For some, there is a particular moment in their life that they can pinpoint as being when they decided to speak out about what they were passionate about, and what they believe in.
For Jonathan MacBride, it was the exact opposite. Organising and advocating only ever seemed like a natural progression.
Much of what MacBride has accomplished has come in squash, a sport that was passed on to him as a youngster by his parents. In fact, he inherited racquet sports in general as a child, also playing badminton and tennis. Another thing he took after his parents in, though, was taking a leading role in things he cared about.
“I’ve always been an organiser – my parents have always been on committees, and I was on committees growing up,” MacBride recalled.
“I was 24 when I got in touch with LGBT Youth Scotland in Edinburgh to make new friends and went to a LGBT+ History Month event and got the idea to have an inter-generational gathering. They had a volunteer group, so I was invited to be part of that, and then I helped organise this event.
“The leader there got some of her friends to come along who had really interesting lives and fascinating stories, and they brought some photos which was very interesting.
“Then I got too old because it’s LGBT Youth and 25 is the limit, so they pushed me towards the LGBT Centre for Health and Wellbeing at the time. I took a break for a little while, but then about a year later I volunteered as the host of their weekly drop in. Then I got asked to be on their board, so I was a volunteer there and then I was a board member for seven years.
“I suppose I learned from older community members about all different kinds of community efforts and activities and issues. That then helped inspire me in other community initiatives.
“I used to work for Bank of Scotland, and I started a corporate LGBT staff network. Then, very soon after that, Lloyds TSB took over HBOS, so that stopped for six months or so while HR tried to get themselves sorted in the combined group. Lloyds TSB had their own staff network, and they contacted me and other LGBT+ activists and got us down to London to form a Lloyds Banking Group staff network.
“Interestingly, Lloyds TSB’s network had been LGB, and they had a separate trans network, and in Scotland everything was LGBT. Stonewall Scotland was LGBT, but Stonewall GB was LGB. It was only LGBT in Scotland because other charities were LGBT, so I came down from Edinburgh with a couple of other people and we had quite an interesting conversation about who we would include essentially.
“One of the co-chairs who had been nominated by HR was a trustee of Stonewall GB. In her head, it was going to be an LGB network, and we came out of it an LGBT network because people chose inclusion rather than exclusion. The rainbow network just grew and grew, it was phenomenal.
“At Bank of Scotland I was in an open plan office and people said ‘I play squash, do you want a game?’ I didn’t recognise them from the league, so I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be a very fun game for them to play me. I played one of them a couple of times, and then I got this club going where we all went up after work one day a week.
“It developed into anyone I met who showed any interest in squash at all being asked along, and just because I was socialising in LGBT+ circles it became more LGBT+ focused and less work based. Eventually I just thought I should make it a diversity group that was open to everyone.”
That was how the Colinton Squashers formed, and MacBride is still running the group today, 17 years later.
Given that he had the confidence to take a leading role in both a work and sporting setting when it came to organising and advocating for the LGBT+ community, it may be easy to assume that MacBride was always loud and proud about who he is.
However, he did have some reservations about coming out in squash when the time came for him to start telling people.
“There were no role models, no visibility, nothing to show that people would react positively, so it was like venturing into the unknown,” he reasoned.
“Having played squash for so long, it’s about the sport, the playing. The social side of it where you might develop a closer relationship with people comes in league matches where you are travelling to games, and staying around the same folk every week for months. You’re going away in a car to an away match with them, and so it becomes more than just a sport or a game.
“I love that about playing for a league team, it’s not just about the competition. There’s a real team spirit – it’s an individual sport but you’re supporting each other and trying to talk to your team members and support them.
“Not being open about being gay, you’re hiding something from people that you like. You’re hiding something from people who you are seeing every week, and it doesn’t feel right. Eventually I got up the courage to tell one of my teammates.
“He knew already, nobody had told him but he knew. Stereotypes are there for a reason, they don’t fit everyone but they are there for a reason. There are sometimes you can tell, and sometimes not at all, but it wasn’t a surprise when I told him.
“I think my uncertainty revolved around communal changing rooms. Nowadays, people understand more about what gay is. They know more gay people, so their own knowledge comes from personal experience rather than what they’ve read, but in something like 2000 fewer people knew other gay people, so there was a nervousness about how they would feel about having a gay guy in changing rooms.
“There was never any issue at all to their credit. I don’t know what they were saying behind my back, I’m sure there were people saying ‘did you hear about Jonathan?’ I’m sure that went on, but I didn’t experience any negative reaction.”
On the court, the Northern Irishman, who is sponsored by Harrow, represented Ulster at junior and senior level, but there was also a point where MacBride could lay claim to being the best in the world.
At the final two editions of the now defunct World OutGames, MacBride represented Ireland and won a gold medal. That was an experience he will never forget, but his success is something he cannot help but laugh at.
“How ridiculous is it that a guy who is playing squash for Ulster is the best gay squash player in the world?” MacBride joked.
“No! Either somebody isn’t out or they don’t know about the competition, but while they don’t I’ll go and play in the tournament, and if I win then great, I win!
“The World OutGames was amazing. It was so much fun, thousands and thousands of LGBT+ people all in the same place to play sport. I think there were 80 squash players, you don’t know any and then suddenly there are all these others there, all these people like you, taking part and doing the same thing that you’re passionate about.
“Being gay is not a thing, you’re not different, you’re the same. You’re not different from everyone else. At the moment in Scotland, and in general in the squash world, there are very few people like me. I know a lot of squash players in Northern Ireland and in Scotland, so it’s just really nice to be playing squash with other gay guys. There were lesbian women and trans women there too, and that’s just the identities I know about.
“People can be camp, and people can make jokes, and people can say naughty, suggestive things and it’s not uncomfortable – at least not for the reasons it would be uncomfortable around a bunch of straight folk. That’s just wonderful.
