For a sphere that’s constantly chasing world records, sport is surprisingly slow in accepting diversity. It’s hard for Ukraine not to get jealous of Germany with its vibrant LGBTQ+ culture and dozens of rainbow communities. But is it all so bright and fun for its athletes? Looking into LGBTQ+ sportspeople of the Nazi era, never-ending USSR in people’s heads, fight against the far-right, and Ukrainian rainbow athletes’ exhibition.


“No borders, just horizons – only freedom.” These words of the iconic aviator Amelia Earhart appeared on Sebastian Vettel’s helmet in November. Written across a rainbow flag instead of the usual for the four-time Formula One champion German one, they served as a message of unity, diversity, and equality. Some argue that sportspeople should “stay out of politics” (forgetting that politics have never stayed out of sports) and get tired of social commentary coming from athletes. Sports, however, are far from being done with raising human rights issues, and especially LGBTQ+ issues, as, “shockingly”, athletes’ rights are human rights too. And as long as they’re not fully protected, there is a need to speak up and do such symbolic gestures. Hence the reason “Sports Illustrated” decided to name a collective “Activist Athlete” as the Sportsperson of the Year in 2020.

Sebastian Vettel in his raibow helmet. Credit: Scuderia Ferrari

Vettel is by far not the first athlete in Germany to talk about solidarity and show off a rainbow flag. Yet here in Ukraine this bright and loud symbol of freedom and pride still makes some people shake with anger and irritation. Thankfully, both the symbol and the values it represents are gradually getting more and more visible and – to some extent – even welcome in the society. We see LGBTQ+ community and its stories being represented in media and TV shows, at various cultural events, and social protests. Although some find it hard to comprehend, even the military has tuned in. In 2019 it became the talk of the KyivPride when current and former soldiers marched openly in one of the columns for the first time.

Sports community, however, mostly remains silent on the matter. For a sphere that’s constantly chasing world records and creating new technologies, it’s surprisingly slow in accepting diversity among the very people that are making this progress possible. It seems like athletes, and quite often their fans too, live in a fantasy bubble, where gay, bisexual, transgender and other people on the LGBTQ+ spectrum don’t exist. Moreover, can’t exist.

After being used to the athletic world of unseen rainbows, LGBTQ+ presence in German sports culture feels much fuller of life. But we have to be careful here not to romanticise Western experience. Germany’s moved quite a few steps further than Ukraine and other Eastern European countries. However, it hasn’t found a perfect cure for discrimination itself.

What has Germany found? And does Ukraine have anything to offer? Let’s dig in.


A Baron who disappointed Hitler and a ray of hope in the ghetto

It took quite a long time for Germany to take action and recognize that LGBTQ+ people deserve equal rights or, for starters, freedom. Homosexual relationships were considered a crime under Paragraph 175 of the Criminal Code implemented in 1871 by the German Empire up until 1994! In Ukraine, a similar ban created by the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR Joseph Stalin in 1933 was lifted in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Making the lives of gay men in Germany a nightmare was mostly the work of the Nazi regime, which has fuelled the spike of persecutions for homosexual acts, to almost 10,000 a year in the 1930s. Gay men, and also bisexual men and transgender women, were sent to concentration camps and marked with a pink triangle.

Athletes were not an exception, despite the fact that sports were an important platform for Nazi Germany, just like for the USSR, to create an image of a supreme nation. No matter how talented and beloved they were, behind the scenes LGBTQ+ athletes risked getting punished as soon as the government felt they made the country look bad.

A renowned tennis player Baron Gottfried von Cramm was one of the victims, or in his case it would be more appropriate to say – survivors – of the regime. In his International Tennis Hall of Fame biography, he’s described as a likeable and charismatic figure, who valued fair play above all: “At 6-foot [1.83 m], with blonde hair, green eyes, and a sleek, athletic build, von Cramm had the type of magnetism and persona that drew a legion of admirers.” [1] And he also had skills? And was an aristocrat? What a perfect match to be the face of the nation and bring glory to it while being a walking proof of the “Aryan almightiness”! Too bad (for the Nazis, of course) he had never supported the party and, to add to the “disappointment”, was bisexual (or gay, depending on the source). Like his fellow German athletes, von Cramm still had to wear the swastika at sports events, do the Nazi salute, and shake the hand of Adolf Hitler, who he allegedly called “a housepainter” behind his back and conspired against during the World War II joining a group plotting Hitler’s assassination. [2]

