Meet the Belfast Braves, the UK's first lesbian football team
How a lesbian football team here is being inspired by the memory of a tragic English soccer star. Una Bradley meets the Belfast Braves, the UK’s first lesbian football team, ahead of a pro-gay match this weekend
It started as a casual kick-about one evening at the football pitches in Stormont Estate in east Belfast. A handful of women gathered in response to a suggestion made online.
Aged between 18 and 50, and with varying levels of skill, the dozen didn’t stand out from any other ladies’ footie team putting in a bit of mid-week practice on the beautiful game.
But they were different. This was the inaugural meeting of what would become Belfast Braves — the UK’s first lesbian football team.
Almost a year later, they have upped their game tremendously, competing in a range of friendlies and charity matches against the likes of Crusaders, Glentoran, Abbey Villa, Bangor, Newtownabbey Strikers and Knockbreda (they may have been slaughtered 7-0 by Knockbreda, but they won 3-2 against Bangor).
With many of the team having played competitively in ladies’ football, they plan to join the Northern Ireland Ladies’ Football Association league next year.
They say they have received overwhelmingly positive feedback, and have never encountered taunts or jibes from the terraces.
So why is it necessary to have a separate lesbian team when, presumably, many lesbians already participate in ladies’ football? Is there not a danger of ghettoising gay sports?
“It’s to create a safer environment for lesbian players,” comments Lesley Todd, the general manager of the team. “Hopefully it won’t always be necessary, but at this point in time, lesbian players can sometimes be singled out on regular teams and some of our players have had that experience in the past.
“We stand stronger when we stand together. Belfast Braves is resolutely against prejudice of any kind. We don’t discriminate against any disability, any creed, any colour. We are totally inclusive.”
Indeed, three members of the team happen to be deaf, and communicate with other team members via a combination of lip reading and sign language.
On Saturday, Belfast Braves are due to travel to Nottingham to take part in a tournament organised by the Justin Campaign and Nottingham University’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning Staff Network.
The Justin Campaign was set up in memory of Justin Fashanu, Britain’s first — and only, to date — top flight footballer to come out as gay. He died through suicide in 1990 and many gay activists believe the pressures he faced as an openly gay black man contributed to his problems. He was also wanted for questioning in the US, at the time, over allegations of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old boy.
The Justin Campaign aims to combat anti-gay prejudice in all sports, but particularly football, which is commonly seen as the most homophobic of British sports.
Aside from the Nottingham tournament, Belfast Braves have a busy summer ahead. On Monday next week, they will take part in a family sports day at Ormeau Park, as part of Gay Pride. The following month, on August 28, they travel to Londonderry to take part in that city’s Pride celebrations.
They train on Wednesdays evenings at Stormont Pavilion and Saturday mornings at Ormeau Park, and are actively looking for new members. If you wish to find out more, see their Facebook page.
Debbie Todd (45) lives in Ballyclare, Co Antrim, with her teenage son and her civil partner, Lesley. She works as an accounts clerk and is the secretary of Belfast Braves. She says:
I came out relatively recently, in 2005. In a previous life, I was married with two children, although being gay was not why I split from my husband. We had already split when I met Lesley.
I think I had always known I was gay, but I never planned on doing anything about it, as I was a mum first and foremost. Meeting Lesley changed everything. We got married at Belfast City Hall in February 2007 and it was a wonderful occasion. All our families were there, cheering us on.
One of the highlights for me was after the ceremony, when two old ladies, who just happened to be wandering around, came up and congratulated us. That meant so much to me. It was like being accepted.
It’s a bit like that with Belfast Braves. For me personally, being in a lesbian team means not having to pretend to be something you’re not.
I played women’s football from when I was a teenager until I had children. I played in the NILFA league for years. My team, Chimney Corner, topped the First Division once during my time with them. I really missed football after I gave it up, but I never dreamed I would get a second chance.
Because I’m older now, I work hard on my fitness, but it must be paying off, as I’m able to beat the younger girls during training.
I am ambitious for Belfast Braves. Having said that, the club is about more than football. It’s like an extended family.
There is so much support and camaraderie among the team members.
It’s not all tough training schedules either. We’ll go for a meal in someone’s house or for a pizza and a few drinks. They’re a lovely bunch and I’ve made some really good friends through it.
