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Lesbian Visibility Day: LGBT+ women in sport share advice on sexuality

A Lionesses legend and an Olympic gold medallist join five more inspirational women in sport to reveal what they've learned along the way about being LGBT+

ORLANDO, FL - APRIL 23: Lianne Sanderson #10 of Orlando Pride celebrates her goal during a NWSL soccer match against the Houston Dash at the Orlando Citrus Bowl on April 23, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. The Orlando Pride won the game 3-1. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images)
Image: Lianne Sanderson's career took her from domestic success with Arsenal to the NWSL, and included a half-century of England appearances

All this week, Sky Sports has been sharing stories to mark the first-ever Lesbian Visibility Week, a new awareness initiative celebrating women-loving women in the LGBT+ community.

We're proud to support Stonewall's Rainbow Laces campaign as members of TeamPride and as the week draws to a close with Lesbian Visibility Day itself, we invited sportswomen to pass on the kind of collective wisdom that would have been beneficial to them when they were younger.

The world of sport has long been able to point to many strong role models who happen to be lesbians, from English football pioneer Lily Parr to tennis legend Billie Jean King, and more recently, Olympic champion athlete Caster Semenya and two-time World Cup winner Megan Rapinoe.

Whatever level you compete or participate at, navigating the relationship between sexuality and sport can often be complicated. Rainbow Laces is helping clubs, governing bodies and individual athletes on their respective inclusion journeys by showing how to create welcoming cultures and achieve more through authenticity.

So what would have been worth knowing when these women were starting out in sport?

The Lioness who found her pride

Lianne Sanderson has 50 caps for England and won a bronze medal at the 2015 World Cup. Her career has taken her all over the world, playing in the United States, Italy, Cyprus and England, where she won the Champions League with Arsenal Women.

VANCOUVER, BC - JUNE 27: Lianne Sanderson #20 of England takes a picture with fans after the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015 Quarter Final match between the England and Canada June, 27, 2015 at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)
Image: Sanderson won World Cup bronze with England in Canada in 2015

I was very different to most. I didn't grow up feeling like I was gay because I had a boyfriend and I loved him.

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I enjoyed the journey to finding my sexuality. What feels right, feels right. I am very lucky to come from a family who, regardless of my preferences, love me and who I am with, either way.

My advice to my younger self would be: be exactly the same as you are now. I was the first openly gay footballer in England and one of the first in the world. When people ask me if that was hard, I answer no. It just feels right to use my platform to help others. If me being me does that, then I'm happy.

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Watch Sanderson's 'Spotlight' film produced by the charity Sport Allies and the London Film School, as she describes how she continues to fight for young girls in football

Allow yourself to grow, says golden girl

Hockey player Susannah Townsend is a European and Olympic champion and uses her voice to raise awareness of LGBT+ issues in sport.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 19: Susannah Townsend of Great Britain shows appreciation to fans ahead of the Women's FIH Field Hockey Pro League match between Great Britain and Belgium at Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre on May 19, 2019 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Kate McShane/Getty Images)
Image: Susannah Townsend was part of the Great Britain hockey team that struck gold in Rio 2016, and was named an MBE in 2017 for services to sport

If I was sitting having a coffee with my younger self, I would give her this advice: Feel what you feel, even if it's uncomfortable and confusing. We all feel and think things for a reason and this helps shape us into the people we are.

We are constantly evolving. Don't be afraid to be yourself and don't forget to love yourself first. Love every bit of you, as that's what makes you unique. Everyone who loves and cares for you just wants you to be happy, so find out what makes you happy from within.

'Truth will keep you on track'

Racing driver Charlie Martin has campaigned for transgender inclusion in sport for a number of years and hopes to become the first driver who is transgender to compete in the 24 hours of Le Mans race. She is also a Stonewall Sport Champion.

Charlie Martin, Michelin Cup
Image: Charlie Martin continues to blaze a trail in motorsport

I'd explain to my younger self that being my true self is the key to unlocking my performance. Burying everything deep inside just causes more pain in the long run.

Things will be fine. In fact, things will be amazing. People will accept you for who you really are. You've worried about everything for so long in your head that you've lost perspective. The people that matter in your life love you for who you are, and they will love you just as much for being the real you, if not even more, because they know how brave you are.

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Martin shared her story with Sky Sports in the 'I'm Game' series last November, while also taking on Jamie Redknapp in a special driving challenge

A chase to gain confidence

Corinne Humphreys represented Team England at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and is a core member of the Athletics Pride Network, as well as being among Stonewall's first Sport Champions.

