'Out' and into the front line

Cape Town beach volleyball international Leigh-Ann Naidoo was the only member of the South African squad at the 2004 Olympics to publicly “out” herself as a lesbian. “There were other gay people in the squad,” said Naidoo, “but they didn’t want to admit it publicly.”

It was a personal and political decision. “My partner, Kelly Gillespie, was with me.
I didn’t want to pretend she was just a friend. The team was invited to the South African ambassador’s house in Athens, and Kelly came as my partner. It was a relief not to have to hide.”

By stepping out of the closet, she became one of 12 openly gay athletes at the Olympics out of 10 500 partici-pants from 199 countries. She has no regrets.

Naidoo has now been elected Africa’s ambassador to the world Gay Games, which open in Chicago on Saturday, joining musicians Elton John and Melissa Etheridge, tennis great Billie Jean King and professional football players Dave Kopay and Esera Tuaolo, among others. A knee injury will prevent her from competing.

The games’ organising committee has funded the South African team. Among those travelling under the banner “Team Johannesburg” will be runner Hlengiwe Buthelezi, photographer Zanele Muholi, the Soweto lesbian soccer team, Chosen Few XI, and a cycling duo.

Naidoo has played for the Western Cape and South Africa on the indoor and beach volleyball circuits for more than 10 years. Volleyball—and activism—run in the family: her father, Derrick, was a founder member of the non-racial Amateur Volley-ball Association of South Africa, an affiliate of the South African Council on Sport (Sacos).

The road to Athens was a gruelling one for her and her beach volleyball partner, Julia Willand. They spent two years playing on four continents and raising their own finances to qualify and become the first African beach volleyball team to compete at the Olympics. Winning 17th place was a bonus, Naidoo believes.

The four-yearly Gay Games, first held in 1982, are a “queer” alternative to the Olympics, where only a handful of athletes, including this year’s Wimbledon champion Amelie Mauresmo, have proclaimed their gayness. This is ironic, points out journalist Jim Buzinski: “The original Olympics were in many ways the first circuit parties. They were all-male affairs (including spectators) and the athletes competed in the nude. The Greeks were very comfortable with men being in homosexual relationships.”

Modern gay Olympians worry about the disapproval of team-mates and management, about social stigma and peer rejection, and about losing endorsements and sponsorships. “It often comes down to financial considerations,” said Holly Metcalf, lesbian former Olympic rower.

Gay and lesbian athletes’ strong need for a safe haven is reflected in this year’s turnout at the Gay Games—12 000 participants have signed up. “Internationally, the games provide the space for networking and activism, not only around sports. For a week, thousands of gay people converge on one city,” said Naidoo.

South Africa bid to hold the Gay Games in Johannesburg in 2010, but lost to Cologne. Naidoo concedes that the event is dominated by Europe and the United States, and needs to be more inclusive of the Third World.

It is not just a question of the host country and the nationality of the participants. Four team members from the Chosen Few XI cannot attend the Gay Games because they have been denied visas. Unemployed, they are apparently seen by the US authorities as potential illegal immigrants.

Naidoo wants to campaign for change. “My gay activism is a part of a broader activism concerned with race and class discrimination, disadvantaged youth, gender ... I don’t see a hierarchy of issues, they’re all related.

“As sportspeople, we are affected by what happens in society—and we have an impact in return. We can use platforms to try and change things.”

Naidoo has been asked to make the closing speech at the Games’ grand finale, and plans to use the occasion to raise awareness around the inclusivity of the event.

She said: “In the States they have hundreds of gay sports leagues, but legally they’re way behind us. We have a Constitution that has taken us far ahead—but we don’t yet have the kind of enabling society that encourages gay sports leagues. There’s work to be done.”

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