3 min

Local leagues aim to recruit lesbian athletes

It's hard to build momentum of women members

Credit: Pat Croteau

Where are all the sports-minded queer women in Ottawa?

It’s a question many local dykes are asking after Montreal’s Outgames.

Local sports organizations have a history of finding it hard to recruit female membership – and then keep it once women do sign up.

“A lot of times, these organizations are seen as boys’ clubs,” says the Frontrunners’ Michael Cooper. “If a woman says that she’d like to be a member of this club and she shows up and sees mostly men, she’s going to have second thoughts.”

Cooper sees this as a self-sustaining problem. A woman shows up to run with Frontrunners one week. She sees few or no women and is never seen again. The next woman shows up and the same thing happens. The interested women are there, but because they haven’t stuck around long enough to see the other women, the numbers remain consistently low.

The Rideau Speedeaus swim club has had more success. “In my understanding, the Rideau Speedeaus is the most successful swim club in Canada in terms of having female swimmers,” says co-chair Michael McWilliams. “Between 25 and 35 percent of members are women.”

Cooper recalls a gay swim team in Boston. The local club had five women out of several dozen members, and four of those women were straight.

Geneviève Cheff, one of the organizers of the ad hoc women’s hockey team at the Outgames, thinks there’s a simple solution.

“Have women organizers,” she says. “The outreach needs to be done by a woman – it’s as simple as that. Dykes will go for the good-looking dyke that is talking to them and saying ‘Hey, come out and play.’ You need somebody who looks active, who feels active, and that will bring the crowd out. It’s marketing.”

Cheff cites the example of the women’s boat cruise, whose success comes largely thanks to the organizer talking it up. “She was there, she was at the Lookout on Friday nights picking up women
to go on that cruise with her tickets, and that’s why people go. It’s the same thing for sports – you need someone out there who will do that outreach.”

This seems to be a lesson the Speedeaus have already taken to heart. They have a women’s coordinator on the executive board – co-chair Wendy Rose. Rose is also co-chair of the Frontrunners, and makes sure that she remains a visible part of both teams.

“They see someone who’s female and enjoying what she’s doing,” Rose says of new women who join the groups. “I just talk to the women and ask them how they’re feeling with what they’re doing and ask them if there’s anything we can do to make it more comfortable for them.”

Rose sees it as her mission to change the cycle that Cooper sees. “If more women join, then other women see that there’s women there, and then they join,” Rose says. “I think we just need to start getting a few women out there and sticking around and giving us a try, and then the membership of women within the sports will grow.”

Cheff has additional pearls of wisdom. “Organize activities in ways that women will like it. It’s either you go all-out competitive, or all-out recreational. I’m not necessarily interested in tossing the ball around if I’m a good volleyball player. You need to get the levels right.

“Have an all-women’s night,” Cheff adds. “If there are men,
I wouldn’t play with them because I find it dangerous. It’s not the same level, it’s not the same speed. I don’t enjoy hockey with guys, or volleyball even less because they’re taller and the net is higher, and you don’t get to hit because you can’t jump that high.”

Rose sees things a little differently on this count. “I like the cohesiveness between the male and female gay populations, and I’m really into promoting that.
I’m hoping that more of my gay women friends will feel more
comfortable about participating with the men.”

She doesn’t feel that play levels have been a challenge for her. “There are female runners who were worried that they can’t keep up with the guys,” she says. “What I’ve found so far is that the guys really wanted to have the females, so there’s always a couple of guys who say ‘Oh, I want to have a slow night tonight.’ It’s not insulting – they wanted to encourage me to stay and feel comfortable. So I’m hoping that other women will come and stay, so that I can run with them at my own speed.”

In fact, Rose has nothing but good things to say about the support offered by her male teammates in both organizations. “They’ve been almost like big brothers and made sure that I was always comfortable where I was.”

Rose is optimistic about the role women are playing in Ottawa sports teams. “I’m definitely seeing more now in the past four years,” she says. And with her role organizing both teams, it looks hopeful that we’ll see even more in the days ahead.