News such as the strides towards equality in the field of sports has extended across oceans and over borders recently. Stories of LGBT athletes coming out, major sporting organisations and teams vocalising their support for the acceptance of openly gay players has been a consistent feature in headlines around the world. Gay athletes like Sheryl Swoopes, Jason Collins, Tom Daley, Michael Sam, Brittney Griner, and, most recently, Ian Thorpe have been the subject of many recent pieces of writing and on-air debates. The state of gay rights in Russia and the 2014 Winter Olympics is another example of equality in sports being heavily reported on in the media.
South Africa, where I was born and currently reside, is one of sixteen countries where same-sex marriage is legal, and our constitution is fantastic when it comes to prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. Surprisingly, though, I can count the number of out South African athletes on one hand. Sport is a major social conduit for the country, with the three most popular sports in the country being soccer, cricket and then rugby, and I grew up playing it all. Soccer and swimming dominated my pre-teens and tennis and squash were my best friends all throughout high school.
As great as that time was, I could never truly be myself. Official and unofficial team bonding happened all the time and as is often the case with team sports, this included a lot of talking about oneself and life, from the innocent stuff such as annoying siblings and “uncool parents” to the more juicy details of “what happened this past weekend?” To be honest, I was more interested in scoring goals than “scoring kisses”. I knew I was not like my teammates, I knew that when they used words like “gay” and “moffie”, which is a South African derogatory term for a homosexual man, that they were talking about me even though they didn’t know it. After years of hearing phrases such as “Dude, we should have won that game, the ref was such a f*g”, and “Come on Keke, go talk to her, don’t be gay”, it’s not surprising that when I entered high school, I hung up my soccer boots and swimming goggles and started playing sports that were more focused on the individual. I hoped smaller teams would mean fewer interactions with homophobia.
For a time it went quite well. I liked my tennis and squash teams a lot. However, in a society where the majority of public opinion sees homosexuality as an abnormality and morally wrong, I was bound to run into it again. It was so engrained into the high school culture of what being a male sportsman entails that often I was more focused on how to play the part than actually play the game. I was unhappy, my focused waned, my skills weakened and the team suffered. By the time graduation came around, I had decided not to play sports at university. If this was what it was like in high school, I could only imagine how much more extreme it would be there. I arrived at university in 2007 intent on focusing on my studies. I missed participating in sports, but I made do with just keeping fit on my own.
2008 came around, and a friend of a friend of mine kept talking about this thing called ultimate. He was quite passionate about it and, rather annoying actually, always trying to get anyone he could to come play. I dodged his attempts for a while with excuses like “Oh sorry, I can’t throw a disc to save my life”, “I don’t really do team sports” and “I don’t think it’s for black people”. OK, that last one was ridiculous and I meant it as a joke, I just needed to get him off my back. One Friday afternoon, however, I had absolutely nothing to do and didn’t want to lose my battle with boredom, so I put on some exercise clothes and went. As I played, I realised how much I missed the joy that comes from sports. I was horrible obviously, I couldn’t throw properly and cut like a headless chicken, but I didn’t care, when that disc went up, I was like a border collie, only focused on catching that piece of plastic. However, after that initial joy, like clockwork, those thoughts and feelings from high school came back. “You’re gay Keke, they won’t accept you”, “There’s no way you can play, if they find out they could hurt you” and “Just don’t, you’ll be miserable again.”
I tried to distance myself, but I found myself coming back to play more and more. It was fun, I was getting better, the people were actually kind of cool, but I always kept my guard up, never to reveal too much, never to hang out after a game, and this carried on until one unforgettable day.
Recently, I came across a survey which focused on homophobia in sports. “Out on the fields” is the “first international study on homophobia in sports” and invites people who play and don’t play sports, regardless of their sexual orientation, to take part in the survey. Part of the survey is an optional section, where players are invited to share an experience they’ve been apart of or witnessed regarding homophobia or the lack of it in their lives in 400 words. What I wrote about were the events of the before mentioned unforgettable day:
“I was always afraid of team sports in high school due to how gay men and women were perceived and mocked. I got to university in 2007 and got introduced to Ultimate Frisbee in 2008 and I still had the same fears. During a casual game one day, a teammate, let’s call him Jay, mentioned that his friend whom he brought to play was gay. I immediately looked around to see what kind of reactions everyone had and to my surprise no one looked shocked or disgusted. In fact, reactions were more of an “okay, cool whatever, can we get back to the game?” It turned out, that player actually wasn’t gay and it was a form of banter between the two of them since they actually date a lot of women. I don’t fully understand it but who understands straight guys right? (That’s a joke people). I remember that was the first time I ever thought “Could I actually play sports and be out and it not be a problem?” For a second I felt this little flame of hope ignite inside of me and what a feeling it was! Fast forward to a few months later, I built up the courage to let slip into a conversation with Jay that I like guys. His reaction wasn’t only accepting but one of celebration. That was the first time I opened up to someone and his acceptance and continued inclusiveness of me in ultimate gave me the courage to further break down my walls and be honest with those around me. Fast forward again to 2013, it’s the South African Open Ultimate National Championships and my team, Homebru, just won the finals! We were sitting in our postgame huddle, ecstatic from our win and as I sat there surrounded by my team of all men, I couldn’t help but tell them how I never ever thought I could play in a team of all guys and be accepted for who I am, fully. That thanks to this sport and the people in it, I found the strength to be myself in all areas of my life and by not focusing on staying closeted I was able to fully devote my energy to the game, to being a friend, a team-mate and a national champion.”
The benefits of having role models in a field I love is immeasurable and I long for that day when more South African athletes will speak up and be proud of who they love like the Sheryls, Jasons, Michaels and Ians of the world, because the impact that has on little boys and girls wanting to play but are terrified is a feeling words fail to fully describe.
I was lucky enough to have ultimate and I am very much smitten with it. Even better than the feeling of getting a layout score, skying that tall player who seems to float on air, or coming down with the disc amongst a sea of hands, are the people who play ultimate.” Ultimate players are the most fun, inclusive, diverse, accepting and just plain awesome people I have ever come across. Sure I haven’t tried every sport and met every ultimate player, but I can say with great confidence that ultimate and those that play the sport are the hip to my hooray.