Thierry Courtois is a professional graphic designer working for some of the biggest brands in the world. For the past three years he has done various freelance work in both motorsport and football. He has worked on projects with racing teams including Mahindra Formula E. He has done design, branding and photography work for various media sites, and is an active member and currently working on a marketing/branding project for Arsenal's Gaygooners.
Bridget Schuil: What were your biggest struggles in motorsport before coming out?
Thierry Courtois: Well I was never involved in motorsport prior to coming out as I did that when I was 17. As a kid/teenager I always wanted to be involved in F1, first as a driver (ha that never happened) and then as a designer (I wasn't good enough at maths). For me, the fact that there were (and still are) no sportsmen/women who are out whilst they are in their sporting careers sent signals that you can't be gay and work in sport. You won't be taken seriously, you won't get on with team members because you can't get involved in 'banter' and that you wouldn't be able to share hotel rooms etc with colleagues.
So I gave up any notion of being involved in anyway. Instead of was classed as a "weird gay" because I was gay but really into sports and not camp etc. So I didn't fit in with the LGBT+ community and I didn't fit in with the straight community either.
BS What have been your biggest struggles since coming out?
TBC Being taken seriously is often an issue. I walk down a pitlane and I get looks and laughs from mechanics, etc. It gets to you a little bit. I don't see how being gay prevents me from being able to do a job well or having an interest in sport that goes beyond liking a player or driver.
I also felt that a particular driver acted differently towards me after I made a comment that clearly alluded to my sexuality and that took me by surprise.
BS Now you're publicly out, do you get a lot of online hate?
TBC I've not had anyone purposely direct homophobic related comments at me but I have witnessed a lot of homophobic comments around sport. I don't stand for it and I will call it out when I see it.
I've also actively called out a certain former-F1 driver for his constant use of homophobic terminology in his tweets and instagram posts - not that he takes a blind bit of notice as he continues to do it. I guess he's like football fans that think it's all just 'banter'. Well it may be banter to them but it isn't banter to someone who is LGBT+.
I have had hate thrown at me online and offline and whilst it hasn't been homophobic in content, it has felt that I was targeted because of it - for some reason they think I'm a weaker person because I'm gay. Well they REALLY don't understand how strong you are/have to be when you are LGBT+!
BS What would you say to people who said that Danny's coming out was 'not news'?
TBC I managed to open someones mind a little. They were saying some really inappropriate comments and disregarding the purpose of a sportsman coming out and I challenged them on it. I explained why it was important and relevant but without attacking them and thankfully they listened and took it on board and realised their comments were inappropriate.
BS There was an incident recently where an LGBT+ tie-in to a motorsport event was postponed due to concern by the organisers over 'inappropriate behaviour' at the event (eg. they were worried people would turn up in assless chaps). Does the LGBT+ community need to re-think its stance on the ethics of self-expression, or is this a stereotypical, and unfounded worry on behalf of the event organisers?
TBC Better communication with the community and fan groups can help organisers understand and anticipate the provisions required at events. Arsenal and the Gaygooners have a very good relationship with lots of open dialogue on both sides - motorsport and many other sports lack this.
BS Other sports have official LGBT+ organisations, for example Arsenal football club have a gay fans' club. When Danny Watts came out, there was talk of starting an official FIA organisation. Do you think, given the political orientation of motorsport governing bodies, that it would be better to have a queer-led queer org, or an official initiative run by well-meaning straight people?
TCB I am a member of the Gaygooners and do work with them at the moment. I think it is extremely important that any such organisation is run by members of the LGBT+ community. There is no reason why straight supporters can't be involved and there needs to be open dialogue with a body like the FIA and the teams and there is no reason why this can't be a straight representative. But when it comes to the promotion of LGBT+ rights and action against inequalities - it has to be directed and campaigned by the community itself.
What can motorsport entities do to be more supportive of the LGBT+ community?
For starters they need to recognise that there is a large number of fans from this community across all series and all levels - as well the drivers, team personnel etc. Motorsport lags way behind football in the UK and maybe it's a result of the international travelling circus as opposed to mainly domestic aspect of football. If football has a long way to go for LGBT+ inclusion in the stands and within the sport to allow a safe and welcoming environment, then motorsport is decades away.
As the number of LGBT+ supporters is still quite small, most fans, teams etc don't feel anything needs to be done and in many cases they actively disagree with any potential step forward (that is, the issue with grid girls, widespread normative sexism, and the homophobic terminology used).
BS What can individual fans and motorsport workers do to show their support for the LGBT+ community?
TBC Educate, promote, inspire and stay vocal. Football is listening thanks to the tireless long term work of folks like the Gaygooners - there is no reason why motorsport and other sports as a whole can't do the same.