A cool Canadian Olympic athlete becomes a role model to Portuguese youth

Cool Canadian Olympic athlete becomes LGBTI role model to Portuguese youth.

John Fennell sharing his personal experience about when he came out publicly as gay a few months after representing Canada in the 2014 Olympics.

After the seminar “sexism and homophobia in sports”, students take pictures to share on social media.

A school system shaped by conservative family values

Although Portugal is one of the world’s most progressive countries for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) rights, there are currently no openly gay athletes in the country and bullying based on sexual orientation is still rampant in schools.

For instance, the Portuguese high school system and youth culture are still characterized by rigid gender and sexuality norms (including homophobia and expectations regarding masculinity, femininity, and heterosexuality). This affects the well-being of students who do not conform to or who challenge these norms and are often undermined.

Enter John Fennell, a 21 year-old Canadian Olympic athlete who does not fit any stereotypes. He quickly became a cool role model for Portuguese youth.

#One team

John proudly accepted the Embassy of Canada’s invitation to participate in a three-day outreach program in Lisbon to address bullying and inclusion issues in Portuguese high schools. John shared his story about when he came out publicly as gay a few months after representing Canada in the luge competition at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The athlete has since then been one of the ambassadors of the Canadian Olympic School Program #One Team which focuses on mental fitness and equality in sports and the first time the program was brought overseas.

John joined discussions at three high schools, two public and one private, in the outskirts of Lisbon. He also participated in seminars; one organized by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), addressing “sexism and homophobia in sports”, the other focused on “fighting discrimination and bullying through sports” at University Lusófona.

John Fennell’s visit brought a lot of traction on social media and media attention to the lack of LGBTI role models in sports and several participants engaged privately with the athlete through these platforms seeking counselling.

Working with partners

John’s program was strongly supported by the Portuguese Secretary of State for Citizenship and Gender Equality, Catarina Marcelino, and the Portuguese Commission for Gender Equality. Also involved were several local partners including the Portuguese representation of ILGA and the Portuguese National Council of Physical Education Teachers.

Read more about what Canada is doing around the world to champion LGBTI rights.