Tag Archives: LGBT

Soccer really can make the world a better place

This blog got some press recently in “The Great Game,” an article published in the July 2010 issue of INToronto Magazine. I was interviewed by writer Scott Dagostino during a World Cup viewing party at Downtown Soccer Toronto sponsor bar Gladaman’s Den.

Not to get all misty about it but soccer really can make the world a better place.
– Me, being emo.

I’d blame the histrionics on the beer (or goalie Green’s epic fumble), but you all know I really feel that way. And to prove that I’m right, my name – and Downtown Soccer Toronto’s – also appeared in a press release this week announcing that the membership of Downtown Soccer Toronto has chosen The Justin Campaign as the charity recipient of partial proceeds of our 2010/2011 calendar (for sale at the DST booth on Church just north of Isabella this Pride Toronto weekend). Named after out gay footballer Justin Fashanu, The Justin Campaign seeks to challenge homophobia in football (soccer) through education and programs including the Football v Homophobia Initiative. See? Better place.

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It’s obscene to force a person to choose between life and love

Today the BBC reported that Steven Monjeza has “moved in with a woman”.

Why is this news? Monjeza is one of the two Malawi men who was jailed for six months, then sentenced to fourteen years hard labour, and, after global protests by activists (and a very public appeal by Madonna), ultimately admonished but pardoned by Malawi president Bingu wa Mutharika for holding an engagement ceremony with another man – Tiwonge Chimbalanga – in Blantyre’s Chirimba township in Malawi last year.

The men were released to their respective homes and warned that they faced rearrest if caught together again. There was no impact on the law they were charged under.

How obvious, then, that Monjeza would appear now, girlfriend in tow, retracting his previous brave and steadfast declarations of love for Chimbalanga. How predictable. How gutting.

I don’t condemn Monjeza. It’s obscene to force a person to choose between life and love; we should not be surprised to see their personhood fade away as they twist on the hook, trying to come to an impossible decision.

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Good news for a change

With less than two weeks until the beginning of the World Cup, Africa is everywhere. Inspiring soccer stories share space with reports on the continuing challenges in addressing HIV and AIDS, “corrective” rape, and brutal attacks on the bodies and rights of gays and lesbians. All this press is both a welcome platform for a new agenda, and a harsh exposé, casting long shadows on the impending Cup.

Suffering from a bit of burnout, I’ve been quietly waiting for some good news. Yesterday, I got it.

Back in December 2009, Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga were arrested and charged with “unnatural practices between males and gross public indecency” after they had a traditional engagement ceremony in Blantyre’s Chirimba township in Malawi. After being held separately in prison for nearly six months, the men were found guilty, and then sentenced to 14 years hard labour (the maximum penalty).

Human rights organizations condemned the ruling and sentence, and word spread on the Internet. Public protests were held in New York City and London. The Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP) set up an online petition, as did Raising Malawi, an organization founded by Madonna and Michael Berg. Madonna released a statement on the site challenging the decision, and invited people to sign their name next to hers. Over 30,000 people did.

Yesterday, Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika pardoned Monjeza and Chimbalanga and ordered their immediate release.

“In all aspects of reasoning, in all aspects of human understanding, these two gay boys were wrong – totally wrong… However, now that they have been sentenced, I as the president of this country have the powers to pronounce on them and therefore, I have decided that with effect from today, they are pardoned and they will be released.”
– President Bingu wa Mutharika, “Malwai pardons jailed couple,” BBC News

It’s a curious statement, lacking in political heft, but I’ll take it.

This is clearly a victory for Monjeza and Chimbalanga, and for LGBT rights. It’s also an important step towards a better model in dealing with HIV and AIDS (for more on how these things are connected read my post, “The saddest circus in the world“).

There’s a lesson about engagement here. Social media makes it easy to gather, publicize, and comment on global issues. In this case, Facebook was an effective catalyst with multimedia capabilities: details of the story were accompanied by links to petitions and calls to action. We should remember to use these new tools. Bravo to everyone who signed petitions, stood at rallies, and shared these stories.

UPDATE:
More detail on the pardon comes from this story from The Malawi Voice. While Monjeza and Chimbalanga have been pardoned and released, they were taken to their separate homes and ordered not to see each other. Should they contravene the order they could be re-arrested.

