By Antonio Capurro
This is my first sports interview and it’s an honor to talk with Jon Holmes about diversity at sports. He is digital media editor and journalist with over 15 years’ experience in writing, sub-editing and managing sports content. Since 2014, He’ve been Home Page Editor for the SkySports.com website and apps. In 2017, Jon founded Sports Media LGBT+, a network group for the industry. He is also passionate about LGBT inclusion in sport, movies, theatre – and Plymouth Argyle FC. Let’s meet him…
Jon! How do you see the work or initiatives inside football or sports teams, federations, clubs, civil society and government fighting against LTGBQ phobia at sports? Are they doing enough?
Hello Antonio! Broadly speaking, it’s an encouraging time – each individual organisation or body from the above list is on its own journey, and needs to firstly build confidence in order to be proactive on LGBT+ inclusion. All will have employees or customers/users who identify as LGBT+ themselves, or as active allies (perhaps friends and family of LGBT+ people), so the orgs and bodies’ own involvement will be largely driven by those people. The more there are, the further along each will be in terms of developing their own work or initiatives. We have an expression – ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ – about how you don’t want to get left behind or look outdated by the activities of your neighbours. I think we’ll see more of that in sports in the coming years.
What do you think about Russia 2018 and the lack of LTGBIQ rights? Your goverment recommend to gay fans be careful and don’t take risks.
That was largely sensible advice, based upon what we know about Russia and the level of discrimination against LGBT+ people. But Russia during the World Cup is not really an accurate representation of the state of the nation – it’s on its best behaviour, welcoming in the world for the biggest sporting party on the planet. It’s been possible to highlight issues around LGBT+ rights because the tournament is by definition a cultural celebration as much as it is a competition. LGBT+ fans themselves have been key to this highlighting.
A British Foreign Affairs Committee published a report saying that LGBT individuals are at “significant risk” since “not only do they face the risk of violence by some vigilante groups, but because of lack of adequate State protection. you know in Russia the LTGBQ community is persecuted and there is a visible state homophobia backed by Putin and a law against homosexual propaganda. Press and media talk about concentration camps, disappearances and beatings when gay people show out their love in public. How to live without the fear of feeling that our lives could be in danger?
All of this has been widely reported in the West, but people understandably have short memories with so much inequality around the globe. So the World Cup has provided a platform to raise awareness, and at the heart of that have been Russian LGBT+ activists themselves. From the opening day of the tournament, when Russian LGBT Sports Federation president Alexander Agapov waved a rainbow flag for all five Russian goals in their win over Saudi Arabia, through to the establishments of Diversity Houses in Moscow and St Petersburg (eventually), and the 3 Lions Pride rainbow flag being seen at England’s games against Tunisia and Panama, supporters have faced the dangers of the environment in order to show that LGBT+ people value visibility and are prepared to challenge homophobia. Hopefully the effect will be a boost in confidence to all Russian people, and greater tolerance from the authorities – but only time will tell.
Did English TV sports programs talk seriously and deep about Russia 2018 and law against gay people?
My own employer, Sky Sports, has covered the issue with interviews with LGBT fans and activists on our 24-hour news channel and supporting content on our digital platforms – we’re reporting from Russia, but we’re not showing games live. The BBC has covered through an interview with Alex Agapov on their News channel and some digital coverage. As far as I’m aware, it’s not an issue that ITV (the other broadcaster televising the World Cup live here in the UK) has covered yet – but there’s still time!
It is not just homophobia but racism, in fact Russia is one of the most xenophobic countries in Asia. In this regard to combat future incidents, FIFA is introducing a “dedicated system of discrimination control” for all matches in Russia, where the system will allow referees to “stop, suspend or even abandon” a match “in case that the discriminatory behavior does not cease “. Similarly “We have also worked together with several participating teams on preventive and educational measures, including, of course, the Russian hosts,” said Federico Addiechi, FIFA’s head of sustainability and sustainability, in a statement. How do you see this?
I see it as a useful deterrent, but changing the behaviour of fans will require more long-term efforts. Mexico’s first two matches weren’t halted when the ‘puto’ chant was heard on several occasions. Punishments and fines are handed out but they’re not yet strong enough to eradicate discrimination completely. What’s more important is FIFA’s pursuit of inclusion at a less high-profile level than the World Cup – for example, an international friendly in the future where Russia are at home to an African nation, and the stadium is full of Russian supporters.
An official statement mentioned that in the stadium and around it will be quite safe to demonstrate the symbols of LGBT activism, for example, the rainbow flag, showing tolerant statements and that there will be no discrimination based on race, sex, religious opinions or sexual orientation, How credible is this?