After refusing to join the Nazi party on numerous occasions and failing to bring victory to Germany at the Davis Cup dominated by the UK and USA at the time, which made Hitler furious, Gottfried became an irritation to the authorities. Once he came back to Germany for the first time since losing a crucial match against American Don Budge at the 1997 Davis Cup and, as rumour says, receiving a phone call minutes before it from the Führer himself, Von Cramm had a visit from the Gestapo. In 1938, the world No. 1 player, a five-time Grand Slam champion and a ten-time finalist was sent to prison for “sex irregularities” and “giving financial help to a Jew”. [3]

Gottfried had a relationship with Galician actor Manasse Herbst. When Jews were cut off from cultural life and it became impossible and unsafe for Herbst not only to keep his job but also to stay in Germany, he escaped to Palestine in 1936. Indeed, with the help from his partner Von Cramm. The player’s lawyer was lucky to convince the accusers to lessen the prison time lying that his defendant was blackmailed by Manasse and that their relationship had ended before 1935, when Paragraph 175 became stricter and outlawed any forms of homosexual relationships, including non-contact acts.

Tennis players from different countries, who were “all aware that the baron was homosexual”, supported him, and 26 of them signed a letter to Hitler demanding to set Gottfried free. However, the support of the tennis officials was not overwhelming. When he got out in 1939, he was no longer welcome at the All England Club, meaning the dream of winning a Wimbledon title in singles was gone, or in the US. Since Germany had also refused to let him represent the country, Von Cramm had to apply to tournaments that were still willing to include him in the draw individually. Today his name is both in the international and German Halls of Fame. A street in Berlin, where his home Rot-Weiss Tennis Club he helped to rebuild after the war is located, also carries his name.

Von Cramm lived to see the fall of Hitler, but Fredy Hirsch was not that lucky. Hirsch was a gay Jewish athlete whose main passion was to promote physical education. After working in Jewish youth associations in the early 1930s he left Germany and organized Maccabi Games, youth camps, and PE classes in Czechoslovakia. Fredy kept doing sports events even after the country was occupied by Germany in 1939. Then came another commitment – assisting his Jewish students to flee Czechoslovakia. He had an option to come with one of the groups and move to Palestine, but lost in drawing lots. Fredy and another leader of the Jewish movement “broke a match and whoever chose the long piece would get to depart.” [4] Fredy stayed.

Fredy Hirsch. Credit: Jewish Museum in Prague

He was sent to Theresienstadt in 1941 and was made a deputy head of the ghetto in the youth part of the camp. Survivors recall that Hirsch did everything to save as many children as possible. Mentally too. He taught them sports, gave secret school lessons, staged performances, and “ran cleanliness competitions, in which he awarded prizes”, and later continued the routine in Auschwitz. All without knowing Czech and speaking only Hebrew and German. His charismatic nature and intelligence were the key to both lifting children’s spirit up and manipulating the Nazi guards. And, just like with Von Cramm, everyone in the ghetto was okay with Fredy’s sexual orientation, which in his case he was more open about.

In March of 1944, Fredy was notified that the group of people who were moved to Heydebreck along with him were to be murdered in a gas chamber. Hirsch died shortly after the rumours of a planned prisoners’ uprising had been spread. It’s still unclear whether it was a suicide or a murder.

While Fredy Hirsch wasn’t imprisoned because of his homosexuality, he remains an essential LGBTQ+ sports figure of the time. Another one that comes to mind is Renée Sintenis, a person who became an Olympian without being an athlete. The thing is, from 1912 to 1948, art competitions were a part of the Olympic program. So, Sintenis went to the 1928 Games in Amsterdam as a sculptor and won the bronze medal for a statue of a football player. The gold medal went to the designer of Christ the Redeemer, Paul Landowski. Meanwhile, Renée’s signature work was the famous Berlin Bear that became the symbol of the Berlin International Film Festival.

Official rehabilitation of gay people convicted by the Nazi regime began only in 2002, and the process is still not over, as it also involves providing compensations to families of the victims and acknowledging the harm done not just to those who’d been imprisoned but everyone who suffered from the horrific discrimination during that period. However, persecution of gay people continued way past the Nazi era. Both West and East Germany inherited Paragraph 175 after the war and convicted tens of thousands of gay men, particularly in the 1950s. And even in 2005, police departments in Bavaria, Thuringia and North Rhine-Westphalia were caught using a system similar to the Nazi “Pink Lists” to hunt down LGBTQ+ people with the help of IGVP computer program.


Rainbow stats and a hunger for coming outs

Since the 1990s, when being gay was finally fully legal in Germany and Ukraine, legislation productivity and the general acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community has differed in the two countries. Ukraine currently has a 22% rainbow score according to ILGA-Europe, where 100% represents full equality and respect of human rights (not yet reached by any country), and ranks 36th among 49 European countries. [5] It shows improvement from 13% four years ago, but there’s a long way to go. Germany is not that high on the list either, only 16th, yet its progress is considerably better in comparison – 51%. It used to be 59% in 2018 and dropped to 47% a year after, but, other than that, it’s been consistently in the 50-something range in recent years.

As for sports in particular, the first study of its LGBTQ+ issues in Europe was released just a year ago. It was conducted by the European Commission project OutSport (not to be confused with SB Nation website Outsports). It doesn’t cover Ukraine, which hasn’t done an alternative research yet, but Germany is one of the report’s main subjects, others being Italy, Hungary, Austria, Scotland, etc.

According to “The Relevance of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in Sport in Europe” final report, the overwhelming 90% of European responders consider homophobia, and particularly transphobia, a current problem in sports. [6] In Germany, it’s more than 95%. Mind that the focus group of the survey were LGBTQ+ people related to sports.

Almost 84% of Germans endured or witnessed discriminatory behaviour, predominantly verbal insults, towards LGBTQ+ people within a year. Physical violence also has an alarmingly high rate of 21%, considering that authors of the report included sexual assault as one of its forms. One in five people feel excluded from sports or had to quit because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. It mostly affects transgender people, since more than half of them said they feel unwelcome in sports.

The majority of Germans believe the most helpful tools to change the situation are more star athletes’ coming outs (almost 78%) and high-profile anti-discriminatory campaigns (71%), which echoes the opinion of other featured European countries. Except for Italy, which is, apparently, a fan of diversity trainings (84%). OutSport actually provides such trainings, or rather materials for it. They’ve published free toolkits for coaches and PE teachers to run educational sessions and games themselves.

As for the anticipated coming outs, there have been quite a few stories in Germany in the last 20 years. But in many cases, especially when it comes to gay men and transgender people, it only happened after the athlete had put an end to their sports career.

The first name that most people mention when asked about the biggest and most impactful coming out in German sports is, of course, Thomas Hitzlsperger. Just six years ago, it blew people’s minds in Germany and in the whole football world that a Bundesliga champion and a World-Cup-level male player can, in fact, be gay. For many, it was a cause for celebration. At the same time, some active gay players who were not yet open to the public, reportedly received even worse treatment from their homophobic teammates and fans, at least in the first months after Der Hammer’s reveal. One of the athletes told Deutsche Welle that Hitzlsperger’s coming out “has encouraged the right wing”. [7] To be fair, it’s not that hard for radical groups to find an excuse to target someone they don’t tolerate. Yes, some events have a more triggering effect than others, but the excuses will always be there.

Beach volleyball player Kira Walkenhorst is one of a few examples of an active German athlete coming out. Being an LGBTQ+ Olympic, World, and European champion is not that common either. Additionally, together with her volleyball partner Laura Ludwig, Kira was named German Legend of the Decade in December. The star player came out publicly at the end of the 2016 Olympic year, which brought her the gold medal in Rio, and got married in October of 2017, the very month same-sex marriage became legal in Germany. After retiring temporarily two years ago because of injuries, Walkenhorst had time to become a public speaker and be more vocal about human rights issues. Among other things, she brought attention to discrimination in the field of family planning and adoption in Germany. When Kira and her wife Maria Kleefisch, who is a trainer, were ready to have a baby and began searching for a sperm bank, they faced a barrier of unequal availability of such services to LGBTQ+ couples. They fought their way through for Maria to get pregnant and in the end had triplets, but the problem in Germany still remains.

One of the sportspeople to bring transgender representation to Germany is Balian Buschbaum. His coming out 13 years ago was in sync with the farewell to women’s pole vaulting, in which he had won several European medals and reached an Olympic final. After the transition, he decided not to come back to professional sports, which would’ve been challenging, especially at the time. Transgender men are only now starting to break the barriers in sports, and none of them have competed at the Olympics after transition yet. Instead, Balian turned to coaching, writing, giving motivational lectures and educating people on transgender acceptance. Appearing on various TV shows also helped to spread the positive message.


