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Why coming out is still hard to do

A recently retired rider explains why he kept his sexuality a closely guarded secret

After Belgian cyclocross rider Justin Laevens revealed he was gay recently, a former rider got in touch to explain why coming out is still no easy matter in the cycling world…

Justin Laevens recently broke the taboo surrounding being openly gay in the male peloton. Going by comments on social media, which predominantly focused on it being 2021 and it not mattering, you would assume the sport doesn’t have an issue (especially considering there are openly gay female professionals). 

Sport in general still has a long way to go to create an environment where male athletes feel comfortable enough to be ‘out’ and not live a lie

I decided to write this to give an insight into why I felt I needed to keep the fact I was gay a closely guarded secret as I chased the dream shared by so many other young riders of turning pro. Sadly, I feel sport in general still has a long way to go to create an environment where male athletes feel comfortable enough to be ‘out’ and not live a lie. Just compare the number of ‘out’ females to the number of ‘out’ males across a range of sports, it becomes obvious there is an issue. 

Overall, I do not feel the sport of cycling, the riders or teams are explicitly homophobic but rather there is no space to be open about it. Considering cycling is a sport where we prance about in tight lycra, take pride in our tan and shave our legs I always sensed from others a need to be masculine or a ‘lad’, otherwise you didn’t fit in.

I had the fairly standard journey of a young rider looking to fulfil their dreams. I lived abroad in the winter with a bunch of lads, spent a short period of time racing on a small European team and raced a few small UCI races. 

A couple of years ago when I knew I wouldn’t progress further, combined with having a period on the side-lines due to injury, I decided it was time to move on, return to the real world and get a job. When asked why I stopped, having an injury is my go-to reason. In reality, however, a significant part of my decision was also that I didn’t want to go back to living a lie and pretending to be something I wasn’t. Despite knowing I was gay, I had wanted to fit in so lived-in denial, finding it easier to pretend to have an interest in women.

So, if I don’t feel the sport is explicitly homophobic, why did I feel I could not come out and be openly gay? The answer… ignorance. 

I felt if I was openly gay I would always be the ‘outsider’ who was treated differently and never properly accepted as part of the team or group

Honestly, I felt if I was openly gay I would always be the ‘outsider’ who was treated differently and never properly accepted as part of the team or group. I worried team mates would not want to get changed with me around or share hotel rooms. Consequently, I felt being gay would make finding rides on teams harder. When you’re young and cycling is your life you will do anything to pursue your dream, even if it’s to the detriment of your own wellbeing.

Photo: Laevens Justin Fanpage

What made me think this? It’s hard to pin point exactly but, in general, it’s the culture. I will give an example, when out training or relaxing after training talk would normally revert to women, who you fancied, etc. Avoiding taking part in those discussions would often lead to jokey comments made about whether I ‘liked or preferred men’, as though it was an absurd concept for a rider to be gay. In the end, it was just easier to go along with it and make something up about who you fancied. That way you wouldn’t feel excluded from being part of the group. 

Joking about someone being gay in any sport, no matter how light hearted, will push others away from making that decision to come out

When the cycling websites picked up on Justin’s news, it disappointed me to see some remarks by people I knew from racing, tagging friends in comments, joking about how that person could be the second gay rider, blah blah blah, as though it is some sort of joke. Yes, it could be much worse, it could have been explicitly homophobic. But what I saw showed change is still needed. Joking about someone being gay in any sport, no matter how light hearted, will push others away from making that decision to come out. 

I hope Justin’s braveness – and yes it was braveness – will be a beacon of hope to others, as I am sure there are other professionals who want to come out. I still have not had the courage to came out to many people, especially those I chat to in the cycling world. I guess it’s a hangover from many years of denial and a fear of not being accepted.

I do see a brighter future. The young riders born post 2000 have been brought up with a different attitude. They were in their formative years during a time when the world became much more accepting.

The fans are right. It’s 2021. Should it really matter who someone is attracted to? 

Thank you for taking your time to read this. I want to add I had the time of my life racing bikes, made amazing friends and developed many life skills. I just wish I hadn’t needed to keep an important part of my life a secret. 

Featured photo: James York