Megan Schutt and Jess Holyoake at their wedding

Megan Schutt (left) with her wife Jess Holyoake at their wedding in March this year

Brody Grogan / © Brody Grogan

Feature

Team-mates in love

Katherine Brunt, Nat Sciver, Amy Satterthwaite, Lea Tahuhu, Lizelle Lee, Megan Schutt, and an anonymous male cricketer talk to us about sexuality

Firdose Moonda  |  

Nat Sciver's nights were restless. She was at the 2018 Women's T20 World Cup in the West Indies and it wasn't nerves that were depriving her of sleep. It was her partner Katherine Brunt's pain.

" Katherine shot off home and left me in a mess," Sciver, 28, remembered over a Zoom call on an evening this August. She was speaking from a biosecure bubble in Derby, where the England women's squad were playing each other to prepare for a curtailed summer. Before Sciver could finish, Brunt interrupted.

"I think it was more the way in which I exited."

Sciver turned to Brunt and reminded her: "You were trying to come back but you had a lot of pain." Turning back to the screen, she continued: "She was trying to get back to playing in, like, the second half of the tournament. She played in the practice game and bowled like three or four balls and something just went in her disc."

Brunt, 35, one of England's greatest fast bowlers, now couldn't stop herself from reliving it. "It was excruciating. I don't think anyone has ever seen anyone like that. Not in my time. I have got quite a lot of pride and having to get a wheelchair..."

"And also very stubborn," Sciver cut in.

"I have a good relationship with God and being gay doesn't change anything" Lizelle Lee

"I was forced to be in this wheelchair and we were sharing a flight with the South African team and as soon as they came around the corner, I would get out of the wheelchair," Brunt said, half-giggling as she remembered her embarrassment at being embarrassed.

"But with the injury thing," she continued, "I would keep Nat up all night because I would be crying in pain. I would get two hours sleep and be crying in pain and she was feeling really emotional because she was hating watching me suffer. She knew what I was going through every minute of the day and most of what was coming out of my mouth was really negative, because I was in pain. But at the same time she was trying to focus on winning a World Cup, and all she got 90% of the time was that [negativity]. That's the bad version of a couple on tour."

There's a good version too, and many advantages to being a couple who play in the same professional sports team.

"We can be together all the time, and even though it can be all the time on a tour, it's much better than being apart," said Brunt. "Other people have to spend six-eight weeks without their partners and that's really tough."

Brunt and Sciver are one of only three married couples who currently play in the same international cricket team. The others are New Zealand's Amy Satterthwaite and Lea Tahuhu, and South Africa's Dane van Niekerk and Marizanne Kapp.

Katherine Brunt (left) celebrates Nat Sciver's victory with the Surrey Stars in the Women's Cricket Super League, 2018

Katherine Brunt (left) celebrates Nat Sciver's victory with the Surrey Stars in the Women's Cricket Super League, 2018 © Katherine Brunt/Instagram

There are players whose partners are involved in the game at other levels - like South Africa opener Lizelle Lee, whose wife Tanja Cronje plays provincial cricket; those whose partners play other sports, like England wicketkeeper-batter Lauren Winfield-Hill, whose wife Courtney Hill moved out of cricket to play rugby league; and those whose partners are not in sport or only tangentially a part of it, like Australia fast bowler Megan Schutt, whose wife Jess Holyoake worked as a facilities manager for Cricket Australia.

If these examples are restricted to four countries, consider that among the ICC's Full Members, homosexuality is outlawed in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe - though some of them criminalise only male homosexuality. Trinidad and Tobago is the only major West Indian country that permits female as well as male same-sex relations. Same-sex marriage is not recognised in India.

And even in those countries where same-sex marriage is legal and homosexuality has greater social acceptance, coming out is possibly the hardest part.

"My mum wouldn't accept it"
Brunt was 21 when Richard Bates, then the England women's coach, persuaded her to tell her parents. Only a few of her team-mates knew at the time. "He was a bit of a strict guy but also quite soft and he asked me one time if I was out to my parents," Brunt says. "I said, 'No way', and he said, 'If you were my child, I'd love you regardless', and he just made me feel quite comfortable that I could do it. I wrote my mum a letter. I left it in the lounge and then ran back up to my room because I used to sleep in the attic."