Turning the big slow ship by following the law

Fear of coming out before achieving success on the field is an indication that, despite the changes in the agenda and laws, there is still a problem on a deeper level. There is still discomfort within the sports community, which hasn’t caught up with the pace of other spheres of life and hasn’t become a completely safe space yet.

Continuing the pattern of listing personalities, another one worth mentioning is Marcus Urban. He is also one of those athletes that came out as gay way after quitting sports. Urban used to play football in the 1980s and early 1990s, but was ready to publicly be open about his sexuality only in 2007. In the time when he had his first big appearances in German media, the question of existence of homosexual people in football was still a thing, a bigger thing, that is.

Marcus Urban. Credit: private

“There was a famous professional, Mario Basler from Bayern Munich with me on a talk show, who said that there are no gays in football. They have never seen one,” remembers the former youth national team and Rot-Weiß Erfurt player. “And now this is not a question anymore. The question now is, what is going wrong with the atmosphere in the sports world that athletes can’t have their coming out. Why this world is so backwards compared to other sections of the society, like culture or art. This is what we are working on now – better atmosphere for diversity in sports. Not only for LGBTQ+. There is also a problem of ageism, racism, antisemitism, sexism, and so on. But if you compare the situation to 12 or 15 years ago, we’ve made some steps forward.”

As a part of this moving forward process, Urban has been one of the leading spokespeople on LGBTQ+ and diversity issues in German sports. He’s been advising and helping numerous sports bodies and organizations, and giving workshops on these topics. Not to mention, he’s a systemic coach and managing director of the Association for Diversity in Sports and Society (Verein für Vielfalt in Sport und Gesellschaft), which specialises in education and consultation of athletes, coaches, journalists, fans and other people related to sports on LGBTQ+ inclusion. In addition, it offers analysis for sports facilities to evaluate how LGBTQ-friendly they are and what they can do to improve.

Currently Marcus is supporting a new project as a speaker. It’s called GayPlayersUNITE, and it provides advocacy and representation for gay football players. The platform is focused on giving free advice to closeted LGBTQ+ players, who can ask for help anonymously, and making sure that the person is ready and safe enough to come out. One of its goals is “to protect homosexual youth from bullying and suicide” and “remove the taboo” on LGBTQ+ subject in sports. [8]

Urban believes that the situation can be improved by simply following the law and European Union regulations. In Germany, LGBTQ+ rights are protected by the General Equal Treatment Act, which came into effect in 2006. Ukrainian LGBTQ+ people are supposed to be protected only under the 2015 amendments to the Labour Code, which don’t allow discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace.

Coming back to the General Equal Treatment Act, Marcus specified:

“Stadiums and other sports places are also covered by this law. Normally, you have to protect the employers and all sportsmen and women. And if you follow the law and realize it in normal life, we are going to improve the sports world. But it’s not going like that at the moment. This is another goal that we have with GayPlayersUNITE – to implement the rules of the equality laws.”

But why doesn’t the law work in practice?

“Because it’s a big ship that’s going very very slowly,” thinks Urban. “German Olympic Sports Confederation and German Football Association are big and full of people who make decisions slowly, since there are a lot of different opinions. What they could do, is to make a big campaign, to include gender diversity in education for referees, trainers, and centres for youth.”

In 2013, German Football Association and multiple football clubs signed the Berlin Declaration, which included a stance against homophobia and support for diversity, respect and acceptance in sport. The German Football League refused to sign it at first, but eventually did it in a few months. The same year, EC’s Pride in Sport project released LGBTQ+ guidelines for football, basketball, volleyball and swimming governing bodies.

Sports were briefly mentioned in the European Commission’s brand new and first ever LGBTIQ Equality Strategy for 2020-2025, as it has acknowledged that “media, cultural and sport sectors are powerful tools changing attitudes and challenging gender biases and other stereotypes.” [9] Some more specific guidelines are planned for the future.


Toxic expectations, Soviet wannabes and a ban on short hair

At this point, a fair question may arise. Why is there so much attention to men in this topic? Similar to Ukraine, German society is more willing to accept or at least tolerate gay or bisexual cisgender women rather than men. This doesn’t mean that LGBTQ+ women are fully embraced, but more aggressive and violent attacks are mostly targeted at men. Marcus Urban admits, “If you take football, you have to face that women have made better progress than men. The challenge for men to come out is higher, because some people still don’t expect that there are gay men in football. Gay players are scared that they will have to finish their careers and the lives of being sportsmen.”

