Sophie Sills, LGBT, sport, New Zealand

Q&A | Sophie Sills on being queer & playing women’s sport

Sophie Sills is a 22 year-old student from Auckland, New Zealand. Queer, and a long-time footballer, as part of her Master of Arts in Psychology Sophie is conducting a study on if and how being LGBTQ affects players’ experiences of playing women’s sport. She interviewed about it for the New Zealand Herald recently and Sarah decided to find out more.

What led to your interest in queer experiences in sport?
I’ve always been interested in queer issues, and I was thinking about what I could do for my Masters, chatting with people. They were like, you’re really into sports, why don’t you do something about that? That resonated with me, because I get a little bit of homophobia – not a lot but a little bit – in my own sports stuff. Out of all the ideas that I had, that was the one that seemed to be interesting and important.

Do you play football in all-girl teams or are they mixed?
Yeah, all-women’s. It was mixed until I was 15 or so, because my club didn’t really have enough women, but now it’s split up, so all women.

When did you come out?
My coming out was long. It was probably from when I was about 19. It’s still ongoing, but I didn’t really ever officially come out to my teammates, some of them just knew. Because they were friends with me or whatever, so they knew.

Because others aren’t aware you’re gay, do you think it affects how they are around you?
I think so, although I think they aren’t as unaware as I’m making them out to be. I think it’s just a youth thing – it’s the language that they use, saying gay [in a derogatory way] or fag. I don’t think they’re really against it or anything, I think it’s just their socialisation.

How does it make you feel when you hear people talk like that, even if they’re not consciously trying to slag you?
I think I’m such a political person, it annoys me on a political level as well as a personal level. But as my friend says, it’s hard for us, as queers, to call them out all the time, because then they just think that we’re offended because our feelings are hurt because we’re queer, but actually it’s a bigger thing. You get used to it I guess, and it doesn’t really affect you that much. You’re just sort of like, oh ok I don’t really want to hang out with you and I am annoyed at your politics.

If I have to explain it to you…
Yeah, exactly!

Have you or people you know been actively bullied or discriminated against in a sporting context?
To say it’s active is difficult. Because no one’s ever really like, oh you’re a lesbian, you can’t play with us. No one’s like that, because no one really would say that to your face. But they might be thinking it, and sometimes it comes across a little bit that they’re thinking it. So I don’t know if there’s been anything active, I think it’s more that sometimes things happen, and you can’t really tell if people are being homophobic. For example, you’ve told someone you have a girlfriend, right? You just drop it in the conversation, oh I’m doing this with my girlfriend. And then when they ask you about your day, how that went, they say ‘your mate’, or your friend instead of your girlfriend. Rather than the direct, you’re a lesbian, you can’t sit with us or whatever. That sort of invalidating thing, almost.

Do you feel pressured to spell it out for people? How old are you now?

So it’s been two or three years that you’ve been going through coming out?
Yeah. In places like soccer – we were always quite a young team, so we never really talked about boys or girls, because we were just there to play. That was the environment, we were there to impress our coach and get on the top team or whatever. Now I’ve come through that long coming out I don’t really feel the need to prove myself. Sometimes people assume that you’re straight, and then you just correct them a little bit. But otherwise I just go about my day.

Quite recently there’s been a lot happening around, I guess normalising homosexuality really, with same-sex marriage being legalised in Ireland and the US for example. Do you think that’s changed how people are around you?
I’m not sure. It’s hard for me to tell because I’m so young, you know? My experience of change has been, coming from being 12 years-old, when everyone’s sort of weird about it. The only bullying I ever had was when I was 12, and we weren’t even sexual beings. But it feels like it’s changing society in the sense that it’s in the news a lot, so like you say it’s more normalised. Not even for gay people to be accepted, but to hear about things that are relevant to us on the news. I think people are just like, oh ok, that’s a thing that exists and then they just carry on with their lives.

I guess that’s almost the worst part. The fact that a lot of stuff that’s still been in place, that has stopped gay people from living their lives as anyone else, has remained because change hasn’t been a priority for people who are straight. That actually really just sucks. Because it’s had really devastating consequences for a lot of people.

