For many LGBT+ people, sport can be a double-edged sword.
On one hand, it can be stressful to be in environments that you are well aware is not particularly accepting or welcoming, and the perceived need to hide who they are can have a knock-on effect on mental well-being and sporting performance.
On the other, it can serve as a distraction from the internal struggle that so many people have to deal with, a focal point where all that matters in that moment of time is the game you’re playing, your role in the team or getting an end result.
Usually, the reality lies somewhere in the middle of those two extremes, but for Lachlan Smith it was certainly more of the latter in his younger years.
Growing up in Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, Smith was in one of the more progressive parts of the country. In other areas homosexuality was still illegal into the 1990s, but as is so often the case the more populous cities also had a more liberal outlook, and with Adelaide being the fifth biggest city in Australia Smith knows his adolescence could have been much more difficult.
That is not to say it was plain-sailing – hiding his sexuality as a teenager led him to retreat into his shell at his Christian all-boys secondary school, where he never felt particularly confident or supported.
Sport was his release, with Aussie Rules and cricket dominating his interest, despite his teams not being particularly successful. That did not matter one bit to Smith, who aspired to open the batting for his school, but his cricketing journey threatened to come to an abrupt halt just as he was hitting his 20s.
“When I was actually playing the game, it was an escape – I had a sense of freedom I guess,” Smith recalled.
“I wasn’t the greatest player in the world, but that didn’t really matter to me at the time. It was something to lose myself in, and if it wasn’t playing it was writing out scorecards or statistics from Australia’s test matches or South Australia’s first class matches at the time.
“I try and think about that conflict of it both being an escape but also being a burden at the same time. I felt like if my teammates knew I was gay, they would think differently about me and my performances. That’s what I felt at the time, and that’s what I felt when I started playing cricket again in England.
“I would have been 20 or 21 when I stopped playing, it was just after my dad died in 1996. It just didn’t feel like it was something I could keep doing. I was really struggling with my sexuality, and shortly afterwards I moved away from Adelaide for work and the idea of trying to play cricket in the small community that I moved to just never crossed my mind.
“I came out a couple of years later. When I left Australia, I never thought I would play cricket again. Coming here was quite easy in a way, when I came out over here it felt more welcoming or accepted, but in Australia it was a bit of a mixed bag. I knew I was gay from when I was 14 or 15, maybe even earlier, but I didn’t come out until I was 22 or 23, and I think that was part of the reason.”
It would be a chance discovery that led to Smith’s return to the game on a regular basis after a couple of one-off games in the mid-00s, but by that time he had been living in England for 10 years. He moved to Birmingham in 2000, but a decade later he was back in Australia seeing family and clearing out the belongings he had put into storage when moving to the UK.
Going through the boxes, he found his old cricket bat and a brand new, never used ball. Smith’s mother convinced him to take it back to England with him at least, and if he decided to get rid of them there then so be it. Instead though, Smith decided to give playing sport another go.
It was not an overnight process, and it still took a couple of years before an opportunity to get back to cricket came up that Smith grasped with both hands. He was working at the University of Warwick in Coventry, and he became aware of a staff team that were looking for players.
A couple of years later, he had changed jobs and found another club much closer to home – but with both clubs there was a very real fear about getting involved at first, mainly because he still could not combine the idea of being a gay man in sport.
“I emailed them at Warwick and said I would go along, because I knew that if I told someone else I was doing it there was more chance I would actually turn up,” Smith reasoned.
“I ended up going for a session, which was indoor nets at the gymnasium at the university, and I felt absolutely physically sick, like I wouldn’t be able to walk into the sports centre. It was awful. In the end, I managed to pluck up the courage to go in there, and it was kind of ok.
“It was a bit strange, because it wasn’t a social team. We all played, but then we just went home because a lot of us lived quite a long way away. We never really socialised, so in a way, it was easy not to come out. I came very close to coming out in one of my last games to this guy, Andy, who I played with, but I couldn’t pluck up the courage to do it. It just didn’t happen, and when I left Warwick Uni I had to find a different club.
“I remember emailing my current club asking when they trained and all that sort of thing. I think it was the club secretary at the time that got back to me saying I should come down to their club social on a Sunday evening for a drink and to introduce myself. I managed to drag myself to the club, looking for this guy who was my contact, and I had a chat with him.
“It was a ridiculous conversation thinking back on it, he asked where I had played before and I told him, and he said I was welcome to come to the club and play, but I shouldn’t assume I would come and walk into their first 11. I had no chance of getting into the first 11, that was the least of my worries! I went to training a week or two later, and again I was absolutely bricking it.
“I didn’t feel comfortable. It didn’t feel right. I still had this disassociation in my head around being gay and playing sport. I didn’t think it would be an environment where I would be welcome, and I think in part that’s because there were so few role models. I couldn’t see any role models, I couldn’t envisage being in a cricket changing room with 10 other guys and being out. That idea seemed totally foreign to me.”
The same worries that filled Smith’s head when he was a teenager were rearing their ugly heads again, as he was concerned about what his new teammates would think and how their opinions of him could change if they found out he was gay.
His new club did have the social element that the Warwick Uni side lacked, which meant that questions came his way, ones he had become accustomed to dodging. Even though he had a long-term partner by this point and had been out for around 16 years, admitting his sexuality in sport did not feel possible.
Smith’s performances with the bat and ball started to suffer, and his love of cricket waned – not for the first time in his life. He felt like he was reaching a breaking point, and something needed to change.
“I got on really well with some of the other players, but I had this paranoia,” Smith admitted.
“In the third XI, the club’s lowest team where I played, it was a transition team really for juniors coming into men’s cricket. There was usually five or six older guys, and four or five younger lads, anywhere between 14 and 20. I always got on really well with the younger lads, but there was a part of me that thought that if they knew I was gay, they would think totally differently of me.
