Lou Englefield: “What keeps me motivated is injustice.”

Chances are, anyone who has done any work towards promoting LGBTQIA+ inclusion in sport in the UK will have come across Lou Englefield at some point.

Englefield is the director of Pride Sports, which runs the Football v Homophobia campaign among others, co-chair of Pride House International, a board member of the FARE Network and is involved in the bid to bring the EuroGames to Birmingham in 2024.

That, to put it lightly, is plenty to be getting on with, but even long before getting involved in inclusion work in a sporting context Englefield was trying to make life better for the LGBTQIA+ community.

After briefly leaving the voluntary sector to have her second child, Englefield started working for the Gay Healthy Alliance Project, and although she had played hockey and sailed competitively as a child it was only from there that connections began to be made in sports activism.

She was approached by Trevor Burchick from Manchester swim club Northern Wave, and together they put on a multi-sport festival over a weekend. When there were calls for it to return and Northern Wave did not want to take on the task again, Pride Sports was formed.

“All it was to start with was that we needed an organisation to have some accountability around this event,” Englefield recalled.

“Then within a couple of years of working on that, less than that really, I just saw how terrible things were around sport and physical activity.

“This was prior to the Equality Act. One of my early experiences was that we were taking a group of guys away for one of our projects, and I was trying to book an outdoor pursuits-type venue for a group of gay men to go on a weekend away.

“I was trying to get hold of this outdoor centre that we knew of that wasn’t too far away, and I felt like they were avoiding my calls. Eventually I got through to them, and I said ‘I’ve got a group of gay men and I want to bring them away for the weekend’, and the guy said to me that he wasn’t sure about that because they had a group of children booked in that weekend.

Englefield began working in inclusion in sport at a very grassroots level.

“Are you joking? There was me as a queer parent, and this guy saying it wouldn’t be appropriate for some gay men to come to a centre because there were children there.

“Those were my early experiences I suppose, and then very soon after that we were just working around equality, diversity and inclusion of LGBTIQ+ people in sport and physical activity, because there was a huge gaping need for some work to be done. Because I had been out of sport at that point for quite a few years actually, when I stepped back into sport it was a massive eye-opener.

“I can remember when I first started working in sport, I would walk into a room where there was a meeting and I would be like ‘Hi, I’m Lou Englefield from Pride Sports, we’re an LGBT sports development and inclusion organisation’, and I would know there were other queer people in that room but everyone would look at the floor.

“Even at that time, which was like 2006 or 2007, even as far as 2010, we were the first people talking about this subject in loads of sports environments.

“There were certainly lesbians in those environments who didn’t want to be implicated by us I felt. What I mean is that I knew that some, for example women in this case, in the room were gay, queer, lesbian, however they identified, but they maybe didn’t want to be so clearly identified by somebody coming in the room and talking about issues.

“In 2011, 10 years ago, there was some research that had come out from an academic, Dr Leanne Norman at Leeds Carnegie, into the experience of lesbian coaches. In her research she found that lesbian coaches had had experiences where they felt that they were seen as not appropriate leaders in sport at the very least – and at worst a danger to sport.

“It was only the other day that we put out a survey for stuff to do with LGBTQ+ sports groups, and of course we stupidly tweeted it and somebody filled it in bogusly. What they put was about the damage and harm that lesbians and trans women are doing to women and girls in sport. For some people, those stereotypes live on.”

Working for LGBTQIA+ inclusion in general society, never mind in sport, has its highs and lows but it inevitably takes a toll.

For every moment like seeing the football world come together to celebrate when Josh Cavallo became the first top flight footballer in the world to come out as gay, there are responses like the one Englefield saw in that survey, or a new newspaper headline attacking human rights.

The trans community are under particular attack right now, but campaigns like Football v Transphobia try to help where possible.

In particular it is the trans community who are the focus of that attention right now, but Englefield fears that it is just the start of a wider attack on other parts of the LGBTQIA+ community. Still, she finds a way to power through when bogged down in so much disheartening content.

“What I personally think is that we tend to think it’s just trans people now because LGB people have somehow passed the final hurdle, so we’re okay,” she reasoned.