So around 12 is when you started to become aware of being attracted to girls, and that’s when you started dealing with bullying?
I think so. I started to become aware of it almost because other kids would call me a lesbian all the time. I didn’t want that, because it was associated with them bullying me, or teasing me for wearing tomboy clothes and stuff like that. I think 12 is the age where it started to become less acceptable to be a tomboy, and so that’s when I started to have to think about it. But I didn’t really think about it properly until I was a bit older.

Do you have older friends that you’re able to talk to about your experience now?
As in, older friends that are gay?

Yeah, who have been going through this stuff at a different time to you – culturally and socially.
I don’t really have many older friends that are gay, but one of the things that springs to mind is – with my older teammates, when I was sending around the information for my study and I used words like queer and cisgender. They were like, what are those? I don’t understand those. They wanted to know. I think interest is expanding and people are less like, oh, that’s yuck.

What do you hope to highlight with your dissertation, or find out?
I’m hoping to make LGBT experiences in sport more well known, more understood. I’m working with an LGBT charity as well. They’ve given me some money and asked me to put the research towards making some information for sports clubs, a little pamphlet type of thing, so they’ve got a resource that basically outlines what it’s like to be queer in sport. What sorts of things can come across as homophobia, and just sort of open up the conversation I guess, in places where it might not be brought up by queer people, or it might not be something that the team talks about. Just to even bring that up I think is a step.

Have you included men in the study?
Sort of. I’ve tried to make it trans-inclusive, so they have to have played a sport that’s typically designated for women, but their gender identity doesn’t matter. At this point only women have responded, but it’s open to guys as long as they’ve had an experience playing in women’s sport.

Do you have male or trans friends who have had bullying experiences in a male-dominated sport?
When we were younger all the boys played soccer, and soccer for men has a stigma of being – in New Zealand anyway – the soft sport compared to rugby. So they all sort of had their sexuality accused basically, when they were quite young, and turned to rugby to be more manly, straight men. I think lots of them would get told that they were playing the gay sport, and they were going to turn out like girls. Or, you know, that they should pick up a ‘real’ sport like rugby.

By adults, or by their teammates?
Mostly by teammates, but when you’re quite young – I’m thinking 10 or 11 type of thing – kids just start to worry about their public image. It’s not directly from adults but I think it’s that idea in society that football is a soft sport, and the men fall down easily and rugby is the man’s game. That’s part of New Zealand culture in a way. So it came from adults too, but not directly.

Have any of your participants brought up a cultural, or ethnic or racial element?
I haven’t had anyone that’s not white come through so far, so that’s a little bit tricky. But in the literature it’s talked about how it’s very different if you’re black for example, because you have this stigma of being animalistic, of being biologically better at sport. On the one hand you’re a woman and you’re not supposed to be as good as men at sport, on the other you’re black and so you’re supposed to be really, really good at sport. That comes through in Serena Williams, for example. When you’re really good at sport as a black woman you get called an ape, or unattractive. My participants haven’t come to me with that, but I think it’s definitely a part of it.

What are your thoughts on Caitlyn Jenner’s transformation?
That’s quite a contested issue. There are some activists in our queer community here that are sort of like, it’s all good for Caitlyn but she’s rich, and she’s white. But no, I think it’s a very, very brave thing for her to do. Especially after having such a public career living as a man. I think having that representation in the media is a really important thing, just for kids to see that it’s ok, they can do it too if they want to. That’s what I think, really. We just need other people to be brave and to come out as well, and keep coming out until it’s a normal thing. That people aren’t talking about for weeks.

Maybe this is cheesy, but do you have any advice for younger people who might come up against some of the issues you’ve faced?
It’s a bit cheesy back at you, but I would say just be yourself. You care so much when you’re a teenager and when you’re a kid about what other people think, but as soon as you get out of that school environment you’re like, oh this is what the adult world is like, I can just be whatever. So just get through I guess. Get through.


To join Sophie’s study on LGBT experiences of playing women’s sport, email her at Participants must live in Auckland.

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.