When England diver Tom Daley walked into Birmingham’s Alexander Stadium during the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games, he made a powerful statement.
The Olympic champion was the first athlete to carry the Queen’s Baton, and he was flanked by athletes and activists waving Pride Progress flags – to raise awareness of the 35 Commonwealth member states that criminalize same-sex relationships.
It is part of a wider campaign to bring about reform across the Commonwealth.
“There are more countries in the Commonwealth that criminalize homosexuality than countries that don’t,” Pride House Birmingham (PHB) co-founder Lou Englefield told ABC Sport.
“So the Commonwealth Games is a unique opportunity for LGBTQI+ activists like me and my colleagues to shine a light on these issues and try to have a conversation about it.”
Homophobic laws, a colonial legacy
Pride House has been a staple of many major sporting events since the first iteration of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
The Birmingham edition is designed to be a safe space for all visitors, whilst offering a program of events and exhibitions.
And for the first time, there are also pop-up Pride Houses in three of the Athletes’ Villages, where trained volunteers can provide support to competitors.
“LGBT rights through sport, unfortunately, are under attack right now,” said Dr Ryan Storr, of the Sports Innovation Research Group at Swinburne University.
“They’re using sports as a platform to try and advance anti-trans sentiment, gay athletes still have a long way to go, intersex athletes are still banned from running in races.
“The whole spectrum of the LGBT community is under attack. It just shows you that these safe spaces are needed, because we’re nowhere near where we need to be.”
Dr Sheree Bekker from the University of Bath added that “feeling safe plays a huge role in ‘anyone, in this case elite athletes, being able to perform at their best on the world stage.
“I think athletes are often trained to separate parts of themselves and just be this robotic athlete, especially when it comes to elite competition,” she said.
“But we are now starting to recognize athletes as full human beings. And if they can fully invest in that space, their performance will definitely benefit.”
One of the exhibits provides an overview of the human rights situation of LGBTQI+ people in the 56 member states of the Commonwealth, including the legality of same-sex sexual activity, marriage laws and whether they benefit from protections against discrimination.
In some countries, homosexuality is punishable by life imprisonment or even death.
“A lot of laws in these countries are a colonial legacy, they come from the UK,” Englefield said.
“It’s up to us to talk about the legacy of colonialism. Not just about these countries in terms of the economy and racism, but also about LGBTIQ+ inclusion and persecution.”
Dr Storr said the British government must take responsibility for the effects of colonialism.
“I find it quite ironic, in terms of [government] saying you have to change, but they often caused that, and I don’t know if there was as much involvement as there could have been or support to help move that forward,” he said. he declares.
“I think they could do a lot more to support LGBT communities. And I think sports can play a good role because it’s that universal language and it gets people to have the conversation.”
The role of sport in creating change
The Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) has taken action to advance inclusion in its member states, supporting Pride House Birmingham and establishing the Commonwealth Pride Network.
And there are signs there could be progress – PHB estimates there were around 10 athletes at Gold Coast 2018 and said there are now around 40 at Birmingham.
But CGF chief executive Katie Sadleir admitted there are limits to what the organization can do.
“We are not a government agency, we are an international sports federation,” she said.
“We can’t change the rules in countries, but what we can do is create opportunities for people to discuss issues in a safe environment.
“Our values of humanity, equality, and destiny are really important to us, and we pride ourselves on having what we think are probably the most inclusive games in terms of the types of programming you’ll see.”
Englefield said while sport has the ability to drive change, there are other ways to help.
“What we need to do is look at the fantastic people in these countries who are doing the work, who know their community, know their society better than anyone, and know how to make gains and can be supported by activists from other regions to realize these gains,” she said.
Australia could pave the way for inclusion
While Australia is perhaps one of the most progressive Commonwealth countries when it comes to LGBTQI+ rights, Dr Storr said there was still room for improvement.
“[Australian sports] started their journey towards LGBT inclusion, where before they hadn’t made any kind of commitment and kind of hid their heads in the sand about it,” he said.
“But the problem is that they started the journey and some of them think it ends there.”
He said it was essential to have positive conversations about these issues.
“Because unfortunately sometimes in some parts of the media, even in Australia, unless it’s a hugely controversial thing, which is to the detriment of LGBT people, people aren’t going to write about it,” he said. -he declares.
“But one thing I will say about being back in England, compared to Australia, Australia is a bit further than I expected compared to other countries.
“And I think ultimately, in the next two years, towards the [2023 FIFA] Women’s World Cup and the  commonwealth games [in Victoria]the [Brisbane 2032] Olympics, I think they’ll be able to really pave the way for what LGBT and fully inclusive environments could look like.”