“It doesn’t mean that now they are free people, they can keep doing whatever you keep doing…”
– Patricia Kaliati, Malawi’s Minister of Gender and Children, “Gays pardoned but no change to law,” Malawi Voice

Looks like there’s a lot more work to be done in this campaign. It was an important step to release the men, but by stopping short of changing the discriminatory law, the Malawi government has allowed an exception to the rule rather than created a policy change. I suggest that we all (this means you, Madonna) keep lobbying. Sparing their lives was a first step; now spare their love.

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The Chosen Few

A year before my trip to Africa I went to the International Gay and Lesbian Football Association (IGLFA) World Championship in London, UK. It was here that I was drafted to the same team as Craig, who would later become my South Africa host family and partner in do-goodery. Dennis Fish (VP of the DC Federal Triangles, and recently profiled in these pages for organizing a game for the Football v Homophobia Initiative) was another teammate. I’ve told many stories here that began during those seven days, but there’s one that hasn’t yet made it into these pages – a story that I’d all but forgotten until an article showed up in my feed today.

~

It began during the 2008 IGLFA Championship. As someone who comes from a co-ed league it felt natural to place myself on a mixed team, if you can call 13 men and me “mixed”. The unfortunate side effect was that I felt pretty separate from the other women participating in the tourney (including me, there were less than five women playing in the open division). There was little overlap between divisions at the field, so it wasn’t until I made it to a tournament event that I caught up with some of the women players.

It was mid-summer so the best part of the party was taking place outside the venue in the back alley. After a knocking out a few moves on the dance floor with my teammates, I ventured outside. The alley was packed with people reliving the day’s games, pints swinging around and voices rising over rival conversations.

Off to one side was the South African women’s team, the Chosen Few.  They’d been the subject of many conversations, having invited the attention of players from both divisions for their practice of approaching the field for their games singing and dancing in unison. It was an impressive display, both beautiful and intimidating.

Now, the team was standing in a wide circle socializing with each other and whoever wanted to step into the ring. I did.

Within moments I realized I’d inserted myself into a discussion about the consequences of being lesbian in the townships of South Africa. The women spoke in turn, uninterrupted, and told everyone assembled stories of brutal violence, “corrective” rape, and murder. In the preceding few years, I was told, several players had been killed for being lesbian.

We were standing close, shoulder to shoulder, protective and insular, when the women from the Chosen Few began to clap and sing, pulling each other into the centre one by one. Concentrating on matching the rhythm of the group, I slapped my palms together and felt honored and ridiculous and lucky and amazed all at once. By choosing to play, these women were effectively “coming out” into extreme hostility and risking terrible violence, even death. I didn’t know what to do with this information – I still don’t – except to put my hands together and share that fleeting moment in the alley.

~

The Chosen Few is run by the Forum for Empowerment of Women (FEW). They won a bronze medal at the Gay Games Tournament in Chicago in 2006, and again in 2008 at the IGLFA Championships in London. The team has been awarded a Gay Games scholarship to handle travel and accommodation expenses so they can compete in the 2010 Gay Games in Cologne, Germany, but they still require further financial assistance to obtain gear and handle other associated expenses.

To help, contact Dikeledi Sibanda at 0113391867 or 0765123874 or e- mail project1@few.org.za

Read the article in full: “Lesbian Team Needs Your Support for World Tournament“.

UPDATE:For additional information about the team and the women who play in it, read Magali Reinert’s article, “Belles of the ball” published in the Mail & Guardian Online on Arpil 23, 2010.

The piece does a good job of explaining the structure and background of the team -the Chosen Few is the team launched and supported by NGO The Forum for Empowerment of Women (FEW) – and what it means to be an out lesbian in some parts of South Africa. To be drafted, every player “must ‘be out’, have passed the physical aptitude trials and be committed to defending homosexual and women’s rights.”

This team’s story is extremely resonant of the themes of homophobia, violence, activism, and sport that I discuss in these pages. Well worth the read.

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The saddest circus in the world

Some of you might be familiar with the story of Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, the two men arrested and charged with “unnatural practices between males and gross public indecency” after they had a traditional engagement ceremony in Blantyre’s Chirimba township in Malawi, in December of 2009. Since their arrest they have been held separately in a maximum security prison, they’ve been asked to take a “test” to prove whether they had sexual relations, and they’ve been denied bail “for their own safety”.