One of the main reasons are the undying stereotypical gender roles and expectations of male athletes to be strong, almost soldier-like superhumans. And somehow in certain people’s mind that is a) incompatible with being non-hetero, which is ironic, because some of the most famous gay subcultures were created by stereotypically masculine men, for instance, bikers or “bears”; b) the only possible way to be a man, particularly a sportsman which is… just close-minded and has no justification in the 2020s. If you have ever watched sports and been around people in general, it should be obvious that there is no one way to be a man, a woman, or a non-binary person. Having all people being the same would mean living in some unsettling dystopia (or in the USSR’s wannabe world).

“My experience through the years has shown that anti-LGBTQ+ tendencies are really a problem of men and toxic masculinity,” notes Marcus. “The problem is rather deep, but it’s not the depth of 30 years ago anymore. You can see change with a new generation of young people in Europe and the Western world, who are going in the other direction. They are more open. I can see it in the workshops that I do and on the lower levels of sports. Masculinity is becoming less and less toxic. And when masculinity is less toxic, the safety and acceptance of LGBTQ+ people is higher. But there are other points that can influence that. For example, in Ukraine, you have the problem of Orthodox Church and strong rays of religious influence. And this is something that affects people in the sports world too.”

The church certainly is one of the slowest institutions to accept LGBTQ+ people in Ukraine. But if we concentrate on the sports world, there is another prevalent problem that plugs the way. Soviet mentality. We still have a strong monopoly of coaches, team leaders and people in power who are products of the Soviet system and who find it hard, and often don’t even try to, accept and tolerate “different” people. These leaders, who young people are taught to look up to, keep spreading the same values and vision for the next generations to absorb. This creates a cycle of silence and fear, as students are afraid to come out or think there is something wrong with them.

As it was pointed out by amateur football and other team sports player Jully Sirous, who took part in the 2011 EuroGames in Rotterdam:

“There are many lesbian and bisexual women in Ukrainian football, but they don’t say it out loud. Everyone knows about it, including the coaches. But if it becomes public, the players could be expelled from the team. One of the clubs even had it in their contract that female players were not allowed to cut their hair short and date other women.” Similar cases happen in other sports and to other genders.

The situation described is a typical form of discrimination of LGBTQ+ women in sports. They may be less affected than men, but they are still affected to a great extent. Because of the already mentioned gender roles, which, for some reason, have to be fixed and untouchable; and because of objectification of female athletes, who are often seen as someone “to please the eye”, to be pretty and feminine at all costs.

There are so many old stereotypical expectations of women playing football, basketball or another team sport to be lesbian, same as of men doing figure skating to be gay. You’ve heard thousands of jokes about it, plenty of them probably containing homophobic slurs. And yet, when a female football player dares to come out, the jokers are suddenly shocked and disgusted. So, unlike in Germany, which is fairly more accepting of female LGBTQ+ athletes, in Ukraine, it remains an open secret. Only because not hearing the word uttered and not knowing for certain is more convenient for people around, but not for the person in question.

This once again brings us back to the illusion that there are no LGBTQ+ athletes in Ukraine. The only hope is that young people have enough access to alternative information and alternative views outside their gym, field or ice rink. And that this information is provided to them, which is a job for media and potential activists, as long as for those few governing bodies and sports leaders that would be willing to talk about it, despite being in the minority.


The land of proud and inclusive Games

We can fairly criticize Germany for being progressive on the surface and having a big pile of problems hidden in the closet, but what we cannot do is deny the fact that Germany has a strong and fascinating LGBTQ+ culture that provides one of the most important elements of change – visibility. There are dozens of organizations, clubs, events, and movements all over the country, and especially in Berlin, which are dedicated specifically to LGBTQ+ issues in sports and creating a safe space for the members of the community.

Quite often Germany is selected as a host of major international LGBTQ+ sports events, such as Gay Games, originally called Gay Olympics, and, already mentioned a few times, EuroGames (not to be confused with European Games). In 2010 more than 9000 athletes, both professional and amateur, LGBTQ+ and allies, from 70 countries came to Cologne to compete in the Gay Games that featured 35 sports, and various cultural and social events, such as art exhibitions, music concerts, and an AIDS memorial run. Ten years later Munich was named one of the record twenty cities that wanted to host the 2026 Games, which means Germany has a chance to be chosen as a host for the second time in history.

Naturally, EuroGames come to Germany way more often. Frankfurt was the first to experience it in 1995, just a year after Paragraph 175 had been dropped. As the global HIV/AIDS epidemic and homophobia epidemic were still raging, it was a much needed uplifting moment for the LGBTQ+ community. For the first time, the number of EuroGames participants was estimated not in hundreds, but in thousands – more than 2000 athletes from 13 countries. To the shock of the organizers, locations for the event had to be expanded.