It’s been credible in that the rainbow flag has been waved at a Russia game, and displayed at two England games. At England v Panama, stadium stewards initially tried to prevent the flag being displayed as they were confused, but a quick call to a FIFA contact from the fans involved (the ‘3 Lions Pride’ supporters group of Di Cunningham and Joe White) quickly resolved the situation. I’m unaware of any other attempts by fans of any nation to display symbols that could be seen as activism.
What is your score, Latin American countries will advance to the quarterfinals or maybe a final?
Well, at the time of writing, Uruguay are through to the last eight, Argentina are out, and we’ve got Brazil v Mexico and Colombia v England to come… so maybe two in the quarters (hopefully not Colombia) and maybe we’ll get a Brazil v England final!
Tell us about your work like Home Page Editor on SkySports and Network lead @SportsMediaLGBT 🌈 How is going the coverage media and press?
Sky Sports is Europe’s biggest commercial sports digital publisher – my role is to curate all the content across our key destination pages on web, apps and our Sky Q set-top boxes, and lead our team of sub-editors. I also co-ordinate content for our support for the Rainbow Laces campaign, which promotes LGBT inclusion in sport. Sky Sports is among a group of brands, businesses and organisations called TeamPride that helps to amplify the campaign, which is run by the LGBT charity Stonewall. In late 2017, away from the day job, I set up a group called Sports Media LGBT+, which is a network for LGBT people across our side of the industry, and allies.
In the wider UK media – news and sport – it’s a really mixed bag on LGBT+ inclusion. There’s some great work being done, but also a lot misinformation, particularly around transgender inclusion. As far as sports is concerned, almost every publication and website in UK sports media would cover a ‘big story’ relating to LGBT+ inclusion (for example, Minnesota United’s Collin Martin coming out) but not many dig deeper into the issues. That’s actually encouraged me and Sky Sports to try to fill that gap, and increase our coverage. Another problem we’re facing and has been evident recently is our tabloid newspapers using stories about unnamed gay and bisexual male professional footballers as front-page leads. The tone is sensationalist – the headlines and editorials aren’t conducive to creating a more welcoming environment. Also they seem to only run on weekends, when the paper’s cover price is more expensive – which tells you a lot about the motivation of the editors involved.
Did you study journalism? What do you like about this career?
I studied Journalism at Liverpool John Moores University – football was my passion, and I was Sports Editor on our student paper. A website called TEAMtalk based in Leeds gave me my first job and in 2007, Sky Sports acquired the business so I started to work across both websites. After a few years, I moved onto SkySports.com full-time as a football journalist, before taking my current role and moving down to London to work at Sky’s Osterley HQ in 2014. I love sport, and sharing that passion with others, and I enjoy editing and writing, so it’s a perfect career for me.
How to articulate or ensemble sports or football clubs to become allies?
Again, it’s really through building confidence – here, we’re seeing clubs becoming more conscious of the importance of engaging on diversity and inclusion because it’s something that matters to their own employees or a sizeable proportion of their fanbases. Previously there hasn’t been much awareness of what it means to be an ally, and how even very simple messages of inclusion e.g. ‘everyone is welcome at our club, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity’ can have a huge effect for members of the LGBT+ community. It’s a big ongoing conversation, but you wouldn’t feel ready to join in and contribute unless you knew more about the topic. So education is always the underpinning factor.
Lately also more brands are supporting LTGBIQ rights, how do you see that in England?
Brands are similarly motivated, and a lot of sports clubs are brands in their own right now, of course. They each have to strike a balance – to show they are genuinely supportive of LGBT+ causes, but not ‘use’ the LGBT+ community to make money off them. So the common approach is to have Pride merchandise where a portion of the proceeds go to good causes. The LGBT+ community are very savvy, and they will quickly challenge or call out a company or corporation whose support may not fit that criteria!
What does it mean to be a sports ally for the LTGBIQ community?
To me, it means taking an active role on inclusion but doing so in conjunction with the LGBT+ people involved in your sport. The most important part is listening to fans, players, coaches, administrators in a particular sport and learning what matters to them, and what they feel would make a tangible difference in ensuring no one feels left out for reasons related to sexuality or gender identity. That’s not a one-off thing, it needs to happen all year round because of intersectionality – what helps a gay white man might not necessarily help a bisexual black woman, and even less likely someone who is trans or non-binary. Then it’s taking into account other diversity issues – disability, race, religion etc – and taking steps so that every individual feels valued.