I don’t think any romance has blossomed out of the club, but there are quite a few established couples. One couple is getting married next April and planning a Belfast Braves theme — they’re going to tie the knot in their kit.
Angie Young (45) works for Bombardier and lives in Dundonald. She has one son, 15-year-old Bradley. She is the captain of Belfast Braves. She says:
I have played football with the boys since I was three years old. Growing up in a wee estate in Greenisland, I never dreamed that I would ever play on a proper pitch.
When I was about 16, a neighbour told me about a ladies’ football team in Carrick. I’ve played in ladies’ football ever since, save for a few years, when I thought I was too old. Then Belfast Braves contacted me and asked me to join. I am over the moon to be back in the game. I go to the gym and a zumba class — working out to dance music — between training to keep up my fitness.
I have played at all levels in the past, including with Northland Raiders, Bangor Ladies and Newtownabbey Strikers.
I came out as a lesbian around 13 years ago. It was the most difficult thing I have ever done. I had to leave my husband. It was really, really tough.
I feared for my son, that it might harm him. I remember trying to find a way to tell him. I took him for a round of golf. I said: “Son, I’ve something to tell you ...”
When I finished, all he said was, “Right, are we playing this round, or not?” Children don’t see labels, they just see the person.
Attitudes have changed so much. When I first came out, people on the shopfloor at Bombardier would say to me, “You’re the first lesbian I’ve ever met”. I’d say, “Would you ever wise up! I may be the first ‘out’ lesbian you’ve met, but I’m certainly not the first lesbian.”
Some women would act like they were afraid you would fancy them. So many times I felt like saying, “Get over yourself, you’re so not my type.”
Lesley Todd (45) lives in Ballyclare, with her civil partner, Debbie. Originally from Newcastle, England, she has four grown-up children and is the general manager for Belfast Braves. She says:
Everyone calls me ‘Mama’. That’s what I have printed on my strip. I look after all the women and take care of the fund-raising. I don’t play myself, as I’ve a bad heart, but I’m very committed to the team. It’s virtually my full-time job, as my health problems prevent me from working in regular employment.
Belfast Braves is so much fun. We train twice a week, and we’ve never had any bother from anyone. In fact, people are always really encouraging.
Attitudes here have changed a lot. When I first came to Northern Ireland, I felt the province was behind England in how gay people were treated. I met lesbians who’d been singled out and beaten up. But things have improved tenfold. I came out in my twenties. I think I always knew, but growing up where I did, it just wasn’t the done thing. My kids just think it’s normal now. My daughter Kara (24), who lives in Northern Ireland now too, does some fund-raising for Belfast Braves through the supermarket chain she works for.
The rest of my children and grandchildren still live in the north-east of England. I really miss them, and Belfast Braves has been a great way of me getting out and meeting new people.
I can’t stress how open we are as a club. We would allow a straight woman to play with us, as long as she was cool with our lesbian identity.
We’re not about discrimination of any kind. We’re just about being positive and having fun.
Sport stars who brave critics
- Martina Navratilova announced her sexual orientation soon after being granted American citizenship. She was later involved in high-profile relationships with authors Rita Mae Brown, Judy Nelson and basketball star Nancy Lieberman.
- US tennis ace and feminist campaigner Billie-Jean King was infamously ‘outed' in 1981 when an ex-lover sued her. At the height of her game, King won 20 Wimbledon titles, an all-time record equalled only by Czech-born player Martina Navratilova, who coincidentally came out as a lesbian in the same year.
- The first black British player to command a £1m transfer fee, Justin Fashanu remains the only openly gay English top-flight footballer. The brother of fellow striker and TV presenter John Fashanu, Justin committed suicide in 1998. At the time, he was wanted for questioning in the US about allegations that he sexually assaulted a teenage boy.
- One of the Republic’s most popular hurling stars, Cork goal-keeper Donal Og Cusack, became the first top-class Irish sportsman to come out. He said in his 2009 autobiography: “Whatever you may feel about me or who I am, I've always been at peace with it.”
- Gareth Thomas, the most capped Welsh rugby player of all time, announced he was gay in 2009. The fact that he did so while still a professional player was heralded as evidence of softening attitudes within sport. Two years previously, Welsh rugby referee Nigel Owens had come out.