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LGBTI sports: Where are the lesbians?

Gay sports clubs around the world report a continuing struggle to attract and retain women members.

LGBTI sports: Where are the lesbians?
Photo: Sefryn Penrose
London Orca at Stockholm Eurogames

If you look at the website of any LGBTI community-based sports club, the goals, objectives and sentiment are generally pretty similar and very inclusive.

For example, Frontrunners proclaims that it’s mission is to ‘promote the sports of running, walking and related athletic activities for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders and their supporters’. But when you talk to most Frontrunners clubs around the world you’ll find that their membership is dominated by middle-aged gay men.

This situation is consistent in LGBTI sports clubs around the world:

  • The Capital Splats racquetball club in Washington was only established in 2010, but already its membership is skewed towards gay men – with lesbians making up only 15% of the club’s membership.
  • The Toronto Triggerfish, established in 2001 are Canada’s largest water polo club (and the world’s largest LGBT water polo club), but only 19% of their 80 members are women.
  • For Rainbow Squash in Amsterdam, established in 1997, lesbians make up only 20% of its membership.

And yet it’s undeniable that lesbians love sport and are actively participating in sport at all levels. So what is it about LGBTI sports clubs that is a turn-off for women?

Karin Isherwood from the Frontrunners club in Wellington in New Zealand is often the only woman running at the club’s regular sessions:

‘When we hosted the 2011 Asia Pacific OutGames there was strong interest from women, so it’s not that women aren’t running – I’m just not sure why they’re not running with Frontrunners.’

Jayne O’Brien, speaking on behalf of UK aquatics club Out To Swim, confirms that (like most larger clubs) women are under-represented:

‘Our membership is heavily weighted towards gay men and that in itself can be a deterrent for women considering joining the club. Other factors that could be contributing to this are that women that are looking to get back into sport or try something for the first time could be worried about their own ability to keep up. We’ve also had feedback from women that their preference is to exercise in a non-competitive environment – a pool full of gay men can be a bit of a testosterone overload.’

James Mullen from the Toronto Triggerfish water polo club also references that the competitive nature of sport can sometimes be a turn-off for women:

‘Water polo tends to appeal to a specific type of person – it can be a bit of a violent sport.’

For Mark Storey from the Capital Splats racquetball club, the focus is to recruit more women members using the networks of their existing members.

‘One of our co-founders is a lesbian who was active on the collegiate racquetball circuit as well as the US Racquetball Association, and we have several other lesbian members who are very active in helping us with pride booth recruitment and other activities,’ he explained. We are starting to see increasing numbers of women signing up as interested in playing.’

Established in 1988, the Philadelphia Fins Aquatic Club is struggling to retain a core group of lesbian members. Interestingly the club’s current membership growth is driven by increasing numbers of straight women joining the club (due to its city centre location).

President Jan Elsasser is however working hard to maintain the voice of lesbians within the club:

‘When we have a swim meet, one committee focuses solely on the experience of women at the meet and provides for a social opportunity for women. The club is also conscious about keeping a diverse board – male/female balance being one factor considered – so that the voice of women is included in the club’s leadership.’

Out To Swim’s O’Brien is looking to change the way that the club communicates in order to be more appealing to women:

‘Our website needs to showcase some of our social activities, showing more women having fun as well as our current focus on entering competitions and winning medals – if you’re nervous about joining a new club you need to see signals that the club will welcome you for who you are.’

Isabelle Neuenhaus, who has been running with the Houston Frontrunners club for just over a year, reveals that being part of the club has been much more than just about the running.

‘I’ve made a lot of really good friends, got involved with the other activities that the group organizes, I love running even more, and I’m feeling more comfortable with myself,’ she said.

And Graham Rhind, from Amsterdam’s Rainbow Squash club, is of the view that:

‘Unless there is a critical mass of women already in the club, fewer prospective female members stay around because it is largely male dominated.’

For O’Brien, redressing the gender balance of Out To Swim’s membership is essential for ensuring the club’s sustainability.

‘A more equal gender balance will create a different dynamic within the club – gay men and lesbians are strongest when we work together and build on each other’s strengths. I also want to ensure that as many women as possible have the opportunity to experience the personal benefits of belonging to this club – meeting new friends, increasing your social circle, exercising in a non-threatening environment, and being part of a club that feels like a big, occasionally dysfunctional, but always loving family.’

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