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How rugby sevens star Sharni Williams discovered her pride, and her hopes for the future

One of the many faces of the Australian LGBTQ+ sporting community, Australian sevens star and Olympic gold medallist Sharni Williams has celebrated the growing importance of Pride Month while revealing the struggle she faced to gain acceptance within her own family.

Williams, who grew up in country New South Wales, says she believed she had to marry a man and that gay people had no place within sport, while there was little LGBTQ+ visibility in society. She admits coming out to her parents was "pretty tough" and that they still struggle with her identity, but as she's continued to find herself the support has developed.

"They're country people so it's pretty tough," Williams told ESPN. "They've been supportive in ways and at certain times they've been understanding, but my parents struggle with who I am.

"I think as I evolved, and as I've grown and understood who I am, I think I've started standing up for myself a little more and I'm not allowing small comments to be bypassed because they're my parents. I'm calling them out on some things now and that's probably what makes it pretty tough.

"I'm not going to stand and be that little country kid that gets pushed around anymore, I'm going to stand up for not just me now but my community. I've got a responsibility, I've got visibility, I'm on certain boards that help and support our pride people so if I'm letting my family get away with it then I'm probably going to go out there, in the big world and let other people get away with it as well."

With her famous rainbow headgear in tow, Williams has become a symbol for gay rugby players around the world, but she admits it's only recently that she's begun to understand the importance of her platform and her visibility within sport.

"I probably didn't realize how big my platform was until I started wearing my rainbow headgear and then just the comments and the 'thank-you's' that I get from people for standing up for who I am. That's really what this month is about, it's celebrating people for recognizing who they are and being brave enough to go out there and be who they are and try and make it a norm.

"I guess that's what I'm trying to do. It's not just all about everybody coming out and you know having these huge stories, it's about creating a society and changing the perspective of the way that our pride people are viewed. The celebration is great and it's great to have support but it's also really important that we normalize this and it becomes an everyday way of life.

"We've still got a long, long way to go. And it's not just about our same sex people, it's about the whole diversity of our pride, it's our transgender people as well."

Over the last week, transgender issues in sport have taken over the headlines with world swimming body FINA announced it had voted to ban transgender women from elite women's categories and the governing body would instead move to establish an 'open' category. Following the bombshell decision, International Rugby League [IRL] announced it would be banning any transgender athletes from competing in international events.

The decisions have divided many within the sporting world, with IRL following World Rugby's 2021 edict banning transgender athletes. According to Williams, a lack of education and a fear of the unknown is what's driving these decisions.

"It's a sad place," Williams told ESPN. "We talk about equality and diversity [in rugby] and these are people who are part of our society and it's just the unknown, you know when people don't know enough about it, where people aren't educated enough around it, we tend to just put the big 'no' sticker on it. But if we try and educate ourselves and understand people and their stories I think we're better off in the world.

"That's probably where we're at at the moment, the education pieces are not out there enough and to be honest, there's not that many transgender people out there wanting to play sport.

"I can see both sides of it though. Being a young girl growing up and playing against the boys, it was like, you know I'm not as strong or not as big...then when you start comparing yourself to others, that's where you can probably get yourself into a bit of trouble because we're not all the same. The world would be pretty boring if everybody was the same, it's a better place with different people."

While gay female athletes have felt comfortable to be themselves for some time, it's only recently that male athletes have started to feel the same, with Adelaide United player Josh Cavallo becoming the only openly gay male playing professional top-flight football when he made a public statement in October last year.

Since Cavallo's announcement, Blackpool forward Jake Daniels became the first UK male footballer to come out as gay since 1990, while on Monday Leinster rugby halfback Nick McCarthy came out to his teammates and the community.

According to Williams, their decision to be visible and use their platform is important, but normalizing gay athletes is the next step.

"Yeah, I think that's really important," she told ESPN. "Like there's a lot more out female athletes than there are males, and I think that's probably the stigma and the way that society has been for so long as well. The fact that we're getting more males to come out and be that visibility, be that voice, and see how people are reacting to it is really important.

"It doesn't change who you are. I want it to be this normality, of people being able to say they love a person of the same sex, or are pansexual, or whatever it is that you are and you're just accepted for that.

"Some people struggle to figure out what love is and for people that are figuring that out and then getting told they shouldn't be it's really hard and disruptive. I want it to be normalised, so that it's not a huge deal, yes we can still celebrate it, but it's not a big thing.

"Like if you go out to dinner together and no one's looking around or judging or making comments, it's just this comfortable feeling and you're not looking over your shoulder, or you can't hold hands with your partner as you go down the street. That's the part where I hope people just get to accepting people for who they are. Some people won't understand it, but one day they might."