From a very early age, Sirri Rånes became aware that sport was rife with inequality – and that has gone on to inspire the path she would take as a career.
Rånes currently plays rugby and recreational football, but it was not always that way. Football was her first love, with rugby not properly coming into the picture until university.
She could have taken to it far more quickly, though, had it not been for gendered language making her feel like there was no place for her in the sport when her local club came to run an information session at her primary school.
That is not to say, by any means, that football was plain-sailing. It took an intervention from Rånes’ mother to get her on to the primary school team, a moment that unknowingly sent her down a path that would see Rånes working for inclusion in sport in her day job until the start of 2022.
“I had loads of barriers playing football as well,” Rånes recalled.
“My cousin must have been six or seven when I was born, and he was so distraught that I was a girl that he cried in the hospital room because he wanted someone to play football with. He hates when I tell this story!
“So from day one, I was underestimated because of my gender, but he always played with me. He taught me, I scored goals and I knew that I was good at it, and that it was possible for a girl to play football.
“When I was the age to play football in school, my headmaster came into our classroom and said: ‘right lads, time for the boys to sign up for the football team, who wants a form to take with them?’ I put my hand up and he just ignored me, so I got the boy beside me to put his hand up even though he had no interest in football and he slid me his letter.
“I brought that home to my mum and the letter actually said on it ‘any boys interested in playing football’, so she rang the principal up and said ‘I think you might have made a typo here, it says boys’, and he was like ‘no typo, no, I don’t want any girls on the sidelines like cheerleaders distracting the boys from football’.
“My mum was furious about that, but she negotiated an audience with the principal – so I had to go into his office the next day. I’m a six or seven-year old, in the principal’s office, the room you go to if you got in trouble, making my case and trying to justify why I should be able to play. This was not the sort of thing a seven year old should have to do.
“To be honest that’s what kind of inspired my career trajectory. That wasn’t fair, and my mum stood up for me whenever that wasn’t fair. Then I just thought there are other people out here that aren’t able to access sport, that are being treated differently by society, and that’s not fair either.
“After a while, fairness kind of became equality, diversity and inclusion. At the age of seven, I didn’t say I wanted to be an equality, diversity and inclusion manager, but I was able to feel that gut wrenching pain of what it feels like to be excluded, to be deemed as less and unworthy. I didn’t want anyone else to ever feel that.
“Empathy is important sometimes and I think a lot of people – a lot of the white, straight, non-disabled, cis-men – that sit on the boards and make the big decisions, they don’t have that lived experience and empathy.
“They can’t feel that gut wrenching thing, the feeling that so many people in the LGBTIQ+ community have had to go through. I think that that’s a major problem, because if you don’t have that, or at least the ability to empathise with that, then the motivation isn’t as strong to make a change.”
Many of the reasons behind exclusion in sport – whether on the basis of gender or sexuality – are rooted in historic practices. It was those old attitudes that boys played sport and girls did not that put Rånes off rugby at first, and forced her to fight to be able to play football.
Still today, examples are rife of those outdated attitudes, even over seemingly trivial things like one of Rånes’ biggest bug-bears: calling women’s teams “ladies”. However, outright homophobia has been seen on and off the pitch at a professional level in recent times too, and Rånes has experienced her fair share of abuse over the years.
Women’s sport is often held up as being far more inclusive then men’s sport, and Rånes believes that may actually be one of the reasons why – the women involved have already experienced discrimination, so they know what it is like to be on the receiving end.
“Girls and women almost have to break out of a gender role to do sports like football and rugby that are typically male team sports,” she reasoned.
“Just accessing the sport alone, you’re having to stick your neck out a bit. I was always a tomboy until I was old enough to be a dyke, or butch, or lesbian, for playing football.
“You kind of do get ostracised for playing sports, and I think it’s something that’s changing. I think that women’s sports is becoming more normalised, but then you still have these little niggles that just hang on.
“I’ve recently been searching for women’s rugby teams in London, and they’re all called ladies teams. That really grates on me, because sports like football and rugby calling their women’s teams ladies is in a way appropriation of the fact that women are playing these male-dominated sports.