Do you think so more athletes will come out of the closet? I bet it is very difficult to be a gay athlete in the closet and to have a negative enviroment. How to work with that to make them feel safe and secure?
Yes, more athletes will come out, because their environments are increasingly more inclusive and welcoming. It’s significant that Collin Martin was out to his team-mates at Minnesota United for a full year before he came out publicly. More often than not, once an athlete is fully comfortable in their own world, they will consider inviting the whole world in, in order to show that they are supported and happy.
For us in the media, we need to show everybody – visibility and representation have never been so important, as the global picture on LGBT+ rights improves for some but not for many others. Reading, watching or listening to the story of an LGBT+ person involved in sport – whether at grassroots or at an elite level – can have a huge impact for a similar person who has felt excluded from sport in the past, or who fears their team-mates or coach will not accept them. In almost every instance, we hear that a person who comes out receives a level of support that they didn’t expect. Simply by coming out, many become the instigators for an improved understanding and acceptance in the places where they work and play. A responsible media outlet that shares these stories of LGBT+ inclusion in sport empowers individuals to be themselves, and perhaps one day share their stories too.
Do you play football or do you practice some sports?
I play 5-a-side football with London Titans FC, who are one of several LGBT+ inclusive clubs in the UK. All these clubs are set up to provide a place for people to play the game in an atmosphere where a person knows their sexual orientation or gender identity. The Titans have certainly done that for me, and countless others too. I think most football teams and clubs in the UK would say they are LGBT-inclusive if asked the question, but it might not be stated on their website or on the club charter – so if you were a gay player interested in joining, you might be looking for some reassurance so you wouldn’t have to hide who you were.
What does it mean for you to be a proud gay man? Do you feel different or special?
It means a great deal to me because for most of my life, I wasn’t a proud gay man. I only came out to friends, family and work colleagues soon after my 34th birthday. For the whole of my 20s and early 30s, I was in the closet, with low confidence and a great deal of unhappiness along the way. Now, thankfully, I’ve learned to accept my difference and it’s brought me infinitely closer to all the people in my life. Everyone deserves to feel special in their own way. For any person, whether LGBT+ or not, having a secret that you’re not prepared to share with anyone is an awful experience and ruins your mental health.
Do you feel an inspiration for other gay men or gay couple to come out of the closet being visible?
I’m very much a conduit! I have the privilege in my work of being able to offer LGBT+ people in sport a platform, so that they might want to share their experiences with a really wide audience. When people say they’ve been able to connect with that person and are educated or energised by that, that means a great deal to me. I truly believe this particular strand of sports journalism is important – there’s a long history of homophobia and biphobia in sport; there are still complications for both lesbians and gay men; considering the importance and prestige of sport in modern life, relatively few LGB athletes, coaches, administrators are publicly out, and therefore do not contribute to wider discussions that would benefit hugely from their insight; while the issue of trans participation in sport is immensely complex, and often unfairly reported. I’d like there to be more visibility in the sports media itself, and that more journalists feel inspired to cover stories that relate to LGBT+ inclusion.
How it was to assume your sexual orientation? Was it a complicated process?
For me, it was very difficult. I went to boarding school here in the UK in the 80s and 90s, and ‘gay’ was only ever used as an insult and there was no education on what it even meant to be gay, mainly due to a piece of legislation in the UK called Clause 28. When I went to university in Liverpool, I put all my energies into being a football journalist – two more areas of British life where homophobia was rampant. The media rarely spoke of gay men in positive terms, a legacy of the AIDS crisis, while football has a long history of homophobia and hypermasculinity. After graduation, I worked in an office in Leeds where almost everyone was an older white, straight male – again, any reference to ‘gay’ was only negative. I knew from my early 20s that I was gay, but I had no friends who were, and because of all the factors, I convinced myself that coming out would result in rejection from friends, family and colleagues. I still tried to date girls, despite knowing that it was futile. Eventually I gave up with that, and just focused on my work and other things in life that I enjoyed. My great saviour was the rise of the internet – I was able to reach out to other people in the gay community, and then I met my boyfriend who basically rescued me from the closet I’d created for myself. We fell in love, I came out to everyone in my life in a big hurry – almost everyone in my life was great about it – and my boyfriend and I are still together now five years later.
When you were younger was it easy for you to socialize with other gay men?
No, I didn’t know anyone else who was gay. Football reporting was my job, I’d moved to a new city in the north of England at the age of 21 where I didn’t know anyone and I was chronically shy and anxious about my sexuality. So I didn’t even put myself in any situation where I might meet other gay men.
Usually what kind of comments do you receive? Do you like any particular social network?
