'A gay driver would be a very powerful role model'
'A gay driver would be a very powerful role model'

Diversity is a very important subject for the Formula 1 organization. With Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel as pioneers, the sport wants to be there for everyone. The road to get there turns out to be one full of hurdles. For example, it is waiting for a woman or gay driver on the F1-grid. Still, we are on the right track, argues Matt Bishop, Aston Martin F1's Chief Communications Officer. He departs at the end of 2022. Bishop has been active in Formula 1 for almost thirty years. First as a journalist, later in communication positions at McLaren and now Aston Martin. When he arrived in the sport, he was probably the only openly gay man in the paddock. That has now changed, but the LGBTQ+ community is still a small minority. “There are different areas of life, business and culture that seem to attract more LGBTQ+ people than others. If I was working in the Royal Opera house in Covent Garden, I am sure there would be more,” he said to GPblog. Exceptions Sport in general traditionally seems to attract a relatively small number of LGBTQ+ people, especially gay men. Lesbians and bisexual women are more often active in sports such as tennis and football. “Motor racing has always been very much the province of white, heterosexual men. There are a very small number of exceptions to that. The biggest exception to that is a black heterosexual man, Lewis Hamilton. The most successful driver in our history. In terms of LGBTQ+ people, we are beginning to see the odd journalist, marketer, the odd comms, PR professional. People like that. Still quite a small number and no drivers for many years.”  It remains remarkable: why not? Bishop thinks for a moment and says: “That’s a good question that we can’t know the 100% answer to, but I will hazard some guesses. I would think that LGBTQ+ people are potentially as interested in anything as anybody else.” Perhaps a role model is needed first, to convince others and also to come out of the closet. Someone like British Olympic diver Tom Daley. He announced a few years ago that he is gay and that he has a relationship with a man. Powerful speech The announcement caused a positive 'earthquake' in the United Kingdom. The often cynical English newspapers also reacted positively. Later, Daley captured the Olympic title. “He made a beautiful, compelling, and powerful speech,” said Bishop. “He said words to this affect: ‘I’m proud to be able to say I am an Olympic gold medalist and a gay man. And when I started out as a diver, trying to compete and doing my best, I always thought I’d never manage to get to this day because I thought there was something about me that was different and less accepted. And that would always prevent me from achieving at the very highest level, but here I am. If there is any young person who is thinking about trying to achieve sport at the highest level, if I can be an example or role model to them then I’d be delighted.’ As a result, because he had been well known as an out gay man and a successful diver for some years already, I am told there are many gay men in diving now because if you can see it, you can be it.” Such a role model can be of incredible importance in motorsport. Matt Bishop invents fictional driver Jonny Jenkins on the spot. A talented boy, who one day wins the Monaco Grand Prix: “On the podium, he sprayed the champagne, walked down and kissed his boyfriend on the lips. Dedicated his win to gay, LGBTQ+ athletes everywhere. He would become, just like Tom Daley, an extraordinary powerful role model. He would also be the biggest superstar in the sporting world.” Cards Being a role model takes a lot of strength. Being an example to others is something you would really want to be. It is possible that this is precisely what is stopping LGBTQ+ people in sports coming out. “Life deals you the cards that life deals you. Lewis Hamilton is a role model, and perhaps all he ever wanted to do was race cars which he is extremely good at doing. But because he was the only black driver, perhaps he was dealt a card by life that he has to accept.” Bishop continues: “He has embraced it enormously, I worked with him for five years when we were at McLaren together. He has been in the sport for 15 years. He started out at 22, now he’s a slightly older man at 37. That writes a passage from 22 to 37. We all do a lot of maturing, and professional sports people do as well. It took time, you grow up and mature. He has embraced Black Lives Matter; he has become one of the most important sporting spokespersons for anti-racism. I think what he is doing is fantastic. If Jonny Jenkins did what I hypothetically suggested, then I would hope he would take on board his responsibility and privilege to be that role model.” Negativity and bullying In a perfect world, coming out shouldn't be an issue. No reason for articles in the newspaper. Certainly no negative reactions. “There are 195 countries in the world. In about half of the countries around the world, sex between men is still illegal. In a handful of countries, it is still punishable by the death sentence. We still have a long way to go”, says Bishop. “If a Formula 1 driver came out as gay, he would have an enormous amount of media coverage. At least in the Netherlands and the UK, and many other western countries, I think it would be largely positive. Of course, there would be negatives and bullying on social media, Tom Daley and others have that every day. It’s an unpleasant thing and it’s something they shoulder with courage. But it’s gradually getting less I think.” There seems to be a discrepancy in Formula 1's policy: on the one hand, the organization is committed to equality. On the other hand, F1 is active in countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, where the LGBTQ+ community has hardly any rights. Bishop understands people who say that these countries should therefore be avoided by F1. “If we were to simply go to the countries you mentioned and race in those countries. Simply to go there, take their money, race and fly back home again. Then that would be a big shame. If we didn’t go at all, then we have relinquished any possibility of having a positive impact.” “We are supporters of #WeRaceAsOne. But it’s not just a hashtag, it’s a way of life and it’s the way we want to represent Formula 1 in the world as we enter the second quarter of the 21st century. Therefore, you as our hosts, know who we are. That we insist on absolute equality between all the genders. And we also know that you have invited us knowing that some of us are gay men, some are lesbian. Some are all the other letters that LGBTQ+ includes. Some of us are in sexual relationships with people whom we are not married. That’s who we are.” Not to be silent So, says Bishop; “That’s who you invited, don’t be surprised if that’s who then visits and puts on your motor race. We hope to make it a great motor race and the people that pay to sit in the grandstands have a fantastic time. But we also hope there are people in your countries that have perhaps felt unrepresented or disadvantaged by some of your laws. That will see people who are positive about LGBTQ+ representation and human rights in general have come to the country and not remained silent when we are there. We have said what we have said.” “Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel in particular, are both coming towards the end of their career, in their mid 30s, both multiple world champions and understood they must use their platform, fame and popularity for the good of humankind. When they go to the countries you’ve mentioned, they stand up and show their values which I think is a wonderful thing.”Interview by Ludo van Denderen

December 1, 2022 from GPBlog