“It’s like men are saying yes, women are in these spaces, but let’s try and make it more appropriate by saying that actually they’re still ladies, they’re still feminine, we’ll still put them in this little box where it’s fine.
“It’s still less than. There isn’t gentleman’s sport, there aren’t gentleman’s rugby teams or gentleman’s football teams. It’s such an outdated term, I don’t know why we’re still using it.
“There’s people who would argue that it’s harmless, and I’ve had some very heated debates about it. There’s people that are quite attached to the term, and changing a team name for some reason is always a big barrier.
“I do think women’s sport in general is much more inclusive, and because we’ve had to break from the gender norm, that generally means that we are quite diverse as women ourselves.
“We’ve been through that kind of exclusion, being ostracised, being called names and so on. I remember getting to the point in university rugby, after dealing with a lot of the rugby boys and the stuff that they said, where I gave up caring and didn’t let it upset me anymore. I just wanted everyone to be able to play the sport and get all the benefits out of sport that I have. So I just wasn’t going to give them the time of day anymore.
“I think that also helps, because whenever you get someone in your team who’s different, you’re already like ‘well, I’m different because I’m doing a sport that I’m not supposed to’, and you can empathise with them.
“You try and make it as inclusive a space as you can, because at the end of the day, you’ve stuck your neck out to benefit from this sport, so you can understand what they’re going through in a way.”
Still, it is difficult to shake the perception or feeling of being an outsider. Incidents do not have to happen inside the sport or teams themselves to have an impact, it can come from a random encounter.
That otherness will undoubtedly put some off, but for Rånes at least it was never enough to drive her away from participating in the sports she loves.
“There always was the feeling of being an outsider to people who were outside the team,” Rånes said.
“Whenever I played with the boys in primary school, I always felt like an outsider, and I had to work very hard – much harder than they had to – to prove myself. I don’t know how many games I spent on the bench to come on and score. That sounds very vain, but looking back it’s the truth.
“As soon as I started playing women’s teams, that’s when I really started to enjoy not just the sport itself, but the social element and the sense of camaraderie. That was very much the case in university, because you’re surrounded by like-minded people who don’t mind being different and being perceived as different, and they’re just all very interesting and all very fun.
“At the same time, because of that social side, as a rugby team there was this kind of back and forth with the men’s rugby team. They really hated us, they really hated everything that we stood for, and they were just horrible.
“They would throw stuff at us when we were in the union. You would always hear those kind of terms being thrown around like butch, like lesbian. I’m quite a feminine presenting person, so I didn’t take a lot of the brunt of it. It was actually some straight women who were more masculine presenting, they were the ones that got the brunt of the direct homophobia, but mostly it was directed at us as a group.
“Moving into the club level, people mature a lot more I guess. I’ve not heard any outright homophobia since leaving university, but there’s still assumptions that people make about you.
“If I’m getting a taxi to the clubhouse to play rugby, it’s 50/50 whether the driver will comment on the fact that I don’t look like I play rugby, or I shouldn’t play rugby or football, rugby is for lesbians, one of those snide comments.
“Then with football – footballers are a different crowd compared to people who play rugby. In football I tended to hear players use the word gay for something that’s bad. It’s like, you’re gay, why would you use that term in such a derogatory manner? What other words would you use in that sentence if you weren’t using gay? You’re just calling yourself all those things by using the word gay as a synonym there.
“It’s interesting the different forms of homophobia that are at play. Reflecting on my work in the LGBTQIA+ sport sector, it’s difficult to communicate to people that this work is important because homophobia still exists.
“They say they haven’t heard it before, or they’re in the stands every Saturday and they haven’t heard it. Well, maybe you’re in the family section, or maybe there are other forms of homophobia at play that you’re not in direct earshot of, or there’s something really exclusionary that is going on and you don’t realise it.
“It’s opening people’s eyes a lot, and that’s quite a challenging thing to do because all you want to do is make changes, and you can’t do that without buy in from the key people. Getting that buy in in the first place shouldn’t take as long as it does.
