Robyn Love: “I didn’t want people to see a difference. I wanted them to see me as better.”

Robyn Love is no stranger to creating social media storms. When the Paralympian in wheelchair basketball announced her engagement to teammate Laurie Williams back in February 2020, the post went viral and the pair were featured on a number of international news outlets.

Fast forward two-and-a-half years to this week, and there was another reason for an outpouring of emotion – Love and Williams are expecting a baby.

It places the couple in quite an exclusive club. While queer role models across sport remain relatively rare, it is even more uncommon to see LGBTQIA+ representation in disability sport – in part due to the lesser attention those sports often receive in the first place. That can then be narrowed down further when considering athletes who are in relationships with other athletes, and those who are then openly queer, disabled and parents are scarce.

After a tough couple of years for the pair it is cause for celebration, and just as they used their engagement to promote LGBTQIA+ visibility Love fully intends to share their journey into parenthood.

“It’s been a long journey with it,” Love explained.

“We got IVF through the NHS, so we were quite fortunate. It was only because Laurie’s got polycystic ovaries, otherwise we couldn’t have got it through the NHS, and it worked first time.

“We’re very lucky, we’re in Manchester which is the birthplace of IVF, so we’re pretty fortunate that we’re in a place where they know exactly what they’re doing. It’s been a really, really good journey. I’m just grateful it worked first time, because I can’t imagine what it’d be like to have to keep doing it and doing it.

“It’s a nice thing to share on social media, and we’re pretty happy using our platform to spread positivity about being LGBT and being disabled. Sharing those stories, these positive things that are happening in our lives, it’s really important.

“Laurie’s dad literally passed away two months before we went to Tokyo. 2021 was pretty dire, so for us to have this incredibly positive thing pretty much bang on a year later is just fantastic, and we’re so grateful for it.

“Sharing all the great, positive news is fantastic. As well as that, you don’t see many women in wheelchairs sharing their stories on how they raise children. We didn’t know if Laurie could use a pram, we need to get the right type of cot so that she can literally just pick the baby up, there are all these things that we’ve got to think about now. I think it will be really interesting to people, but most importantly I think it’ll help other disabled mums find their way and find another community within a community that they are part of.

“We’re just enjoying life and getting on with it. Some people find that hard, even just getting on with stuff, it’s not easy for everybody. What I always at least try and do is do it with a laugh and a smile, and I really quite enjoy problem solving, so I enjoy the journey.”

Changing perspectives

Originally from Ayr, Love became more comfortable with her sexuality while at Edinburgh Napier University.

On top of that, it would not be until a few years later that she would be introduced to parasport. Love was born with arthrogryposis, a rare condition where muscles are shortened – leaving her with one leg shorter than the other and muscles missing in both legs.

Amid a quick rise to Olympic level in wheelchair basketball, Love fell in love with teammate Laurie, and over the last few years the duo have shared what their lives are like through social media.

“It’s important that people with disabilities are thought about because it’s often in LGBT+ communities that the venues are the least accessible,” she said.

“Where I live in Manchester for example, hardly any of the venues are accessible. It’s a nightmare. Even in Edinburgh, I used to work in a couple of gay bars that weren’t accessible. There was only one really accessible place, so it’s important that they are both connected and they are both thought of, because in one minority group like LGBT+ you could easily forget about the other minority groups within it.

A lack of accessible venues has not stopped Love and Williams attending Pride events.

“Within the disabled community as well, especially outwardly projecting as disabled, people are often desexualized.

“I walk and Laurie’s in a day chair, we’re both disabled but we look completely different, so I think it’s so important to highlight to everyone – especially in the disabled community – that you can be in relationships like we are.

“We are people, we are not just disabled people. I don’t think people look at disabled people and think we have relationships and sex. It’s not that people should think about it, but it’s like they don’t imagine that we have relationships.

“Laurie and I have been going out pretty much since I got into the GB squad, and we’re quite professional people, quite private, so even within the team we didn’t tell anyone for a while. I wanted them to get to know me as me, not me going out with Laurie, so we wanted to have that separation initially to build the foundation of our relationship.

“After the Richardson-Walsh’s were spoken about more in Rio, I started thinking we should probably start doing that a bit more. It was probably in 2019 I started getting asked about it.

“With the rise of Instagram athletes were almost empowered to take control of their image. I don’t like the word brand, because I’m a human, but they got to take control of how they communicated their lives. That is so powerful, people have found their voice within it.

