From Johannesburg, lesbian footballers chosen to play, choosing to live

Editor’s note

To break the FIFA lockdown on a football culture of such vitality that a World Cup can only diminish it, we offer alternative narratives compiled during a trip to South Africa in June–July 2009. This is the first installment from life in the FIFA-free zones.

Within these articles and other segments, we feature tales of football in life and language, interviews, and literary remains. We do not pretend to cover the 32 participating countries, their players or prospects. What we will not say about North Korea would add no more to what has not been said already.

By the end, we hope to leave South Africa a keepsake—the least we can do, now that $19.7 million for World Cup arts initiatives has disappeared.

The trip to South Africa was sponsored by the country’s International Marketing Council.

My kind of God lives in the soccer field.
She hits the ferocious shots or sublime free kicks, performs the acrobatic save
She is the best lover anyone can ask for
My god doesn’t subscribe to any political party or gender
she comes off the soccer boots of Marta
she is a pele

—Tapuwa Moore, 2010

Rustenburg, South Africa | How does one write a love letter to a football team? For a sports journalist the idea sounds improper—perhaps criminal—but it’s what I wish to do for Chosen Few Lesbian Soccer Club of Johannesburg.

A year ago the team allowed me, a male interloper from an alternative hemisphere, to accompany them to a friendly match in Rustenburg, North West province, a former Boer settlement in what used to be called the Transvaal.

South Africa ... 

Life in the FIFA-free zone Chosen Few played a provincial power and lost badly, all the goals permitted in the second half after injuries and fatigue reduced them to eight field players. They lit cigarettes at the end and partook of the team’s unique communion rituals. Resampled songs by Michael Jackson, who had died a few days before, pulsed from van speakers. Players passed pre-made cheese sandwiches along with cups of Like Father, Like Son red wine. One said the sweet tonic should be rebranded Like Father, Like Daughter.

The coach, Tapuwa Moore, cursed the club’s fitness and lack of cohesion—a vice-captain led the side due to a demoted captain’s "unruly behavior." But Moore seemed resigned to their fate.

"A 6–1 drubbing," she says calmly on the touchline shortly after an uncontested 89th-minute breakaway rips the back of the Chosen Few net. "That’s nice."

But these are not the most important facts from the day. The most important thing to know about Chosen Few is that they try to live an honest life in dishonest times. They try to be straightforward about verbal and physical abuse they have suffered and about lives they live inside.

They try to live openly in a world of disguises. That’s why there are few of them.

Communication is a core concept for the Forum for the Empowerment of Women, housed at Constitution Hill, the former apartheid-era women’s prison in Johannesburg. From a place of confinement women learn how to become advocates for themselves and others. FEW was founded in 2002 to counter a culture of hate plaguing black lesbians and bisexual and transgender women. The football team came later as a means to attract women players who might not have chosen human-rights work as a first occupation. For serving as court monitors at hate-crimes trials and raising their own awareness of the country’s anti-gay prejudice, players can enjoy football without keeping secrets. Some participated at demonstrations related to the Eudy Simelane trial in 2009 (see 30 Aug 09).

To Moore, football at any level consists of unspoken dialogue among players—defenders with the midfield, midfield with forwards, all making space for themselves by creative interchange. Football and honest witness are intertwined. Moore testifies to her real life through sport and in performance poetry. "I can speak it, I can sing it, I can rap it," she says of her work, which she tailors for Sotho, Xhosa, Zulu, Afrikaans and English audiences. Although she has only played the game for five years, football inspires her. In some poems she compares the game to sex—a far cry from the mask she affects with straight family members.

Moore cuts a halftime interview short: "I nearly swore at them. I nearly cursed." See video at the Global Game’s YouTube channel.

Moore left the side last year but in her tenure encouraged players to "be out," to strive for full humanity rather than remaining half a person. Many players emerged from football backgrounds in which sexual preference was the great unsaid. Openness about same-sex feelings for women and about sex in general still poses a threat. Only in Mar 09, according to media coordinator Mpule Mathabela, were many FEW members prompted to share past traumas. The impetus was the rape of a Chosen Few player that month in an East Rand township. At the time of the friendly three months later, FEW was still pushing investigators to gather evidence. No arrests had been made.

"We’re not just a soccer team," Mathabela says.