"I am competitive and she is too, but she is like the chilled version of competitive and I am over the top, get-fiery, shout-in-your-face" Katherine Brunt on playing against her partner, Nat Sciver

Over a decade later, in 2016, Lee, who was 24 at the time, used almost the same modus operandi. "It was just before a series against England and we were having a middle practice. I just decided I didn't want to keep lying to my parents. I sent my parents a WhatsApp message and then I turned my phone off and went to train."

Brunt and Lee both come from religious families but the responses they got were completely different.

"My mum wouldn't accept it," Brunt remembers. "She told me I had a choice and she prayed a lot. She believes in God so much, and I guess I did too for quite a long time. When you believe like that, you believe in the sayings of what will happen to you and she was quite scared for me. I think she blamed it on herself, things to do with her parenting."

As a result, Brunt says she has had to lose out on a lot of her relationship with her mother. "And she has lost out on a lot of following my life because she doesn't accept who I am, so it has been pretty crap for me since then." But although Brunt's mother has never been to a game to support her, says Sciver, she "watches every ball on TV always gives her feedback afterwards".

Lee, on the other hand, returned from her training session to turn on her cellphone to find a message from her mother. It simply read: "Call your dad." She was afraid, but she followed the instruction. She was pleasantly surprised by how accommodating her otherwise conservative parents were willing to be. "Coming from an Afrikaans Christian family, I know that being gay is frowned upon but I also know that no one is allowed to judge because there's no person that's perfect," she says. "I have a good relationship with God and being gay doesn't change anything."

South African cricketers Lizelle Lee (left) and Tanja Cronje wed in September this year

South African cricketers Lizelle Lee (left) and Tanja Cronje wed in September this year © Lizelle Lee

The big reveal was less dramatic for other players. Sciver told her family after she got together with Brunt. "If I wasn't with Katherine, I could easily be with a man or a woman," she says. Brunt considers Sciver to be "not gay-gay" but simply committed to their relationship.

Schutt, now 27, came out to her mother in her early twenties after "hiding my sexuality when I was at high school, when I even had boyfriends for short periods of time". Telling her mother, she remembers, "wasn't great but it wasn't that bad".

Satterthwaite and Tahuhu didn't feel the need to say anything at all: people around them already knew.

"There wasn't necessarily a coming out as such, it's part of who we are," Satterthwaite says. "It's not about whether you're gay, straight, whether you're religious. Everyone was really accepting of who people are as individuals and that diversity is really strong."

These are all the experiences of female cricketers, however. The only male cricketer willing to contribute to this piece is not out publicly but has told those close to him that he is gay. He came out in stages, starting with family and friends and then his team-mates. "I first told a group of older players who were part of the leadership and then the rest of the team," he says. "They were extremely supportive and had my back through the whole experience."

"In the men's game, a real difference would be made by guys at the highest level who are gay coming out" The anonymous gay male cricketer interviewed for this piece

Despite the positive response he got, he does not want to reveal any information that could identify him. One need only read the words of Steven Davies, the first cricketer of either gender to come out publicly, in 2011, to see why this cricketer is hesitant. Davies called coming out the "biggest decision I have had to face, and by far the toughest - bigger even than facing Brett Lee in the middle."

"We understood we were the same"
It was a century ago that American tennis star Bill Tilden became the first known openly gay sportsman. Tilden did not hide his sexual preferences despite living in a time when same-sex intercourse was a crime in his country. He was twice arrested after being caught in inappropriate circumstances with teenage boys. He was ostracised and died penniless.

Half a century later the openly gay decathlete Tom Waddell represented the United States at the 1968 and 1972 Olympics, and later founded the Gay Olympics. In 1990 the English footballer Justin Fashanu, still active, came out. In the 2000s team sports began to see more sportsmen coming out while still active: for instance, Welsh rugby star Gareth Thomas in 2009; in 2013, basketball player Jason Collins; in 2014 American footballer Michael Sam.

In 1948, Alfred Kinsey estimated that 10% of the world's male population is gay, in his book Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male . Though this number has been disputed, it is the one that the scientist Bruce Voeller, who founded the United States' National Gay Task Force, worked with and remains in use as a yardstick. Yet there are no openly gay male cricketers on the international circuit.

