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‘When the word lesbian was iterated on the podium, I heard laughter in the audience’

Dr Linda Greene on elite lesbian athletes in Ireland and the invisibility they have historically endured.

Linda Greene pictured during her days as an elite athlete in America.
Linda Greene pictured during her days as an elite athlete in America.

WHEN LINDA GREENE returned home from seven years in the US in which she earned a degree while playing football, she arrived in an Ireland different to the one that exists today.

In 2000, it had been less than a decade since homosexuality had been decriminalised in the country, while the marriage referendum was still 15 years away.

As well as continuing her football career with Shamrock Rovers, the former Ireland international also earned a spot in the UCD post-graduate programme, studying Social Justice.

“I was very interested in the sporting inequalities that I had witnessed in my own career,” she explains.

“And I suppose it’s that elite level athlete that would have been in me and always pushing it to the next level [in my studies].”

Greene undertook a PhD on Elite Lesbian Athletes in Ireland and the invisibility they have historically endured — a topic that was somewhat taboo at the time and to a lesser extent, remains so to this day.

I wanted the stories to be saved or documented before they were lost in terms of the elite lesbian athletic voice,” she explains. “How that was invisibilised in my experience. You were already pushing the boundaries of gender so hard.

“And with gender and sexuality then, you were into issues of intersectionality and I saw that an awful lot of people were subversive or very quiet around their homosexuality for the want of not rocking the boat too much. It was already considered oxymoronic in the sense that by being aggressive, strong, powerful, totally committed to your career athlete, it was counter-intuitive to the stereotypical or conventional understanding of what it is to be a woman. Which is why I grew up with the name of ‘tomboy’ constantly resounding around my head. You were always acutely aware that you were testing boundaries and gender norms.

“I wanted to document those stories and see what the situation actually was for elite lesbian athletes in Ireland, as they were playing their different sports.

“I was actually surprised by how many women contacted me. I thought initially I’d struggle to get the interviews.

“People wanted to stay anonymous yes, but also wanted the story to be told, which was quite interesting, because of the inequalities and the lack of justice that people were experiencing. It was horrific in some instances.”

As an elite athlete in America, Greene herself had some experience of these inequalities.

“One example and something that sits quite uncomfortably with me, when I was in Carolina, we were paraded before a men’s game. We were full-time athletes, so you’re muscular, you’re strong, you’re conditioned to be very aggressive in the tackle, you’re not pulling out of anything.

“It was like when you stepped off the field, you were supposed to play a very different game. One of the Sundays, we were told to wear our best Sunday dress. We were all paraded for the men’s game in front of 8,000 people, as the women’s team. I just thought it was very interesting. Why not wear our training gear, and be paraded as athletes? Why are you asking us to wear a dress? In terms of gender performativity, it wasn’t comfortable at all.”

image8 Greene pictured front and centre in the red cape with some of her adult education students. She lectured in UCD in social justice and equality for years. She has a Masters Degree and PhD from the college.

Upon returning to Ireland and recommencing her studies, Greene witnessed similarly problematic attitudes.

“I went to interview a very prominent Irish cricket player. One of her colleagues said to me, when I went over to interview her: ‘No using the ‘gay’ word in here today.’ That was only a couple of years ago. We’re not talking centuries, I completed my PhD in 2008, so it would have been about 2006.

“It was intriguing to me. It shows a level of internalised homophobia, because the person that said it to me was actually gay themselves, but there was such a self-policing going on within that cricket ground that I was being policed at the gate on the way in, in terms of vernacular. 

“Also, the experiences different women talked to me about having to move from the country to the city, the rural-urban divide. In moving to the city, they got that anonymity that they were craving or needed, living out their sexuality in a safer way. It just wasn’t safe, it wasn’t an option for them to live as lesbian women in the ’70s and ’80s in [certain rural areas].

I also spoke to a couple of All-Ireland-winning GAA captains and with one in particular, her sexuality wasn’t welcomed — it was totally shunned, it was to be quietened and invisibilised, and to be lived out in a totally subverted way. And that would have been my experience in Carolina. We wouldn’t have been welcomed to be out lesbian athletes at all. That has changed, but at that time, it wasn’t up for discussion. And we knew that, even though it wasn’t directly said, it was overtly felt.”

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There are very few openly gay athletes in men’s professional sport, and while it is generally seen as less taboo in the equivalent female sphere, that is not to suggest the latter field is devoid of problems.

“From my experience, [homosexuality is] very common in women’s sports,” Greene says.

“I think that in terms of how quiet it is within men’s sport, and how it’s still not readily welcomed or discussed, it’s still quite a battle for LGBTIQ equality in sport. I suppose because sport is such a space for the cultivation of traditional masculinity, you’re resisting that, and that challenge is there all the time.

“And there’s that inaccurate stereotype around what it is to be a gay man, though that has changed hugely thanks to some prominent gay rugby players in particular that have come out.

