In case you were offline on Monday, Danny Watts, retired LMP2 racer, class winner of two Le Mans, and series winner of the Formula Renault UK championship, came out as gay. Danny contacted us several weeks prior to the announcement, responding to last year's Pride article, and wanting help with his coming out. We spent the next month emailing people to get the story in as many outlets as possible, because a little chaos is a good thing once in a while.
Since we knew when the story was going live, we teamed up with a sports sociologist named Christine Wegner to perform a qualitative analysis of the response to the announcement. The reaction was mixed, and not what either of us was expecting. Those that weren't being effusively supportive of Danny spent the afternoon hotly debating whether or not the story qualified as news. The debate was so heated that 'Danny Watts' trended on Twitter in the UK.
First, let's deal with the positive comments. I found a load of supportive tweets, sometimes numbering in the triads (for those people who couldn't fit it into one tweet), or tweets with screenshots of multiple-paragraph essays attached. 'Respect,' 'brave decision,' 'fast and fabulous,' etc. were used multiple times. This is a positive sign for us as a community. It is no longer socially acceptable to be homophobic, and our personal opinions seem to have kept up with the public trend.
People empathised with Danny's closet pain. 'I'm sorry to hear your secret was such a burden,' 'it makes me sad to think of Danny in pain all those years,' 'I'm saddened to hear there are so many homophobic comments in motorsport,' were repeated by many people around the industry. Fans, people who'd raced against Danny or been coached by him, as well as various other motorsport personalities, commented with empathy.
The LGBT+ fans (and tiny smattering of out motorsport staffers) expressed their wholehearted support for Danny. I found a lot of 'welcome to the family' themes in this part of the data. In the scrape, I was transcribing 'pride flag emoji,' 'rainbow emoji,' 'rainbow hearts,' 'applauding hands,' and similar visual signifiers in a majority of the supportive tweets, even from those who appeared heterosexual in their self-identifying data. Queer branding clearly has good market penetration!
There was very little of what Michael Kimmel calls 'self-protective surprise'. You know, 'I never knew he was gay even though we've shared showers,' and comments of that type (distinct from 'oh, I had no idea, power to you for being yourself'), totalling a handful of comments out of over 300 analysed thus far, which is a good track record. Self-protective surprise is viewed as a homophobic microagression, betraying the belief that all men should be sexual predators and leading them to question their own attractiveness if a gay man shared a shower with them and didn't hit on them. In this context, homophobia is defined as 'the fear that gay men will treat straight men the way straight men (in general, feminist male allies not included) treat women'. So, great that there was very little of that!
The thought leaders deserve a special mention here. For the most part - and y'all know the exceptions, so I don't need to mention them by name - the men we look up to in motorsport were effusive in their support. Karun Chandhok even tweeted Danny's Huff Post article the next day, commenting that any nay-sayers should read Danny's story in his own words before judging. I live in hope that the example set by men like Matt Beer and the editorial staff of Autosport, Mat Fernandez and the editorial staff of Daily Sportscar, Craig and Adam of Badger GP, Will Buxton, Lester Forbes, and Karun Chandhok (the latter three weren't included in the first wave of press releases, but tweeted loud and proud) will show the young guns that they can be kind to LGBT+ folk without having their masculinities threatened.
Now the negatives...
A small chunk of commenters felt the need to reiterate Danny's masculinity. 'Loves a beer' was one of the more common ones. Because only Real Men drink beer, so being a beer-swilling badboy retains some masculinity for Danny, despite his being gay. Heterosexual masculinity, otherwise known as 'the man box' is still the ideal in society. Until we pick apart our personal definition of what constitutes A Real Man in our own lives, we'll never move past the insidious forms of homophobia and out-dated gender stereotypes that still linger.
Several commenters raised the point that it's all well and good for the fans to be supportive, but the deafening silence from most official team/series accounts did not go unnoticed. In the weeks leading up to the story breaking, Danny was concerned that his current employer would have grounds and inclination to fire him if his students refused to be coached by a gay man. Unemployment is a real concern for queer people. Even though the laws have changed, there are ways to sack someone for reasons other than the one for which the employers are really sacking them. Thankfully, Hitech have reassured Danny in writing of his continued employment. But if other racers came out, would their teams/sponsors be as cool? The data I've collected don't explicitly support that as a hypothesis.
Finally, there was a lot of 'this isn't news'. This category was divided into two camps, one justifying it that in 2017 motorsport is showing its conservative (perhaps out-moded?) bias by making a big deal of someone being gay, and the other saying that a driver's private life has nothing to do with their on-track performance. As any classicist, literature analyst, or theologian will tell us, context determines meaning.
Edit to add: To the 'it's not news' crowd, Dr Wegner says, 'This deflection strategy is also a way for the dominant mainstream group to exert it's power, as it questions the use of resources and dialogue about the progress and barriers of marginalized groups. It's a way to stay in denial of the systemic issues that have led to such an event "becoming news."''
First things first, yes, we should have moved past coming out stories making headlines. But look at the context. Danny made the headlines for several reasons.
1. He was scared of getting slaughtered in the blogosphere, so there were seven interviews given to niche motorsport (Autosport/Motorsport.com, Daily Sportscar, BadgerGP, Pelny Gaz, Helena Hicks) and LGBT+ (Huffington Post, Gay Times) publications to set the tone of the discussion, focussing on the positive side of the story, rather than the scandal. One of those interviews happened to be with an editor of the biblical motorsport publication, who was motivated to do the piece because he has a gay relative and has been educated by that person on several issues to do with queerness and coming out. Matt wrote, re-wrote, and edited that Autosport opinion piece several times, and the amount of work he put in was evident in how well it resonated with the public.
2. Given that we know of four reasonably current queer racers - Danny Watts, Evan Darling, Justin Mullikin, and Abbie Eaton, out of a community of several thousand - either there is a strong heterosexual selection bias, or people are opting to stay closeted. (I know of several people for whom it's the latter explanation. They may not be the majority of motorsport, but they do exist.) Thus, the avalanche of positive comments are important for those people still living with closet pain. The hope is that they will feel a little less alone knowing that others have been warmly welcomed out the closet.
3. Danny focussed his interviews on how it felt to stay small and hidden. This allowed empathic heterosexual people to respond compassionately, regardless of whether they'd previously given much thought to closet struggles. Their compassion was what drove the twitter trend as they defended him from the trolls.
Now onto 'a driver's private life doesn't affect their on-track performance'. They are entitled to freedom of opinion, as are we all. Except our private lives do affect our professional lives because we're not cylons. Remember when Daniil Kvyat was dropped to Toro Rosso, developed depression (publicly noticed and commented on compassionately by Buxton and other journalists), and had a run of bad form? Same principle. If a driver is not on top of their emotional game, they can't be on top of their racing game. If they're constantly checking themselves for signs of effeminacy, their head is not focussed on winning. If they're focussed on maintaining a lie that has grown bigger and more elaborate with each passing year, they're not 100% committed to their racing.
Living in the closet - regardless of the secret we keep - is like having several extra tabs displaying PDFs open in Chrome. It uses an extraordinary amount of memory and slows things down. Sometimes it causes inconvenient and 'unexplained' crashes. Danny has reported feeling much more free and energetic since coming out. Sure, coming out is not 'motorsport news' in the strictest sense of the word, but if we're truly a big, happy family, helping someone be free of a lie that has ensnared and tortured them for several decades is the compassionate thing to do. Most of the family recognised that, and for that we can be grateful.