Women's cricket has been a relatively inclusive space in terms of sexual orientation for a while now, but men's cricket hasn't shown many signs of getting there

Women's cricket has been a relatively inclusive space in terms of sexual orientation for a while now, but men's cricket hasn't shown many signs of getting there Brett Hemmings / © Getty Images

Earlier this year, when Cricket Australia fined Marcus Stoinis for using a homophobic slur during the Big Bash League, six weeks after sanctioning James Pattinson for the same, Schutt was among those who spoke out about her "disappointment" in their behaviour. "I don't believe that those boys are actually homophobic… and they wouldn't be saying it with that intent, but they're still using the wrong words," she told the Sydney Morning Herald at the time.

Last February, Shannon Gabriel attempted to insult Joe Root with a sledge that made reference to homosexuality. Root was far from rattled and went on to tell Gabriel that "there is nothing wrong with being gay". Root's comments earned him widespread praise as an ally.

Other male sportsmen are starting to show allegiance too. In September, for example, San Diego Loyal FC walked off the field in their United Soccer League playoff against Phoenix Rising because one of the team members, Collin Martin, who is openly gay, was at the receiving end of a homophobic slur by an opposition player. Even so, Martin felt guilty that his sexuality impacted the result.

Our anonymous male interviewee, who is not an international cricketer, says that the feeling of humiliation is real. "Fear of abuse at games and even online abuse could turn guys off the idea of coming out," he says.

Brunt, who is one of six siblings, of whom three are gay, agrees that it is harder for men to be open about their sexuality. "Parents find it easier to accept a woman being with a woman but it's almost impossible to accept their son being with another man. And if I am lesbian walking down the street, and I am out, I am much less likely to be attacked than if I am a man walking down the street."

"If it was an Australian player dating a Kiwi, no one is going to care because deep down we love Kiwis, but if it was an English player, it may get a little tense" Megan Schutt on dating an opposition player

At the 2018 men's football World Cup, not a single player identified as gay. At the 2019 women's edition, 38 of the 552 players at the tournament were openly gay or bisexual. That statistic suggests either that professional sport is an attractive career for gay women, or that professional sportswomen who are gay feel more comfortable coming out.

Dr Payoshni Mitra, an athletes' rights activist, who has worked on the cases of South Africa's champion mid-distance runner Caster Semenya and Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, believes it's the latter. She calls the environment in a women's sports team "a safer space compared to men's teams". That is possibly why women's teams are spaces where women who are not considered stereotypically feminine feel welcome.

"What we need to understand is that the system is male-centric and patriarchal but gender is fluid and performative," says Sunil Mohan, a transgender activist, who played district cricket as a woman in Kerala and has since transitioned to living as a man. "Many of the trans men I knew chose to play sports like cricket and football because of the uniform. They can wear shorts and pants and feel comfortable. With sports like tennis, the dress code is different."

Mohan says there was a tacit knowledge among the teams they played in of other trans men, although very few were willing to come out. "We understood we were the same. But it was not always possible to say so. The same with players who were homosexual. No one wanted to talk about it."

That sense of closeness and camaraderie is one reason players often find partners within the same team.

Amy Satterthwaite (right) and Lea Tahuhu with their daughter Grace Marie at this year's WBBL

Amy Satterthwaite (right) and Lea Tahuhu with their daughter Grace Marie at this year's WBBL Lea Tahuhu / © Twitter

"Grace is enjoying having 15 aunties on tour"
Satterthwaite, an allrounder, and Tahuhu, one of the most intimidating bowlers on the circuit, grew up playing for the same cricket club, St Albans in Christchurch. They became a couple only once they started to play district cricket for Canterbury in 2010. It was Tahuhu, the younger by four years, who proposed to Satterthwaite in 2014. They married three years later. By then they were both international cricketers; they have played 67 ODIs and 52 T20Is together.

In January, the couple announced the birth of their daughter, Grace Marie. In the process, Satterthwaite, now 34, became the first female cricketer to benefit from New Zealand Cricket's maternity-leave provision, which allowed her to earn her retainer without needing to train or play. She chose to become pregnant, rather than Tahuhu, because, according to Tahuhu, "Amy is a bit older, but also she has always wanted to carry a child." The couple took their baby with them on New Zealand's recent tour to Australia, where the team played in a bio-bubble in Brisbane.