SPAR British Athletic Indoor Championships - Day One - Arena Birmingham | Corinne Humphreys during day one of the SPAR British Athletic Indoor Championships at Arena Birmingham. 9 February 2019
Image: Team GB and England sprinter Corinne Humphreys is putting the problems of the past behind her

Baby C, life gets better. There is going to be a day when the type of people you're attracted to are going to like you back and make you feel wanted and special. The people that matter in your life will always love you and would want you to live your truth instead of feeling like you have to hide the real you.

Don't settle for an unhealthy relationship because you perceive your sexuality as restricting - there are tons of amazing women that will want to get to know you. Actively take the time to appreciate what makes you a special human being, regardless of your sexuality.

Lesbian Visibility Week
Lesbian Visibility Week

Learn more about the awareness week celebrating women in the LGBT+ community, which runs until April 26

The racing driver who followed her heart

Sarah Moore is a W Series racing driver who has blazed a trail for women in motorsport since winning the Ginetta Junior Championship at the age of 15. She is a Driver Ambassador for Racing Pride, the LGBT+ inclusion in motorsport organisation, and like Sanderson, was recently named on the DIVA Visible Lesbian 100 list.

Sarah Moore, W Series
Image: Sarah Moore competed in the inaugural W Series season and hopes to race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the future

Be yourself and go with your heart - that's the best advice I'd give to anyone. You've just got to get yourself through the rough patch. It may be tough to start off with, but when you become true to yourself it will always be your real friends that stand by you. I found it all fairly easy because of my personality and the way I approach life in general, but I know others who struggled and I've even had conversations with people who were thrown out of the house by their parents when they found out.

Reach out to your friends for support - family is family, and 98 per cent of the time they'll come around. Speaking as an ambassador for Racing Pride, we're always there to help anyone or answer any questions that people may have and help them through those difficult situations that they may find themselves in.

'I became a voice for positive change'

Lou Englefield has been advocating for LGBT+ inclusion in sport for over a decade. She is the director of Pride Sports and has been instrumental in increasing the awareness of the Football v Homophobia campaign. She was also included on the DIVA Visible Lesbian 100 list.

I didn't come out until I was 20. I'd known I wasn't attracted to men before that, but had no lesbian role models and the only queer people I was aware of were treated with suspicion and derision.

On reflection, I didn't really understand who I was and the 1980s weren't the most embracing times for a voyage of LGBT+ self-discovery. I'd played sport all my life, but found the 'don't ask, don't tell' culture on women's teams suffocating and, to be honest, quite intimidating.

In the end, I found a space to be myself with a group of LGBT+ activists and allies in the small town where I went to polytechnic. It was there that my passion for justice and activism was welcomed, and where, of course, I got together with my first girlfriend. If I could say one thing to myself during that time, it would be: 'One day you will be accepted for your whole self, and your passion for LGBTIQ+ human rights will be valued.'

The cricketer who took control

Maxine Blythin was named Kent Women's Cricketer of the Year in 2019 as the team won the County Championship title last season.

Maxine Blythin, Kent Women cricket
Image: Maxine Blythin has had the staunch support of her Kent team-mates during challenging times in recent months

My sexuality - like my gender - was something I always knew. It was just an innate part of who I was. The challenge for me came from being perceived as male in my early teens. I didn't face the initial social pressures of being a lesbian that others would have done, and it meant I was able to date without a second thought. But when I found a partner and knew I had to transition, our relationship and the way my sexuality was viewed would be flipped on its head.

The reactions of my partner (would she be into girls?), family, friends and strangers were all something I feared. I expected never-ending questions of - what does that mean? Why do you feel that way? The reality is, it is who I am. So instead of fear or trepidation, which was the overriding feeling at the time as I let who I was get me down, my advice to a younger self would be to own who you are. You don't need to fully explain it. Just be who you are and own it, rather than letting it own you. As you begin to become more comfortable with that concept, you will experience so much more joy in embracing your identity than you can ever imagine.

Stories edited by Jessica Creighton and Jon Holmes.

Lesbian Visibility Week concludes on Sunday.

Sky Sports is a member of TeamPride which supports Stonewall's Rainbow Laces campaign. If you'd like to inspire others in sport by sharing your own story of being LGBT+ or an ally, please contact us here.

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