“Sport brings you so many advantages and benefits that you don’t realise if you’ve never played before. Once you get involved and once you feel those benefits, once you feel the mental health pick-me-ups, once you feel the development of teamworking skills, once you feel the social elements of being part of something bigger than yourself, once you get the adrenaline of scoring a goal in the 92nd minute and sending your team into the next round of a cup – you wouldn’t give that up for anything.
“If someone told me tomorrow that there was another FA ban on women’s football, I would go to some underground league or something. Even if that structural barrier were to be there, I would still play, in the same way homophobia can be overcome – but that doesn’t mean that we should have to put up with it.”
It can be a frustratingly long and complex journey to combat issues like gender discrimination and homophobia in sport, but that is exactly what Rånes eventually threw herself headfirst into.
She began volunteering with LEAP Sports Scotland, as well as learning under the guidance of the Scottish FA’s then-diversity and inclusion manager Hala Ousta as a diversity and inclusion youth ambassador of change.
It was clearly a topic that fascinated Rånes, having tried to gear her masters degree in equality and human rights towards sport wherever possible, so when a job became available at LEAP she jumped at the opportunity.
Although she credits LEAP’s managing director Hugh Torrance with the charity’s growth in her time there, Rånes was involved in a number of projects that helped to make a difference too.
“I’d be remiss not to talk about the diverse identities in sport project that I was a part of,” she explained.
“That was my only real Erasmus Plus project. Getting to travel to different countries was an obvious perk of the job, but to work alongside colleagues from Bulgaria and Hungary in particular was a real eye opener. It definitely lit a fire under me.
“Thinking particularly about sexual orientation, we’ve got these certain rights as lesbian, gay, bisexual people in the UK, but I’ve always had the fear that it just takes maybe a decade and a bad government to roll those right back and to make us the enemy as they have done in the past. That project really made me want to protect the rights that we have as well as work across borders to try and find solutions in other countries where people are in danger by speaking out. If they can’t, who will?
“Apart from that, Football v Homophobia Scotland had a big place in my heart being a football player. There’s a particular problem in football in Scotland, and to be able to come into the role and set up Football v Homophobia Scotland and see it through to where it is today is very rewarding.
“It’s rewarding to see something grow like that, and it may not be a recognised name necessarily but you see the Scottish Women’s National Team wear t-shirts ahead of their Hungary fixture – that was pretty cool, that was a statement.
“I actually think that, as a sports movement, the tone has changed slightly from when I started to when I left. I think that professional athletes are starting to recognise the power that they have, and the ally-ship that they can give. Rachel Corsie became an Athlete Ally ambassador, and I think that athletes are more prepared now to take a stand and to make a statement.
“Maybe if Scotland’s women’s team didn’t play Hungary, they wouldn’t have seen or been made aware of the human rights issues that are going on there, but I think athletes are being forced a little bit more to look at the political backdrop to the teams that they are playing against.
“Hopefully that sense of responsibility about being a role model continues, and we start to see it being normalised among athletes.”
Five years after joining LEAP, it was time for Rånes to move on. She is continuing to dip her toes into rugby and football in a new setting, London, but while her LGBTIQ+ sports activism work is taking a backseat for now it may well only be a matter of time before the itch returns.
“With the emotional labour involved, it’s quite heavy – the rise in transphobia in recent years has been quite hard,” Rånes added.
“You know that your friends and your colleagues and trans people across the world are seeing these comments and seeing the nasty, horrible things that are being said about them and the twisted narratives that are happening in the wider media, and you do put a lot of pressure on yourself to try and fix that. That can get to you, but you need to keep up the good fight as well – which is the struggle.
“I would just like to take the opportunity to say thank you to everyone that I’ve worked with at LEAP – staff members, board members, volunteers who I already miss a lot, as well as the club representatives from the different sports groups and so on.
“I’d really like them to know how much I’ve appreciated working with them for five years and watching them grow.
“Something that I didn’t mention earlier was that when I entered the role there was a hub of sports groups in Glasgow and a hub of sports groups in Edinburgh, and there was nothing elsewhere. So to be able to see the LGBTIQ+ sports movement grow beyond those very metropolitan areas, having some options further north outside the central belt I think makes a big difference. I just hope to see more and more springing up elsewhere.”