"It's been really good," Satterthwaite says. "The hardest part is leaving Grace behind and needing to go to work, but you've got to go to work somewhere, don't you? So to get to play cricket as a job is pretty amazing. With our daughter, as she gets older, it's going to be really special and we've been finding the balance as we've gone along and had a lot of family support, which has made it possible - but we are certainly really enjoying it, balancing, going to work and then being able to come home and having a little fun with Grace."

A bonus, says Tahuhu, is that "Grace is certainly enjoying having 15 aunties on tour". Neither player has experienced any awkwardness from being a couple, and now parents, in the same team. "We've been together for a long time and to a lot of our team-mates it was just 'This is how it is,'" says Sattherwaite.

"Everyone who is gay or lesbian doesn't suddenly need to tell someone. They need to be comfortable in themselves and not feel they need to hide anything" Sciver

For a while Satterthwaite also captained Tahuhu in the New Zealand side - as van Niekerk does Kapp in South Africa. van Niekerk has said she thinks she is tougher on Kapp than on other players because she wants to avoid showing favouritism; in the semi-final of the T20 World Cup this year, she left Kapp out because she had not fully recovered from an illness.

"I don't think it affects the team in any way," says Lee, their team-mate. "They don't bring married life into the team."

Brunt and Sciver aim to do the same. "We don't want to rub our relationship in people's faces," Brunt says. "We behave like mates. We purposefully are like that. We think that's the right thing to do. People respect us a lot and sometimes they encourage us to spend more time together. They're like, 'You two never go on a meal together. You're always hanging out with all the rest of the team.'"

Earlier this year Brunt and Sciver were pitted against each other in their preparations for the home internationals.

"Playing against each other is next level," says Brunt. "I am competitive and she is too, but she is like the chilled version of competitive and I am over the top, get-fiery, shout-in-your-face. If she bangs me around and wins Player of the Match or something, we'll get back to the room and I will say, 'Don't speak to me,' which is horrible because all I want to say is, 'You were freaking awesome and that was ridiculously good and well done you,' but I can't bear it. Instead I'm like, 'You've just embarrassed me, how could you do that?' She is annoying because she just doesn't care about any of that. She would just talk to me and treat me completely the same as she always does."

In 2011, England's Steven Davies became the first player of either gender to come out publicly

In 2011, England's Steven Davies became the first player of either gender to come out publicly Harry Trump / © Getty Images

At the time of this interview, Brunt and Sciver were planning a wedding in France, where they will both wear "very feminine" white dresses. In the meantime, their team-mates threw them a surprise fake wedding at the end of the summer, which spoke to exactly the kind of team-family they have built. "All the girlfriend and boyfriend [partners], they all gel together on tour. They meet up outside of cricket," Sciver says. Brunt adds: "Heather [Knight]'s boyfriend Tim - we've gone to dinners and lunches with them. Tammy [Beaumont] and Callum - he is a really great guy. He loves our dog. And Sophie [Ecclestone] and Craig. I don't know where we get all these lovely guys from but they all seem the nicest guys on the planet."

In South Africa, Lee and Cronje's wedding was postponed from April to September. Their situation is slightly different because Cronje has yet to play for the national team. She is a regular at the North West provincial team, where the two met. "It hasn't caused any issues between us that she is playing at provincial level and I am in the national team," says Lee. "We hope she gets into the South African side, but we know that will depend on performance. I support her in what she does and she supports me for the national team."

Couples do break up as well. It happened in 2018, when Elyse Villani and Nicole Bolton, who played together for Western Fury, split. Villani then asked to be released from her Western Australia contract and signed with Victorian Spirit. Fury coach Lisa Keightley told the West Australian there were no hard feelings between the couple or the teams. "I don't think it's awkward. In the women's game we are faced with that a lot. To be totally honest, I think it's nearly the norm that there are couples in teams."

Schutt understands why so many cricketers find their partners in the game. "Because we spend so much time with the cricketing girls, we don't often meet people outside of cricket." Her own wife, Holyoake, is not a professional sportsperson and they prefer it that way. "It totally works - dating someone in cricket would be too much cricket for me."

