences for youth throughout the world both on the field and in the locker room. Homophobia in athletics is unfortunately nothing new in American society and the media has given quite a lot of press recently on gay, lesbian, and transgender athletes and what place they should have in athletics.

Players are slowly beginning to come forward and gay and lesbian athletes can now be found in several major league sports, but it is widely accepted that the stigma of being out in sports has prevented many athletes from identifying as LGBT while they are in the public profile.

Earlier in the week, I had the opportunity to interview the “Naked Rowers,” a group of young men in the UK who are using their position as athletes — and their enviable bodies — to raise awareness of homophobia in athletics and to raise funds to combat this trend. The Warwick Rowers are seeking to combat these prejudices through their new organization Sport Allies. I had the chance to talk with Lauren Rutter, Chair of Sport Allies, and Laurence Hulse, co-founder of Sport Allies and everyone’s favorite Naked Rower.

TC: Can you tell me a little more about Sport Allies?
Lauren Rutter: Our vision is to create a world where all young people can define and express themselves, particularly in relation to their sexuality, without fear of prejudice. Sport Allies has three main aims:

  1. 1. To promote a culture of inclusion among young people, particularly in relation to sexuality.
  2. 2. To promote sport as an inclusive opportunity for the personal and social development of all young people.
  3. 3. To support young people around the world who may be confronting challenges in relation to their sexuality.
Angus Malcolm / Warwick Rowers
Angus Malcolm / Warwick Rowers

TC: An LGBT athlete — both on the field and in the locker room — is still extremely controversial in American sports. Is this problem prevalent in the UK?
Laurence Hulse: Well, I don’t want to get bogged down in a subjective argument, and I don’t have to, because the statistics don’t lie. Statistics about the proportion of men who are gay ranges from 2%-15% or higher depending on who you ask. Either way, there’s no way that proportion is represented openly in university sports or indeed at the professional level. So somewhere, something is going wrong.
LR: This could be due to two problems: people don’t feel like they are in an environment where they would be comfortable to be out and/or LGBT people are not getting involved in sport from a young age for fear of prejudice.

TC: Why do you think that this is still such a major issue in our day and age?
LR: Homosexuality is a really current topic of discussion and is in the news a lot at the moment. Because of this and the seemingly accepting portrayal of society towards the subject means that one of the biggest challenges is convincing people that there is still a problem and that everyone can do something to become more inclusive. Sport Allies is not about telling people they are homophobic or not inclusive, although this is still a problem; it’s about educating people about the differences between people and acknowledging that acceptance isn’t the same as inclusion. It’s not enough just to be accepting or even supportive of someone when they do come out, it’s important to create an environment where it’s easy to do so.

TC: You’ve mentioned before that there have been members of the rowing team that identify as gay. Have they shared any past experiences with homophobia?
LH: Yes. I think the most moving was when one of our previous Presidents came out to us during one of the early meetings discussing Sport Allies. It really brought home to me the importance of what we are doing.

TC: How do you hope to address and challenge this stigma?
LR: Firstly, we are in the process of establishing a national outreach program, which involves accrediting university sports clubs in terms of diversity and inclusion. And then using student volunteers to take the message into secondary schools across the country. Secondly, we are creating a website to provide useful and relevant information to people around the world and producing viral imagery and videos to be distributed through social media to engage young people generally in a dialogue about homophobia, to promote greater inclusiveness and to encourage students young and old, and university sports teams to become Sport Allies.

Angus Malcolm / Warwick Rowers
Angus Malcolm / Warwick Rowers

TC: What initiatives have you undertaken so far?
LR: Our achievements to date include obtaining corporate support from a top Ernst and Young which is one of the top professional service firms in the world and we’ve had support from registered charity, EACH to help us develop our outreach program. We’ve launched Sport Allies Week on the University of Warwick campus which included a launch event, various promotional activities and workshops about diversity and inclusion with sports teams and we did a national launch at National Student Pride at the end of February. Our next event is in April where we will be engaging a number of student’s union officers to try and launch Sport Allies in campuses across the UK.

TC: Do you hope to grow the organization to an international presence?
LH: For sure. Sadly, Homophobia is a phenomenon the crosses borders and attitudes. Any attempt to challenge it has to be dynamic and traverse borders and nationalities.
LR: Sport Allies has only really scratched the surface of what we have planned. Our ambition is to be an international organization initially with the website and then with our outreach work. Since the team already has a lot of support from across the globe, we feel that this is a realistic aim.

TC: If people are interested in getting involved with Sport Allies, where should they go?
LR: We will be launching our website in a few weeks and all of the information will be on there. Our email address is Thought Catalog Logo Mark

featured image – Angus Malcolm / Warwick Rowers

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