Later Germany held the competition in 1996 (Berlin), 2001 (Hanover), and 2004 (Munich). Düsseldorf was supposed to host the Games 16 years later, in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic ruined the plans, and the event had to be cancelled.

Compared to regular tournaments, such Games are, obviously, much more inclusive. While the rest of the sports world is fighting over allowing or nor allowing transgender and intersex people to compete, EuroGames give this opportunity to any athlete, regardless of gender.

As one of the creators of gender policies for last year’s cancelled Games (one of the others being Balian Buschbaum), Tina Skourtellis explained that it was important for Germany that people of different gender identities were included, “especially those whose gender identity is different [to their assigned sex] or is non-binary.” However, she points out that “a balance should be found between the freedom of choice regarding someone’s own gender identity and the rules of a fair sports competition.”

That is why there are three categories for registration of the competitors – people who identify as male, people who identify as female, and a “diverse” group, which may include transgender, non-binary, and intersex people; and there are two for the sports competition itself – male and female. Meaning, everyone is welcome to participate, but you still have to choose a category.

“The identity of a person is in the foreground, not the sex,”clarifies Skourtellis. “We understand the group “men” as identifying themselves as men and the group “women” as identifying themselves as women. Non-binary and intersex people can freely choose a category.”

Yet the gender has to be confirmed by an ID or another document, such as a certificate from German Society for Transidentity and Intersexuality (DGTI). If you can’t or don’t want to do that, there is an option to compete in one of the mixed events, for example, in water polo, bowling, skiing, or a mixed team sport.

In the “real” world of German sports, “transgender inclusion into competitive systems is mainly ruled by case-by-case decisions and individually by the responsible organization.” [10] One of the milestones of 2020 was Berlin Football Association implementing a rule which allowed transgender and intersex people to play in football teams, reflecting the 2018 government legislation that approved a third gender category in the documents. But for now, there is no detailed transgender and intersex sports policy in bigger German organizations yet.


The clash of banners: LGBTQ+ vs. Right-wing fans

This may seem like an alternative reality, as it contradicts so many fixed images of what we’re used to seeing in the often conservative and old-school sports world. But the one that provides the most contrasting picture is probably fan culture. It’s no secret that fans, particularly football ones, are vastly associated with hooliganism, violence, discriminative behaviour, and aggression towards minority groups. Some fans spend time and effort to make big banners with homophobic and racist slogans and slurs. Some take it further and intimidate and attack other spectators. This kind of “support” is, obviously, not representative of all fans, but it’s still an issue around Europe, which both Ukraine and Germany are well aware of.

At the same time, in the latter, fan culture manages to co-exist with LGBTQ+ culture. Not always successfully. Nevertheless, in recent years, resistance to homophobia and transphobia has grown stronger. It has become the focus of not just activist groups, but also of the representatives of the teams. At least the ones of the top divisions, since some of the most infamous clubs in terms of a radical right fan base come from the 3rd and 4th league, for instance, Dynamo Dresden, Chemnitzer, Zwickau or Energie Cottbus.

One of the most rigorous in battling discrimination and extremism has been Borussia Dortmund, which was chosen as Equal Game Award winner by UEFA in 2019. This very club had a prominent radical right fan base in the 1980-1990s, but managed to deradicalise it, for the most part, with the help of educational youth Fan-Projekt and other initiatives. Now supporters who share far-right views are banned from the official fan club and risk getting a stadium ban, if they express those views in public. Borussia offers its educational program, which includes visits to former concentration camps, to fans of other clubs, too.

As for specifically rainbow fan clubs, the pioneer in the Bundesliga is “Hertha Junxx”, which supports Hertha BSC. This club in Berlin was the first to represent LGBTQ+ football fans in the country and currently is the only one in the capital. It will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2021. “We’ve shown that we exist and that we are here,” said one of the members of the club named Uwe remembering how important it was to unite everyone from the LGBTQ+ community who used to sit separately at the stadium before.

And just three months later another LGBTQ+ club was founded in Hamburg by the fans of “St. Pauli”. Now almost every team in the first and second divisions of the Bundesliga has an LGBTQ+ fan club. The tendency has led to the creation of Queer Football Fanclubs network in 2006, which currently counts 24 German clubs, and also several sports organizations, including “Football Fans Against Homophobia” (Fussballfans gegen Homophobie). QFF doesn’t consist of just fans with the same interests. It actively participates in discussing and effectuating anti-discrimination policies with football and government officials both in Germany and internationally.