At the 2018 men's football World Cup, not a single player identified as gay. At the 2019 women's edition, 38 of the 552 players at the tournament were openly gay or bisexual

What if a cricketer was to pair up with someone inside cricket but from another team? "I guess it would it depend on which team they played for," Schutt says, maybe only half-seriously. "I mean, if it was an Australian player dating a Kiwi, no one is going to care because deep down we love Kiwis, but if it was an English player, given our rivalry with them, it may get a little tense!"

The last of those examples, has in fact, happened. Australia's most-capped female player, Alex Blackwell, is married to former England allrounder Lynsey Askew. Blackwell was the second actively playing cricketer after Davies to come out, and has campaigned for the legalisation of same-sex marriages in Australia in the past. Which brings us to the main reason that people agreed to tell us such intimate stories about their private life.

"I got a message on Instagram from someone who said she came out to her parents and was inspired by me"
Satterthwaite, Tahuhu, Brunt, Sciver, Lee, Schutt and the anonymous male cricketer all hope that different sexualities will be accommodated and accepted in cricket.

"A big thing for us is about normalising it," says Satterthwaite. "It's not having to be advocates as such. I saw somewhere in an article the other day that a young girl saw us playing in a team and it made her really comfortable with who she was, and when you hear those sorts of stories, you think that's why we have probably spoken about our story and not been really private. If we can help other young athletes or people in general, that's something positive we can get off it. We are certainly not advocates, we are just trying to normalise it and be ourselves."

Family feud: how do Alex Blackwell (left, Australian) and Lynsey Askew (English) deal with Ashes rivalry in their household?

Family feud: how do Alex Blackwell (left, Australian) and Lynsey Askew (English) deal with Ashes rivalry in their household? Robert Cianflone / © Getty Images

Schutt has a similar story. "I got a message on Instagram from someone who said she came out to her parents and she was inspired by me and I was really humbled by that," Schutt says. "Coming out can be a huge part of someone's life and you do need help."

Brunt, Sciver and Lee have advice for people who want to come out.

"Think about your safety first," says Brunt. "There's just no need to scream about it. Everybody has to live this life and you've got to live it in the safest and best way. Make good choices. Do things and do it safely. I only came out after 15 years of playing cricket. Not that it wasn't glaringly obvious. The only person I was worried about was my mom. I didn't want to rub it in her face by making it this national thing. I wasn't doing it for me or her, I did it to help - if there's just one person that might need help in knowing that they are not alone."

"Everyone who is gay or lesbian doesn't suddenly need to tell someone," says Sciver. "They need to be comfortable in themselves and not feel they need to hide anything."

"Be honest with yourself and tell the people that are the most important," says Lee. "The worst part was lying and not being able to share what makes me happy."

The male cricketer believes many of his contemporaries are trapped in a double life. "In the men's game, a real difference would be made by guys at the highest level who are gay coming out. That would move the needle."

"What we need to understand is that the system is male-centric and patriarchal but gender is fluid and performative" Sunil Mohan, former cricketer and transgender activist

For that to happen, there would have to be structures and support in place that go beyond the superficial. There has been progress in some quarters. At the Graces Cricket Club in Middlesex, the first LGBT cricket club in the world, members include several players of South Asian descent, a part of the world where taboos around sexuality are strong.

England's Professional Cricketers' Association full-time development and welfare managers have been in place for a decade. These managers look after three counties or so each and provide support for the players under their care. PCA chairman Daryl Mitchell believes that the atmosphere in English cricket has evolved to the point where players of different sexualities will feel welcome. The ECB runs a Rainbow Laces campaign at the T20 Blast and Women's Cricket Super League, which has bootlaces, stumps, flags and a big screen decked out in rainbow colours.

Dr Mitra explains that although tolerance for homosexuality has improved in the subcontinent - and someone like Chand has been "more well accepted than anyone would have thought" when she came out - the subject remains sensitive. "We need to address homophobia and transphobia and carry on the conversation."

The sportspeople we spoke to for this piece stressed that the discussion must happen in a way that recognises their status as professional athletes as much as it does their sexuality and that the two can coexist. We can think of sexuality and professional sport in much the same way as race and sport, which has been in the spotlight over the last few months, as athletes of colour have spoken out about their experiences of being othered.

"Movements like these all seem to get their moment," Brunt says. "And it's important that we address all of them."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

 

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