Is the Grass Always Greener on the Other Side? – Interview about Living and Doing Sports as a Lesbian* in France

With our last interview of 2021, let us fly to the South of France. The past years were unfortunately too passive and confined for most of us, but not for Sarah, co-president of the European Gay & Lesbian Sports Federation. Sarah will tell us about her experiences and share an awesome opportunity we can look forward to in 2022.

Hi, Sarah! Can you introduce yourself please?

Hi – I’m Sarah, living in France for the last 30 years after having lived/studied/worked in all sorts of other places previously. I have been engaged in the feminist/lesbian movement for near on 40 years now and most recently have concentrated my activism in the sports world. I have worked – and still work – with different organsiations in France to offer women the opportunity to take part in physical activity and sport. I represent the Federation Sportive LGBT+ at an international level, have worked with CEL Marseille offering activity weekends since I came to France and in 2016 created les ‘Arc’En’CEL’ to offer a structure for the members to take part in the 2018 Gay Games in Paris, where we were 26 participants in different disciplines including rowing, running, petanque. I have been involved with the Federation of Gay Games for many years now as a volunteer, and am also the co-president of the EGLSF (European Gay & Lesbian Sports Federation), an organisation which I joined in 2015. The EGLSF is engaged in fighting LGBTQI+ discrimination in sport at a European level, part of which includes licensing the annual European multisport LGBTQI+ tournament “EuroGames”, the next of which are in July 2022 in Nijmegen, Netherlands, followed by Bern, Switzerland in 2023.

Looking forward to the next EuroGames! qLit had that chance to participate in the games in Copenhagen this year, and it was a lot of fun! But let us still focus on France. How is it to live there as an LGBTQI+ person?

Living in France we undeniably enjoy legal privileges that many others are yet to achieve – we have same-sex marriage rights which include adoption for example – and yet the underlying systemic misogyny and lesbophobia is still very strong. Recently Alice Coffin – lesbian feminist journalist and one of the EL*C co-founders – in her book ‘Le génie lesbien’ and via her political platform in the Conseil de Paris, has exposed some of this prejudice, and the violent reaction against her illustrates the depth to which this runs, just as the daily violence leading to gaining same-sex marriage rights in 2013 did.  

Underlying prejudice is also visible in the sports world – highlighted by the controversy in the football world with the FFF president Noel le Graet’s comments about homophobia not being on a par with racism, and more recently, earlier in 2021 with the attempt to include motions in the proposition to “democratize sport in France” that would protect LGBTQI+ athletes. All propositions put forward by the deputies were rejected even before examination of the text during the Assemblée nationale. And in the world of LGBTQI+ sport itself, in France as elsewhere in Europe, inequality of opportunities and participation for LGBTQI+ women is a sensitive topic.

This sounds pretty outrageous. Where exactly do you live in France? What’s the situation in that area? We tend to hear about Paris only.

I live in rural France, in the south, and visibility is still very difficult. My wife and I tried to launch a lesbian sport activity group in our town and it never took off because of the fear of being too visible. We both row in a mainstream club and although accepted, we are very aware of the latent homo-lesbophobia – evident in certain comments and attitudes. We are part of a rowing project – that has yet to really start – that brings together mainstream/handisport/LGBTQI+ rowing profiles and I have been approached already with comments about the fear of being labelled ‘gay’ because of the LGBTQI+ participation. Let’s see how it plays out! 

We wish you good luck. So, sports life is bumpty, but how is lesbian social life over there?

In one word – zero! The nearest town that offers any real kind of LGBTQI+ community, sporting and otherwise, is Marseille – a good 1.5 hour drive. Because we live in rural France there is nothing ‘organized’, but over time we have found other lesbian friends and created an informal community. In 2020 – mid pandemic! – we set up ‘Activ’Elles04’, a sporting association by and for women, not exclusively LGBTQI+but our statutes have a strong anti-discrimination approach, and that provides a community-creating opportunity. My goal is to host a Pride on the Water at our local lake, offering fun water-based sport activities, bringing together my women/LGBTQI+ and mainstream spheres of activity! 

Wow, that sounds very cool. Count as in! Finally, can you share a funny, memorable, or inspirational coming out story of yours?

Soon after I came to France to work in 1992, the film called “French Twist” (Gazon Maudit) was released. Gazon Maudit was a lighthearted comedy with 3 well-known players in France – Victoria Abril, Josiane Balasko and Alain Chabat – and a storyline that revolved around a relationship between the 2 main actresses, one of whom is married to ‘Laurent’. It was a box office hit and everyone went to see it. I had not come out in any way officially at my workplace – France was a very different place then! – only to a couple of lesbian friends. But the week following the release of the film I had a stream of colleagues turn up to my desk to announce that they had been to see the film – and sometimes only that – no chit-chat! So, I have a great actress/producer to thank for facilitating my workplace coming out – which in fact was more of my workplace colleagues ‘coming out’ to me!! 

Nice story! Thank you, Sarah! Happy 2022, see you all next year!

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