“Even TikTok now, I love how it’s given people with disabilities an excellent platform to share their life in a really cool way. I’ve engaged with a lot more people on TikTok than I do necessarily on Instagram with people asking questions. Some people ask daft questions, but they just want attention, so I just don’t give it to them.”

Rising to elite level

Sport has always been a fixture in Love’s life. At school, she played badminton, volleyball and basketball among others, but she always felt like she had something to prove.

She was playing able-bodied sport at that stage, trying her best not to let arthrogryposis control what she could and couldn’t do. Still, a switch to wheelchair basketball would come after uni when Love was told by a basketball teammate that you didn’t have to be in a wheelchair already.

Love had a quick ascent to the top of wheelchair basketball after taking up the sport at the end of 2013.

Encouraged and mentored by Sportscotland’s Tina Gordon from December 2013, it only took a matter of months for Love to represent Great Britain, and she was named in the Team GB squad at Rio in 2016. That moment marked a meteoric rise to the highest level of the sport, but Love believes the competitive experiences in her youth served her well.

“I guess I just can’t believe it, so I don’t really talk about it,” Love reasoned.

“I’ve just been like ‘yeah, I did that’. I tried wheelchair basketball in the December of 2013 once, and then I went to my first Games in January. As soon as I got on the floor, I was just like ‘yes, this is for me’.

“It was tough, not only being on the basketball court but I did literally find myself on the floor quite a lot. I just didn’t have control of things, I had no idea, but I absolutely loved it because I’m so competitive. I love playing sport, and to play it in an arena where everyone is equal to me was fantastic.

“There wasn’t that thing in my mind like, ‘oh God, are they going to notice?’ I’d had that in the past – ‘are they going to notice I can’t do that?’ – especially if it was a new environment. When I was at school I was really good at sport, but there were certain occasions where I just couldn’t hide it. I used to try and hide it as much as I could just because that’s what I thought I was meant to do.

“I think it actually pushed me to be better, because I didn’t want people to see a difference. I wanted them to see me as better. When I was at school, it was almost like ‘what’s disabled about me when I’m better than you at sport? If I can beat you at badminton, what’s disabled about me?’

“To me, it was almost like a superpower. Sport was the thing that I used to feel good about myself and say ‘nothing’s wrong with me, I’m absolutely fine. Come and play me at badminton and I’ll show you’. That was my motivation to get better at it, and I think that attitude is what then helped me excel when I started to play wheelchair basketball.

“It was absolute craziness, I couldn’t believe it, but I wanted to get better and I didn’t care what people said – the amount of times people laughed at me at lunchtime because I had a red face, and I was like ‘yeah, what of it, I was trying really hard’. When it came to GB I was this 24-year-old woman going up against 14-year-olds, and it was embarrassing because they were absolutely doing me on the court and making me look like a fool. You just have to have that attitude of so what, who cares? Let’s laugh about it.

“I think that’s what helped me improve pretty quickly. I didn’t care if I looked stupid or I looked daft, I didn’t care if I made a mistake, because I’m competitive and I just wanted to get better.

It was a learning curve for Love when she first took up wheelchair basketball.

“Then of course I got selected for my first European Championships in 2015. I moved down to England and made a big step there. That was important, because it meant I could train every day and if I didn’t get selected for the Euros, I wouldn’t get any funding.

“I don’t really know how I managed to do it so quickly. I think it was because of my experience growing up playing sport, whereas a lot of people with disabilities who are born with their disabilities like me can’t play sport in school. They can’t join the basketball club, they just don’t have that luxury. All those experiences at high school and then in Edinburgh Napier’s basketball team, all those skills, were transferable. I just had to learn how to stop and push the chair.”

Still challenges to face

It was notable during the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham earlier this year that the Scottish 3×3 wheelchair basketball squad included three out LGBTQIA+ women – enough to field a full team on the court.

Similarly, there was no lack of diversity in that sense among the British Olympic squad in Tokyo last year, but there are still obstacles to overcome in the sport when it comes to inclusion.

“Our World Championships are meant to be in Dubai – and I for one do not feel comfortable going to Dubai,” Love cautioned.

“We’ve sent an email to our governing body to address that, but nothing has been said about it. There’s still a long way to go to consider the well-being and welfare of all the athletes within various organisations. I imagine there’s a fair bit of money involved in them hosting the Games. They say they’ve considered athletes’ welfare, but I don’t think they have.