“One day actually, someone who was on the club’s committee came up to me after a match where I’d gotten a duck and bowled appallingly, and asked if I was alright. I said I just wasn’t having a good day, that kind of thing. We had a short chat after the match, and later that week I came out to him and another one of my teammates.
“The pressure had built to a point where I had to say something or walk away. I had built this up in my head to such a point that I needed to just do something, and it was either come out or walk away, because I wasn’t really enjoying playing.
“Once a few of the more senior players found out, everybody else found out, but it took about a year before everyone really actually knew. I still had people coming up to me a year later saying they didn’t realise I was gay.
“The pressure came off, and I had my best two seasons at the club by a long way. I scored my first 50s, and I was asked to open the batting by my third XI captain, because as soon as I came out I was suddenly much clearer in my thinking when I was playing.
“Being the one gay guy at the club I was convinced I had to perform twice as well as everyone else just to be on the same level. I don’t think other people see it that way in reality, but it doesn’t stop my brain thinking that. I think that goes for lots of LGBT+ sports people.
“The third XI, we’re a bit better now, but two or three years ago we had no batting at all. My captain said to me that technically, I’m capable, mentally I look like I could hang around for a while, so he didn’t mind if I don’t make many runs but he needed someone to stay in, so would I open the batting? I thought yeah, I’ll have a go, and doing that I got a few 50s for the club opening the batting.
“I was suddenly averaging 17 over a season which for me was a bloody miracle, given I was averaging seven or eight before that. I was playing so much better, and my confidence was 100% improved. I just felt more comfortable at the club.”
From there, Smith’s confidence off the pitch has taken off. He started up his own blog to share his experiences of being a gay man and a cricketer, and was also featured on Sky Sports last year as part of a feature on cricket adopting the Rainbow Laces campaign.
While performances in the middle have tailed off somewhat – he has been out for the most ducks at his club in each of the last two years – he is still enjoying playing cricket. Instead, his focus has turned to how he can give back to the sport he has had such a tumultuous relationship with, and the answer has taken him by surprise more than anyone.
“I never used to really understand why somebody would want to play for an LGBT+ team, in any sport, I never really got it,” Smith admitted.
“I knew they existed, and I could see that they were useful places for people to play if that’s where they felt comfortable, but it was just never for me. I never really saw the need I suppose, and I only play cricket, I don’t really play any other sports, so it was never something I was attracted to.
“In a previous life, going back about 10 years, I was vice-chair of Birmingham LGBT+ for a couple of years, a big charity here in the West Midlands. I kept in touch with them over the years, and I attended a webinar a couple of months ago where they were talking about the impact of Covid on the LGBT+ community.
“What became starker to me was the sense of isolation, the lack of community – bars were closed, all the social groups were closed or had moved online – but sport is a really good way of helping people manage mental health.
“That just got me thinking, I’m lucky that I play at the club that I do, and on the whole I feel pretty comfortable. I know there’s Graces Cricket Club in London, but I thought there must be other LGBT+ cricketers in the West Midlands who maybe used to play cricket and don’t anymore because they didn’t feel like it was the sport for them, or maybe people who had never played but would be interested in having a go.
“People might feel like it’s intimidating turning up at a proper league club in their adult years, but cricket can be a great sport from a social perspective so I thought maybe I should work out if there’s a demand.
“I feel like I should give something back to the community, and this is maybe one way of doing it. If there is a demand, then I feel like I should try and get something off the ground. I don’t want to stop playing for my club, but I do want to give other LGBT+ people the opportunity to try out the game if they want to, even if it’s just social, friendly cricket.
“I spoke to Birmingham LGBT+ and we put a survey together which went live a couple of weeks ago to see if there’s interest in a LGBT+ cricket team in the West Midlands. I’m encouraged by the response so far, and even if we only have 10 people saying they’re interested, that’s probably enough to make a go of it next season and try and get something up and running.
“The West Midlands covers Coventry across to Wolverhampton, including Birmingham and all the Black Country, it’s probably about three million people. I can’t believe there’s not at least 10 LGBT+ people who would be interested in playing cricket and want an environment where they will feel included and safe.”
Smith taking such a proactive step towards campaigning for inclusion in cricket is a long way away from the young man who left Australia believing he would never play the game again. Perhaps that gives him extra insight into just how challenging sport can be for LGBT+ to feel welcome in, but he sees no reason why that should continue to be the case.
“I want to try and let people know that you can just be an average cricketer, or average in whatever sport, and be LGBT+ and play and be part of a team, and be accepted and enjoy it – whether that’s with an LGBT+ team or you’re just at a supportive club,” Smith said.
“I’m the only gay and the only Australian playing for my club, so I’ve got all the odds stacked up against me.
“Cricket, like any sport, is a very enjoyable game if you like it, and I don’t want anyone to feel like they can’t have a place in sport, or think that they’ll get abuse. I’ve had a rainbow grip on my bat, and I’ve now got a rainbow flag on my bat, and 99 times out of 100 it’s fine, absolutely fine.
“It has been a bit of a journey for me. I’ve gone from thinking I’ll never play cricket again, to playing cricket with a supportive club and good teammates, from thinking that I don’t need an LGBT+ team to thinking that for some people having that could be a gateway into the sport.
“I’m looking forward to seeing what we can make happen, cricket is too much fun and too good of a sport to be excluding the LGBT+ community. Birmingham has a rugby club, a football club, a badminton club, table tennis, running, swimming, they have all these sports clubs – but they don’t have a cricket club. It’s only really London that does, so surely there has to be an appetite. That’s what I’m hoping anyway.”