“But the silence speaks more if you look at, say, how many young men have come out in the Premier League. The average statistics in the general population are one in 10 and then you never hear a word about sexuality [in football], many of them are just battling to get playing time. So the battle in relation to sexuality is something that often comes at the end of their career, because of a multitude of issues. ‘Will I lose sponsorship? Will I lose credibility? Will I be looked at that differently? Am I then perceived as a predator in the locker room?’ There’s a whole gauntlet of questions that go through young athletes’ heads, whether they be informed or misinformed. So there’s a social role with regard to how the clubs are educating them [on the issue of] equality. The politics of sexuality is ripe in sport, it really is.”

upi-20191212 Megan Rapinoe of Team USA holds the Golden Ball trophy after winning the 2019 Women's World Cup. Source: UPI/PA Images

Now 43 and running a primary healthcare support system for the traveller community, Greene is encouraged by the changes that have taken place in the two decades since returning home to Ireland, while emphasising that there is scope for plenty more progress in the forthcoming years.

“In terms of sexuality and a safe playing field for all sexualities in sport, I don’t think we’re anywhere near [where we should be]. I think that my PhD was way ahead of its time.

“I even remember when my PhD title was called out after 11 years of study, I walked up to collect it and when the word lesbian was iterated on the podium, I heard laughter in the audience. That reaffirmed to me that I had definitely studied the right thing, and that that narrative needed to be told. The general population may not have been ready to embrace and understand it at that time, but it was definitely something that needed to be documented.

“But thank God Ireland has changed at a remarkable pace. Equality has come an awful long way from the island that I grew up on, with its conservative politics and that kind of hegemony and discourse in and around Catholicism. Even if it’s on a superficial level, people these days are a lot more open to embracing equality and diversity across the board. But it’s something that still has major pitfalls. You see it more and more when people are vying for power socially.”

Naturally, the changes in society in recent years have, to an extent, been mirrored in sport. There are currently a significant number of openly gay female footballers, including US star Megan Rapinoe and Ireland captain Katie McCabe.

When I was growing up playing football, there was no one for me to look to, and say: ‘It is okay to play football on the street with all the lads,’” Greene recalls. “It was always their first point of attack if they wanted to demonise you, or make you out to be abnormal, or weird. The first point of attack was always in and around gender, it was always ‘tomboy’. That was always the first word. Whereas if that had been more normalised [it would have been easier].

“There’s huge difference in America, because the women’s team are held up as national heroes. They’re celebrated, afforded celebrity status and rewarded financially for their success on the pitch. Whereas here, most people would struggle to name the starting XI for the Irish women’s team.”

Yet even a star as big as Rapinoe — the 2019 Ballon d’Or Féminin winner — is no stranger to adversity, as Greene points out.

“That’s with the clout, the sponsorship, the money, the eminent career, the stable partner, and also the highly successful lesbian athlete partner [basketball player Sue Bird]. So they’d be quite a power couple. But they’d still be encountering some serious homophobia, so you can imagine what that would mean to a 14-year-old coming out of Tallaght who is not equipped and doesn’t have the systematic support, life education or life skills. It’s a very different [situation].

“With some people, some sponsors, some institutions, there’s still that residual homophobia that needs to be educated out and weeded out and challenged on a systematic level. Ireland is still only ranked 15th for LGBTI equality in Europe

“We’ve still a huge amount of work to do. Don’t get me wrong, there’s loads to be celebrated. We have reached loads of milestones. Marriage equality five years ago was absolutely massive. My two younger brothers are gay as well, so that social justice battle is something that really rings true for me.

“We’ve come a long way, but we’ve a long way to go. And the fact that it’s still being used as a silencing tool, so to speak, is massive.

“I know that some of the soccer players, who talked to me and played on the Irish team in the ’90s and early 2000s, felt that their sexuality was really hushed. It was really to be invisibilised, it was to be quietened.”

katie-mccabe Unlike in the men's game, there are a significant number of openly gay female footballers, including Ireland captain Katie McCabe. Source: Filip Filipovic/INPHO

And while Greene is encouraged by the willingness of McCabe and other sporting figures speaking publicly about their sexuality, she also empathises with those who are reluctant to do so.

“They have be safe and they have to have the life tools themselves to be able to manage that conversation. It is great that Katie feels secure in herself and has the captaincy and has taken on a leadership role on that level, by refusing to live a lie. Living her life as she is and being very strong in that.

“But that’s for everybody to decide for themselves individually, because it’s not always safe. People don’t always have the support systems, they don’t always have the support of family. I was blessed. I’ve an incredibly supportive family.

But, for example, some of the women that I interviewed, Gaelic footballers or camogie players, they were PE teachers. They might be PE teachers in quite conservative schools. So they didn’t feel comfortable in being out and even though they’re in long-term relationships, they just did not feel comfortable with disclosing their sexuality at school. And you don’t hear of heterosexuals disclosing their sexuality. It’s only a homosexual that discloses their sexuality apparently.

“That in and of itself tells you something about the need for healthy discussions and informed educational policy and structural changes and cultural shifts within the different sporting organisations in Ireland.”

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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