'It's powerful to be out': Canadian Olympic couple reflects on LGBTQ representation in sport

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Canadian Olympians Georgia Simmerling, left, and Stephanie Labbé met while competing in Rio in 2016. (Instagram/@stephlabbe1 - image credit)
Canadian Olympians Georgia Simmerling, left, and Stephanie Labbé met while competing in Rio in 2016. (Instagram/@stephlabbe1 - image credit)

For decades, athletes from around the world have gathered at the Olympics and Paralympics to compete in the largest sporting event, a celebration of athletic achievement laced with messaging around hope, inspiration and inclusion.

But it hasn't always been safe or acceptable to be LGBTQ and to compete. Instead, hiding parts of oneself was part of the game.

Take, for instance, the story of Canada's Mark Tewksbury, who won a gold medal in swimming in Barcelona in 1992. It wasn't until six year later that Tewksbury felt comfortable enough to publicly acknowledge he was gay, and then faced repercussions for doing so — for example, he immediately lost a six-figure contract as a motivational speaker.

There is still a price to pay for being gay in sports today.

There are many places around the world where it's not safe and in some cases even illegal to be openly gay. In Iran, for example, LGBTQ people are sometimes killed for being gay, lesbian or trans.

But in Canada, where athletes are pushing boundaries and creating inclusive spaces, it has never been easier to be out, proud and authentic in the field of play.

The story of Olympic cyclist and skier Georgia Simmerling and soccer goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé is a powerful example of just how far being LGBTQ has come over the years.

They first met at the 2016 Rio Olympics, where both won bronze medals, and just months later they entered a relationship and have been together ever since. Now, as they prepare to compete in their final Olympics in Tokyo, they're doing it as partners, and they're each other's support system.

"It's been unbelievable to come to the last part of my career with her and to have the support that I have from her every day," Simmerling told CBC Sports from Milton, Ont. "She's amazing. She gets me. She understands what I'm going through."

'She's brought inspiration'

Simmerling is with the cycling team in Ontario, while Labbé is in Sweden playing with her club team. The two have spent most of their relationship apart, finding pockets of time together — the life of elite athletes in a relationship.

"She's been an incredible addition to the already crazy life I've lived," Labbé told CBC Sports from Malmö, Sweden. "From the moment I met her, she's brought inspiration. The strength of that girl's character and mind is something I aspire to.

"She is so confident in who she is and has taught me so much about self-worth."

Simmerling, 32, was born and raised in Vancouver, a city that was more accepting of LGBTQ people compared to where Labbé grew up in rural Alberta. Simmerling says her family, friends and sporting community always had her back.

"I'm extremely lucky that I've always been supported by my family, teammates and coaches," Simmerling said. "I never really had a coming-out story. I told my parents and family and friends, but it wasn't a big deal.

"I know I'm extremely lucky to have that, because that's not the case for everyone."

Simmerling, far right, after winning bronze as a member of Canada's pursuit cycling team at the Rio Olympics.
Simmerling, far right, after winning bronze as a member of Canada's pursuit cycling team at the Rio Olympics.(Getty Images)

'Didn't see gay people'

It wasn't the same experience for Labbé, 34, a self-described country girl.

"I didn't have the exposure. I didn't see gay people or hear about them. My family didn't know any. It wasn't something I thought was reality. The only gay person I knew was [TV personality] Ellen DeGeneres," Labbé said of her upbringing near Edmonton. "When I finally told my family, that was super-challenging and super-hard. I remember how emotional that was.

"They didn't want to talk about it for the longest time. I'm so proud of them [now]. I feel like I've rocked their world and they've grown so much."

Despite their drastically different backgrounds, they've found each other and are on a remarkable journey together. Two gay athletes, partners, who speak vulnerably, openly and bravely about their experiences.

"It's powerful to be out and to be a gay athlete," Simmerling said. "I try to be my true, authentic self every day. If I can inspire, motivate or help any other athlete, whether they're gay, straight, trans, whatever, I'm happy and proud to do so."

I just want to live my life genuinely and authentically. I don't want to hide who I am and want to be accepted fully for all that I am. - Stephanie Labbé

Labbé says Simmerling has been a huge help in her being able to speak her truth and fully accept all that she is.

"She's inspired me to tell others what I'm capable of and give me a voice," Labbé said. "I just want to live my life genuinely and authentically. I don't want to hide who I am and want to be accepted fully for all that I am."

Sport inclusion website

In time for Pride Month, the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC), along with many other sport groups, has launched a new sport inclusion website. It's a support and resource space for national, provincial and territorial, local and club sport organizations who are working to make their spaces more equitable and inclusive for those who identify as LGBTQ.

"Making sport truly inclusive and accessible for all takes education, resources, expertise and concerted effort from all levels in the system," said David Shoemaker, CEO of the COC.

Labbé makes a save as goalkeeper for the North Carolina Courage of the National Women's Soccer League during the Challenge Cup in 2020.
Labbé makes a save as goalkeeper for the North Carolina Courage of the National Women's Soccer League during the Challenge Cup in 2020.(Associated Press)

The website was created by the LGBTQI2S+ Sport Inclusion Task Force. The group was founded during the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto and is guided by the COC, Professional Golfers Association of Canada, Canadian Women & Sport, the faculty of kinesiology at the University of Calgary and Challenge Accepted Collective.

The group has four key objectives: making sports organizations at all levels in Canada aware of how LGBTQI2S+ inclusion is part of making sport safer and free from mistreatment; making sure sport organizations have the capacity to make sport safer and more welcoming; ensuring groups take meaningful action to make sport safer; and generally making sure sport is safer and more welcoming for all who are LGBTQI2S+.

Simmerling and Labbé point to the work the COC and other groups in Canada have done to make sure they, along with many other athletes who are openly gay, feel represented, safe and included.

"We're slowly shifting and slowly moving to a place of global acceptance, but at the same time we know there are many parts of the world that are so deeply rooted in homophobia. We still have a long way to go," Simmerling said. "What better place than Canada to step up and be leaders. It would be extremely hypocritical if we weren't.

"We can do more. People can look to us for resources and we can be role models on this."

'The movement has progressed'

Labbé says the national women's soccer team is more united than ever, especially in the wake of teammate Quinn publicly coming out as trans.

WATCH | Quinn on breaking binary barriers in sport:

"We're all just trying to find this way in this world. The movement has progressed. It's continuing to inspire people to be themselves and allow them the freedom to live without judgment," Labbé said. "I've always felt safe, especially in the national team environment. And I think specifically more recently, our team has done a really good job having open, vulnerable conversations that weren't always there in the past."

This is the second Pride month during the pandemic. Once again, the parades won't take to the streets, the parties and celebrations will be limited and communities won't be able to gather in the ways they have in the past. Then it's on to the Olympics and Paralympics shortly after in July and August.

These Games will likely see more openly gay, lesbian and trans athletes competing than ever before. Despite the lack of overt activism on this issue, due mainly to restricted movement and gatherings during the pandemic, athletes more than ever understand their important role in creating space and safety for the LGBTQ community.

Simmerling and Labbé will be doing their part in Tokyo. Together. As partners.

"I just think about being able to tell this story to our kids one day. It's so special to share this moment with her," Labbé said.