Daria Kasatkina. If you’re not a tennis fan you might not have heard the name before. The no 1 Russian women’s tennis player, who made it to the semi-final of the French Open in June and is ranked 12th in the world, has come out as gay. In an Instagram post she said that she was in a relationship with Natalia Zabiiako, a Russian figure skater.
I have not been able to stop thinking about her bravery. It still takes considerable courage to be open about your sexuality in elite sports, no matter where in the world you live. Last month the Olympian Dame Kelly Holmes created national news for coming out at the age of 52, having been forced into silence as a teenager in the army, which banned gay people from serving until 2000. In May, Jake Daniels, the Blackpool forward, became the first male professional footballer to come out publicly since Justin Fashanu in 1990. “The subject of being gay, or bi or queer in men’s football is still a taboo,” he told Sky Sports News. “I think it comes down to how a lot of footballers want to be known for their masculinity.”
Their bravery is admirable: homophobia persists in modern Britain. For Kasatkina the stakes are even higher. As a Russian she risks being ostracised by her country for expressing her sexuality and speaking about LGBTQ+ rights. Russia has long been hostile towards LGBTQ+ people, and the situation is only getting worse. There are no protections for LGBTQ+ people in Russia, in everything from housing to employment. On the same day that Kasatkina came out, the Russian parliament moved to expand its “gay propaganda” law. The law already forbids children from learning that being LGBTQ+ is normal, and from seeing any representation of LGBTQ+ life on media such as television. It is also used to restrict gay pride marches and detain activists. Now it could be extended to stop people from discussing LGBTQ+ issues with other adults, ban public discussion of LGBTQ+ relationships in a positive or even neutral light, and ban LGBTQ+ content in cinemas.
Dspite all this, knowing what the consequences would be, Kasatkina has remained outspoken. “If there is a choice, nobody would choose being gay,” she said in an interview with the Russian blogger Vitya Kravchenko. “Why make your life harder, especially in Russia? What’s the point?”
Then there’s her opinions about the Russia-Ukraine war. Saying anything that publicly contradicts the Russian lie that the invasion of Ukraine is merely a “special military operation” means risking 15 years in jail. The word “war” is not allowed, yet Kasatkina says that her wish is for the “war to end”.
LGBTQ+ sportspeople have the power to speak up for those who are not able to speak up for themselves. They are role models. That representation is all the more powerful coming from Kasatkina, as she is speaking to a community of people who may not be able to express their identity themselves. Thanks to a tightly-controlled state media, we cannot not know how many people in Russia have heard her statement. But the ones who listen will value it.
“Living in peace with yourself is the only thing that matters,” she said. “And f*** everyone else.”