Thursday, 28 May 2015

Stick and stones may break my bones, but verbal banter haunts me

It's fair to say Andy Haden and I have different views on the world, sharing only an enjoyment of the athletic.  But when he described high levels of fear of homophobia from lesbian, gay and bisexual sportspeople in New Zealand as a problem that "doesn't really exist" because it's just about "verbal banter" I found myself unable to respond until now.

Out in the Fields talked to 9,500 sportspeople in New Zealand, the UK, Ireland, Canada and Australia.  The headline results - that queer people play sport, but find it unwelcoming - is not major news.  The fact that 78% of New Zealand athletes had witnessed or experienced homophobia in sport is also unsurprising.  More gay men in New Zealand (not sure about bisexual men) don't play sports because of early negative experiences than queer men in other places.  And while our homophobic assaults of queer athletes are lower than other places, one in six gay men (again, bi men have disappeared) have been physically assaulted here.

It's taken me a while to write about this, because it's my story too.  Women's sport is easily the site of the most queer-hating set of experiences I've had, and perversely, at times the most queer affirming.


When I was 16, I made the Wellington Women's Under 20 Cricket Team.  I chased the ball hard and I was thrilled to make the team since I wasn't very good.  When I came back with my new Wellington jumper on, I was full of pride.

"Did she try and touch you?"  my teammates asked.  I didn't know what they meant.  Gradually it dawned on me, after other questions, that the woman doling out the jumpers was in a relationship with a woman, and the other girls in my team thought she might be trying to grope us.  It didn't make much sense to me; I was tiny, very pre-pubescent, and far more interested in playing the perfect cover drive than being sexual with anyone.  The key protagonists in this questioning have all been in relationships with women as adults.

When I was 17, I made my first full Wellington team and went away to tournament.  Our coach held a competition every night - we had to vote on the ugliest player in the other team.  He also warned us, repeatedly, about the lezzies who might try and "turn us".  The two things became combined, and most of the team participated.  No one in our team was out, though several players later had relationships with women.  I didn't take part, but nor did I challenge it.

When I was 18, I came out as bisexual, everywhere.  I'd also by this time, grown a bit, gone through puberty, and was quite a lot better at cricket.  I was in the New Zealand Under 20 team and captained the Wellington Under 20 team to our second year as national champs.

Then I was dropped as captain.  The woman replacing me led us to placing eighth of eight teams.  The gossip on the field was my shaved head was the problem, and not the image Wellington wanted. 

Aged 19, I'm asked to coach the Wellington Secondary Schoolgirls team.  They play wonderful cricket, beating every team they play.  Their team is full of homophobic abuse, and before the first game I ask the whole team if they want to play for New Zealand.  They all do.  I tell them that if that's the case, they need to change the way they talk about lesbians and bisexual women, since they will have queer teammates and captains.  The (straight) captain and (straight) vice captain take this on, stop the homophobic bullying, and three of the team come out.  One goes on to set up the first queer support group in a secondary school, and many play top representative cricket - including two for New Zealand - for years.

On tour with the New Zealand Under 23 team.  Our coach is a woman in a relationship with another woman, so there is no homophobic bullying, but I am the only out woman in the team.  In one game, a group of queer fans cheer us on enthusiastically, and when we walk off the field one runs up and kisses me and says "thank you."  Everyone, including our coach, pretends it hasn't happened.  Years later, another four women in that team have come out.

I'm away with my first-class team, and I'm sharing a room with another player I know is the captain's partner, despite the fact they are not out.  The first night she tells me she might hang out in the captain's room for a bit.  I tell her I don't mind if she wants to stay there, and that I won't tell anyone.  She spends the tournament with her partner at night.  A year later, they tell me they have hidden their relationship for 15 years because they believed it would stop them playing international cricket.  They come out to everyone else in the team that year.

I'm bowling, in the nets.  The coach of the Wellington team tells me as I run in: "the problem with women's cricket is, too many hairy-legged dykes play it."

I say, "actually, I wish there were more hairy-legged queer women playing."  I bowl another off-spinner. This is the same man, in his late twenties, that I carry a very drunk schoolgirl away from a year later, after he's pulled her into his bedroom at a party.  His teammate who helps agrees with me that we've stopped a rape.

My first-class team is batting, and we're talking about a high-profile television announcer who has just come out as bisexual.  "She looks bisexual," says our coach.  "What does looking bisexual mean?" I scoff at him.  "Do I look bisexual?"  I'm still shaving my head.

"Yes", he says aggressively.  "Do I look bisexual?" says another teammate, a Māori woman with long hair, who's been bringing her girlfriend to every game.

"Yes", he says, a bit more quietly.  "Do I look bisexual?" says another teammate (the Secondary Schools vice-captain from incident above).  She's blonde, petite, very conventionally femininely attractive.

"No", he says, horrified.  "Are you......?"  She refuses to answer.  He puts away his homophobia and biphobia.  It's after this incident that the couple above come out to the whole team.

These are some of the highlights, off the top of my head.  The coaches I'm mentioning are different men.  I love sport, and I played serious representative cricket for more than 15 years, both here and in England.  The teams that were safe from homophobia and biphobia were only that way when women in positions of power made them so, by coming out, and by challenging homophobic and biphobic bullying and abuse.  It's not linear progress either - in my last season of senior cricket in Wellington, not that long ago, homophobic abuse from men in the club was ever-present.  At the prizegiving that year, a drunk player grabbed his bits and told many of my teammates they just needed a good fuck.  They were intimidated enough to leave the public event.

So, dear Andy, you can dismiss homophobia and biphobia stopping queer athletes playing sport, or making us feel scared when we do as "verbal banter" if you like.  But you're wrong.  Sport is almost like the final frontier - it's ok to be racist, sexist and homophobic there in ways that are legally challengeable if they happen in other places.  It's about time New Zealand sports codes made it clear how much they care about their queer athletes.  We deserve to feel safe while we play.


Wered Jericho said...

Luddite Journal, my wish for you is that you will one day be able to talk about a social justice issue without centring yourself and your experiences.

ChundaMars said...


Elson Cade said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.