Tag Archives: London

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.

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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.

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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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Next stop, Africa

Thirty-five minutes later I arrive back at Heathrow. I find a clock and am startled to discover that I am expected at security forthwith. I hurry to the queue and when it is my turn, I step forward. The security officer barks out that I ought to remove my laptop from the bag, place change or belts in the bin, and am I wearing high heels?  I look down at myself, and then meet her eyes and laugh, “No, but wouldn’t it be funny if I were?” She has the decency to smile indulgently (no doubt she’s seen more tipplers than I wobble through the x-ray) and I head towards the gate.

I have replaced one soggy tube sock with the curiously tight British Airways flight sock when my seat row is called. I realize with a start that a single half-pint more and I might have missed my flight. I board, and am delighted to discover that I have somehow won the seat lottery. I have the window directly behind a bulkhead, which means more leg room than my tiny stature can possibly use. On the down side, the air conditioning is on and in my sopping outfit I am all shivery. I sit down and tear open the gossamer flight blanket. I can feel the pull of unconsciousness despite my frigid extremities so I put on the eyeshades and instantly slip into a frozen and fitful sleep.

Minutes later I am brought back to consciousness by the rustling of my seatmates. Using only my sense of hearing I can detect that in the aisle seat we have a little old lady who is mostly blind. She is going to South Africa to visit her son and has a jolly demeanor. In the centre seat is a man with a calm and helpful voice. Helpful Man helps Little Old Mostly Blind Lady get buckled in, and then shows her how to use the attendant call button. Moments pass; I drift. The drink cart swings by and our flight attendant asks Little Old Mostly Blind Lady and Helpful Man if they’d like a drink (she refuses; he’d like a gin and tonic). I hear pouring and then the attendant asks Helpful Man if his son would like anything. Beneath my eye shades my eyes open wide in amusement. Helpful Man enunciates clearly: “I have never met that woman in my life. “ And then, in the spirit of even more helpfulness, he states, “I am travelling alone.”

If I had a tagline it might be “Gender-jamming since 1970”. In fact, my ability to confound age- and gender-radar caused me a bit of stress leading up to this trip. The anxiety was sparked when, months ago, I rode my newly-purchased motorcycle to my friend Francis’ house. He came out on the stoop just as I was parking. Ten paces down the block a man was approaching. I dropped the kickstand and waved to Francis. The man, now five paces away, looked at me still in my helmet. He pointed. “Are you a man or a woman,” he demanded in a thick African accent. On the stoop Francis was falling over with laughter. I removed my helmet and stared at him. Again, and this time louder, the man said, “Are you a man or a woman!” I unzipped my leather jacket. The man kept walking past, turning back to stare, his eyes still seeking an answer to this essential question.

Francis, being the sensitive friend that he is, has insisted on breaking out a thickly accented “Are you a man or a woman!” every time my gender comes into question. In other words, pretty much every time we see each other. Before I left, he told me, “You’ll be getting a lot of that in Africa.” Apparently I will be getting a lot of that wherever in the world I go. Indeed, at Heathrow and in the pubs of Hammersmith, I am referred to as “mate”, “bloke”, and “sir”, and now here on the plane I am mistaken for Son of Helpful Man. Awake and freezing, I lift the eyeshades and ask the attendant for a cup of tea. Little Old Mostly Blind Lady follows suit. The attendant shrugs as if to say “What will they think of next?” and tells me it can be arranged. While he is away arranging the nearly-impossible spot of tea during the cocktail hour, I ask Helpful Man if I can borrow his flight blanket. He agrees, but I am bereft to discover that the warmth of gossamer squared is nil. The attendant returns with two cups of tea. Helpful Man assists Little Old Mostly Blind Lady when he sees that she is using the tube of sugar as a stir stick. She says, “It’s really quite chilly in here, isn’t it?” and the two of us cup our hands around the paper mugs like rubbies at a barrel fire.

When I wake up, there is an African sunrise out my window.

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Hammersmith

When we arrive at Hammersmith it is raining but we easily find a serviceable pub and settle in for a repulsive bite to eat, a few outstanding pints, and a good jaw. At around one in the afternoon (local time – who knows what time it is for me, now) I make my slightly wobbly way down to the loo. As I open the door a woman flashes me baboon-style with her bright pink underpants. Her jeans are around her knees and she’s skittering from one stall to another. The cubicle door slams and I decide first, to pretend I’ve seen nothing, and second, to avoid the stall she vacated. When I get back upstairs I mention the shenanigans to Roxy. She replies, “Yeah! When I went there was a woman peeing in a stall with the door wide open.” I suppose this is the more mundane part of pub culture that Lonely Planet leaves out.

Eventually, we decide to change locations. Roxy has a guide book that mentions a local nearby called the Blue Anchor, and with no other particular place to be we set out to find it. Due to the lack of signage we have to stop into another pub and ask. The bartender’s directions give us pause – “Just take the subway about two blocks down” – until we remember that the subway here is the Tube so she must be talking a about something else. Sure enough, two blocks down we find a pedestrian underpass, a sub-way, which spits us out on the other side of a major road.

