Looking back... to look forwards
Andi Page takes a look at the history of LGBTQ+ participation in cricket and the progress being made to create a more inclusive game.
I have been asked by the club to write something to mark LGBT History Month. It seemed only fitting to take a look at past players while also considering initiatives from more recent history and asking questions about how our game can genuinely be "for everyone".
For so long it’s been suggested that one sport has a unique problem with homophobia – football. The lack of “out” gay and bisexual players at the highest level of football, it is alleged, points to deep-rooted cultural prejudices that continue to represent a significant barrier to inclusion.
This narrative isn’t without merits, of course. But it’s hardly the full picture, and the idea that football is somehow exceptional doesn’t ring true. Sure, since Justin Fashanu (and his story is way more complex than usually presented) “came out” to The Sun in October 1990 there have hardly been a flood of professional footballers revealing themselves to be LGBTQ+. Aside from Fashanu himself, the only top-flight player to come out has been Thomas Hitzlsperger and even that was post-retirement. But wait! When Blackpool’s 17-year-old striker Jake Daniels revealed he was gay in May last year, the announcement was largely met with messages of support. His club and his teammates appear to have done everything to show he was welcome and accepted. Liam Davis was “out” for several years while playing for Gainsborough Trinity and Cleethorpes Town, becoming the first openly gay player to appear in a Wembley Final when he played for the latter in the 2017 FA Vase Final. And of course there are the various women (far too many to mention, but we need look no further than the England national team) who are not only “out” but are in same-sex marriages. They talk about their wives and relationships as if there is nothing remotely unusual about them – and indeed there isn’t.
Even if we accept that there are huge cultural differences between the women’s and men’s games, it is clear that this culture is changing. What is also clear is that football really isn’t as exceptional as people seem to imagine. Let’s take our own game – cricket.
How many “out” elite players have there been in cricket? Certainly there are several high profile women such as Alex Blackwell, Lynsey Askew and Natalie and Katherine Sciver-Brunt (there are many, many others). However, If we look exclusively at male players I can’t think of too many and the picture is arguably even worse than football. Twelve years ago England’s Steven Davies (of Somerset, Surrey and Worcestershire) “came out” and remains to date the only elite cricketer to do so while playing, Sussex’s Alan Hansford played in ten first-class matches in his four seasons at the club, and former England men’s captain Michael Atherton later wrote that Hansford was the only gay cricketer he had ever encountered: "there can't be too many gay accountants who dismissed you twice in a first-class match" he quipped. But Hansford wasn’t open about his sexuality until after he had retired (even his family didn't suspect he was gay). The only other gay or bisexual player of note was the remarkable English poet George Cecil Ives, who played one match for the MCC in 1902. A man years ahead of his time, Ives was not only "out" about his identity but was an early equality activist and campaigner for a change in the law to end what he called "the oppression" of homosexual and bisexual people. He was also involved with a touring cricket team that included among its members P.G. Wodehouse, Arthur Conan-Doyle, Edwin Abbey, J. M. Barrie, G.K. Chesterton and Rudyard Kipling. There is also the possibility that former Somerset captain Peter Roebuck was gay but, given his tragic suicide and the fact that he never publicly admitted this, we cannot be sure and it may be best not to speculate. If he was gay or bisexual, he certainly wasn’t comfortable with his sexual identity.
Is cricket a better game than football to be LGBTQ+ ? It is true that the vile chanting from the terraces Fashanu endured would be unlikely in cricket – I can’t imagine MCC members sat in the Lord’s enclosure would be the kind of people to shout “Hey, Davies, you gay b******!” or worse – but the fact that homophobia is expressed more subtly doesn’t mean it isn’t present, or that it is any less damaging. And, despite the perception of cricket as a “gentler game”, there have been increased reports of homophobic, sexist and racist abuse from supporters, especially at T20 games. And let's not forget that in recent years elite cricketers - the West Indies' Shannon Gabriel and Australian Marcus Stonis - have been fined for intemperate in-game comments of a homophobic nature.
Are football and cricket really as dissimilar as we may think? What progress have the respective games made in terms of dealing with anti-LGBTQ+ prejudice? The Football v Homophobia campaign, which “challenges discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression”, was launched in 2010. Pride in Football, a network of LGBTQ+ fans, has also been operating for several years and over 52 league clubs in England and Scotland have their own LGBTQ+ supporters’ groups; by contrast, Surrey CC is unique among county cricket clubs in having such a fans’ group (Proud Surrey). Kick It Out, originally founded thirty years ago to combat racism in the game, is now focused on addressing “discrimination, in all its forms: racism, sexism, homophobia [and] transphobia”. The FA has worked closely with Kick It Out, LGBTQ+ charities and support organisations and is at least demonstrating that it understands the need for more inclusive approaches.