The case has drawn international attention for its human rights implications, and because it is a very real example of the prevailing homophobic attitudes in much of Africa – attitudes that must shift in order to implement effective policy changes to meet the challenges of AIDS and HIV transmission on the continent. In this concise article posted in January on the Amnesty International site, the friction between policy and practice is made clear:

In the formulation of Malawi’s National AIDS Strategy in 2009, the Malawi government consulted widely, including with MSM [Ed. note: men who have sex with men], on ways of combating the spread of HIV in Malawi. In September, the government publicly acknowledged the need to include MSM in its HIV/AIDS strategy.

– From “Malawi: Amnesty calls for unconditional release of gay couple,” posted to amnesty.org.uk

On Friday, March 12, almost three full months since Monjeza and Chimbalanga were arrested, the Washington Post published “In Africa, a step backward on human rights,”  an opinion piece by Nobel Peace Prize laureate archbishop Desmond Tutu.

In my country of South Africa, we struggled for years against the evil system of apartheid that divided human beings, children of the same God, by racial classification and then denied many of them fundamental human rights. We knew this was wrong. Thankfully, the world supported us in our struggle for freedom and dignity. It is time to stand up against another wrong.

– excerpted from “In Africa, a step backward on human rights” by Desmond Tutu

In the piece, Tutu broadens the discussion to include not only the case of Monjeza and Chimbalanga in Malawi, but also the consideration of discriminatory legislation in Uganda, Burundi, and Rwanda. And, like the Amnesty International author, Tutu exposes a link between homophobia and the struggle to find an effective response to AIDS and HIV on the continent.

Our lesbian and gay brothers and sisters across Africa are living in fear. And they are living in hiding — away from care, away from the protection the state should offer to every citizen and away from health care in the AIDS era, when all of us, especially Africans, need access to essential HIV services.

– excerpted from “In Africa, a step backward on human rights” by Desmond Tutu

When Craig drove me through Mdantsane Village way back in September 2009 I was puzzled by the presence of a massive tattered tent at the side of the road. The wind pushed against the torn grey fabric and I could hear a soft, forlorn whistling as it jettied through the holes. I turned to Craig and wise-cracked, “What’s that!? The tent from The Saddest Circus in the World?”  To my horror and embarrassment he explained that these were funeral tents, and that here in the Village people were dying in such numbers and with such regularity that sometimes they didn’t even bother to take the tents down.

I’ve been back in Canada for five months. Necessarily, my work with this blog has shifted focus. I have enjoyed concrete success in finding grassroots ways to make positive differences through soccer, and my sense of achievement has been profound. But when I think about the immense challenges facing gay and lesbian and transgendered people in Africa, and the numbers of people dying from HIV and AIDS – and the way those things are connected – I think that indeed, this is the saddest circus in the world.

And except for adding my voice to the protest, I’ve no idea how to help. There are some things, it would seem, that a soccer ball just can’t fix.

Related Facebook groups:

Statement by African Civil Society on the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda
Protest Jon Qwelane’s Appointment As SA Ambassador to Uganda!
Free Malawians Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga
The Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation

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Come out, come out, wherever you are

Regular readers will know that these pages have been dedicated recently to reporting on the emerging “controversy” about gay footballers. It began with some publicity about The Justin Campaign’s Football v Homphobia Initiative (and other good gay works) and then a comment made by gay basketballer John Amaechi in his blog and to the world press. Amaechi’s position was that coming out was too hard, that  it positioned the player as “Joan of Arc”. To Amaechi, coming out is too risky; it’s simply too much to ask.

I have kept my opinion on this pretty much to myself. You guys are smart people. You can make up your own minds.

However… on March 12, 2010 another story broke. “Fury as German ex-football boss says: ‘There’s no place in football for gays’,” reads the headline on the U.K.’s Daily Mail. In the piece, former football manager Rudi Assauer asserts that while there may be a place for gays in other sports, gay footballers should “find something else to do.” But lookie here: Assauer only has our well-being in mind. “That’s because those who out themselves always end up busted by it, ridiculed by their fellow players and by people in the stands. We should spare them these witch-hunts.”

When did this kind of paternalism become acceptable? When did urging queer players to remain closetted “for our own good” start to make sense? You know something has gone horribly, dementedly wrong when out gay athletes like John Amaechi are parroting the sentiments of bigots like Assauer.

