Under a speckled spring sky in the English village of Broxbourne, a cricket ball is delivered by a burly bowler with bad intentions. Suspended in coiled anticipation is Matt Earl, the opening batter for Graces Cricket Club.
Though he is the only member of his team actively participating in the match at this time, he carries the fate of his compatriots on his shoulders. As CLR James wrote: “The batsman facing the ball does not merely represent his side. For that moment, to all intents and purposes, he is his side.”
This feels especially true now. Earl is gay. Ordinarily that would be an irrelevance. The cricket ball arcing towards him in search of his stumps, his edge, or his front pad couldn’t care less about his life beyond the boundary. But his teammates do. And because he is the embodiment of his side, at least for a moment, who Earl loves is relevant here.
Graces is the world’s first – and until last year, the only – cricket club made up of members of the LGBTQIA+ community. The team’s crest depicts a cricket ball arcing over a rainbow. Many of its players use bats with rainbow grips and wear boots with rainbow laces. The club’s skipper, Stuart Anthony, sports a rainbow-coloured armband with the word “captain” in a clear, unambiguous declaration of his status.
“In a perfect world, we wouldn’t exist,” says Anthony. “In a perfect world, there wouldn’t be a need for gay bars or gay sports clubs. But this isn’t a perfect world. People often ask me if we’re just perpetuating an exclusive mindset, if we’re shutting out the rest of the world. That’s an ignorant question. It ignores the prejudices that other people have and how difficult is for many gay people to be their authentic selves. We’ve created a safe space because there aren’t many of them out there.”
Indeed, after the BBC ran an article on Graces’ match against the Birmingham Unicorns rescheduled for 13 June – the world’s first contest between two LGBTQIA+ sides – the comment section below was awash with ignorance and hate. When the club launched an awareness drive with a video across its social media platforms, one bigot wondered “what their run-ups must look like”.
“It’s to be expected,” says Chris Sherwood, the rangy opening bowler who serves as Graces’ press and publicity officer. “Those are the sort of comments that remind us why we exist.”
Sherwood was an avid cricketer in his youth in his native Leicestershire but lost touch with the sport when he moved to London. One of the few matches he played in a “straight team”, as he terms it, resulted in an incident that threatened to end his relationship with the game.
“I was ordering drinks at the bar and asked the bartender for a round of half-pints as we were all driving. The bartender said [in a deeper, cockney voice] ‘We don’t do half-pints here, mate. I’ll have to put your picture up on the gay wall.’ I wish I’d said something to him, but then I would have had to come out to my teammates who I barely knew. It was such a challenging moment. That sort of thing just isn’t an issue with Graces and thankfully none of our players have ever received any homophobic abuse on the field.”
The club was established in 1996, when the attitude towards homosexuality and queer culture was vastly different than it is today. Though 13 years had passed since the British Social Attitudes Survey of 1983 found that more than 50% of British citizens regarded homosexuality as “always wrong” or “mostly wrong”, some lingering misconceptions persisted.
“There was a need for it at the time,” says co-founder Pat Sopp in response to a question about why the club was formed. “We were originally going to be just a supporters club, but most of us were keen on playing. It seemed a good idea at the time and we’re still going 25 years later. I suppose people resonated with that feeling of belonging and the authenticity of it all. That was more important than winning or losing.”
Sopp’s final sentiment is not universally accepted throughout the club. Anthony is more aligned with this message. “It might sound clichéd, but we’re more concerned that people want to take part,” he says, but others stress the significance of results on the pitch.
“If we perform well, with batsmen scoring hundreds and our bowlers taking a lot of wickets, then no one can say we can’t play because we’re gay,” explains Arijit Sen, a fast-bowling all-rounder who played alongside Guatam Gambhir in age-group national training camps in Delhi, India. “If I produce a good performance on a personal level, that also serves as branding for the club. It might help recruit other players.”
Sherwood concurs: “Shattering that stereotype is important and we get to directly do that. We don’t get to see many gay role models at the elite level and that has a knock-on effect, keeping amateur players in the closet or abandoning the sport altogether. This perpetuates the stereotype that gay men don’t like sport, that they’re not good at sport, that they’re all effeminate. We’re in a position to challenge that.”
No longer alone
Until the Birmingham Unicorns came along, Graces have fought this battle alone in the cricket world. This is in stark contrast to other mainstream sports. The Bingham Cup, a biennial rugby tournament consisting of gay clubs, will celebrate its 10th edition next year and can draw on just under 100 clubs from around the world affiliated with the International Gay Rugby federation.
The International Gay and Lesbian Football Association is similarly well supplied with a global membership while the Gay Games, a multi-sport summer event similar to the Olympic Games, has provided a platform for gay athletes since 1982.
Apart from cricket’s wider struggle with expanding its reach beyond the remnants of the British Empire, a more sinister barrier has stifled progress. Six of the 12 Test-playing nations are legally homophobic. In Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and many of the Caribbean islands that form part of the West Indies, marriages or relationships between same-sex couples are criminalised. Punishments include forced hard labour, up to 15 years imprisonment and, in extreme cases, death by stoning.
“This club has saved people,” says Manish Modi, Graces’ former captain and an enthusiastic speaker on the social importance of the club. “I came to the UK from India in 2004 in order to be a proud gay man. In India it’s now legal to be gay, but the perceptions are still very negative. But there are worse things than perceptions. I have teammates from some of those countries where they could have lost their life just for being themselves. It’s heartbreaking.”
This is why a few members of the club do not wish to be interviewed or have their picture taken. Some of them have yet to come out to their families back home. Doing so could have serious repercussions, not only for themselves, but for their loved ones too.
“I make a point of doing as many interviews as I can and to help carry the load,” says Modi, who has shared his story with the BBC, CNN and Sky. “I want to help others. I want to show them that there is a place where they can continue their love of cricket and be who they really are in their soul. I want to help people come out because I know how liberating that feeling can be. But I didn’t get there on my own. My Graces teammates helped me. In fact, last week someone told me that my interviews had helped him come out to his family. That’s a great feeling.”
‘We’re not here to change the whole world’
England Test captain Joe Root chastised West Indies fast bowler Shannon Gabriel in February 2019 for using a homophobic slur. “Don’t use it as an insult,” Root was heard to say on the stump microphone. “There’s nothing wrong with being gay.”
“That was a big moment, and it was wonderful to see someone like Joe Root stand as a vocal ally,” Sherwood says. “But as much as it meant a lot at the time, the momentum dissipated. I looked at the [International Cricket Council’s] stance on homophobia and I was disappointed. Because while they have very clear guidelines on racism, the same cannot be said for homophobia.”
The ICC’s anti-discrimination policy does condemn abuse and intimidation based on one’s sexual orientation, but with half of the main table occupied by homophobic countries, Sherwood is less than optimistic for sweeping change.
“But we’re not here to change the whole world,” he says, echoing Modi’s granular aims. “The fact that we’ve got a game against another gay club coming up is massive. Today, we’re in a competitive league and for the first time we’re fielding two teams on a Sunday. That was almost unthinkable back when we started. Change has come slow, but it is coming.”
That cricket ball delivered to opening batter Matt Earl did find his stumps. It was a filthy full toss that looped over his bat and made contact with the wooden poles behind him. He trudged off, incredulous, shaking his head at his misfortune.
“Hard luck,” his teammates say, offering scant consolation for a second-ball duck.
“That’s cricket, eh,” Earl replies. He’s right. It’s a remorseless game. Because of Graces Cricket Club, though, it’s also a more welcoming one.