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Much to celebrate for LGBTQ+ inclusion in sport

This Pride Month, our executive director Ali Donnelly says our strategy will help make sport and physical activity more accessible.

7th June 2021

by Ali Donnelly
Executive director of digital, marketing and communications, Sport England

Growing up, I channelled all my energy into playing sport.

Gaelic football, camogie, basketball, athletics, tennis – you name it, I did it.

Finding women’s rugby as a teen was game-changing because here was a sport that combined all of the things I loved – the outdoors, the teamwork, the camaraderie and the physicality – into one brilliant and enjoyable activity.

A Village Spartans Rugby Club training session

But finding women’s rugby also did something else for me  – it helped me to finally be me, and when I came out a few years after I started playing, it was a huge relief to see that it really was no big deal to my teammates or to anyone I knew in the sport.

Rugby has lots of challenges as a sport, and it is still on a journey when it comes to diversity and inclusion, but the progress it has made in relation to LGBTQ+ inclusion in particular is unrecognisable over the past decade or so.

Where once, women hid their sexuality for fear of turning people off what was already considered by many a sport unsuitable for women and girls, now it is wonderful to see players at every level happily discussing their partners, the men’s game embracing Pride events and broad support for those who speak up in the game about LGBTQ+ issues and themes.

It’s in rugby too where a large proportion of the discussion has been taking place about the inclusion of transwomen, and though that is a heated debate and often extremely challenging to be part of, the sport is at least having conversations publicly that many others are afraid to even consider.

I really enjoyed reading Jack Murley’s piece on the BBC – recognising the massive progress that has been made in sport in recent years and arguing, persuasively, that there has never been a better time to be LGBTQ+ in sport.

Our new strategy has a core theme – tackling the inequalities that make it harder for some people to be active over others and, within that, ensuring that the inequalities facing the LGBTQ+ community is a key part.

Though there is clearly a long way to go, I agree with that and when I reflect purely on the journey the sport that I am primarily involved in has made, I see huge positives in the direction of travel.

Sport England has a role to play in that.

Our long-term strategy has a core theme – tackling the inequalities that make it harder for some people to be active over others and, within that, ensuring that the inequalities facing the LGBTQ+ community is a key part.

When we were consulting in the lead-up to developing the strategy, we worked with a variety of LGBTQ+ people and organisations where a number of key themes and issues emerged.

One was the relatively lightweight presence of data of LGBTQ+ people involved in sport and physical activity. This is something we are seeking to address through a collaborative review of data, insight and learning needs within our sector.


I’m confident we can make important strides in this area and do much more to use data and insight to inform our sector about what we know, and to help make the changes that ensure more LGBTQ+ people can be part of sport and physical activity in a safe and inclusive way.

The second common theme is that we should be much more proactive in championing all of the great work being done across sport and using our channels and influence to highlight all of the best practice that is making a huge difference already.

As part of Pride Month we’ve started to do this and we’ll be updating our website to point to some of the excellent resources out there to support LGBTQ+ inclusion, including highlighting case studies as well as tips and guidance and pointing to the great work of Pride Sports and others.

Another key area focused on the desire for us to be more front-footed on some of the more challenging issues facing LGBTQ+ inclusion and sport, and in particular on the issues facing transgender people.

To that end, Sport England is working with the other five sports councils of the UK (Sport Wales, sportscotland, Sport Northern Ireland and UK Sport) to update outdated guidance which related to transgender inclusion in sport. A wide-ranging consultation has concluded, and the information is being processed with a view to being published later this year. 

Ultimately, as we as an organisation continue to move towards our central mission in tackling inequalities and to applying a more values-based approach to our work, we have to ensure that we’re looking at where all inequalities are found and experienced, including those facing LGBTQ+ people, and in Pride Month it is timely to reflect that much more must be done, while recognising great progress.

To the 16-year-old me who found herself through rugby, that progress is simply incredible.

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