Danny Watts, who retired from Strakka Racing last year after two class wins at Le Mans, has come out publicly as gay. In an interview with Badger GP, he revealed that his decision to come out is the product of a lot of contemplation. ‘Now that I don’t have to think about keeping my team and sponsors happy, I can do what’s right for me,’ he said.
‘It’s not a decision I took lightly. This secret has been eating me up inside for a while, and I can’t hold it in any more. Something snapped in me last year, and I began coming out to my friends. Now it’s time for the public to know.’
Watts has moved on to young driver coaching since his retirement. His goal is to combine his work in driver development with activism and visibility work with the queer motorsport community. He has become a charity ambassador for Gay Racers, an organisation for LGBT+ people within motorsport whose website will officially launch in the near future, and Motorsport Sisterhood, an organisation supporting feminists in motorsport.
‘I’m thrilled to have opportunities to give back,’ Watts said. ‘There have been so may people who have supported me over the course of my career. I want to pay it forward for my community.’
The recent shift in public opinion towards the LGBT+ community is part of why he has felt free enough to come out now. ‘There are queer characters on mainstream TV shows. More than half the British population support same-sex marriage, at least in theory. What’s to say that motorsport isn’t ready for a gay racer?’
The people who have worked with Watts on coming out in the press have all been supportive of his efforts. ‘The support I’ve received so far has been mega. It’s really great to know that there are people in the sport who understand where I’m coming from, and are willing to support me.
‘I’m so grateful for the fans I’ve had over the course of my career. The response to my Le Mans wins was great, although I never got as much space in the press for that as I have for coming out. I can only hope that the public will be as supportive as the journalists I’ve spoken to have been.’
Does he think that other queer racers will follow suit, now that he has come out? ‘I don’t think there’ll be a domino effect. Coming out is a very personal decision, and people need to weigh whether they are prepared to potentially sacrifice their careers. It’s sad that that’s our reality, but this is a competitive sport. Being seen as weak has always been the worst possible thing.
‘My dream is that younger generations of racers can be openly themselves without the threat of losing their job. Unemployment and homelessness are real fears for LGBT+ people coming out, despite the laws having changed. There are still people who will try kick you out if you’re not their idea of what a racer should be.’
In a conversation I had with Michael Kimmel – author, sociologist, professor of gender, men, and masculinity – last year, the topic of motorsport’s model of masculinity came up. ‘Motorsport is very traditional,’ Kimmel said. ‘It’s still old-school James Bond, with the legions of busty women and traditional views of gender roles. Adherence these ideals are no doubt enforced with shame and the threat of disconnection, as we see in hyper-masculine cultures.’
‘[Nico] Rosberg admitted to using a sanitary towel for his forehead sweat,’ Watts said when I asked him the gender question, ‘and he got trolled for that, but he still won the world championship. [Anthony] Davidson got trolled for saying he agreed with Neveu getting rid of grid girls in WEC. [Will] Buxton regularly gets trolled for supporting women racers in his writing. But masculinity in motorsport is changing, and becoming more free and progressive, despite the people who get angry about it.’
With a new generation of thought leaders coming up in the sport, attitudes are shifting. The Women in Motorsport edition of Autosport was the brain-child of Edd Straw and on his agenda from when he started as editor of that publication. The recent out-working of the sport’s diversity policy and increase in the number of women reflects the paradigm shift about gender norms. Watts hopes that this change will make people more accepting of the queer community.
‘I can only hope that people will continue to treat me like a normal person,’ Watts said. ‘I’m still the same person I’ve always been. I’m just no longer living a lie that I started to protect my career.’ He fidgeted with his watch. ‘I want to live in a world where nobody has to lie about who they are to protect their careers. That’s why I want to start work with the queer motorsport community. To make sure they never have to.’
I join Danny in hoping that the response to his coming out will be positive. I hope that this will be the start of an era in motorsport where people who don’t fit the hyper-masculine stereotype are taken seriously in motorsport, based on their on-track results not their off-track lives. A closet is no place for a person to live, regardless of the secret they keep.