50.50: Opinion

Jake Daniels’ bravery will change the lives of other young LGBTIQ athletes

Blackpool’s teenage striker says coming out will allow him to be “free and confident”. I wish I had been able to do the same

Jack Duncan
17 May 2022, 10.44am

Jake Daniels made his professional debut for Blackpool earlier this month

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News Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Being LGBTIQ and involved in sport can be tough. Many times over the years I – like so many others – have felt alienated, in no small part due to a lack of role models at the professional level.

At just 17, Jake Daniels has gone a long way to changing all that.

Despite the inevitable backlash he will face from less enlightened sections of football grounds across the country, the Blackpool player has chosen to live freely, openly and unapologetically as himself. In doing so, he has become an instant role model for LGBTIQ people everywhere.

We’ve had trailblazers who’ve come out before and we owe them so much, but they were not out and still playing at this level.

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It's been more than 30 years since Justin Fashanu became the first professional player to come out. How has it taken 30 years to get back here? I still struggle to comprehend it. At 33, I’ve quite literally been waiting my whole life for this. Frustration turning to desperation at times, knowing the difference it would make.

At times, it felt like it may never happen. So, it was no surprise to me that within seconds of the announcement my inbox filled with messages from fellow sports-loving LGBTIQ pals, overcome with a mixture of joy and relief.

But the question I often get asked by straight people is: why does it matter?

To answer them I trace my thoughts back to my days playing rugby at school in the mid-2000s. A different game from Daniels, of course, but nonetheless a similar experience of what it’s like to be young, closeted and active in sport.

I’d prefer to get in trouble for missing PE than hear ‘f*g’ and ‘that’s gay’ thrown around in a changing room

I lived for rugby from the moment I first stepped out onto the terraces at Twickenham in 1999, aged ten, to watch the World Cup semi-final between New Zealand and France. I came home wanting my parents to buy me a rugby ball so I could try to emulate the skills I’d just witnessed.

But once I got involved, the reality was very different.

Around the time my love of rugby was growing, so was my awareness of who I was. Looking back, I can’t really remember a time I didn’t know, deep down at least, that I was gay, but around the ages of 10 to 12 is when it became clear to me.

It wasn’t until my first practice at school that I’d realised how these core parts of my identity could come into conflict.

I was unusually tall for my age and had a decent pass on me. So, I was excited to see what I could do on the field. Imagine the impact then, just ten minutes into the session, when I overheard the head of PE call a classmate a “p**f” because he was running too slowly.

‘What if he can tell?’, ‘What if he knows?’ were the thoughts rattling around my brain.

Things only got worse from there.

By the time I reached secondary school, I was distancing myself from wanting to play. No one around me could understand why. ‘Jack, you love rugby, and you’ve got the size for it!’ were comments I’d regularly hear, but none of it mattered.

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Not a day went by without someone using casual homophobic language. Each utterance like a dagger to the heart, further quashing my sense of self-worth.

I’d find myself dreading PE so much I’d feign injury or illness. I’d often getting in trouble for skipping class, but I was more willing to face the scorn of teachers and the inevitable punishments than be in a changing room where terms like ‘f*g’ or ‘that’s gay’ were thrown around like they meant nothing.

In the end I stopped playing entirely.

The most tragic part of my story is that it’s far from unique. I’m one of countless LGBTIQ people who’ve been through this. So much so that it’s hard to comprehend the grand sum of all that lost opportunity and youthful years spent in fear.

These days, I’m still passionately involved in sport. I’m a huge Liverpool fan and a proud Harlequins season-ticket holder, where I’ve helped to set up professional rugby’s first LGBTIQ supporters’ association. But still I’m left wondering what might’ve been.

If I’d had someone like Jake Daniels to look up to back then, an out and proud professional gay player, It would have changed my life, and my entire sense of self-worth.

Maybe I’d have kept playing. Maybe the bullies would’ve seen for themselves that there’s nothing strange about being gay and involved in sport.

Replicate this scenario millions of times over and the impact of representation is plain to see.

This is why Daniels’ story matters so much, and why grown adults like me are so emotional about it.

His bravery will change lives, especially those of young people in sport, just by being himself.

And from the bottom of my heart, I thank him for it.

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