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Joanie Evans is a hugely influential figure in LGBTQ+ advocacy in sport. The founder of Hackney Women’s Football Club, Europe’s first out lesbian football team, in 1986, Evans was a top ten nominee for ‘Outstanding Contribution to LGBT+ Life’ in the British LGBT Awards in 2019. She has been Co-President of the Federation of Gay Games since 2014.
To mark Pride Month this June, we ask Evans to chart how far sport has come in its journey towards equality and the creation of inclusive environments, and how far is left to travel.
How are you feeling now on a scale of 1-10?
I’ll say a seven. I think no one is really 100% at the moment because there are so many things going on in the world, but I try and keep myself up. I don’t ever want to get below seven.
At the moment I’m dealing with grief, so naturally that doesn’t put me on a ten, but what keeps me at the seven is knowing that there’s things that I can do; that keeps me going on a daily basis; and some days it can go up to eight or nine, and it’s just a case of trying to manage for now.
Can you name a personal triumph within the D&I space during the last 12 months?
I’ve been able to have a few little triumphs due to the connections that have been made throughout the pandemic, and I don’t know if a lot of those would’ve happened if we weren’t in this current situation. I think a lot of things have come up and been highlighted within EDI, and we’ve seen more emphasis on women’s sport, which has been a great thing.
There’s also been a downside, because what it has done is shown up where there have been gaps in everything, and now that people are seeing the gaps, we’re now actually trying to fill them, but that process has been very slow. You just hope that when the world opens up, people don’t forget about what’s been going on. So, I don’t think I’ve made any personal triumphs because some of the opportunities just haven’t been there, but one of the things I said I wouldn’t do would be to say no to anything. I had to shield throughout most of the pandemic. When we do eventually open up, I want to connect more.
Can you speak to the significance of Pride in 2021?
I think this time round, I’ve seen everything on social media, I’ve never seen it picked up so much. Literally every advert, with businesses that you wouldn’t have even thought to think about it, are thinking about it. It would be great if it was a continual thing and not just for a month, like we could say for any of our month celebrations, Black History Month, for example. What it does is highlight that particular community at that time, and I think now more than ever people are learning more about what people have to go through when discriminated against.
For me, having Pride was like that permission to just go wild, you could be yourself that day. I remember the times when you only had a day for Pride, and now we have a whole month, and it is that whole act of a celebration of a community and yourself, and I have a couple of months per year that I can hang on to. I have Black History Month, Pride Month, International Women’s Day, and it’s a slight shame you have to mark things by date, but what you would hope is that people will have Pride awareness all year round, and black awareness all year round.
When I was at Hackney FC, we were a group of women, and all lesbians, and when it was Pride month/day, we would march as a team, not just from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square, but from Hyde Park to Brockwell Park, and it was much more of a statement back in the day, and at the time when Hackney FC was an out team, we kind of became celebrities – it was crazy. Nowadays, I personally don’t enjoy going to Pride now, as it doesn’t seem to have the same feeling, not based upon community, and seems very commercial.
Looking specifically at the sports industry, both on field and off, what bridges have been crossed during the past year in support of the LGBTQ+ community?
There’s been a lot of discrimination which has now been connected to not allowing athletes to excel. In women’s football, which is now coming to a point where it’s on par with the men’s game, it’s deemed perfectly acceptable to be an out player, and as the platforms for female sports grow, so will its messages and morals, which for me, is one of the biggest bridges we’re currently crossing.
We’re also seeing an increased conversation around trans-athletes, and I think that will be the biggest bridge to cross moving forward.
What are your plans for marking Pride Month at the Federation of Gay Games?
We will have various pieces of messaging across our social media and would hope that we have a presence at Pride all over the world and see the Federation of Gay Games marked at Pride in New York, Mexico, and elsewhere, but we currently don’t have the resources to do what we really want, which is a Catch-22 as our reach is so widespread, but resources are really limited.
What we’re actively doing and able to support across various major sporting events, is work with an agency called Pride House, and offered assistance on some of the work they’ve done. They create safe spaces for LGBTQ+ athletes. 40 years going, and we’re just about holding our heads above the water!
What does allyship mean to you?
Allies: you need them; things work better when you work in unison with everybody. Having somebody who can speak up is so important, and we have to rely on allies because they have access, and can allow us to cross that bridge, which without their support we wouldn’t be able to. We also need to believe and realise that we can’t do it on our own, and an important part in our role is being able to change people’s hearts and minds around difference.
When you have someone from another community stand up for you it will have a great impact, because the people who believe in that person will then start to believe. As a community we know what we need and what we go through, which is why it’s so important that when an ally speaks up on our behalf, it carries so much power and delivers more of an impact. It’s very simple, globally we need to be working for the same thing and understand how it spans across all areas of life.
What do you feel has been the key driver in creating a ‘safe space’ for the LGBTQ+ community in sport?
I think agencies need to have policies; the thing we need to establish is that policies make change. Take for example the FA; I’m sure they have an equalities section, and they do a lot of work around discrimination, racism and working with organisations such as Kick It Out, which again demonstrates allyship. But down to club rules, they need to include something which is anti-discriminatory in their policy, because it safeguards not only the officials, players, and anybody involved in that organisation.
Having good policies and procedures will help at any level, and the thing that you’ll hope for is that the message is fair and worked into their constitution.
We need to be very open, and ensure knowledge sharing is commonplace, as with a lot of work within this space, it comes with a preconception that a lot of effort and resources will be required, when in actual fact, you have so many organisations such as the Federation of Gay Games who are willing to share frameworks and ways of work, which means there isn’t always a starting from scratch mentality, which is off-putting for some.
What more needs to be done to by sport’s key stakeholders in their advocacy for inclusion?
I think there still needs to be the creation of spaces for things to happen, and we need people checking in to ensure the work is getting done. Everybody wants to get involved with sponsorship etc around event time, but as soon as the event stops, so does the support. There needs to be a continuum which runs from one event to another, because the money and resource is out there.
Added to this, more investment needs to go into grassroots stuff so that they can maintain and be in a position to ensure the correct messages are being communicated to shape a legacy, one that the next generation can pick up and continue to advocate for.
People need to take themselves beyond Pride Month, and give the necessary time and resources, whilst moving away from seeing it as just ticking a box. We have to do this for 365 days of the year!