Roxy in the sub-way

Roxy in the sub-way

We find another landmark mentioned in the guidebook quite by accident. The Hammersmith suspension bridge is a beauty. It’s totally ornate and gilded and looks like it was made of carriages and royal banisters, all curly and polished. We take a few steps out onto it but turn back when a) we discover that it’s not really a suspension bridge in the sense that say, Capilano bridge it (that is, it neither joggles nor sways when we step out on it, and it’s engineering appears to be identical to, say, the Golden Gate bridge); and b), we see a sign that says “Weak Bridge”.

Right then, moving along.

Right then, moving along.

By this time it has begun to rain again and so we stop into an antiques store named “Just Fab” for directions to the Blue Anchor.  “A pub?” the shopkeeper says. “Why, there’s one right across the street.” Sure enough, there is, and though we are both quite sure it will offer up the same experience or better as the Blue Anchor, we are now on a specific mission and not just any pub will do. To our further inquiry the shopkeeper acquiesces. “Well it’s just around the corner and down the block,” she says in a tone that suggests the addendum “if you must know”.

Just Fab!

Just Fab!

Sure enough, the Blue Anchor sits around the corner and down the block, right on the edge of the now-muddy and roiling river Thames. Established in 1722, it says on the sign. That’s a bit of a mind fuck, isn’t it? I don’t know if it’s because I am Canadian but I can’t really get my head around it that other people – some long dead – have been drinking here for 300 years. We go in and from the list of beers I have never heard of, I choose the one with the busty and curiously molested-looking wench on the tap sign. It tastes a bit like pink grapefruit, which is nice, but the pint is warm.

We pass forty-five minutes hiding from the rain and talking about architecture. Roxy tells me about “the gherkin”, a new building in London that has caused some controversy because it is modern. Roxy reaches for descriptors, and when she finally finds a picture of it in the guidebook I am struck by how much more it resembles a dildo than a pickle, but I suppose referring to it as “the phallus” is out of the question.

The place is empty except for the bartender who is in and out of some back room, presumably taking inventory or smoking a joint, and a woman who at this very moment is on her hands and knees polishing the brass rail under the bar. I head to the loo, in which the owners have printed and framed a photograph of their main room with a flowery description of it underneath. “This stunning great room…” it begins, and I snort in derision. The Blue Anchor is serviceable but there is nothing in it to justify the claims of a “breathtaking dining area”. When I report on this back at the table, Roxy wisely observes, “They shouldn’t really post that right where you can see the actual room.”

Our conversation turns to opportunities and Roxy, now a smidge tipsy, asks, “What’s the saying? ‘God closes a door and opens a window?’ Is that it?” Also inebriated, just a little, I respond, “It’s not God – it’s Bob Marley. The lyric is ‘Don’t you know that when one door closes, a window opens’.” At which point the rail-polisher pops her head up like a meerkat and sings “’Don’t you know that when one door is closed, many more are opened.’” She smiles, and then gets back to her buffing. It’s time to move on.

The pub next door is better. The rain has really started to pelt down and there are several groups of people having pints and large plates of gravy-soaked sausage-y things with sides of grey vegetable matter. A dad with his tots comes in and they shake off their slickers and settle in. The whole thing is beginning to feel like a movie set but it’s perfect and lovely and I find myself wishing that I had another hour.

The Last Pub

The Last Pub

Outside, there is a mailbox affixed to a pole atop a set of wooden stairs that leads down to a couple of houseboats. Roxy and I watch as a man skitters up the stairs and gets his mail, collar turned up against the rain. This tidy piece of British romance sparks a now-really-very inebriated conversation about living on a boat. When I get back from a bathroom break Roxy tells me that the man at the next table had leaned over to offer her a houseboat rental. “This proves it,” she says “Everybody eavesdrops in London.” Suddenly paranoid, we drink up and head out into the torrential rain.

The short walk back to Hammersmith station is long enough to soak me through, and I am increasingly uneasy about the jeans I am wearing. I had resisted the urge to pack more than two pairs of jeans and the ones I have on now were for travel (as they are comfortable) and digging in the dirt type activities (as they are standard Levis). I got the jeans a week back when Inti and Ryan took me to a Levis warehouse blowout sale extravaganza out near the airport. They’d cost me fifteen bucks. Deal, right? The thing is, though I have yet to prove it, I have a suspicion that the zipper is dodgy. I’m worried that I’m going to arrive somewhere (like in a pub, at the Tube station, or in Africa) with my fly down. And now, the weight of the rainwater is making me feel self-conscious but doubly so because to the casual observer I can’t keep my hand off my crotch. Finally, the train arrives at Hammersmith and Roxy and I say a teary and beery good-bye, and I am back on the Tube.

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Everybody say “U.K.”

