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Natalie Powell hopes inclusive LGBTQ+ environment can help to change minds
The Welsh Olympian suffered “six years of pain” before disclosing her sexuality.
Olympic judoka Natalie Powell hopes the creation of an inclusive environment for the LGBTQ+ community at Birmingham 2022 will help change minds in Commonwealth countries that criminalise homosexuality.
Pride House allows a safe space for LGBTQ+ supporters, athletes, staff, volunteers and organisations at the Commonwealth Games, which begins in Birmingham this month.
Yet homosexuality remains a crime in nearly 40 Commonwealth countries, with the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) saying same-sex sexual acts are punishable by death in Brunei and the northern states of Nigeria.
“The amount of Commonwealth Games countries that are not LGBT friendly is quite staggering,” 2014 gold medallist Powell, who is openly gay, told the PA news agency.
“So many of them, it’s illegal to be gay. So many of them have crazy laws. This needs to change and having a house where everybody can be included, not just LGBT people, is so important.
“Getting allies on board who can come to one space and be accepting of everybody for who they are, it’s a great initiative.
“I don’t know how far it will go in terms of making it acceptable in some of these countries where governments and laws need to change. But it’s a great place to start and hopefully these countries will take notice.”
Powell, who hails from the Powys village of Beulah in mid-Wales, says she struggled to come to terms with her own sexuality as she reached the pinnacle in judo.
She was ranked world number one in 2017 – the first UK judoka to reach that mark after the introduction of an official ranking list – but only did so after what she describes as “six years of pain”.
“It was a year after the Rio Olympics, in 2017, that I broke down,” said Powell, who was based in Birmingham at the time at the British Judo Centre of Excellence.
“I went to the Worlds, got a bronze medal, which was my best performance, and soon after got to number one in the world.
“I was also pushing myself and saying, ‘if I get through the judo I’ll be fine.’
“I was living with one of the girls on the team in Walsall then and I was crying, uncontrollably. I told her and once I did that things started to improve.
“Within six months I was like another person. It was just a weight off my shoulders.
“I was comfortable in myself and couldn’t believe what I’d put myself through. But I think it’s just culture and what people see as social norms when you’re growing up.
For six years I was not comfortable with who I am...I found it very difficult to actually say to someone that I was gay
- Natalie Powell
“It was definitely the hardest thing in my life I’ve had to deal with. For six years I was not comfortable with who I am.
“After Rio I knew that if I didn’t come to terms with this and deal with it I wasn’t going to be able to progress before Tokyo.
“But I found it very difficult to actually say to someone that I was gay. It was crazy, really, because I had such a good support system around me.
“I can’t imagine how difficult it is for people who don’t have a good support network or it’s against their beliefs to be gay.
“I knew my parents, family and friends would all be supportive, but I still couldn’t bring myself to say it.
“If I could go back and take away those five or six years of pain I would.
“It was such a big issue in my head, I had so many sleepless nights over it.”
Powell, who finished seventh at Rio 2016, has also had to overcome adversity on the mat after a shock opening bout defeat at last summer’s Tokyo Olympics.
But the 31-year-old finally gets the opportunity to defend the title she won at Glasgow 2014 with judo back on the Commonwealth Games schedule.
“I had some downtime after Tokyo to get my head around the Games,” said Powell, whose biggest rival in the women’s 78kg category at Birmingham is likely to be England’s Emma Reid.
“A lot of athletes call it the ‘Olympic Depression’ and I was definitely affected by that, because I didn’t come anywhere near what I had hoped to achieve.
“I’m on the other side of that now. I’m enjoying judo again and hoping to get back to my form for the Commonwealths and the Worlds in October.”