As Pride month - an eventful one by all standards - draws to a close, someone on social media posted that if they ever found out that a driver was gay and had experienced discrimination because of it [the poster's] anger would out-do that of the Hulk. The post was punctuated with a gif of the Hulk bashing the floor with Loki. It's a question that has been raised before - why are there no queer drivers in the upper echelons of European motorsport?
A quick note on terminology: in this article, I will use 'queer' and 'LGBT' interchangeably to indicate people of minority sexual and gender identities/expressions because they are familiar and politically correct terms. I am not excluding intersex, asexual/aromantic, or pansexual people - intersex, ace/aro, pan, and agender/genderfluid/non-binary people exist and are valid in their sexual/gender expression - but simply using recognisable 'middle of the road' terms to not overwhelm straight people who have hitherto not been aware or part of intra-community discussions about labelling politics.
Even in this seemingly accepting era of LGBT equality, very few figures within motorsport, particularly in European motorsport, are openly queer. Mike Beuttler remains the only openly gay racer to have raced in F1, and Roberta Cowell the only trans person. There are several out drivers in US-based series - Stephen Rhodes, Justin Mullikin, and Evan Darling being the obvious ones - and a handful across the less visible series of European racing.
Based purely on population demographics, we would expect to see more queer people on track. Scientists tell us that approximately 10% of the population is LGBT, and some estimate that there are more. Thus, on a hypothetical grid of 20 drivers, two will be some description of queer, unless there is a strong selection bias, or an aversive response from the LGBT community.
Selection bias may very well be a factor in why nobody comes out in motorsport. It is hard enough in the ultra-masculine world of motorsport for women to be taken seriously and raise sponsorship. With motorsport exploring new markets in the Middle East and other places where homosexuality is at best frowned upon, and at worst an executable offence, it would be very hard to raise sponsorship with an out gay driver in the line-up. The obvious exception would be sponsors like Proctor & Gamble, who were vocally supportive of marriage equality in the States, and would probably retain their sponsorship of a queer athlete, possibly even using their queerness as a selling point to the public.
Fears about personal security would also be a major factor in a young athlete's decision to either quit racing or stay in the closet as far as the press and public are concerned. As the Orlando massacre vividly demonstrates, even in the supposedly progressive and tolerant West, people are still victims of hate crime and murder on account of their sexualities. Racing in Russia, Bahrain, Azerbaijan, and Abu Dhabi - to name only the fixtures on the F1 calendar with homophobic policies - would be truly terrifying for anyone who was openly queer. The choice may be between coming out, and limiting one's career to series in Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and similarly open-minded countries.
F1 is haemorrhaging fans, and team PR people may ask a driver wanting to come out to delay the announcement until after their retirement for fear of alienating the audience. I have no doubt that most fans, particularly the younger generations, would support an out racer. Some would be very supportive; some wouldn't care either way as long as they got the results on track.
However, there is a small-but-vocal set who unleash a world of hate on anyone who showed signs of non-conformity. Queer woman racers would experience a double dose of rage from the gendertrolls. One of the lesbian women we approached to speak at the Women in Motorsport conference expressed reluctance to come out to the community, unless we could guarantee her a non-judgemental audience. The threat of the trolls - some of whom go to extraordinary lengths to make queer people's lives miserable - is real and very intimidating.
In a quest to find the queer members of the European motorsport fraternity, we have come across several people who are no longer racing, largely because they felt that the sport would not be a welcoming and supportive environment for them. Sexuality is still the topic of rumours and whispering in paddocks, and has been for decades. This is deeply unhealthy behaviour in the quest for diversity, and likely stifles it. When the press write about it - always in hypothetical and non-specific terms to avoid implicating anyone in particular - the language used is mildly pejorative. Words like 'admitted' are used for coming out, as though being queer is something that requires an admission of guilt rather than a simple acknowledgement of truth.
Add this level of public and seemingly acceptable micro-aggression to the contractual embargoes on junior staff members talking to the press - even about innocuous things (yes, this is why we feature so few engineers as Women of the Week; their teams don't give permission for them to talk to us), let alone 'controversial' topics like sexuality - and it's easy to see why European motorsport is seen by outsiders as a homophobic work environment. Without visible people to demonstrate otherwise, the prospect of being 'the only gay in the village' causes talented queer youth to seek careers in other areas.
Of course, LGBT people in motorsport are out to their families and friends, and maybe even their work colleagues. They are not 'living a lie' to the people who love them, and whom they trust. But people who exist outside those circles are not privy to information about their personal lives, and given the factors at play this is completely understandable.
Is it any wonder, then, that the queer drivers who do persevere into the top series in European motorsport find a pretty girl to take to events with them to quell the press and public's suspicions? They have clearly decided to put their careers before their personal lives, and live in the closet at least until they retire from F1 or high-visibility series. While it would be fantastic for queer kids aspiring to motorsport careers to have role models who show the acceptance of diversity in the sport, their unwillingness to be 'out and proud' in the public eye is not unreasonable.
No doubt, in time things will change. LGBT equality is a hot topic in most spheres, with the UN recommending that it should be decriminalised worldwide, and more countries passing marriage equality bills. There are groups on social media, for example the Gay Racers Twitter account, who are supportive of the queer motorsport community, and provide rallying points for up-coming talent looking for affirmation.
Perhaps what needs to happen is for the older, more conservative generation to retire and pass the reins to more tolerant people. Perhaps seeking sponsors who have LGBT-friendly diversity policies would provide them with the financial backing to be themselves in public. Until drivers can answer interviewers' personal questions with 'I'm not really into the ladies,' or 'Actually, I'm asexual, so chasing crumpet isn't really my vibe,' or a similar acknowledgement of minority sexuality without fear of recrimination from their bosses, sponsors, the public, or the governments of homophobic countries in which they race, they will continue to live in rainbow-coloured closets, at least as far as the public is concerned.