It would once have been a very brave teenager who told his classmates he was gay.
But one lecturer at the University of Winchester is hoping his students (and colleagues) will be prepared to declare their sexuality publicly.
Professor Eric Anderson, who is known for his research into sport, masculinity, sexuality and homophobia, is so confident in changing attitudes towards homosexuality he is preparing to introduce Britain’s first university ‘Outlist’ – an online record of openly gay students and staff.
The scheme – which could launch this autumn as part of the university’s revamped website – is a chance for openly Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) students and staff members to make their sexuality known.
“It’s something that has been happening on American student newspapers for some time but if it goes ahead Winchester will become the first university in Britain to try it out online,” says Prof Anderson who teaches in the University’s Sports Science department.
“As a university, Winchester is at the forefront of promoting inclusivity and a culture of celebration for its LGBT students and staff. The Outlist is just one of the ways we could do that.
“It will be a chance for people to declare their support for the LGBT community and make a statement about their sexuality – an open network for students to meet one another, post events and see for themselves how inclusive the University of Winchester is.”
The Internet, says Prof Anderson, has made a huge contribution to reducing homophobia in recent years.
“It has allowed people to come out of the closet earlier and to form communities,”
“Suddenly you’ve got social networking sites like Facebook that ask you to declare your sexuality on your profile.
“For young people growing up with social networking there’s nothing unusual in telling people you’re interested in men, women or both.
“Sexuality isn’t private anymore. Young people are growing up with the visibility of homosexuality and it’s encouraged a new level of acceptance among youth.”
Originally from California, Professor Anderson has published eight books exploring sport, masculinity, sexuality and homophobia as well as numerous papers in what is a relatively infant area of research.
His work suggests a rapid decline in homophobia among sportsmen.
While it is still difficult to name more than a handful of openly gay sports stars (most recently British cricketer Steven Davies, British and Irish rugby player Gareth Thomas and Swedish footballer Anton Hysen) Prof Anderson insists that his research in schools, universities and colleges points towards a growing acceptance of homosexuality in the sporting world.
“Ten years ago it was difficult to find any openly gay athletes to come forward and talk to me for my research but now it is much easier,” he said.
Sport, he says, is no longer the exclusively straight environment it once was with male sportsmen showing a rapidly increasing level of acceptance of their gay team mates.
Shifting definitions of masculinity and what Prof Anderson calls a “softening”
of masculinity among young straight men is helping to drive this greater level of tolerance.
In Prof Anderson’s less gendered world men can do things that were once coded as feminine and not be stigmatised.
“Anything associated with femininity was once seen as a symbol of homosexuality.
“It was forbidden for straight men to touch each other in an endearing way, to be too fashionable, to wear pink or purple or to express fear or love for their male friends. Only certain types of beverage were acceptable for a straight man to drink.
“Now we are seeing a softening of masculinity that brings the previously polarised worlds of masculine and feminine together.”
Even the nature of male friendships is evolving.
“Ninety per cent of heterosexual undergraduates report they have kissed a male friend on the lips. It’s not a sexual thing. Young men are just more able to open up and disclose love for their friends in the way women could before but men couldn’t without being labelled as gay.
“Male friendships used to be defined by what men did together – going to the pub, playing sports. Now they are more like female friendships, defined by the secrets they disclose to one another.
There’s even a trend for guys to put their male friends ahead of their girlfriends.”
These close, loving friendships or ‘bromances’ between straight men (epitomised by on screen duos such as Joey and Chandler in Friends or Morecambe and Wise in the 1970s help to break down barriers between traditionally masculine and feminine behaviours.
“I think we’re moving towards a society in which men’s masculinty is based on acceptance rather than violence,”
said Prof Anderson.
“It’s important to say that declining homophobia is uneven.
“Pockets of homophobia still exist and I don’t want to suggest that everything is fine but things are moving in the right direction and moving more rapidly than at any other time.
“I hope they continue to improve and I’m proud that Winchester is positioning itself at the forefront when it comes to inclusivity and diversity.”