“You throw like a girl!” I hear someone yell while a boy throws a lousy knuckleball in gully cricket. Was that supposed to be an insult? Does being a girl make you bad at sports or does being bad at sport makes you less of a man? Why are athletic skills considered a standard for masculinity in society? How does it affect the freedom of gender and sexual identity in today’s day and age?
In the history of first-class cricket, there have only been 42 LGBTQIA+ cricketers, including present players. While the number is small in itself, only 4 cricketers among them played for male cricket teams. There are more than 30 million players worldwide and at least 4000 international cricket players. Why is there such a little number of openly gay players? Are gay men less likely to be athletes or are they less likely to come out due to the hyper-masculine sports environment? There could not be a definitive answer to the question. There are a few factors noted below that could predict the possible answer.
Hypermasculinity and femmephobia in sports
Sports is a standard of masculinity in our society, since its emergence. Cricket is called a “gentleman’s game” to begin with and it was more of a ‘boys club’. Cricket and other sports have been a place for boys and men to show their “toughness” and physical strength. Showing emotions takes a backseat on the field, unless that emotion is anger, thus endorsing toxic masculinity. There seems to be no tolerance for feminine traits and homosexuality in team sports.
Femmephobic and misogynistic comments are part of male sports from the locker room to the stadium. American football player Robbie Rogers, who came out as a gay man, recalled his coach passing comments like “Don’t throw the ball like a f**”. He admitted to feeling degraded by such an environment, albeit it was common in sports. In 2020, Australian cricketers, all rounder Marcus Stoinis and fast-bowler James Pattinson were charged with hefty fines for using homophobic slurs on the field during separate incidents.
Objectification of men
The sports arena is a place where men are objectified and valued based on their looks than their skills. Often on the field, players with long hair, men above the perceived standard body weight, short men, and men who cry on the field, are targeted by media and spectators with mockery. This devalues their character and their place in the team compared to other members.
Vivid homophobia on the field
As per Out On The Fields research, 80% of gay, bisexual, and straight people have witnessed or experienced homophobic behaviour in sports. 54% of male athletes have admitted using homophobic slurs on the field in less than two weeks and 69% of them heard their teammates use homophobic slurs. Homophobic and femme-phobic remarks are still thrown on the field in order to intimidate the opponent, including in cricket.
In 2019, West Indies player Shannon Gabriel threw a homophobic remark at England batter Joe Root during a test match. Joe Root replied, “Don’t use it as an insult. There is nothing wrong with being gay”. As the moment was captured on the umpire’s mic, Gabriel was charged with violating the
International Cricket Council’s code of conduct for using “language of a personal, insulting, obscene and/or offensive nature”.
Shannon Gabriel had issued an apology to Root and both teams after the incident. As per CNN, his words read, “I extend an unreserved apology for a comment which in the context of on the-field rivalry, I assumed was inoffensive and sporting banter. I know now that it was offensive and for that I am deeply sorry.” While his apology was accepted by Joe Root, there seems to be an underlying issue with the normalised homophobia on the field. When Marcus Stonies was fined for using a homophobic slur on Kane Richardson during Twenty20 Big Bash he said “I got caught in the moment and I took it too far”. Using homophobic slurs has become a way to intimidate opponents and use it to the team’s advantage at the expense of bigotry.
Most of the gay male players have felt safe to come out only after their retirement or not at all. From MLB player Glenn Burke, NBA player John Amaechi, NFL Europe player Wade Davis, and some other players have chosen to come out after retirement. There are very few players who have decided to come out while actively playing team sports. England cricketer Steven Davies is the only male cricket player to have come out as gay while actively playing international cricket.
Across large parts of cricket-playing countries, homosexuality, especially male homosexuality, is illegal. Some of these countries are Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Grenada, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and UAE. While there is no longer criminalization of homosexuality in India since 2018, the existence of the LGBTQIA+ population has become part of political debates instead of considering them as equal citizens as per constitutional rights.
Acceptance of homosexuality
Let’s take a look at the gay male cricketers from different timelines to trace the acceptance of homosexuality in cricket: Algernon Haskett-Smith (1856-1887), George Ives (1837-1907), Heath Davis (1971- present), and Steven Davies (1986-present).
Born in 1856, Algernon Haskett-Smith played five first-class cricket matches. Haskett-Smith was popular among high society members at a male brothel in Cleveland Street. At the age of 31, Haskett-Smith died of a self-inflicted gunshot at Cleveland Street. It is believed, Haskett-Smith died of suicide relating to his closeted lifestyle.
George Ives (1837-1907) played only one international cricket match for England’s men’s team. He went on to become a writer, reformer, and early homosexual law reform campaigner.
New Zealander Heath Davis played five test matches and 10 international one-day cricket matches from 1994-1997. He was known for his erratic yet commendable fast ball deliveries. In 2022, Heath revealed his homosexuality in his documentary Finding Heath Davis. He became the first black cap male member to come out as gay. The 15-minute documentary showed a raw depiction of him leading a double life on the other side of the world. He revealed a few trusted members knew about his homosexuality but he never really got to live the truth in his own country.
In 2011, England cricketer Steven Davies made history by becoming the first male cricket player to come out openly as gay while actively playing. Davies, then 24, said his coming out was to give him closure to be comfortable with who he is. Steven Davies received a positive response from the England team and the board. Davies was inspired by Gareth Thomas, who was the first union rugby player to come out as gay. He said to BBC that he hoped his coming out would help a young gay rugby player to come out and be accepted as a “talented gay rugby player”.
The narrative of coming out has changed for players over the years. From living a closeted life to coming out after retirement to being able to come out while actively playing, there has not been substantial yet subtle growth in acceptance of homosexuality in male cricket.
Team culture also plays a significant role in coming out of a player. Steven Davies had admitted to having support from within the team beforehand which gave him the courage to come out. Heath Davis also had some trusting friends within the squad, who ensured his safety when he was able to explore his sexuality on the other side of the world. Similarly, it can play a role in holding back players from being themselves.
There has been promising growth in the inclusiveness of LGBTQIA+ players in female cricket teams. With spouses Katherine Brunt and Nat Sciver playing for the England team, Australia’s Jess Johnson, South Africa’s ex-skipper Dane van Niekerk, and many other queer players are seen on the field. In 2023, Women’s Premier League teams in India saw queer players from around the world on the field. Some of them include Megan Schutt in Royal Challengers Banglore, Natt Sciver-Brunt in Mumbai Indians, Marizanne Kapp in Delhi Capitals, and many others.
There could be multiple reasons, why women’s sports have become more inclusive. The culture of women’s sports is inherently about bending gender norms, which may have led to more acceptance, prevalence, and inclusiveness. The growth in female sports portrays that change can happen when we open our eyes to reality and see sports players beyond their differences. The hype for women’s cricket was not similar to that of men’s when it emerged. However, when Indian skipper Harmanpreet Kaur was on strike during the semi-finals of the ICC Women’s World Cup, everyone in the nation cheered. They did not see gender but only a cricketer playing for their nation. That’s the kind of acceptance we long to see in cricket and sports. To see the talent and hard work, beyond gender and sexuality. To celebrate the differences, and rejoice in our resonating love for the spirit of the game. Maybe someday a player from the men’s team might say with pride, “Hey man, throw like a girl!”