Tackling a sports world that sidelines queer people
From the stands at the Wanderers sports grounds, Ronald Esbach watches with measured nervousness as his partner, George Groenewald, tries for a position in the Jozi Cats, a gay rugby team.
Although the couple has been in a civil union for eight years, seven of them have been spent hiding the true nature of their relationship from the cricket club Groenewald is part of.
“He is in his element when he plays sport. And he is taking getting into this team pretty seriously,” Esbach says.
“This is a safe space where he can be himself.
He can enjoy it — not so much to be free but to really enjoy. He’s no longer forced to laugh at really offensive jokes.”
Having decided that “enough is enough”, Groenewald says he has finally decided to end his years-long stay at the cricket club and switch to playing for the inclusive rugby club.
“I have been playing club cricket for seven years now and most of those guys don’t know I am gay. They think that Ronald is just my friend. Because a lot of them are very conservative, I can’t really be myself. You constantly have to pretend you’re someone you’re not.”
According to Jozi Cats’ Chris Verrijdt, the club was established in 2015 because of the need for a safe and inclusive space “where guys who enjoy rugby could play and enjoy the sport and be themselves”.
“We have had a lot of people ask us why, as a gay man, you can’t just go to a regular rugby club. But, if you chat to a lot of the guys here, you’ll see that they never felt they could be who they really are and play rugby at the same time. Here, they get the opportunity to do both.”
The first international, large-scale, quantitative research conducted into homophobic attitudes and behaviour in sport, Out on the Fields, was released in 2015.
The report found that “only 1% of participants believed LGB [lesbian, gay, bisexual] people were completely accepted in sport” and that “a high percentage of participants of all sexualities (80%) reported witnessing or experiencing homophobia in a sporting environment”.
The report, which drew together research conducted in Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland, also noted: “Without exception, higher-than-expected rates of homophobic behaviour were reported in all English-speaking countries and by all participants.
“There were few signs … that LGB people are, or feel, welcome and safe to play or engage with team sports without fear of discrimination. The majority of LGB participants reported hiding their sexuality from team-mates, with fear of homophobic discrimination cited as a main reason.”
Sports commentator and former Springbok Gcobani Bobo says that, although he has “never met anyone who has been discriminated against”, he adds: “I can see how the environment could be intimidating, though.
“At rugby games, there is this emphasis on creating a family-type atmosphere; people with their children and also having lots of girls coming to the games. I think that, in order to avoid any kind of discrimination, there needs to be more education around the need for tolerance.”
Doing its bit to educate others about the need for tolerance, the Jozi Cats set out on its national Blow the Whistle tour in December.
“It was incredible for what it was,” says Verrijdt, adding: “In Bloemfontein, for example, we put together a flash mob, where we came up with a chant. It wasn’t easy trying to come up with words rhyming with homophobia but we did it,” he laughs.
“We did our thing, blew our whistles and people came up to us and said they loved what we are doing. And this, of course, gave us a sense of purpose.”
Added validation came when Exclusive Books came on board as the tour’s lead sponsor. Sponsorship helped the Jozi Cats realise its “passion project”, the formation of an inclusive rugby team in Khayelitsha, in partnership with Grassroot Soccer and the Treatment Action Campaign.
Although the fledgling Khayelitsha-based team could benefit from having a large retailer such as Exclusive Books buying into this vision of inclusivity in sport, another team has had to shut its doors because of a funding shortage.
Dikeledi Sibanda was the manager of South Africa’s first lesbian football team, The Chosen Few, which was established in 2006 and folded in 2013.
“We would ask people for donations, and many would give, but you really need proper money to do what we were doing, which, because we were conducting workshops around issues LGBTI [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, intersex] people faced with various communities, was essentially activism through sport.”
Describing the team as a “home for lesbians who were victims of sexual and physical violence”, Sibanda adds: “It was like a support group, but with sport. It empowered us and developed our characters in the best way. There was real healing in that.”
Although participation in the team might have offered its members some healing, Sibanda says playing football was also dangerous for many women, particularly those who live in townships.
“There is this perception that, if you play soccer and you are a woman, you are lesbian. So you are more vulnerable. But we were radical like that. We had this attitude of ‘fuck society; we are doing what we want to do; this is our passion and nobody’s going to stop us’.”
Mandisa Sithole, who preferred to use a pseudonym, was a successful football player. After performing well at national level, Sithole represented South Africa at an international LGBTI sporting competition.
“I did very well there, getting numerous awards. The international media ran these stories on me, which was great. But when I came back to South Africa, the club I was with said they could no longer be associated with me because everyone now knew I am gay.
“They were scared of losing endorsements and said I am a threat to the club. I was treated like people were treated in the early days of the Aids epidemic: my training partners dropped me and people would not even use the same toilet I did. It was terrible. I spent the next year completely depressed.”
Ithumeleng Mamabolo, a clinical psychologist in Johannesburg, says: “There is often an element of self-hatred and inner conflict with being of a different sexual orientation, because of the negative connotations society generally has around it. So, if someone is put in a position where they have to weigh up the pain of hiding who they are for fear of losing out on something they are passionate about, it exacerbates this.
“It also makes it difficult for others to come out about their sexual orientation, which, in turn, continues the cycle of self-repression and self-hate.
“This not only impacts on the person’s well-being but also their ability to perform well in whatever sporting code. We therefore end up with a situation where the best sportspeople will never get to be at their best because of society,” says Mamabolo.
Phuti Lekoloane, South Africa’s first openly gay male footballer, was asked in an interview with LGBTI website MambaOnline whether he thought coming out as gay had had an adverse effect on his career. Lekoloane replied: “It does. I was recently at a team for trials. The question that was raised by the coach and the management was: ‘How are we going to deal with you, because in our community we are not used to this kind of thing? You are a very good goalkeeper but how are we going to accommodate you? And what about the image of the team?’
“That’s something that hit me — that I am going to ‘be bad’ for the image of the team. It’s very tough.”
Mato Madlala, acting chief executive of the Premier Soccer League, says: “Within the PSL, no incidents of homophobia have been reported. If there were such incidents, we would certainly have known about it.”
The Rainbow Laces campaign, initiated by the organisation Stonewall, which is based in the United Kingdom, saw supporters and members of more than 50 professional football clubs wearing rainbow-coloured laces in support of LGBT fans and players.
Virginia Magwaza, of the Other Foundation, one of the supporters of the campaign, wants to bring it to South Africa. “It is publicly known that some sporting personalities are part of the LGBTI community, but most are not free to be who they are due to sporting codes that remain homophobic in South Africa.
“The Rainbow Laces campaign seeks to change attitudes towards LGBTI people across the world through sport. It also is meant to show that LGBTI people are part of every community but held back by prejudice and discrimination,” Magwaza says.
Commenting on whether such a campaign could enjoy the support of PSL, Madlala says: “We would need to find out more about the campaign and what it entails, because we would not like to simply pay lip service to such a serious issue. But, in principle, we would definitely support it.”
Back at the Wanderers, a week after trying for a position in the Jozi Cats, Groenewald is told he has made the team. Unable to hide his excitement, he says: “I can’t wait. I feel like a huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I can play a sport I love and just be me.”
Recalling how, a week earlier, Esbach had quietly supported him from the stands, he says: “You know, that day Ronald surprised me by turning up here. That wouldn’t have happened before where I was playing cricket. So, you see, this has actually brought us closer. We can support each other 100% now. We don’t have to hide who we are.”
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian.