3 min

You can’t keep her away

Runner loves the connections of sport

Credit: Joshua Meles

Liz Devine is a queer games groupie. She competed in slow pitch in the Vancouver Gay Games in 1990 (“We were killed”), won a gold in hockey in New York in ’94 (“We were one of three hockey teams called the Mighty Dykes”), skated to silver in hockey in Amsterdam in ’98 (“We lost to the Dutch National team. They did a five-kilometre run for the warmup. We had massages”) and helped Toronto win softball gold in Sydney in ’02, where she also swam in the team triathlon (“Our goal was not to finish last. We came in second last”).

Clearly she could compete in Montreal’s first World Outgames in any number of sports, but she’s entering the 10-kilometre cross-country run for one primary reason– it gives her plenty of time to cheer on her Team Toronto teammates in their events.

“I wanted to do a one-day sport so that I could go to support all the women I know,” says Devine, who is about to turn 49.

Over the past two decades, the native of Oakville has emerged as one of Toronto’s leading queer sports activists. After the Amsterdam games, she cofounded Women For Sydney, a group that raised more than $40,000 to help send some 30 women to the Gay Games in Australia in 2002.

With their travel costs significantly lower, the group — renamed Women For Montreal/ Chicago — has focussed efforts on assisting other women in need. Two $500 bursaries will enable younger and lower-income female athletes to compete in the Outgames. They’re also raising about $5,000 to help a Russian women’s basketball team participate.

“Our goal is to help women who can’t do public fundraising because of personal safety or legal issues,” she says.

Devine also serves as the group’s representative to the brand new Gay And Lesbian International Sport Association (GLISA), which sanctions the Outgames and works to develop lesbian and gay sports around the world. After participating in four Gay Games, she was devastated when Montreal split from the Federation Of Gay Games (FGG) and started the Outgames and GLISA. But she attended the founding meeting of GLISA and found a “night and day” difference between it and the FGG.

“The FGG’s organizational challenges have led them to retreat and be defensive rather than open up,” says Devine.

Dealing with GLISA, she says, has been refreshing. “They say, ‘You have an idea? Great, let’s fit it in.’ They were excited to be creating and promoting possibility. GLISA has been growing by leaps and bounds because they’re inviting people in.”

Helping create such community spaces for queers has been a major theme in Devine’s life since she came out while working as a dispatcher for the Metro Toronto Police in the 1970s.

“It was not exactly a homo-welcoming place at the time,” laughs Devine. She stuck it out for four years, then hopped on her CX 500 Honda and biked across Canada for three months “visiting every hole of a lesbian bar” she could find. She returned to Toronto thinking, “There has to be a better way for lesbians to live.”

She went to Ryerson then put her hospitality and tourism degree to work, cofounding the Women’s Common, a lesbian bar, club, restaurant and social services agency all rolled into one. She also joined the Notso Amazon Softball League when it started up in 1984 and describes the league as a defining political act in the women’s community.

“Identifying as a lesbian league, securing the playing space, even going out for drinks afterward in daylight, these were highly political acts then. They created the opportunity for other things to grow.”

Soccer, hockey and basketball leagues all followed. “Women looked for alternatives to the bar culture, which is a destructive environment to base our socialization on,” says Devine. “Women look for ways to talk and interact.

“We’ve emerged as an identifiable social group and created safe spaces and friends and social groups. Now we’ve grown so diverse that just about any interest you have, you can find a support group that’s queer-identified.”

Now Devine is back at Ryerson, as manager of special projects for student services, helping such student groups as RyePride. I recently tagged along to a presentation she made to the group, to encourage youth participation in the Gay Games (which are in Chicago in July) and Outgames. While walking to the meeting, she managed to link up a few students with staff to form a basketball team for the Outgames. A week later she was touring new Ryerson president Sheldon Levy through the gay village, to talk about ways of strengthening links between the village and the university.

Devine’s both amused and thrilled by the progress.

“Back 25 years ago we were struggling for basic human rights, to be visible and not beat up. Now we give students awards for queer activism.”