Zy Evangelista went through many of the same emotions growing up that so many other LGBT+ people felt about sport. They were a huge basketball fan, but was never able to commit to playing at school. The difference was that in their case, it had nothing to do with their sexuality or gender identity – it was because of their health.
Now, Evangelista can enjoy basketball as a founding member of the Rainbow Glasgaroos, but that was not always the case. As a young teenager, Evangelista was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism and systemic lupus, which meant that while they were a huge fan of the sport, taking part was another matter altogether.
For years they had to watch from afar, being limited to playing in their garden on their own or with a friend, but as time went on and Evangelista’s health improved, they were slowly able to start moving into team environments.
Still, it was not until university that they were able to play something resembling competitive basketball in a required physical education class, which proved to be something of an emotional rollercoaster.
“Unfortunately at that time, my health still wasn’t the best, so it was so hard running up and down the court,” they recalled.
“One experience stayed with me because I actually wrote about it for an essay at uni – when you’ve got exams it’s so stressful when you haven’t studied. I had an exam in calculus or something and I hadn’t really studied, but I had basketball first.
“The moment I stepped on to the court to play that game, it’s like I just forgot about everything else. That was just such a great feeling, so that’s why I had to write about it. All my worries about exams or whatever essay I had to hand in were just gone for that 30 minutes or so that I was playing. I thought that was really cool.
“My team did make it to the finals, but we didn’t win. I missed a couple of shots that could have won it, but my health wasn’t the best.
“I was really tired, and I decided to ask to be subbed out because I thought that someone might do a better job than me because they had the stamina. I cried when that happened.
“It was weird because the tears just came down. It was for a class, it’s not like we were really competing for anything although I think we got a little medal at the end, but I felt really sad that we didn’t win.
“I had three or four chances, and if I had made those shots we would have won the game. It was a good experience though. As much as that sucked, I guess for me as someone who loves basketball a lot, maybe that might be the closest I’ll come to experiencing what NBA players feel like when they lose.
“I thought ‘oh, maybe this is how it feels when you have the chance to win the game but you didn’t’. I think that’s why it stands out to me, it wasn’t the best outcome, but it was still something.”
Evangelista’s basketball journey on the court began there. After graduating, they moved to Glasgow to do their masters and joined the women’s basketball team there, and they even got one-on-one coaching when back in their native Philippines afterwards to keep playing the sport in one form or another.
Eventually, that led Evangelista to starting up a women’s league along with their coach and her former teammates. On a personal note though, that caused some issues, as Evangelista never quite identified as female.
“Health issues aside I guess, what was hard about wanting to pursue basketball growing up was that I was a girl,” Evangelista explained.
“I wasn’t that comfortable playing with guys for various reasons. I wasn’t sure if they were going to take me seriously, because they saw me as a girl and I didn’t want to be treated differently, and I didn’t want them to think I was spoiling their game.
“What I can say is that since I was a child, I always knew my sexual orientation, but back then we didn’t necessarily have the language to describe trans. Looking back, if I applied the language that we have now, I would say as a kid I was trans.
“I do remember wishing that I would wake up one day as a boy. Obviously, I grew up and it hit me that I wasn’t just going to wake up one day as a boy, that wasn’t going to happen. I kind of got used to being a girl, I came to terms with my sexuality, and then it was actually only relatively recently when I came back to Glasgow in 2018 when I came across the term non-binary.
“I attended this one course that LGBT+ Health and Wellbeing do, a transitioning support course. By this time, I was fine with my sexual orientation, I had come to terms with that and I had come out to my family. I was surprised that the course brought up stuff for me – I was actually afraid I was trans.
“For a couple of months it was really bothering me. I thought I had my identity figured out, but I guess your sexual orientation and gender identity really are two different things. The thing for me was how do I make sense of wanting to be a boy when I was a kid? You can’t change how you’ve grown up, and by that I mean I got used to being a girl.
“This is why I identify as non-binary and I’ve embraced the term more and more and it started making sense to me. In the beginning I wasn’t sure, I actually had conversations with friends asking if it was okay for me to use the term because what if I was just using it as an excuse to not accept that I want to be a boy?
“Eventually, I thought ‘I don’t know’. The thing is, I’ve lived most of my life as a girl, I’ve gotten used to it. I’m obviously still a bit more masculine presenting, but I almost feel like there’s a political aspect to it. I don’t want to be a man because I feel like knowing the challenges that women face, I don’t want to be part of that patriarchy.
“At the same time, it’s not like I’ve ever really felt like your typical woman, so that’s why I think non-binary makes sense for me. I wanted to be a boy as a kid, and now I know there’s still a part of me that wants that, but it’s not the same, so maybe non-binary is what makes sense to me. I kind of like the fact that I don’t have to be either of those.”
As much as Evangelista had to go through a process of self-discovery in their personal life, it had an effect on the court too.