I have never flown British Airways before and I must say that it was everything that I expected: cute accents, tea and biscuits, and a safety video as funny as Benny Hill. On BA they don’t make their stewards submit to carrying out an embarrassing pantomime about the unlikely event of a crash – World Travellers, Plus, Club, and First alike just watch a video on the in-seat telly. “In the unlikely event…” The British accent makes a world of difference. I am almost disappointed that the event is so unlikely. “…Make sure you are in the crash-ready position.” On the screen a computer-animated commoner in World Traveller class bends forward and protects her head with her arms. “And those in First Class sleeper berths should fold their arms like this.” The First Class traveller is pictured lying down, arms folded across his chest Nosferatu-style, as though any minute he will rise from the sleeper, stiff and straight as an ironing board. The voice asserts that all travellers are reminded to remove their high heels before flinging themselves onto the slide, and then I know some art director somewhere is having a laugh because we see the World Traveller woman step out of the plane onto the slide, followed by the First Class passenger, his arms still crossed over his chest like a zombie. Nobody else must be watching because it is my laughter alone that rises from seat 49A to fill the rear of the plane.

The flight to London from Toronto is just a bit too short. Yes, you read that right. Six and a half hours is long enough to board, have a laugh, have a bite, and fall asleep – for about 240 minutes. And then you’ve arrived in London where everything is the same but totally different, which can be a dangerous level of dissimilarity when operating on about four hours’ sleep. As I disembark, the flight attendant thanks me for flying with British Airways but her accent – like wind chimes, which makes me think she’s Welsh – completely obscures the words. I follow the signs but become confused when I see a corridor marked for those seeking asylum. I decide to ask, and the women at the gate raises her eyebrows and says, “Aye ‘tis a good thing ye asked! ‘Ad ye gone through this gate it would’ve been nigh impossible to get back.” She directs me to another queue. I am called to the front where a devastatingly handsome customs agent asks me where I am going. I tell him that I have a layover until my flight that evening, and that I am going to get a cup of coffee. “There is coffee on this side.” His manner becomes suspicious. “You don’t have to come through emigration to get a cup of coffee.” I tell him I am meeting a friend for coffee and his face darkens. “That,” he spits, “is a different story than you just told.” I decide to say nothing – the customs equivalent of rolling over onto your back to show submission – and after scrutinizing my passport, he lets me through to find Roxy and a coffee.

As I don’t have to pick up my luggage, I am at a bit of a loss as to where to go. I decide to find a bathroom and consider the matter. I follow the signs and quickly find a door with a woman figure above it. The door is monolithic. It is a single slab of polished wood with neither handle nor pushbar. From the safe distance of a few yards I inspect it, but cannot see how it opens. With a quick glance over my shoulder to make sure I am unobserved, I walk up to the door and stand before it, hoping that it will swing open to allow me passage to the toilets. I wait. I wave a tentative hand across the front, thinking it might be motion-sensitive. And then I leave, defeated by this example of fine British engineering.

I carry on down the hallway, and by this time almost all other people have left the terminal. I am mostly alone and I snap a few pictures of the interior of Heathrow, terminal 5. It is marvellous. Terminal 5 is the newest terminal at Heathrow and in places it is still under construction, but where it is complete it is an architectural love poem to human strength and that sassy British sensibility that brought us James Bond.

Metal men rise from the basement concourse to hold up the sky.

Metal men rise from the basement concourse to hold up the sky.

As I walked down this hallway, I could almost hear boom chicka wah wah and it made me swing my ass around a bit more than was necessary.

As I walked down this hallway, I could almost hear boom chicka wah wah and it made me swing my ass around a bit more than was necessary.

By this time, I really have to pee so I scan the sparse crowd until I find another uncomfortable-looking woman. Sure enough, she is surveying the area and soon heads off towards a doorway marked “toilet”. I quickly fall into step behind her, keen on gaining entrance by using her as a foil. She steps up to the monolith confidently, and places her palms on the door. She pushes it and it opens.

A few moments later I leave the toilets, relieved of my full bladder and my dignity.

I have a little over an hour until I’m supposed to meet Roxy, so I walk up to a man wearing a snappy uniform and say, “Excuse me – I heard a rumour that there are showers here in Heathrow. Can you tell me how I can get to them?” He smiles and replies, “Are you eligible?” I consider the matter. He is quite handsome and has an easy, open face. Then, “Show me your boarding pass.” I realize what he’s after and say, “Right – I am World Traveller class.” We each smile and shake our heads ruefully. “Yes, the showers are not for people like us,” he chuckles, plucking at the lapel of his uniform.

I find the Costa coffee kiosk where I had arranged to meet Roxy, order a large latte which instantly makes me nauseous, and settle in to wait. It is good people watching and the time flies. It is always odd seeing someone out of context, and when Roxy walks down the concourse I have that uneasy feeling of dislocation. We decide to leave the terminal and find a pub (what else?) The people at information claim there is no worthy watering hole between here and Hammersmith, so I buy my day pass for 7 pounds fifty and we get on the Tube.

I love the Tube. First of all, I love that it really looks and feels like a tube. It is retro and futuristic all at once, and you can’t help but mind everyone else’s business when your knees and rubbing against theirs across those impossibly narrow aisles. During our ride we catch up on soccer gossip, both hers (she’s regularly playing with a women’s pick-up kickabout group) and mine (Toronto’s August was more like Bali’s February and monsoon rains stole much of season; the City worker’s strike neatly choked off the rest).

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