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A State of Queer Sports report

League isolation causes many challenges in Ottawa sports scene

SHRINKING VIOLET. Zelda Marshall was raised by a dance-instructor mom and classical musician-father. Credit: Pat Croteau

It’s been four yearssince a major international sporting event, and in that time, Ottawa lost its umbrella sports organization.

True, one was created in the nick of time to organize team shirts for athletes attending the upcoming Montreal Outgames and to organize a meeting spot in that city. But it was a scramble and some say a sad reflection on Ottawa’s sporting community.

Of course, we all live in a queer community that finds difficulty agreeing on anything, including the importance of sports umbrella groups. Some people have argued that Ottawa’s queer sports scene might even benefit from not having an umbrella group. Then, athletes can participate on playing sports rather than organizing sports and dealing with inter-group conflict.

In a city of over a million people, but one with a queer community that struggles to find its own identity under the shadows of Toronto and Montreal, just how is the state of queer sports in Ottawa?

“I think it’s probably fairly active, but I think it’s fragmented,” says Dan DeVette, an organizer with the Men’s Volleyball League. “There’s no sort of group thought or collective. I don’t really know anybody in the other organizations or sports communities. I know they’re out there and they’re quite active, but we don’t really touch bases with them or they with us.”

Another points to the strength of individual sports programs. “We have a few solid organizations — volleyball, the swim club and the run club quickly attaining par status — and it’s good,” says Michael Cooper, an executive with the Ottawa Frontrunners. “These organizations have been around and they have some structures, some commitment to continuing to exist. They have loyal member bases that continue to benefit from them both athletically and socially. Then there are other organizations that are just forming or re-forming right now, which is a good thing to see — curling, hockey, tennis, ultimate Frisbee.”

But for all of the new groups out there, Cooper sees a level of uncertainty, a question of the longevity of some groups. “It depends on their interest in membership, but also for some organizer to realize that they’re going to need to put some time into doing websites or at least there’s a little blurb in Capital Xtra and things like that.”

And then there are the organizations that have collapsed in the past few years, such as the men’s hockey team, which is only now rebuilding. Its current plans don’t include anything more than formalizing its current team, which is half straight and half gay. Cooper points to the fact that sports that have gay teams and leagues in other cities have never made it that far in Ottawa. Like soccer.

Not everyone is as optimistic as Cooper and DeVette about the current state of sports. For some, queer sports in Ottawa may as well be non-existent.

“I’ve been in Ottawa for five years, and I have not heard or seen anything in women’s sports or men’s sports that have any sort of queer content,” says Geneviève Cheff, who organized a women’s hockey team for the Montreal Outgames. “The Outgames for me is the first time that I actually saw something geared towards that. I’ve been to pretty much every beach tournament there is, I’ve played hockey for five years, I was figure skating, soccer — I did all of them.”

Cheff and her partner, Amy Patricia, play in mainstream women’s hockey leagues. Speaking as someone embarking on a career as a phys ed teacher, Cheff has another observation: “For young athletes, there’s even less. Nineteen-to-twenty-four, I have not seen anything.”

DeVette’s observations about the lack of communication between sports organizations is echoed by many, including Cooper.

“My big harangue is that the groups, at whatever stage of formation, aren’t talking to each other very effectively,” he says. “That’s partly due to lack of clarity as to who they should talk to, and to some extent a feeling of ‘well we do our thing, they do theirs,’ and not really a sense that there is or should be a connection between them.”

While he does see some improvement, thanks to a small but vocal group’s lobbying, the insularity seems to be a fairly common feeling. As each organization has always operated under their own initiative, they’ve never had much of a calling to operate as a group beyond what the old Team/Équipe used to do with organizing groups headed to the Gay Games. Not that there haven’t been some attempts at unification.

“At one point, we had thought about trying to organize something between our volleyball league and the Rideau Speedeaus,” DeVette recalls. “To make it a bigger event — our tournament and theirs meet on the same weekend. It never really worked out.”

But the awareness of needing something bigger has been growing.

“I think we could probably do a bit more with respect to getting involved in the community,” Rideau Speedeaus co-chair Michael McWilliams says. “That’s why we’re looking at helping form an umbrella organization for sports organizations in the city, and obviously the executive members of the swim club are very open to the idea. We want to find out what some of the benefits would be both to us and to any other potential members to the swim club and any other sports organization in the city.”

But it’s not clear that the loss of an umbrella group is hurting all organizations. The large well-funded groups like the Rideau Speedeaus might not need it, says McWilliams.

But the question about whether or not the lack of an umbrella organization is a hindrance is a bit of a sticky issue.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t still support the idea. “Personally, I think it would be a great idea for the swim club to take a leadership role in having such a thing and join up with some of the larger organizations like volleyball or the Frontrunners for example,” McWilliams says. “I think at this point we really don’t have a grasp on what the real benefits would be, but I think there would be a lot of benefits.”

One of those benefits is without a doubt the ability to better attract new athletes to the various organizations. Because of limited budgets, the majority of the sports groups recruit by way of word-of-mouth and listings in Capital Xtra. Some organizers admit that there are years where they have struggled to recruit members.

Indeed, one of the longer-term goals of the renewed Team/Équipe is to provide a central contact list for all of the various sports groups in the city. That way, those looking to join a team can find them all at once. One idea is to organize a dedicated sports section at the LGX to help make the teams visible and to assist in the recruitment process.

“To say that, and then to actually put that into place are two different things,” McWilliams cautions. “It basically requires volunteers, and volunteering for anything requires a lot of work and it tends to fall on a few peoples’ shoulders, and I think that’s what happened a couple of years ago with the Team/Équipe. Ultimately there was a lack of interest, I think, in the community, and the people who were organizing didn’t feel the support from the people who were benefiting.”

The renewed Team/Équipe is hoping to learn from the past but has their eyes firmly on the future.

“I can see it becoming a common body for Ottawa sports in the queer community in general,” says organizer Tony Do. “That’s my goal for now.”

That common body may be what Ottawa needs to push the queer sporting community to the next level.

A lesson from Calgary

Calgary, a city close in population to Ottawa, has had a queer umbrella sports group in operation for nearly 25 years. Apollo has been that city’s not-for-profit volunteer run sports organization since 1981 when they started with four people and a single volleyball team. Today, the organization boasts more than eight organized sports and over 300 members, more than a third of them women.

The way Apollo is structured ensures that coordinators are responsible for the actual organization of each sport, but in return they are given access to marketing, spring and fall recruitment drives, a blanket insurance policy, seed money for new sports, and assorted other subsidies. In return, each coordinator ensures that all participants purchase their membership to Apollo.

As well, Apollo has also organized the Western Cup, which is now the largest annual multi-sport queer tournament in North America. Last year it attracted nearly 500 participants from across Canada and the US in six sports. That Calgary’s population could support such an organization gives hope that Ottawa could do the same.