“They’re starting with trans people now, but they are coming for all of us basically. That’s my take on it. It’s really interesting, I’m used to getting a load of people on about including trans women in sport, but it was really interesting that this recent thing I got was about lesbians and trans women.

“Having worked internationally, you can see that happen in Russia, that’s happened in Poland. In 2012 we had a Pride House in Warsaw for the European Football Championships. It would be really difficult to do that now.

“At the moment, it’s exhausting. We’re spending so much time working around issues with trans exclusion, and it’s really exhausting. It’s difficult feeling constantly under attack, because that’s what it does feel like at the moment. Let’s not make any bones about it, it’s a really tough time at the moment, but I suppose none of it has been easy.

“Social media stuff is very overwhelming at the moment, because when I started there wasn’t loads of social media, and one of the things certainly about Football v Homophobia is that social media is cheap, and it enables you to get your message across, so we spend a lot of time working on social media. Twitter is just a nightmare, you have to take big breaks from it at the moment.

“What keeps me motivated is injustice. When I think ‘I’m so tired, I’ve got to give this up’, that’s quickly followed by ‘you can’t give up now!’ The thing that exhausts you is also what keeps you going.”

Having been at the forefront of the sporting LGBTQIA+ inclusion movement in the UK, Englefield is in a unique position to analyse the change that has happened in that time.

Pride Sports began in 2006, and they took over the Football v Homophobia campaign a couple of years later when approached by its original creators, The Justin Campaign. Pride House began at the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010, but Pride House International was only formed five years later after the failed attempt to host one at the Sochi event.

Altrincham FC wore Football v Homophobia kit against Bradford Park Avenue in the English National League North in February 2019. Picture: Michael Ripley Photography

In that time society has seen landmark changes like the Equality Act in 2010. Gay marriage has been legal in much of the UK since 2014, and Northern Ireland from last year. Specifically in sports, we have gone from nobody talking about the need for LGBTQIA+ inclusion to campaigns like Rainbow Laces – about to have its 2021 activation – becoming a central focus of sports coverage when running.

It is important, then, in amongst all the frustration, anger and sadness at the current state of “debate” around LGBTQIA+ rights, to remember that we have actually come a long way over the last 15 years since Pride Sports was founded.

“Before Pride Sports existed in 2006, I don’t really think anybody was talking about LGBTIQ+ inclusion at all,” Englefield said.

“It may shock you to know that one of the first national governing bodies in the UK to talk about LGBTIQ+ inclusion at all was the English FA. They started work in this area probably in about 2008. I remember them coming to meetings in 2009 and 2010.

“Before that, before The Justin Campaign established itself, before these handful of queer activists suddenly arrived in sport 15 years ago, there was an absolute void. Nobody was talking about it and nobody had thought about it much. Kick It Out in maybe 2009 or 2010 were beginning to think about the issues and realise that there was work to do in that space, but they were very tentatively getting involved in it.

“What I’ve seen in terms of changes – taking football for example, we’ve now got LGBTQ+ fan groups in loads and loads of clubs. We didn’t have those. Football v Homophobia held a fans v homophobia conference in 2014 with the FARE Network. It was an international conference, we had people from all over the world coming to Manchester for a conference, and at that time I think there was only the Gay Gooners. I think Proud Canaries came hot on the heels of that, and that’s only seven years ago. Now, there are fan groups at so many clubs, so the visibility of fans in stadia is enormous now.

“That’s also true within wider sport as well. If you broaden that out, there is much more of a sense that LGBTIQ+ people are stakeholders in sport, that they are customers. They are people that deserve to have their needs met by sport, because they’re paying for their ticket like everyone else.

“That didn’t exist when we started. Really boring things too – we weren’t named in policies. People started having equality action plans much more after the Equality Act in 2010, but before that the legislation in the UK wasn’t very robust around LGB people, and there was the Gender Recognition Act but the legislation has moved on and therefore sport has moved on at a policy level as well.

Englefield has been part of a movement discussing, debating and shining a spotlight on LGBTQIA+ inclusion in sport.

“This whole thing about athletes, when I first started working I can’t think of any athletes I knew who were out and visible since Justin Fashanu. Certainly in the time that I’ve been working there has been a massive growth in diverse, visible, out athletes that has been huge.