“I remember walking out with Team Ireland, and there were all these people cheering. There was like a catwalk thing in the square in front of city hall in Copenhagen for everyone to walk out on to, and then once your country had done it you would go into the crowd and watch everybody else.
“Everyone was so excited about being there. It was like the Olympics. There were 25 sports, and something like 10,000 people, and everyone was there to have fun and have a good time. Everyone just wanted to do their best.
“There will be parties as well, everyone likes socialising, but they’re all sports players. There aren’t many sporty gay folk, you’re the minority, especially back then there were next to no LGBT+ sportspeople or clubs. It has grown since then, I think there were the Thebans who have been going for the longest in Edinburgh, and maybe the Racqueteers, but there was nobody in Ireland.
“It was like a family. You can debate how cohesive the LGBT+ community is, but some of us try to do our best.
“All these people were there together for the same purpose, and you could be yourself, whoever you wanted to be, with nothing to worry about. There was no fear of what other people think, you were there to play your sport and they were there to play their sport.
“While the World OutGames aren’t going anymore, the Gay Games are exactly the same in that regard, and the EuroGames too. Montpellier have their own games, and Prague have a multi-sport festival, so I would encourage anyone who is LGBT+ and enjoys playing any sport to take part in any of these events.
“The solidarity that you feel, it’s really nice. It’s really heart-warming, inspiring, confidence boosting and motivating.”
As MacBride said, he knows a lot of people in and out of squash, and some of those connections led to him being asked to chair Scottish Squash’s equality advisory group.
That a governing body was proactively trying to become more inclusive was obviously an encouraging sign for someone who had grown up without any role models in the sport he loves, and in many ways squash is streets ahead of other sports on that front now.
“You have to do the work at grassroots level, but you also need to have the high level buy-in – Scottish Squash have that,” MacBride insisted.
“I was in a meeting with the previous chief executive, and I highlighted that they weren’t doing enough work that wasn’t with straight, white, cis men. They got that, and they created a page on the Scottish Squash website which was great. They wanted to show that inclusion, and then near the start of this current chief exec’s role I chatted to her about it and after a short while she came back to me and said they would like to start an equality advisory group, and asked if I would chair that.
“As far as I know, Scottish Squash are the first sports governing body to go to Pride and have representation there and promote their sport at Pride. They wouldn’t have done that without me. They have been to countless training and EDI events too, and really wanted to learn and engage with the equality advisory group. They wanted to be influenced and hear how squash could be better.
“They developed an equalities strategy, and they want equality to run through all their different strategies and strands across Scottish Squash.
“I think there are a couple of reasons Scottish Squash have done it and others haven’t – they are relatively small for one, so they can change more quickly than a huge organisation.
“They can make decisions and change policies. Any small organisation can swivel more quickly and do things more quickly than mammoth organisations. They’re not tiny, but I think that has helped.
“Also, I think with squash having been most popular in the 70s and 80s, and a lot of those people still playing, numbers had been declining. It’s now increasing again, but it had been declining for many years, and it was predominantly cis, white, straight, ageing men with the average age getting older and older.
“Then they had someone coming along and saying they needed to change stuff, they needed to engage with other people if the sport was going to continue to exist. If they wanted to turn a corner and get more people involved, they had to make an effort to show they wanted to include people who weren’t white, straight, cis men.
“If you show that you are inclusive of LGBT+ people, then you are immediately showing to other people with protected characteristics and intersections that you are interested in putting money towards people who aren’t cis, straight men.
“There is an awareness there, and it’s not just awareness, it’s action. You always want to do more, but they needed to change – and people involved at the right levels have said they want this to be a priority.”
As ever, more work can and should be done to promote LGBT+ inclusion in squash.
Some progress has already been made with the first professional players coming out, but MacBride still does not feel like there are enough. Work is being done to change that, and MacBride hopes to see his hard work bear more fruit soon.
“As far as I know, I’m the only male, gay squash player in the league in Scotland,” MacBride added.
“While there are lots of good things being done, there is nobody else organising things, there are no other role models, so that has to change.
“It’s fantastic that a few pros have come out in the last few years. That’s really exciting, I’ve chatted to them online, Todd Harrity and Jenny Duncalf, and I asked them do interviews with LEAP Sports Scotland.
“They were incredibly inspiring, really wonderful. I got my parents to watch the one with Todd, and they said that he was just like me – we had the same story. They’re older, they’re in their mid-70s, so they’re not of an embracing generation in Northern Ireland. They are behind the times in certain areas, this being one of them, but I was really pleased with how they reacted.
“In May a Scottish Squash club development manager asked what they could do for Pride Month. They paid for coaches to come to our Festival Fortnight event in June, and they were really pleased with how that went and want to do more.
“They approached me with some women and girls’ funding, and we put together an event. Hopefully they will be giving more funding to do more there. They want to replicate what I’m doing, they want more to happen, and it not just be me volunteering. I see opportunity there at the moment.
“They have done a lot of fantastic work with women and girls, which is great, that came out of the work that the equality and advisory group did back at the start.
“I suppose I would still like more visibility, because I’m the only one, and intersectionality. I don’t need them to do a whole big campaign to get LGBT+ people playing squash, they can include it in what’s funded already. They want more people in the women and girls programme playing squash? Then advertise that they want more LGBT+ women and girls playing squash, and everyone else will see that as well.
“I’ve said before that not having role models made me want to make inclusion more of a priority. I love seeing people be confident with who they are, and be happy and open with who they are.
“That can be that you’re a squash player, because that’s a minority sport. You’re allowing people to know that you play a minority sport. You don’t play football, you play squash, and we should all love it as much as we love football because it’s fantastic.”