“Especially in wheelchair basketball, if I don’t go the team is heavily affected because of the point system that we have. I think I would feel incredibly uncomfortable, and would I play to my best? Would I be thinking about other things? After games, you do interviews, would I want to do that? Would I want to put myself out there in case I said something wrong, or in case I mention the fact that Laurie and I are together?

“Usually we room together – would we be allowed to room together? All these things play into that, and I do wonder if it’s worth that fear. It’s scary. They say they can protect us, but can they? I don’t know if they can.

“As an LGBT+ person, I’m putting myself at risk by going somewhere where homosexuality is criminalised, and the international governing body are putting all of the LGBT+ athletes who are part of that, and volunteers and coaches and all those people, at risk by putting our competition somewhere where the athletes feel obligated to go because of the impact it would have on the team if they didn’t.

“It’s dangerous to put competitions somewhere where people potentially aren’t safe. You’ve got Canada who have quite a few LGBT+ women on the team as well, and in Great Britain we’ve got at least four, so that’s half the team.

Love is a key part of Team GB – but she still has reservations about playing in countries like the UAE.

“We ask questions to make sure we feel confident and comfortable, because I imagine that people don’t. It’s also important for the allies in our team ­– because trust me, my teammates are allies 100%. They need to know how to support us, and they need to know how we’re feeling, because it will affect them as well if we’re a bit afraid or worried.

“I’m really surprised that more hasn’t been said about it. I don’t think anyone should ever feel that, ever. More importantly, I don’t think that they should be put into a position where they’re expected to perform in an environment like that, and that’s where if you do have toxic cultures within your team or within your sport, of course a person who’s trying to come out isn’t going to.

“With Laurie being pregnant, that adds to my fear of going to Dubai again. It’s obviously exciting news, but when I do think about Dubai in June, can I say anything? Probably not.”

Potential new horizons?

While there are plenty of exciting things in Love’s future, and a World Championship to work towards next year too, there is also a glimmer of a potentially very different future in store for her.

Since returning from Tokyo, Love has been training in a different sport. After talking to 21-time Grand Slam champion and former Paralympic gold medal winner Gordon Reid in Japan, she has taken the opportunity to make a proper effort in another sport she has always loved: tennis.

Could she become a Paralympian in a second sport at some stage in the future? Who knows.

“I never thought I would be able to play tennis and I just thought why not give it a go while I can still push my chair at this speed,” Love added.

“I started on my feet when I was about eight, and I tried it at school and from then I just loved it. I played it all the way up until I was about 15, and I played every week with my friends.

“I just thought I wasn’t very good, because I was standing on my feet and I couldn’t run. I actually did try wheelchair tennis a few times, but no one really said ‘to do this you’ve got to do this and do this’. In wheelchair basketball they seemed to want me a lot more, and I wanted them too, but after the Tokyo Paralympics I wanted to try tennis.

“I had already signed up to a come and try day before I went to the Paralympics, and it was in September last year. Luckily I’m mates with Gordon Reid, who’s a great guy, a lovely guy, and he plays basketball as well. That’s how I know him, and in Tokyo when he was out there for tennis and I was there for basketball, I was talking to him and he was like, ‘oh, I can get you a chair if you want’.

“That’s the biggest barrier, these chairs, because they’re all different for different sports and they cost about five or six grand. I just don’t have that kind of money laying around, so you rely on kind people helping you out and he was a kind person that helped me out. When we got back from the Paralympics I met up with him in Glasgow, we had a wee hit about and he gave me a chair – and I’ve been training ever since.

“I’ve really enjoyed it, it’s been great so far, it’s a fun sport but it’s very hard. I don’t think I could have done it when I was younger, it’s really mentally difficult doing that by yourself. I’m glad I’ve had that team aspect of basketball and the pressured environments first, because when you’re sat there by yourself it’s pretty tough.

“I’m just so grateful that I have these opportunities. When I was younger, I played able-bodied sport, but I could never play at the level I am now, and I only discovered parasport when I was 22. 10 years later, I’m trying wheelchair tennis and I just thought I would be doing a disservice to myself if I didn’t.

“I’m kind of flying by my coattails and seeing what happens, just enjoying the ride and enjoying getting good at a sport and the experience of it really.”

One thought on “Robyn Love: “I didn’t want people to see a difference. I wanted them to see me as better.”

  1. Pingback: Success stories from Scottish sport! #AuthenticMe in Glasgow with Pride of the Terraces and LEAP Sports - Sports Media LGBT+

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