“People like John Amaechi came out – he scored the first points of the millenium in the NBA. He’s many more things than that as well, but he wrote his autobiography and then came out. Gareth Thomas has come out in the time that I’ve been working, and they were further back in the day. I’ve seen a huge growth in athletes being out, and that’s male and female athletes, and now non-binary athletes as well which on a performance level is amazing.

“It really is so far beyond what we thought. We did talk around that time about what we would want to see in 10 years’ time. We wanted to see a world where people were accepted for who they are.

“It’s a bit difficult, because an A-League player has just come out in Australia so we’re all riding the high of that, but we still don’t have an out gay male football player in Europe. That’s still an absolute anomaly that we need to address and deal with, but even in the time that I’ve been working, people say ‘look at the women’s game, it’s so welcoming and inclusive’.

“When I was first working in sport, there weren’t loads of out female athletes either. The Richardson-Walshes hadn’t come out at that point, the likes of Tom Daley hadn’t come out, so there is a massive difference.

“I do feel like we’ve got a way to go, and I do feel like we’re facing a backlash at the moment in society, and I do feel like that’s having an impact on sport. We were made aware of two transphobic incidents in the women’s game recently, and you have to wonder how much of the public discourse in the media, all the anti-trans stuff, is seeping into sports environments.”

Though things may feel difficult, the fight will go on for LGBTQIA+ inclusion in sport and general society, and next year presents another opportunity to shine a huge spotlight on LGBTQIA+ rights at the Commonwealth Games.

With homosexuality still illegal in 35 of the 54 countries in the Commonwealth, Englefield is looking forward to having the opportunity to share stories from some of those countries – even if this Pride House and the potential Birmingham EuroGames in 2024 are projects she fell into somewhat accidentally.

“I got involved in Pride House Birmingham slightly by mistake,” Englefield laughed.

“In my role at Pride House International I approached Piero Zizzi and asked if he would like to get involved in this and put on a Pride House, and he came back to me and said yes, but he wanted Pride Sports to help. I ended up agreeing to that.

Englefield (right) with the Pride House Birmingham ambassadors and Piero Zizzi (left).

“It gives us an opportunity to do something really positive that’s focused around a mega-sports event. There’s lots of excitement in Birmingham around the Commonwealth Games, and I think that gives us an opportunity to tell some stories not only about the athletes who are competing at the Games, but also the countries that make up the Commonwealth and the rights of LGBTIQ+ people in them as well.

“Mega-sports events in their own right are really controversial. There are loads of issues around displacement of communities that have happened because of the Olympics, building infrastructure and loads of stuff that goes on.

“On top of that, we’ve got this colonial legacy of homophobia and transphobia within the Commonwealth that needs to be tackled, and we need to be working to raise the voices of people in the diverse countries of the Commonwealth doing this work. There are people in those countries who are putting their neck on the line every single day to do that work. I think the Commonwealth Games gives us an opportunity to tell some of those stories and spotlight some of the great work that’s happening in LGBTIQ+ communities in those countries.

“It also lets us shine a light on LGBTIQ+ athletes in the Commonwealth as well. There are some amazing athletes with some amazing stories like Dutee Chand, the Indian sprinter, who challenged World Athletics when they said she had too much testosterone to compete.

“She took them to the Court for Arbitration in Sport and won her case. She was only 19 or something at the time, then more recently she came out as a lesbian in India where she is hugely famous and really well known and respected. She’s done another really big, high profile thing at a really young age. She’s just one person, but there are some amazing people doing things both in sport and civil society in countries around the Commonwealth. It’s a huge opportunity to spotlight those people.

“That’s a really exciting project, and we’re trying to work closely with the organising committee at the moment towards some positive outcomes.

“Because we’re doing this work in Birmingham, and one of the legacies of the Pride House in Birmingham is that we want to see more sport and physical activity for the queer community, what seemed like a great way of making that happen was bidding for a EuroGames.

“We bid for the EuroGames on the basis that there will be this legacy from Pride House that will build up into a EuroGames, so hopefully we can make a real difference to queer communities in Birmingham.”

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