February, as well as being the shortest month of the year and containing Valentines Day, marks LGBT History Month in the UK. It aims to promote equality and diversity for the public by covering LGBT history and the history of the gay rights and related civil rights movements.
To tie in with this observance, we spoke to Jon Holmes – senior home page editor at Sky Sports. After starting his journalistic career with the broadcaster back in 2001, he has worked his way up to his current position and helps write content for the Rainbow Laces campaign which Sky supports. He is also the founder and network lead of Sports Media LGBT+, established in 2017 to advocate for inclusion in both the media industry, and across sport in general.
We caught up with him to discuss all about his network group, LGBT History Month and what more the media industry needs to be doing when it comes to diversity.
Back in 2017, you set up Sports Media LGBT+. Tell us a little about what the network group does?
The networking function is how we originated, as a collective of people who work in sports media or related roles who are LGBT+ or active allies, and that’s still pivotal to what we do – we want to encourage anyone who’s out there in the industry and feels they would value that broader connection to be part of our community. All welcome! There’s a lot of influential people in the network now, so good contacts to have. Beyond that, we’ve evolved into advocacy work, a lot of which is based around our online presence – we’re a digital publisher in our own right, and we use our popular social media platforms to share examples of good media practice and support LGBT+ people in sport. We also put on events that tie into our #AuthenticMe initiative, talking about how being your authentic self can help to boost your performance. And we consult – if anyone out there wants advice, connections, to have their voice amplified, or harness that power of the media to raise awareness – and through our access to big platforms as journalists and employees, we can do that. We are helping to provide that representation in the media and also to push things forward in terms of LGBT+ inclusion across sport, from grassroots to elite.
Why was it important to establish a group like this?
The media plays an essential role in education, understanding and tracking progress related to the LGBT+ experience in sport. That saying of ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ – this particular part of diversity and inclusion relies heavily on visibility. It’s only recently that’s arrived in various sectors through the growth of LGBT+ networks, and we’re still scratching the surface in sport – we’ve had seven or so years of LGBT+ football fan groups now which has been a huge step forward, but in the last couple of years we’ve also seen networks started in motorsport, athletics, aquatic sports, horseracing – all backed by governing bodies. Sports media as an industry needed its own network just like any other walk of life, but what we can also provide is support and activity through the content we produce and the associated work we do that encourages other individuals and groups to be visible or find their place in sport.
Last year you launched the ‘Rainbow Ready’ document as a resource for anyone working in a comms or sports media role to help make LGBT+ people feel more welcome. What did you hope to achieve with this document and do you feel as though it has made an impact on sports media?
What we were often hearing was that people working in sports media and comms weren’t necessarily averse to talking about LGBT+ matters – and in the case of those who work for clubs or sports bodies, that includes the inclusion work they or their community foundations are doing – but they were worried about getting language or terminology wrong, or getting a negative reaction if they put it out on official channels, etc. So they tended to avoid it. What we wanted to do with ‘Rainbow Ready’ was empower those same people with the knowledge and guidance they need – and that includes context, strategy, all these things – so they became more confident on this topic. We have to remember that most of us never got any education on LGBT+ themes when we were at school, and a lot of what each of us have picked up has been from disparate sources. So we collated what we know is good practice, filtered it into the resources, and then made it freely available. And the reaction has been really welcoming and appreciative – we know it’s been widely circulated, we’ve received a lot of positive feedback and people signposting it, and it’s easily discoverable via a Google search. One other example of how it’s grown is that the horseracing network I mentioned earlier – Racing With Pride – asked if they could tailor it specifically to their sport (using ‘jockeys, trainers’ etc, instead of ‘athletes, coaches’). We’re all still learning of course so ‘Rainbow Ready’ will also grow as a living document, with additions and new information added when appropriate to do so.
Looking ahead at the rest of 2021 and further on, what are your plans for Sports Media LGBT+ going forward?
Like for everyone, the pandemic has affected plans – our big annual #AuthenticMe event in early October, a get-together which we’ve previously held at the BBC and Twitter’s HQ in London, had to go online in 2020. But the panel chats we then put on – how to launch an LGBT+ network in sport, and LGBT+ mental health in football – were very popular and received thousands of views on the live streams. We’ll keep using our digital reach to grow until we can have those physical events again, and we’re using our Google News-ranked content and social channels to put out more content on our own website as well as championing campaigns / activations like LGBT History Month, Football v Homophobia, Lesbian Visibility Week, etc. Long-term, we want to keep building relationships and trust through collaborations so that more LGBT+ people feel comfortable and welcome to be themselves in sport, prosper as a result, and find they have genuine allies around them.
