A recent article release by Der Zeit caught my attention. The article discussed how a freshman student at the Deutsche Sporthochschule Köln who identifies as gay felt like they could not express themselves as an openly gay person at the school. Despite feeling free and open to be out and express themselves at their previous university, which is a bigger school with a larger range of study topics was (as opposed to just sports).  Attending the Sporthochschule and initiated by a negative experience at their freshman week orientation, this person was left feeling like they wouldn’t belong at the Sporthochschule as an openly gay person.

The article details a lot of the work that the Sporthochschule has done with respect to inclusion and diversity. Including, OUTSPORT in participating in the research project covering homophobia in sports, as well as other work by the Sporthochule’s own Institute of Sociology and Gender Research.” But the bigger issue isn’t necessarily specific to the Sporthoschule so much as the article also examines the larger issue of gay representation in sports. Specifically, that there are very few examples of openly gay professional athletes currently active in North American or European sports and how many professional athletes wait until retirement to come out of the closet. This individual expressed that they don’t feel comfortable expressing themselves in a sports environment like the Sporthochschule as an openly gay individual. Perhaps not because of any overt displays of homophobia, but for the underlying culture within sport that makes it difficult. Including the misstep that one of this individual’s classmates took during the freshman week orientation.

This kind of culture isn’t specific to the Sporthochschule or the policies of the university itself but it does tend to manifest itself here because of the university’s strong role in the field of sports. In addition to serving at Europe’s largest university dedicated to sports sciences, the campus also hosts various high-level training facilities for elite and Olympic level athletes. The campus is also home to the RheinEnergie Stadion which is home to Cologne’s soccer team, F.C. Köln. Thus, the Sporthochschule is the embodiment of sports culture. Which, despite their best efforts in creating an inclusive environment; can still make it difficult for a gay person to feel comfortable to be open and free of discrimination.

This culture is not the result of any one individual thing, but the result of many contributing factors that have all come together that make it difficult to allow one’s identity as an open gay person and one’s identity as a sports professional, athlete or student to peacefully coexist. Including societal pressures on athletes, career prospects, self efficacy, team dynamics, media exposure and so many others.

As a student of the Sporthochschule, Swimmer and Openly Gay Man myself; for my whole life I never felt comfortable when I had to hide who I was. After moving to Germany from the U.S. specifically to study at the Deutsche Sporthochschule, I was uncertain of what to expect; not just as a foreigner but as a gay foreigner. However, I have never felt the need to hide the fact that I am gay. As part of my application to study at the Sporthochschule, I had to write a motivational letter, in which I did include that I am a gay man and one of my research interests involved gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender athletes in sports. In addition, on my CV, I detailed my work with various LGBTQI sports organizations and projects reflective of my work, including my work here with Compete Sports Diversity and the Sports Diversity Leadership Council. Obviously, having been accepted to study here at the Sporthochschule. My sexual orientation was not a factor that would have elicited a rejection to study here.

For the person from the Der Zeit article, while I don’t know them. As a fellow student at the Sporthochschule, I do feel connected with them and can empathize as a gay man myself. I have a lot of my own experience in homophobic discrimination in sports, so I understand where they are coming from. I am sharing my story in hopes that this person can learn that they are not alone. As a gay student studying at the Deutsche Sporthochschule myself to another, you are not alone.

An important question we can ask, is “How can we change the culture of the campus and of sport to reflect a more inclusive atmosphere for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender/ non-conforming and intersex individuals?”

Well, each community has their own unique considerations, but the change will come from the people who represent those communities. Thus, as gay people, we should lead the effort to help a place like the Deutsche Sporthochschule create a more gay friendly and inclusive culture. In addition. It is up to us to help educate our peers to better understand issues that LGBTQI people face.

  • Representation, coming “out of the closet” and living openly gay is important. Showing pride in who you are and how that contributes to your sense of self.
    • Often times I wear shirts featuring rainbow flags and representations of LGBTQI pride in sports. Including shirts reflective of my participation at the Gay Games.
    • When people talk to me about how I learned about the Sporthochschule, my first experience here was my participation in the 2010 Gay Games.
  • Create Discussions, talking about issues that LGBTQI athletes and individual experiences as a gay person.
    • With my cohort group, we’ve had many great discussions covering topics including trans athletes in sports, why there aren’t many openly gay professional athletes, etc.
    • Through discussion, we can help educate each other about the issues that LGBTQI people face, especially in sports.
    • The library has a whole section on LGBTQI Sports which offer many informative books covering a wide variety of related issues as well.
  • Work with the university in creating a student-oriented network for LGBTQI people at the Sporthochschule.
    • Perhaps a fitness/ exercise group, study group, reading club, social events, etc. This will help build representation and presence of the LGBTQI community on campus for current students and potential students can feel more accepted.
    • Through a campus community network, we can help better learn, understand and educate the needs specific to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer members of the Deutsche Sporthochschule campus community.
    • The AStA (Der Allgemeine Studierendenausschuss) is the student lead government/ council and social organization which organizes a wide variety of events and campaigns for student culture at the Sporthochschule. Recently, they did a photo campaign project “SpoHo für Toleranz und Vielfalt”

As a member of the LGBTQI community, an athlete, and as a member of the Deutsche Sporthochschule Campus community, our biggest influence to creating a more diverse and inclusive sports culture has to start within ourselves.  It is certainly scary, and there is always a risk. However, I found that I have always been able to perform at my best in school, sports and career when I could live openly as my authentic self; regardless of what anybody else might say or think.

By Dirk Smith