Playing in women’s teams always had an uncomfortable element behind it, so when they returned to Glasgow to do their PhD they looked jealously at the inclusive basketball club in Edinburgh, wishing there was an equivalent in Glasgow.
Passionate as ever for basketball, Evangelista took it upon themselves to seek out a group of people who would be interested in starting a club, and with the help of LEAP Sports the Rainbow Glasgaroos were born.
“Playing on women’s teams definitely did bring up issues,” Evangelista said.
“That’s one of the reasons why when I came back to Glasgow to do my PhD, I decided not to rejoin the women’s basketball club at the uni.
“Apart from being much older and having to play with younger people, even when I was playing on the second team during my masters – I wasn’t fully out then – I felt awkward being on a women’s team.
“Having gone through that, and then having experienced what it was like to play in a team, that’s why when I came back to Glasgow in 2018 and I found out there was an LGBT+ basketball team in Edinburgh I wanted to go.
“That’s when I came across LEAP Sports, and I told them that if there was one in Edinburgh, why not one in Glasgow? The Glasgaroos is clearly a queer space. I’ve become more comfortable in queer spaces, so I thought how great would that be if that existed in sports in something that I really love.
“What myself and the other co-founders made clear when we were putting together the group was that we wanted it to be a safe and an accessible space for everyone. That doesn’t just cover sexual orientation or gender identity. Coming from my experience of not being fit because of health conditions, I wanted it to be open to anyone of all abilities, of all fitness levels, even if you’ve never played basketball before.
“Scotland is still very much a football nation, so we have people coming in who have never heard of basketball.
“We have people who aren’t familiar with the sport, but they’ve joined the club and it’s so rewarding. That was something unexpected for me. I love the sport so much, but that feeling when you’re passionate about something and then you have other people coming in who end up liking or appreciating the same thing, it’s a weirdly rewarding thing.
“They’ve kept coming back because they have enjoyed the game, and they take an interest in it. Seeing them develop their skills and becoming more confident, that is really great.”
As well as developing members’ skills, the Glasgaroos have developed as a club over the last couple of years. At first, it was just Evangelista, their two co-founders and a single member at training, but that had moved on to around 10 players at sessions, a mix of regular attendees and new faces.
Based at the City of Glasgow College, the Glasgaroos get to use the facility for free – in turn allowing them to hold sessions free of charge. That arrangement also saw them get training from volunteer student coaches and play the college’s women’s team, and they were looking at organising more matches – including against their fellow LGBT+ basketball side in Edinburgh – before the pandemic hit.
One of the advantages of being an inclusive club is that traditional gender binaries – and restrictions – can be thrown to the wayside, which is perfect for people like Evangelista. As far as they are concerned, that is the way forward to encourage more non-binary people into sport.
“We just need to have more mixed gender teams out there,” they reasoned.
“It’s so hard with all the disinformation and all the campaigns, but it’s about better awareness and educating people. I myself haven’t read up so much on it, but I think there’s a lot of research that looks into whether men actually have a competitive advantage over women.
“People say trans women shouldn’t play with women, because they are stronger or whatever. I think there is no real scientific basis to a lot of that stuff. I feel like it’s not automatic. As someone who has grown up as a woman, if you actually think about it it’s definitely sexist. I don’t like the idea that people automatically assume that men are stronger than women.
“I think it’s more awareness of that, educating people about the science, but at the same time critically reflecting – or at least making people reflect – on the assumptions under all of that.
“It’s about educating, creating awareness, and having those conversations. I do think that there are people who won’t change their minds, and they are not the people that we’re trying to reach out to, but there are those people who are still possible to reach out to.
“I’m not putting the onus on LGBT+ people to create safe spaces, because we shouldn’t have to do it but unfortunately we do. I just want people to realise the importance of having those spaces, and hopefully by saying that it will make other people support them – especially people who are concerned about health and fitness, because there is so much research on the benefits of sport.
“One of the things I’ve found really rewarding with the Glasgaroos apart from the people who learn to love and appreciate basketball is that if some people want to make it but they can’t because transportation cost is an issue, we try to tell them to get in touch with us and we will see what we can do.
“We actually have one person who one day decided they wanted to contribute some money to the group because of how much the group had done for them in getting them back into exercising and physical activity.
“I can’t speak for other LGBT+ people’s, but because I’ve had my own experiences with it I can imagine that the stigma, the prejudice and the discrimination you could potentially experience in sport might put people off.
“It’s hard to get the motivation to stay fit by yourself, especially if you’re just within your room which I’ve had to deal with in the pandemic, so just to hear someone say that we’ve helped them want to become active again, we need more spaces for people to do that.
“I hope whenever this pandemic ends that we can get back to that with the Glasgaroos. From my own experience and how it has helped me, I want that for other people too – to find that space where they can just have fun, be themselves and try something new without any judgement, because it makes such a difference. That’s the message I want to put out there, we need more spaces like that.”