I’m most active on Twitter – I’m at @jonboy79 – which is common with people in the media. I’m lucky, I get hardly any negative comments. I’ve got embroiled in arguments a few times but Twitter isn’t great for that! I use Instagram too, and I try to keep Facebook for interacting with friends. I’ve also set up accounts on Twitter and Facebook for @SportsMediaLGBT to share great sports content from around the world about LGBT+ inclusion.
What do you prefer on weekend? Resting at home or hanging out with friends?
The nature of the job means I work every other weekend, covering general sports news or live events on Sky Sports. When I’m not working, we like cinema, theatre, dinner and nights out with friends, sometimes going to watch football (I support Plymouth Argyle), the occasional weekend break away – no different to anyone else I expect!
How do you see you LGBTQ rights in the world? Is getting better?
It’s getting better as more and more people find ways to show their support, even if they’re not LGBT+ themselves. But there are still countless places around the world where it’s illegal to be LGBT+ or it’s discriminated against in various ways. And even here in the UK, where rights are advanced, we have a situation in Northern Ireland where same-sex marriage isn’t legal yet. In the US, the White House and the Pentagon have just gone through the whole of the month of June without once acknowledging Pride, in stark contrast to the Obama administration. The Supreme Court could try to roll back same-sex marriage there in the coming years. LGBT+ rights are hard won, fragile and by no means universal, so we can’t ever be complacent.
Which ones stereotypes or prejudices stil you can notice inside the LGBTQ community?
There are many, but working in sports the ones I notice most are specific to that. There’s a lingering stereotype that all women who play sport are lesbian – the truth of course is that it will vary hugely from sport to sport, and in any sport some will be straight, some will be lesbian and some will be bisexual. Because of the stereotype, a lot of the lesbian and bi women feel they have to hide that part of themselves or they won’t be taken seriously or have their sporting talents fully appreciated and valued. For gay and bi men, it’s the opposite – the stereotype is that they don’t even like sport, when actually a huge number of them are active and sporty. These stereotypes are fading away but some people choose to perpetuate them, and the effect is that many people continue to hide who they are or just shun sport altogether.
How many gay prides have you attend? What it was for you the most exciting, wild or special one?
I’ve attended three Prides in London, a couple in Brighton, a couple in Leeds, and one in New York. The most exciting would be my first Pride in London in summer 2015 – my boyfriend and I were in the parade together, marching with my company Sky and friends we’d made since moving down south the previous November. There were thousands of people on the streets, and the atmosphere made it really special.
Do you use many apps?
Yeah, mainly the social ones, Sky Sports and other news / sports sites.
DId you get disconnected from social network sometimes?
I’m often on my phone checking Twitter, more than is probably healthy!
Have you ever visit Latin America? What do you know about Peru?
Never been, would like to go very much – I know Paddington Bear is from Peru, so is Nobby Solano, they have a very cool red diagonal stripe on their white shirts and the Incas came from there too!
How do you see yourself in five years?
I’d like to still be working day to day in sports journalism and editorial, working towards even greater LGBT+ inclusion in both sports and sports media, maybe with a book behind me!
Do you have any special gay movie or gay book or tv series you like a lot?
My favourite gay move is C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005), by Jean-Marc Vallee, which I absolutely fell in love with when I first saw it. It really spoke to me. For a book, I’ll choose Robbie Rogers’ Coming Out To Play (2014) as it really proved to me that you could be gay and love football! And TV show, would have to be Six Feet Under (2001-2005) which was consistently powerful and in David and Keith, had two gay male characters who felt authentic and not tokenistic in any way.
Did somebody inspire you like a guide for your own life?
I honestly don’t feel my life really began until I met my boyfriend Chris in October 2014. Since then, I’ve felt so much more fulfilled in everything I do.
Do you consider an activist or advocate speaker out for LTGBQ rights?
Absolutely, and I don’t think that’s something a journalist should shy away from. I think a lot of journalists worry they won’t be seen as truly impartial if they cover a cause, whether that cause is important to them personally or other people, or that they’ll get ‘pigeonholed’ and be expected to cover only that. Also sports are essentially tribal, particularly in the UK with our football clubs. But if you’re lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans, and you know others out there are struggling with that – with sports being one example of where there is difficulty, and where reporting can help change hearts and minds – contributing through media coverage can be enormously rewarding. I’d recommend to anyone in my industry to go and meet the people affected, and those striving to make a difference, and try to help get those stories out there. It continues to give me a sense of purpose, and the hope that we’ll reach a day when everyone can be themselves in sport without fear or discrimination.