But is there a cricketing equivalent of Kick It Out? Or Football v Homophobia? Not really. However, there are two LGBTQ+ cricket clubs and a new LGBTQ+ England cricket supporters’ group – founded in 2022 – called Pride in Cricket (I have joined this as an LGBTQ+ cricketer, even though I'm actually a Scotland supporter). Together they are already making a difference. In 2017 The ECB, Stonewall and Sky Sports teamed up to give us the short-lived Rainbow Stumps, more a symbol of support than a campaign as such. Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign, independent of – but supported by – the FA and Premier League, kicked off in 2013 and the ECB has got behind this in recent years. There is also a Cricket Supporters’ Association that runs a campaign called Every Cricket Fan, which aims to develop diversity within cricket more generally. That’s a welcome start. But as for a campaign that can do for cricket what the various groups I’ve mentioned have done for football, especially in terms of making LGBTQ+ people more visible, it just doesn’t exist yet.
There’s been a developing interest in Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) within domestic cricket in the last year, as the ECB attempts to deal with the implications of the Azeem Rafiq scandal. Again, while the conversations are welcome, they are also massively overdue and are only being had belatedly because the ECB, county boards and member clubs have finally realised that the cultural status quo cannot continue. If it wasn’t for Rafiq, I doubt many of the conversations we’re now having about EDI would be taking place.
Sometimes necessity can be the mother of invention. Institutional change seldom occurs by chance, and the fact that cricket is having to address issues it would prefer not to means there is a window of opportunity in which to act. The time is now. We have to get things right. Those of us who want our sport to be more open, welcoming and inclusive have never had a better moment to be the change we want to see.
Former England men’s team captain Andrew Strauss understands this. Only last week, in the annual MCC Cowdrey lecture, Strauss talked about the need to be "tolerant, understanding, welcoming and embracing of difference".
He recognises that cricket has a cultural problem. He said: "As we move forward together as a game with players of different genders, races, creeds and beliefs coming together, so the traditional macho, hierarchical, perhaps at times verging on 'bullying' dressing-room banter will need to be softened...The events over the last 18 months, whether they come from Yorkshire or elsewhere, have shown we have a lot of work to do in this area. But the spirit of cricket demands this."
Indeed it does. But what exactly does it demand? Firstly, we need to talk about homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. Clubs are getting better at talking about racism and sexism, although there clearly remains progress to be made. But homophobia, biphobia and transphobia? Not so much. Recently, I’ve had conversations with people who would prefer that I don’t talk about issues surrounding transgender inclusion in cricket until such a time as they’re comfortable with it. I’m sorry, but we can’t be selective as far as EDI is concerned. If we are to deal with prejudice and intolerance more generally, we have to appreciate the specific expressions of prejudice and intolerance that people experience. It’s also worth pointing out that those of us who want to challenge discrimination cannot defer having conversations until such a time as others finally decide to have a discussion on their terms. Secondly, these conversations need to involve, and be led by, LGBTQ+ people. I wouldn’t want to see clubs addressing misogyny and racism by selecting a small panel of white men, however well-intentioned, to draw up some recommendations. If your club wants to become a more welcoming place for LGBTQ+ people, the first step is to speak to some LGBTQ+ people. If you want to be an ally, do things with us rather than for us.
Thirdly, clubs need to do what Andrew Strauss recommends and take a look at their own culture. So much that passes for “traditional” needs to be understood as unfit for purpose in the modern game. We have to ask ourselves whether – to use Strauss’s words – we want to “move forward together” and be honest about what that means.
Fourthly, and finally, short of a new campaign group emerging called Out on the Pitch or something similar (yes, I know I’m not creative) the responsibility to support LGBTQ+ people in cricket falls to the ECB, leagues, clubs and fellow players. Every league, every club and every player has a role to play here. So we need to be proactively standing up for inclusion, calling out homophobia and transphobia when we see it, and removing barriers to participation. Put simply, if anyone comes to our clubs and wants to be included in what we do, if our initial response is anything other than “what can we do for you?” then we’re part of the problem.
February is LGBTQ History month and, sadly, there is not a great deal of LGBTQ history as far as professional men’s cricket is concerned.
Fortunately, as an “out” bisexual player at Rainhill Cricket Club, I have my own history. So do many other LGBTQ+ cricketers, some of whom play for Graces (the UK’s first LGBTQ+ cricket club) or Birmingham Unicorns (the second such club, whom Rainhill will be playing in July to coincide with Pride Month). I am fortunate that I am at a club that not only understands and accepts who I am but embraces it and has allowed me to be involved in every element of club life, from playing and coaching to overseeing club media and communications. When I experienced homophobia from members of an opposition team during a Sunday match, the club were incredibly supportive. Would I have had the same positive experiences at other clubs? I don’t know, but I suspect much would depend on the club.
I have not been alone at Rainhill – I know of at least one other LGBTQ+ player who has played with us. I don’t know if they felt as welcome here as I did but I hope so. I also know that there are many other LGBTQ+ players out there, playing for their clubs, and I’m just a small part of a bigger picture. There is progress being made, but there is also so much more to be done. If we want to create clubs that are genuinely inclusive and diverse, making cricket genuinely "for everyone", we have to be more intentional: being explicit about our aims, recognising diversity outside of race and sex, and being willing to change the way we do things to accommodate others. Andi Page is currently the captain of Rainhill Recreationals and has played with Rainhill CC since 2013. Many thanks to club secretary Peter Mercer who provided some assistance in writing this article.