There are only about ten people in “Hertha Junxx” at the moment.

“There used to be more,” explained Uwe. “But that usually changes with time, mostly when it comes to further engagement. When people actually need to participate and take action, the numbers lower, which is a common pattern.”

And taking action is something such fan clubs do a lot, since the members consider themselves not just fans but also activists. Together with other fan clubs “Hertha Junxx” competes in Respect Games, which is a tournament between LGBTQ+ supporters, and takes part in various events and demonstrations dedicated to LGBTQ+ and other human rights issues, such as IDAHOBIT (International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia) protests, and, of course, Pride.

During the 2018 Men’s World Cup, which was held in Russia, they went to the Russian embassy in Berlin with a message “To Russia with Love” to protest the treatment of LGBTQ+ people in the host country. Similar protests were held in other cities. It was not the first time the phrase was used by sports activists around the world. A Canadian documentary of the same name was released after the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. It featured LGBTQ+ athletes talking about Russian gay propaganda law and the effect it has on their community.

In 2020 such big public gatherings were not an option, but LGBTQ+ community managed to be and feel seen. On Christopher Street Day, which is usually celebrated with a huge LGBTQ+ parade, the third biggest stadium in Germany – Olympiastadion – was lit with rainbow colours. 16 fans were allowed to visit it in person that day.

Regardless of numbers, “Hertha Junxx” is not only visible now, but also seen and acknowledged by Hertha football club itself. The players they cheer on participate in their events and play Diversity Match Days wearing T-shirts with rainbow symbols. Moreover, they attend Christmas parties of their LGBTQ+ fan base! Managers of the team also come to their events and provide them with merch.

In Ukrainian football, this only happens with projects that promote sports for children, inclusion of war refugees and people with disability, and, since recently, a bit of gender equality. Thus, “Shakhtar Donetsk” won the silver prize in the 2020 UEFA Grassroots Awards for its project Shakhtar Social, losing only to German “Werder”. Which is the proof that we do have great initiatives. They just happen to focus on other social groups for now. A few more steps, and Ukrainian vision of inclusion might broaden and welcome rainbow representation in sports activities.

According to another member of “Hertha Junxx”, Philipp, the acceptance from the club has nothing to do with “Hertha” being liberal in its political views. He believes it’s actually “rather neutral”. However, he reminds that even “if some football teams are considered left-wing, they still have a problem with right-wing groups. Especially these days we have to face the fact that these groups are growing in numbers.” Despite the efforts of activists, there has been a resurgence of right-wing populism and neo-Nazi groups, like Borussenfront, in Germany. For the first time in 60 years a far-right party came back to power, as Alternative for Germany (AfD) was elected to the Bundestag in 2017. The party opposes same-sex marriage and stands for so-called traditional family values. A painfully familiar rhetoric to the ears of human rights activists all over the world.

Nevertheless, “Hertha Junxx” sees an improvement in the relationship between different fan groups.

“Very often we receive positive feedback,”says Philipp. “When it comes to the ultras movement, we had severe incidents of homophobia and racist expression, but this has changed to some extent, because people opened their mouths and said something against it.” The common enemy – this time not an opposing team on the field, but a global pandemic – became a unifying factor: “We, as fans, wanted to answer the other clubs’ homophobic slogans with a positive one. In German “Hertha” sounds similar to “stronger”. So, our slogan was a play on words, something like, “We are stronger than you think.” And ultras actually agreed to show that banner during football games in a time when no one was admitted to the stadium.”


First signs of life in Ukrainian rainbow sports

Despite knowing about the problems that Germany is still facing, a Ukrainian would find it hard not to get jealous. There are LGBTQ+ people in our sports, and there are LGBTQ+ people among some of our top-level athletes. But we haven’t had “that one” coming out story yet that would cause a major shift in the sports society and inspire others to be open about themselves. We won’t be jealous of a person who will have the guts to do this, that’s for sure.

While we hold our breath for high-level sportspeople to come around, it’s as important to work on lower levels of sports, too. Amateur, semi-professional, local, and youth initiatives, even the smallest ones, will also make a difference in the long run. NRG Amateur Women’s Sports Club from Kyiv has been working in this direction in the past years. The club, which is focused on football, futsal, volleyball, and other team sports, recently celebrated its 15th anniversary. It used to be a member of the European Gay & Lesbian Sport Federation (EGLSF) and represented Ukraine at the 2011 EuroGames in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. It also collaborated with Fare (Football Against Racism in Europe) network and the Justin Campaign, which is a part of the Football vs. Homophobia project, by organizing friendly matches and promoting diversity.