So cut it out! For every sad example of the destructive effect of homophobia (i.e. Fashanu’s suicide) there is another story that teaches us about acceptance, diversity and the unifying power of sport. The most notable recent example is that flaming, unapologetic queen Johnny Weir. To him, I raise a glass and say, “Giiiiirl!” What’s that? It’s different because he’s a skater? What about Greg Louganis (Olympic diver), Marc Leduc (Olympic boxer), and Tom Waddell (Olympic decathlete and creator of the Gay Games)? You want your gays butcher? I give you Martina Navratilova and Sheryl Swoopes. And if gays can play rugby (Bravo, Gareth Thomas, for risking the witch-hunt!), surely we can play soccer/football. It is, after all, “the beautiful game”.

So to all the players in every sport that are brave enough to be themselves, keep it up. This Joan of Arc stuff is nonsense. If Assauer and his ilk want to spare us the witch-hunts, they’ll put down their pitchforks and torches instead of asking us to hide behind the castle gates. Come out, come out, wherever you are! I’m pretty sure there’s a kickabout happening at a park near you and I, for one, can’t wait to see how you look in that jersey.

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“Proud of playing clean, quality soccer and proud of being out gay athletes.”

This blog was not yet a twinkle in my eye when I travelled to London, UK to participate in the International Gay and Lesbian Football Association’s annual World Cup tournament in 2007. That year I had the good fortune to play on a team comprised of players from Washington, DC, Philadelphia and Toronto, all under the banner of the Washington Federal Triangles team (they supplied the crisp white unis for which I am ever-grateful; I look as handsome as I ever have in that team picture). It was on this team that I met my partner in do-goodery Craig, aka Lady Kennaway. Thus the seeds for this blog and the adventures herein were sewn on the pitches at Regents Park.

Deservedly, Craig has gotten a lot of press here but I met some other extraordinary people that week too. People like Dennis Fish, the vice-president of the Federal Triangles. I remember Dennis most for his energy, humour, and one of the finest hair-dos DC has to offer.

Dennis is also extremely organized. I found out about the Football v. Homophobia Initiative a little too late to organize any games here in Toronto but not so Dennis. Working with The Justin Campaign organizers, Dennis and his team the FTSC (Federal Triangles Soccer Club) Dixie Kicks arranged to play their regularly-scheduled Saturday game at the Fairfax Sportsplex in Springfield, VA wearing their pink and black Football v. Homophobia T-shirts.

The Dixie Kicks support the Football v. Homphobia Initiative, February 19, 2010

The Dixie Kicks support the Football v. Homophobia Initiative, February 19, 2010

Dennis was kind enough to talk to me about the experience of “coming out” for a cause at his local sports facility.

K.S.: Tell me about your team and what it was like to participate in this event.

D.F.: We’re the FTSC Dixie Kicks.  We play coed, indoor soccer during the winter at the Fairfax Sportsplex in Springfield, VA.  We’ve been playing for the last three years, roughly.  Most of our team is made up of gay and lesbian players, but we do have at least one straight player.

Before I committed us to anything, I emailed the team and asked if they were comfortable playing in “Football v. Homophobia” regalia.  I actually didn’t think the response would be as positive as it was.  Everyone was excited about it.

It felt really amazing playing in our [Initiative] shirts.  We’ve never really made an issue of our being a gay team at the Fairfax Sportsplex, so in a sense, it was our “coming out”! Everyone on the team was super-pumped and proud. Proud of playing clean, quality soccer, and proud of being out gay athletes. Even our one straight player was just thrilled and could not have been more proud of her teammates.

K.S.: What was the reaction at the SportsPlex?

D.F.: The Sportsplex was great.  I contacted the league director beforehand, and she was fine with it.  The referee at our game was very cool, and even complimented our shirts and said it was a good thing we were doing.

K.S.: Why is it important to “come out” in this way? Does it matter if the other teams in that league know that you are gay?

D. F.: FTSC teams have been playing at the Fairfax Sportsplex for years.  And I’m not sure if we’ve ever officially “come out” before.  At the same time, we’ve never denied who we are.  But, I thought the “Football v. Homophobia” event was the perfect opportunity to just be ourselves and play in support of this good cause.

I have no  problem with other teams knowing I’m gay. I wouldn’t want it any other way. I’m who I am.

The final word today goes to Amal Fashanu, Justin Fashanu’s niece, who participated in the Initiative and gave an interview to the BBC about the Justin Campaign (click to see video of the interview).

[The Justin Campaign] is the first sign [of] moving towards a better football, a better game where everyone can be more open and who they want to be.
– Amal Fashanu

Amen, sister.

To learn more or to contribute to the Justin Campaign, visit their site at www.thejustincampaign.com.

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