Team GB’s hockey star Leah Wilkinson talks with ‘Pride’ about how her sport’s acceptance has provided a ‘safe space’ for those in the LGBTQ+ community
Great Britain hockey star Leah Wilkinson says, for her, Pride Month is about ‘celebrating individuality’ and feeling 'comfortable in your own skin’.
The 33 year-old is a new addition to the GB squad and made her international debut last year against India, and she is looking forward to returning to training in a few weeks time.
Putting hockey to one side for a moment, she is keen to talk about Pride and a journey for her that has been nothing but ’comfortable,’ which is why she is eager to raise more awareness in the hope other people’s experiences can be similar to hers.
Pride Month is in June every year, but even with coronavirus lockdown measures in place, it hasn’t stopped people from celebrating.
Wilkinson tells NewsChain: "It’s all about celebrating different kinds of walks of life and different kinds of groups of people, it doesn’t necessarily have to be for gay, lesbians or transgender people.
"It should be about celebrating everyone’s individuality and I think that’s quite an important thing, because everyone is important and it doesn’t matter what your sexuality is.
"A lot of people have different views on it and maybe that is why Pride Month is so important and so special because people can celebrate it and what it means to them.
“There is no set black and white rules for Pride Month, maybe there was when it first began, maybe it was more kind of constructed but I think over time it has transformed into a celebration of individuality and many different groups.”
She believes social media and the press have a big part to play in creating more awareness about the LGBTQ+ community.
Wilkinson, who has represented Wales at the 2010, 2014 and 2018 Commonwealth Games, added: "Being able to read different things means that people can relate to different people and it doesn’t matter what your story is.
"If you think about Pride 20-30 years ago, even five years ago, there was not much in the press and there wasn’t much out there.
"But over time the press and social media has expanded, but also I do feel like there’s more people willing to spread the messages and support different groups.
"There’s gay people on the front of magazines and that’s kind of ‘normal’ whereas before it would be unheard of because people had views on what was ‘normal’ and wasn’t ‘normal’.
But in the world of professional sport and whether an individual feels ’accepted’ or not accepted, may typically depend on the sport, she says.
She described hockey in Great Britain as a ’safe space’ for those in the LGBTQ+ community.
"I’m very fortunate because I have grown up around hockey, and hockey is such a safe space. For me, it’s never been deemed not ok and it’s never been deemed that I’ve had to hide who I am because of the sport that I play.
“It’s very difficult but I do think Helen and Kate Richardson-Walsh [the hockey players who made history becoming the first same-sex married couple to win an Olympic Gold medal together] have been amazing in the sport and they’ve done a lot for that community.
"I’m fortunate in hockey because its never been a thing, and in my team at Holcombe, it’s very comfortable, and it’s not an issue at all.
"In fact my club team has probably got 30-40% lesbians and around 70% heterosexual, it’s just not a big deal.”
US soccer star Megan Rapinoe is known not only for her talent on the pitch but also for campaigning on issues such as the LGBTQ+ community.
But Wilkinson believes more voices need to be heard and that a male Premiership footballer coming out could make a real change.
“Everyone knows Megan Rapinoe’s name because she’s literally like ‘I don’t care’ and ‘I’m passionate about this’ and ’I’m going to speak about it,’" she said.
"Imagine how amazing it would be if you had a Premiership footballer who was just like ‘I don’t care’ and I’m just going to stand up and speak about it.
"Let’s be honest the way we want to grow the sport as LGBTQ+, would be men’s footballers or men’s rugby players coming out, that’s how we are going to move forward unfortunately.
“However if a footballer is playing in front of 60,000 people every week, I would hate to think about the kind of abuse they would get.
"On top of that it’s how strongly that individual feels about wanting to try and make a change and feeling that they can make a change.
"I think it’s very difficult for an individual, whereas if people were to stand towards something together it would make a difference.
“I think it needs to be a collective thing and like with the ‘Black Lives Matter’ (movement), it needs to not just be gay and lesbians standing up it needs to be heterosexual people standing up too."
But for those perhaps suffering in their own sport and not feeling accepted she warned: "It’s about being comfortable in your own skin and not feeling pressured to have to be anything, and feeling that you can be open but then not forcing it.
"In the end it’s going to be about me and other athletes going across sports and telling the story more, not just my story, but getting more out there.
“If someone can relate to even just a little bit to our stories then we are heading in the right direction.”