Mark Gevisser and Edwin Cameron in one of the first post-apartheid surveys of queer cultures in South Africa note the "jolly-hockeysticks façade" of women’s football and field hockey in the 1950s and ’60s. Later, Johannesburg softball games in the 1990s constituted some of the largest "out" lesbian gatherings. These, however, were for white and mixed-race women. For black women in townships there were women’s soccer teams with, according to Gevisser and Cameron, gay contingents. But these were not liberated zones, said a player from Soweto Women’s Soccer Club—“It is just so difficult to expose yourself that even there it is not always safe to come out to women you suspect are also gay."

Laws and rhetoric have changed in the past 15 years. But despite decriminalization of homosexuality and the country’s recognition of same-sex marriages in 2006, Malebo Ramotsemeng of Chosen Few says that a stigma keeps women closeted. "You think twice," says Ramotsemeng, a left-sided midfielder who lobbied the principal at her school in Pretoria for women’s football and also took up cricket, another male preserve. "You don’t want to find yourself being one of the victims that are abused because of your sexuality. The minute you decide to come out, people start calling you names. … They try to correct you of your sexuality."

Women’s football correlates with lesbianism in the minds of many South Africans. According to a new member of Chosen Few, Katso, lesbians, too, harbor such prejudices. Some gay women believe that all lesbians play football. Katso’s partner of three years, however, is, in Katso’s words, "too feminine" to play soccer. Indigenous languages in South Africa, Moore says, mark football as grammatically masculine. Even linguistically there is little room for women on the pitch.

Katso, who has also played rugby, says she sought out Chosen Few after visiting their website. "Honestly, I’ve been, I would say, locked up," she says. Her family has accepted her, but she feels put off by institutions such as the church that accuse lesbians of demonic intent. "I was always scared to be in an organization like [FEW], scared of questions. The first question [men] would ask you is, ‘How do you guys [have sex]?’ and I hate questions like that."

Given that sport has caused so much contention for these women, it is strange that a football team would offer new hope. On the other hand, football, in which they have invested much, has helped pull them along to the truth. Several Chosen Few players describe childhoods of playing against boys and men in competitive holiday township tournaments, with each team putting up 500 South African rand (about $65) and trying to win the purse. Vuyo Ntwen, from Elliot, Eastern Cape, also played with boys and would spend the $20 her mother would occasionally send home from housekeeping work in Johannesburg on plastic footballs. When balls popped, she played with bags of oranges.

Sport has given Chosen Few a world platform along with other organizations (Flying Bats of Sydney—see 8 Aug 07—and Hackney Women’s FC of London) in the extended LGBT soccer network. In Aug 08 Chosen Few won silver at the International Gay and Lesbian Football Association games. Now they are raising money for the Gay Games starting 31 July in Cologne, Germany.

The word "Lesbian" on the Chosen Few kit rattles South African gender categories dating back to apartheid. Signs displayed during the 1991 trial of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela—“Homosex Is Not in Black Culture”—are subverted. Daily protocols change. On the trip back from Rustenburg I seek solitude in the men’s room of a service station. After 30 seconds, though, Chosen Few players have taken over, pounding on the door of the men’s stalls to evict other occupants. In reversing traditional gender roles, Chosen Few reaches back to early football’s connections to the carnivalesque. On this day, at least, they are the ones in athletic gear, calling the shots. They rewrite a myth of African straightness and the notion that heterosexuality offers the only path to decent living.

They attract hecklers, but also admirers. One of the team’s most loyal supporters is Marco, a mystical figure in red felt pants and black leather cap who says he has been to more Chosen Few matches than he can count. During the friendly he chain-smokes while standing at the base of one of the concrete lighting stanchions. He proves that everyone in South Africa has an opinion about football. His assessment of Chosen Few? "Lacking stamina and ball control."

Throughout the loss Chosen Few plays confidently, physically, barking messages in isiZulu. But despite the team’s intimacy before and afterward and their individual skills, they do not mesh. Selwyn Tsitsi, coach of the opponents, Titans FC, a top provincial side, said it has taken six years to make his team work together given the limited resources available to women’s teams. "When they started they were just running around," he says.

Chosen Few has the challenge of balancing organizational solidarity with results. There are also money issues. The team plays in the same boots they wore at the IGLFA competition 10 months earlier. It’s clear that integrating eros with sport has transformed lives. But does the football suffer?

Moore maintains a no-swearing pledge until early in the second half. Loss of possession at midfield prompts an outburst—“that woman I tell her the same fucking thing …” She throws her pen along the touchline. But in a gesture of grace and reconciliation, she walks to retrieve it.

