International sport at the highest level is brutal and unforgiving. It is also governed by strict rules, written and assumed, of gender identity and sexual orientation that forces a certain machoism among the men – more so in team sports, which is still considered a ‘brotherhood’. And for all the claims by sports administrations across the world, homosexuality remains a forbidden subject.
In a country as sports-oriented as Australia, the pressure to conform is perhaps as big as to perform. Which makes Davis Atkin not just special but also courageous and a trailblazer — the first openly gay man in Australian hockey at the highest level and only the second in the sport to come out.
Yet, the 22-year old debutant in the ongoing FIH Pro League in Rourkela doesn’t see himself as much of a trailblazer as a figurehead for the LGBTQ+ community, especially in hockey. “I think trailblazer is a hard word to give myself, because it is a really big title and a lot of responsibility. Initially, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to do it. But, I think you are right in that it is something I want to do, something I want to identify as. Because, I am one of the first, if not the first, at least in Australia and men’s hockey in general around the world.
“Women’s sports is a lot better at the moment but for men, having someone like me as a figurehead is a really good opportunity for other people to feel comfortable to come out in the hockey environment,” Atkin tells Sportstar.
His willingness to talk about the issue, and himself, is one of the first things you notice about the youngster. For someone who was outed accidentally last year and went through a period of intense introspection and not a little trauma, Atkin is remarkably calm in acknowledging a topic many squirm just to discuss even in third person.
“I think, yes, it was hard initially. I mean, I was pretty okay with myself, but high performance sport and elite athlete environment are completely different to the public eye. So, yeah, it was pretty hard for me to come to terms with how it’s going to pan out. But I think it’s turned into a really good thing. I have been able to shed good light on the community and play the sort of role that people could look up to,” he says.
Out of the Fields, A 2015 study by Erik Denison and Alistair Kitchen, and the first international one on homophobia in sport that included research participants from six westernized countries — Australia, USA, United Kingdom, Canada, Ireland and New Zealand — in addition to an ‘other’ category capturing multiple other countries, says this: According to participants, 80% witnessed or experienced homophobia in sport in Australia, with 85% of gay men and 84% of lesbians personally targeted hearing verbal slurs such as ‘dyke’ or ‘faggot’. Youth sport is an area of vulnerability, with 70% of gay people stating that team sport is not safe for gay people, including considerable fear of discrimination from players and officials.
Hockey, by its very nature — fast, aggressive, physical and with a stick in hand – is not for the weak, more so for Australia, a team with the reputation of being one of the most physical at the international level. Did Atkin ever think about his future in the sport once the news got out?
“Yeah, I think that was definitely part of it, so, I took time off when it happened to think about it all. It definitely did come into my mind but it went away quickly as well because I had a really good support network around my athlete environment. Yes, it’s a very masculine sport and there’s a lot of masculine sport in Australia. I am okay with hockey in that it’s not like rugby or Australian Football football, where it probably might be stigmatised differently —but it’s still a very physical sport,” Atkin said with a smile.
In the four games in Rourkela, Atkin was on the field often and performed admirably. He is happy with the experience. The decision to be a part of the travelling team, though, was not easy. While homosexuality was decriminalised only recently here, India continues to be among the countries that, socially, continue to stigmatise the same with little social acceptance.
“As a player, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that you are not going to get anywhere else in the world, so, I think, debuting in Rourkela and trying to soak in the culture and the whole atmosphere has been great. But initially, I think, yes, there was some hesitation coming over. We thought about it a lot, my family and I, and Hockey Australia had their inputs as well.
“I think because we are in a tight group and not going out much, it’s okay but it was a concern. I had questions and they needed to be answered. But it’s been a positive experience so far, I haven’t had the opportunity to experience anything bad,” he said.
But there is no denying that public reaction elsewhere remains on his mind. “I haven’t faced anything elsewhere because I have not had any opportunity yet. It’s my first time overseas. But it is something I have considered. If I want to pursue this, there are countries that are still criminalising homosexuality, so it is something that stays in my mind. Hockey as a whole tries to keep it separate but at the same time identifying that people like myself are there,” he accepted.
Women’s hockey, in that sense, has been far ahead. With well-known names like Alyson Annan, Kate Richardson-Walsh, Helen Richardson-Walsh, Kim Lammers and Maartje Paumen, homosexuality has found acceptance in the sport. It is a different ball game for Atkin, though.
“I am not sure if you have read the comments, but people are still unaware of what’s the big deal and have homophobic thoughts. There’s still a long way to go and it was part of my initial hesitation. But I am happy with how it’s going so far,” Atkin said.
It wasn’t great initially, though, and part of his self-doubts early on was the reaction – or lack of it – from Hockey Australia. There is a calm confidence when Atkin looks straight at you and talks about how things need to be a lot better for inclusivity.
“It was not the greatest when I initially came out, because I really didn’t get a response. And I have made that clear to them and they know now. However, they have picked up and other people, not just in Hockey Australia but the Australian sporting community and the commission, are doing great things in regards to inclusivity. But there are still things HA needs to do and I have made that clear,” he stated simply.
The only other hockey international to admit being gay was Peter Caruth, the former Ireland international, last year but that was after his playing days were over. In Australia, former Victoria goalkeeper Gus Johnston has come out but that’s just about it. That Atkin has done so right at the beginning of his career is important. He knows what he has done is a lot bigger than himself.
“There is a kind of pressure but I feel pretty comfortable in the role already. I have had a lot of help through the sporting community, media etc, but it is a pressure on myself. I feel like I have the responsibility to help the community. I think it will all work out well and I will do well in the long run,” he signed off.