LGBT+ History Month: Paralympic champion Lee Pearson on his proudest moment

The GB team at the Rio Paralympics opening ceremony
Pearson led the Great Britain team into the Maracana Stadium at the 2016 Paralympics

With 14 Paralympic medals to his name – including 11 golds – plus a host of other World and European honours as well as a knighthood, Para-dressage rider Lee Pearson has always been a trailblazer in his sport.

Pearson was also Britain’s first openly gay Paralympic champion, having come out aged 20, before the start of his elite career.

But for all his success and pioneering, there is one particularly special moment.

“I am a strong character but the only thing that makes me emotional was being voted the flagbearer for the Great Britain team at the opening ceremony of the Rio Games in 2016,” the 47-year-old told BBC Sport.

“It wasn’t about me, it was the message we sent out to other countries.

“I was interviewed a lot about it and I really tried hard in my own way to say I was flattered because I am ‘alternative’ and this was something that was chosen by the whole of the GB team.

“I hope it sent a message out to other nations where diverse sexuality is oppressed and still not accepted and where sometimes you can even be put to death.”

Born with the condition arthrogryposis, which meant the muscles in his arms and legs grew as scar tissue in the womb, Pearson has been dealing with challenges his entire life.

From being left in a broom cupboard by nurses shortly after his birth as they were terrified of how to break the news of his disability to his mother, to fighting to attend a mainstream school as a child, before coming out.

But while Pearson is now arguably the highest-profile gay athlete in Paralympic sport and describes himself as “loud and proud”, he admits the journey was traumatic for him and his family.

“I had to fight that inner battle and for me, I felt hatred rather than shame. You can control the way you think but you can’t control the way you feel,” he said.

“I considered suicide and really struggled with myself. It was an interesting, stressful and sad period.

“Even though I was bullish and said ‘this is me’, my mum cried for days, not because she was angry or upset but because I had to put up with so much with my disability from day one and it was one more thing for me to deal with.

“I have been open about my struggles about coming out and have received numerous emails from people over the years saying I have helped save their life by just being me, which is a massive compliment.”

The equestrian world, and dressage in particular, has been long been regarded as an accepting and safe space for gay men and Pearson jokes that team-mate Ricky Balshaw once tried to set up a group called SMID – Straight Men In Dressage.

“It only had four members,” said Pearson.

But while the sport may lack the contact element of football or rugby, it still has its dangers.

“I’ve broken most bones since I started riding aged eight,” said Pearson.

“I’ve broken my back in four places, broke my collarbone, ripped all the skin off one side of my face, been unconscious twice, had to be airlifted to hospital by Midlands Air Ambulance – so don’t try to tell me it isn’t masculine.”

Lee Pearson on Gentleman at the 2012 Paralympics
Pearson and his horse Gentleman won team gold and individual silver and bronze at London 2012

When he made his Paralympic debut in Sydney in 2000, when he won three golds, Pearson knew his sexuality had no impact on his ability to ride horses and win gold medals and admits it was a strange experience when the media started to discuss it.

“I went into the sport unashamed, but I think the whole world has changed generally in a positive way since Sydney,” he said.

“At that stage, I was neither out nor in the closet – I was just Lee – but I was well aware at that stage, there weren’t many athletes who were out – certainly publicly, but also privately.

“I do feel that because I didn’t have to do a big announcement once I became a pro sportsman, it was easily accepted.

“Where you look at the world now and most countries who are fully accepting, coming out is not an issue and being an athlete with an alternative sexuality is not an issue compared to 21 years ago.”

Pearson’s openness and honesty is now helping the next generation of gay disabled athletes, including fellow rider and Paralympic hopeful Tegan Vincent-Cooke, who recently told the BBC about her coming out on YouTube.

And as he bids to compete in his sixth Games later this summer and prepares to launch his autobiography in the spring, Pearson knows how important it is for him and his team-mates to continue to blaze a trail.

“I’ve always held my head up high when it comes to my disability, and it has helped with my sexuality that I can joke about both – sometimes inappropriately,” he said.

“As British Paralympians, we lead the world in strong messaging about the acceptance of disability. Sexuality is just another add-on to that.

“Paralympic sport, and the British team in particular, can be very proud we are a strong group of unique characters.”

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