What activism means to me

I’m really pleased to be asked to write this blog entry reflecting on what activism means to me as the academic and research lead for FvH. For many years my academic life and my life as an activist in LGBT+ sports were separate. However, as time went on I started to realise that the ideas I read as an academic described many of my experiences in sport and the experiences of other LGBT+ people that I encountered as an activist. In this blog, I’d like to introduce the work of one particular author who has inspired my work, Sara Ahmed, and reflect on how this work has had an impact on my own practice as an activist.

Sara Ahmed’s work draws on her own experiences where various facets of her identity – being of  Pakistani heritage, being a woman, being a lesbian – all mark her out as different from the white, male heterosexual norms that still dominate many areas of society. In Queer Phenomenology, she talks about how these differences are often experienced as a sense of not feeling at home in various spaces within organizations and institutions. Rather than explicit discrimination, there is discomfort from not fitting in with the norm, and pressure to change behaviours in order to fit in. 

Ahmed’s work was the first academic work that I really connected with. It spoke to my own experiences, especially in the way that it highlighted the sense of unease that I felt in the spaces where sport took place – the locker rooms, the stadium – which when I was growing up were highly heterosexual, masculine spaces.  It also really resonated with experiences that I had heard from other LGBT+ sports participants in how they navigate the spaces where they participate in sport. 

I’ve spoken to non-binary folk who feel pressure to present as one particular gender in order to fit in when using sports changing facilities, and to trans people who are made to feel uneasy from the looks and reactions they receive before even reaching the changing room. I’ve heard gay men speak about toning down aspects of their behaviour to fit in with locker room cultures, and lesbians who sense that they are not being taken seriously as women in the male-dominated boardrooms of football. In all of these cases there is a sense of unease and a pressure to fit in that is felt in the spaces where sport takes place and is experienced.

So far, so good –  this work identifies the problems that LGBT+ people often experience in sport, but activism is also about doing something to deal with these problems. This is where Sara Ahmed’s work has particularly informed my perspective on activism. If the spaces where people experience sport are the problem, then this is where activism should focus for the solution. 

Ahmed says something similar in another of her books, On Being Included. Here she focuses on diversity initiatives in organisations. She is particularly critical of diversity initiatives which concentrate solely on writing policies or generating high profile publicity. Without drilling down to the experiences that people have in the spaces where organisational life takes place, these policies have no beneficial effect for the people they are aimed at. 

This idea informs all of the activist work that I do. Whilst policies and high-profile initiatives are important, they are only effective if they have an impact on the experiences that LGBT+ participants encounter within the spaces where sport takes place. To do this takes a lot of work and a lot of time – every locker room, stadium and boardroom is different – but the lesson I take from Sara Ahmed’s work is that these are the areas where activism needs to be focused in order to bring about meaningful and lasting change.

Scott Lawley