Former swimmer calls on organized sport to welcome gay youth

Former swimmer calls on organized sport to welcome gay youth

A Toronto lawyer who once swam competitively for Canada says he was not ready to come out as a gay man when he was active in professional sports more than 10 years ago.

Homophobic slurs and jokes, plus a "general flaunting of masculinity" among fellow students, helped to delay that process, Carlos Sayao says now. 

"It takes a lot of courage to go out on a limb and do your own thing and feel comfortable enough doing that," Sayao told Metro Morning on Monday.

"For me, I just wasn't quite ready at that point. Looking back on it now, I do wish things had been different."

Now an associate at Davies, Ward, Phillips & Vineberg LLP, Sayao said it's time for coaches, sports administrators, teachers and parents to encourage lesbian, gay and bisexual young people to play on sports teams and to create a welcoming environment. 

Gay youth less likely to play sports: UBC

Sayao was reacting to a recent University of B.C. study that found that many teenagers who are gay, lesbian or bisexual are half as likely to participate in coached sports as straight young people.

The study found that over a 15 year period, between 1998 and 2013, there was a significant decline in lesbian, gay and bisexual teens' participation in sports in B.C.

"I was quite surprised and disheartened to hear about these findings," Sayao said.

"And I was surprised because, from my perspective as a lawyer who practices sports law and is involved in discrimination in sport issues, we are seeing a lot more athletes coming out in a very high profile way. Even though there may be more role models for LGB youth to look up to, we are not seeing that transfer down to the grassroots level."

Missing out on 'great' benefits

Joining a sports team is positive in many ways, he said, and it's important for lesbian, gay and bisexual young people not to miss out.

"It's quite disheartening to me because there are so many great benefits that sports provide, having been involved in sports. There are obvious health effects, but also self-confidence, personal fulfillment and social inclusion.

"I think those benefits are so important, particularly for marginalized groups, such as LGB youth. We really need to be striving to provide better access to that community."

He said he regrets that he didn't come out sooner because he could have become a role model himself. When he was a competitive swimmer, however, there were no openly gay swimmers on his team and he didn't have openly gay, lesbian and bisexual friends who were involved in sports. "That was really lacking at the time," he said.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association in the U.S. has best practices for coaches on the issue of inclusion and schools, sports clubs and provincial teams could adopt that policy, he said.

Sayao represented Canada at the World Aquatics Championships in 2003 and Commonwealth Games in 2002. He has defended athletes in sports disputes and has appeared before the International Court of Arbitration for Sport.

He was also a team ombudsperson for Canada at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.