Queer sport comes out of left field
On a balmy spring evening last week, with the scent of honeysuckle on the air, one of the more unusual rugby matches was played under the floodlights in the Wits Rugby Stadium.
On one side was Wham! – a loose coalition of gays and lesbians – who took on the All Stars, a team of considerably larger and more experienced players. The game was part of Wits Pride, five days of assertion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, asexual, queer and other sexual orientations (LGBTIAQ+) identity at Wits University.
The All Stars gamely put themselves up for possible humiliation, but in front of a tiny but enthusiastically pro-Wham! crowd, the All Stars needn’t have worried. They received a greater pummelling from Wham’s mouthy supporters than they did from the team, as they ran out worthy 25-20 winners. Had the match lasted any longer you fancy that Wham!‘s abusive but good-natured crew might have worn the big lads of the All Stars down so completely that they’d have had no alternative but to throw in the towel.
“Inside you are sour,” screamed one pro-Wham! fan slightly hysterically at a hapless All Star; another shouted at a Wham! player she fancied: “Hey, there’s a weekend in Swaziland for you if you win.”
Ever the student, one bright spark turned his ire on the referee when a decision didn’t go his team’s way. “Where’s the complaints committee,” he asked, tongue in cheek.
As the game went on – and on – so its structure broke down and the barefooted teams went in for a touch-rugby-like romp. It was light-hearted and innocent and although Bok coach Heyneke Meyer missed little in not being there to celebrate the festivities, the evening achieved its objective by reminding us that sport is not only the domain of the buff, the straight and the heterosexual, but a utopia for all.
The Wham!/Wits All Stars match was a light-hearted affair, with plenty of humour flung from the sidelines.
Wits Pride is the brainchild of Tish White, and if contemporary Wits can be said to have a pioneer in the domain of LGBTIAQ+ activism, then White is it. She was intimately involved in Wits’s first official gay pride march in 2008 and Wits Pride has been growing steadily ever since. “It’s something I’m very proud of, to be honest,” says White. “Last year we probably had a 600-strong Wits Pride march. It’s been incredibly affirming for so many people in the time since it started. The decision to always start on the steps of the Great Hall is obviously a symbolic one: it’s an iconic space in the political history of this campus and one we’re all very proud of.”
Even though a match between Wham! and the Wits All Stars is frolicsome fun, White and those involved in the festival match acknowledge that the proof of others’ tolerance is to take games like last week’s one out of Wits’s zones of comfort and dip instead into the frequently hostile waters of straight sport. South African sportsmen and women lag significantly behind Europe, Britain and North America when it comes to gays and lesbians acknowledging their identity, a situation that is the exception rather than the norm.
One can’t imagine, for example, a South African Gareth Thomas, who played rugby over 100 times for Wales, admitting, as he did last week, that he almost committed suicide he was so traumatised after publicly breaking the news that he was gay. Thomas tells in his book, Proud, that in 2006 he put on a suit provided to him by the Welsh Rugby Union and went to the local swimming pool with the intention of drowning himself.
A legendarily tough competitor, Thomas says of his days as a Wales centre: “It was like, ‘I’m going to make it hard for you to ever imagine [I’m gay], because I’m going to be a beast of a man and I am going to be good at rugby, which is everything that society is telling me I shouldn’t be.’? “
Such is the stigma of coming out that several people I approached to talk about sport and sexual identity were reluctant to be quoted. One international sportswoman, who was at pains to point out that her workplace was one of impeccable anti-discrimination credentials, said that she wasn’t “of the Facebook generation” and was uncomfortable with “letting it all hang out” in the public realm.
The Wham!/Wits All Stars match was a test of tolerance in the frequently hostile waters of straight sport.
Issues of sexual orientation and sexual identity were the furthest thing from her and colleagues’ minds when she was active as a Protea approximately 10 years ago, she said.
“[Sexual orientation] was the least of our worries,” she told me. “The issues were financial, around homesickness and family. Don’t forget, these people were sometimes paying for themselves to get to training camps. We were absolute amateurs. It was a time of great personal self-sacrifice. Those were our issues.”
Given the homophobia endemic to straight culture, it is a journalist’s dream to find someone as blithely outspoken as South African archer Karen Hultzer. “I don’t stand on platforms but I’ve always been fairly open about being gay,” she told me over the telephone from Cape Town. “You know, what’s to tell? I’m 49 and I’m white and I’m a lesbian and I’m grumpy in the mornings before my first cup of coffee.”
Hultzer endured the perfect storm during the London Olympics in 2012 when it became widely known that the former provincial hockey, squash and softball player was a lesbian. She pleaded for calm, telling the international media that she’d appreciate being allowed to concentrate on her archery. After losing in the elimination rounds she was as good as her word, releasing a press statement explaining her position.
The fallout was nevertheless intense, most damningly in a subtle souring of her relationships with the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee, on the one hand, and with the members of her archery federation, on the other.
“I’m only one of 22 in the history of the games that have acknowledged themselves to be gay,” she said matter-of-factly. “The homophobia is such that the sponsors, when they find out, suddenly walk away. I can shoot the scores but suddenly I’m told that I’m too old or I’m too fat or I’m not getting support and I’m not getting selected.”
Paradoxically for someone who isn’t a lesbian activist or campaigner, Hultzer has been appropriated by the international community. She attended last year’s Gay Games in Belgium and has found that she not only appeals to lesbians, her age also acts as an inspiration to many women playing sport as seniors.
“Our society is not up with our Constitution as far as lesbian and gay issues are concerned. The theory and the practice are at odds. We need to talk about this, I can see that.”
She also received some flak and subtle fobbing off from within Team SA in London two years ago, noticing that when the women’s hockey team became aware of the media kerfuffle surrounding her they subtly disassociated themselves.
“Half of that team are gay,” she said, with a subtle note of derision. “But they weren’t going to let themselves be seen too close to me.”