Players seem to have found a balance that many straight persons covet. Playing in joy, they show what the heterosexual world often lacks—and certainly the world of elite men’s football. One such exemplar is the team’s goalkeeper, Matsheko Manik. On the trip to Rustenburg, Manik exudes professionalism and concentration from the last row of the van—there, as on the pitch, she leads from the back. Asked about the best women’s teams in South Africa, she says quietly, "My team is the best team." Twice per week via minibus taxi, she makes a one-hour round trip from Alexandra township for afternoon training.

Despite the deluge of goals and aggravating an injury from the London competition the previous year, on the return along the R24 highway to Johannesburg she relaxes. The wine helps. The van passes citrus groves and signs promoting pastureland paintball. Toward dusk we pass squatter settlements with full-size dirt pitches and scratch goalposts, men in bright replica kit playing in winter light. Women emerge from footpaths along the highway, thumbs flying over mobile phones. Manik splays across the laps of two teammates, looks into the arid steppe and indicates one secluded valley as the future location for a gay retreat center. This is a dream—a place for gay women to get away from it all.

Additional sources

“To be poor, and black, and a lesbian in South Africa is to live in danger,” writes Andrew Harding for the BBC in a report on Tumi Mkhuma, another of Chosen Few’s rape victims. The side’s struggle for playing space and a space to breathe as gay women is contextualized at (Michael A. Jones, “Can Soccer Help Stop Corrective Rape in South Africa?” Jun 2). The Guardian reports Jun 20 that Chosen Few is barred from formal competition in South Africa (Louise Taylor, “The Chosen Few Lesbian Team Has Changed Lerato Marumolwa’s Life”). This was not my impression on visiting in 2009. At the time, they struggled with funding and meeting registration deadlines for regional amateur leagues.

Gevisser and Cameron in Defiant Desire: Gay and Lesbian Lives in South Africa (Routledge, 1995) provide oral histories and address South African gay culture’s intersection with law, township life, literature, death and sport. On apartheid’s construction of gender and, specifically, the details of the Madikizela-Mandela case, see William J. Spurlin, "Nationalism, Homophobia, and the Politics of ‘New’ South African Nationhood," in Imperialism within Margins: Queer Representation and the Politics of Culture in Southern Africa (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 78–102. He also discusses "the transformative power of the erotic."

Judy Davidson writes about the background of the Gay Games—with attention to the unique biography of founder Tom Waddell—in "The Necessity of Queer Shame for Gay Pride: The Gay Games and Cultural Events," in Sport, Sexualities, and Queer/Theory, ed. Jayne Caudwell, Routledge Critical Studies in Sport (Routledge, 2006). A fascinating article by Marc Epprecht, "The Ethnography of African Straightness," in Heterosexual Africa? The History of an Idea from the Age of Exploration to the Age of AIDS (Ohio University Press, 2008), 34–64, charts how anthropologists misrepresented gay practice across the continent and, further, how nationalists enlisted this myth of pan-African heterosexuality.

In her petition to a school principal to offer women’s football, Ramotsemeng imitates the deeds of fictional Hemprova Mitra. The protagonist of Hem and Football (Secker & Warburg, 1992), Mitra represents Nalinaksha Bhattacharya‘s audacious attempt to explore connections among same-sex female desire, traditional Indian family practice and sport. From a Left Wing‘s Jennifer Doyle in ” ‘Art versus Sport’: Managing Desire and the Queer Sport Spectacle” (X-TRA: Contemporary Art Quarterly, summer 09) brilliantly reminds us how groups of women athletes threaten social norms and mainstream sports imagery. England in 1921 enacted a 50-year ban on women’s football, Doyle writes, because women’s teams seemed rebellious, organizing, like Chosen Few, for political causes and because “the women who played [football] were considered unseemly—cigarette smoking, swearing, and hard playing (and plainly gay).”

In film, Tabubruch—Der neue Weg von Homosexualität im Fußball (Taboo: The New Way of Homosexuality in Football), a documentary by German filmmaker Aljoscha Pause, won the Deutsches Sport-Fernsehen Adolf-Grimme Prize in 2010. Bayern Munich manager Louis van Gaal tells Pause he would not discriminate against players based on sexual orientation; others take a different view. It is available in its entirety on the Internet, beginning here. Feature films about gays in football include Eleven Men Out (dir. Robert Ingi Douglas; Iceland, 2007) and Männer wie wir (Eng. title, Guys and Balls) (dir. Sherry Horman; Germany, 2004).

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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