Ukrainian LGBTQ+ Association LIGA also used to hold sports activities, like football and volleyball matches, during the Rainbow Spring festival and Ukrainian-German Dark Nights women’s festival. But we’re yet to see a full-grown LGBTQ+ sports movement.

This autumn, it was genuinely surprising to find out about an event dedicated to this topic in Kyiv. For the first time in ages, or quite possibly ever, there was a photo exhibition featuring pictures of Ukrainian LGBTQ+ sportspeople. It was created by Anastasia Konfederat – a Russo-Ukrainian War veteran, a fitness coach, a physical therapist by education, and also a photographer and an open lesbian. It was first displayed at IZONE creative space as part of the KyivPride exhibition.

Anastasia Konfederat (l). Credit: private

It didn’t include big names that constantly appear on sports news, but that wasn’t the goal. Konfederat has shown a diverse group of people, who have different levels of experience and different roles in sports, both Olympic and non-Olympic. Among others, there were photos of activist Olena Semenova, who is a master of sports in triathlon and kettlebell lifting, the world champion in medieval combat Taras Hrytsiuk, and also a physical therapist, and a yoga instructor. Anastasia was slightly criticised for the selection. She said, “It was strange and wild that, when I released the exhibition, some of my friends told me that it was not about sports. In their mind, it counts as doing sports when a person is drilled in a sports school from childhood. In fact, there are many more people involved in it. Sport has a backstage. For example, there are athletes, and there are rehabilitation specialists, people who work with teams and are responsible for their physical condition.”

Of the whole bunch, one fitting the most to the image of “a true athlete” was Anita Khodeeva, who is a Ukrainian Muay Thai champion from Odesa. To her, sports and LGBTQ+ seem like two rival camps, which, she hopes, will change someday.

“While in America an LGBTQ+ couple of female UFC fighters has a baby and everyone celebrates and supports them, in our sports, people stay silent even about their orientation,” makes a comparison Anita mentioning Amanda Nunes and Nina Ansaroff as an example. “I’ve never thought that skin colour, nationality, orientation or something like that matters in sports. A person either has a foundation for sports and a will to win, or not.”

Anastasia spent half a year looking for characters for the exhibition. It was challenging to find anyone willing to participate.

“Some people first agreed to a photo shoot, but then they called and cancelled it at the last minute. They told the coaches about the project, and the coaches said, “No, no, we’re not homophobic, but don’t show it in public.” I also reached out to our national teams, but the answer was: “No, definitely no. The association does not welcome it. There may be problems.” Few people are willing to sacrifice their careers.”

That’s one of the reasons why she believes sports LGBTQ+ activism needs to start from lower levels “to warm up the interest”:

“And maybe someone will do like Viktor Pylypenko, who was the first to come out in Ukrainian military, send it all to hell and say, “That’s it. I’m done. I’m coming out of this semi-darkness into the light.” Coming outs change something. If Vitya hadn’t opened up, nothing would have happened. I was told, “Don’t bother, pick closeted LGBTQ+ people for the exhibition too. Put some balaclavas on them.” Why? I can support closeted people. I can train them. But when people are open, then there will be change. You tear down “Lenin” with sticks and hammers. You tear down mental “Lenin” with coming outs. Not with words, but with actions. Coming out is still a radical action, but I believe that it will soon be an integral part of our developing society.”

Anastasia Konfederat plans to continue doing sports-related LGBTQ+ projects, and wants to search for more protagonists and cover the topic of transgender people in sports.

Hopefully, the Ukrainian sports world will follow the example of our military and at some point show up at a Pride parade with its own column. Maybe some “radical” coming outs will indeed burst the bubble of our Soviet mentality, and wearing rainbow attire during a competition or raising a rainbow flag at the stands won’t make anyone feel unsafe or like an alien anymore. However, as Germany has reminded us, it doesn’t happen all at once, and visibility should co-exist with effective policies and proactive people behind them on all levels of sports.

This material is prepared as part of the Covering LGBT issues in transnational journalism project with the support of the Eastern Partnership Program of the German Federal Foreign Office


Kateryna Makarevska

Ukrainian sports journalist and co-founder of Skate Ukraine



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