February is LGBT History Month, why is an observance like this still important?
It’s actually really new – it’s only been going in the UK since 2005, maybe people think it’s been around longer than that! History is there for us to learn from, to take inspiration from the positives and remind us not to repeat the negatives. For the LGBT+ community, the inspiration is still very fresh because we just haven’t had role models or visible people in so many different parts of society until recently, and most notably sport. Also much of this is ‘hidden history’ that was rarely or never told by LGBT+ people themselves – Channel 4’s ‘It’s A Sin’ being an example of that. Much of the community’s history was either erased or couldn’t be recorded at the time for fear of reprisals. So LGBT History Month is an opportunity to tell a lot of these great stories through an LGBT+ lens, often for the first time.
You have worked for Sky Sports for the majority of your journalistic career, what has been your proudest achievement to date?
This particular area of journalism hinges on trust, so any time when someone has put their faith in me and Sky Sports to help tell their story in the way they want it told gives me a lot of satisfaction. Working with the football referee Ryan Atkin in 2017 was a big story that went global– he’s still the only publicly out gay or bi man in an on-field role, playing or officiating, in the top five leagues in England, and has gone on to become a Stonewall Sport Champion. Most importantly, he says he’s so much happier personally and professionally since sharing his story, so that is naturally a wonderful thing to hear. Working with another referee – a Zimbabwean called Raymond Mashamba – on his story was also very satisfying, in a totally different way. Raymond was seeking asylum in the UK having been outed in a national newspaper back home whilst he was in London for a football tournament. It wasn’t safe for him to go back to Bulawayo. When his claim was heard, we’d just published my feature article about his story on Sky Sports – and he won his case at the first hurdle, which is still very rare for those seeking asylum on the grounds of being LGBT+. His lawyer told me the story swayed the decision. I keep in touch with Raymond and caught up with him recently for a new article. Although his life is very different to how it would have been back home in Zimbabwe, he’s happy and safe, and doing well.
What more can be done, especially within the sports media industry, to increase diversity within journalism?
There’s a lot of movement to try and shift the industry on this, and that’s most effective when it’s senior leaders driving the change – establishing greater coverage of women’s sport, changing recruitment practices so that people from diverse ethnic communities get internships and interviews, ensuring hiring managers have a deep understanding of equity and inclusion, and knowing that content that reflects the experiences of marginalised groups benefits from having representation from said groups within the production and storytelling process. As the platforms and tools we use diversify – reaching younger audiences through video, more graphic design and data-driven journalism, etc – so we are striving to find the voices and talent who can deliver that with flair and innovation. From an LGBT+ perspective, we’re also still breaking down stereotypes and demonstrating that the old way the traditional sports media used to cover (or not cover) people who are lesbian, gay, bi and trans doesn’t apply any more – there is a universal audience for these stories, and I see that with the content we do on Sky Sports. With trans and non-binary narratives in particular, there’s still a lot of misinformation and scaremongering going on so it’s even more important to encourage people with lived experiences to be a part of this process. Editors, producers etc need to appreciate this or risk imbalance.
Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring LGBT sports journalists who are beginning their careers in the industry?
The LGBT+ part of who they are is very much an individual journey that’s affected by personal circumstances and outside influences, so the advice that works for one person won’t be as relevant to someone else – it’s what makes the community so diverse in itself. While you don’t have to reflect your experience of being LGBT+ in your own work, I would encourage aspiring LGBT+ journalists to think carefully about how their perspective could benefit their career. There are a great many related sports stories out there that are just waiting to be unpacked, and the sensitivity and empathy that a fellow member of the LGBT+ community can bring counts for so much. Any aspiring journalist, sport or otherwise, should want to report on human interest that’s emotive and powerful, and frequently LGBT+ in sports stories fall into this territory. Of course, it’s by no means essential to report on them and what’s also important is to pursue what you’re passionate about, and deliver that work to the best of your ability. The commonly shared experience of being LGBT+ is a period of uncertainty – it could be brief, or it could be for many years – where we’re not sure what lies on the other side of coming out. That can affect you in your professional life, impacting on your confidence. The best advice I can give for anyone who is finding that difficult is to find someone to talk to; often, the best person for that is not necessarily a close friend or family member, but someone who understands and is not in that immediate circle. That’s what we’ve created with Sports Media LGBT+ – it’s a community space where people can find solidarity through a shared passion for sport.
Jon Holmes is a contributor to our Diversity in Journalism white paper, which can be downloaded here.