Kate & Helen Richardson-Walsh on LGBT in sport, Rainbow Laces Summit and more
Great Britain gold medal-winning hockey couple say sports leaders and CEOs can 'make a difference'
By Jon Holmes - @jonboy79
Last Updated: 21/08/17 4:32pm
"Unless relationships like ours are talked about openly, we'll never get over it being taboo for some people." Kate Richardson-Walsh is alongside her wife Helen, sitting comfortably, chatting about two subjects - sexuality and gender - that she knows some still find uncomfortable.
Outdated social customs tend to get burned up by trailblazers like the Olympic gold medal-winning Richardson-Walshs. Though they acknowledge a taboo persists, particularly in sport, their status as same-sex partners has made conversations about lesbian and gay athletes largely unavoidable when Kate and Helen are interviewed together. They were wed four years ago and feel anyone who finds that remotely eyebrow-raising had better catch up quick - "we're conscious of balance, but really it's just normal", says Kate.
Great Britain's hockey heroines from Rio 2016 are discussing LGBT inclusion in sport - as matter-of-fact and certain on the topic as their marriage certificate - ahead of appearances at the Rainbow Laces Summit in Manchester. Few events promote participation better than the Olympic Games, and the knock-on effect of the Richardson-Walshs' status as 'golden girls' was a strong message to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people that they can play and are welcome. Along with other sportspeople, industry leaders and activists, Kate and Helen will debate how far that message has travelled when the Summit takes place at Old Trafford on May 15.
Their love story was a plot-thread in arguably the most dramatic of all Britain's 27 tales of triumph in Brazil last summer; as individuals, they helped write the whole script. Helen contributed four goals from midfield leading up to the final against the Netherlands, while her assured penalty shot gave Team GB advantage over the Dutch in a nerve-shredding shootout after a 3-3 draw. Captain Kate was part of a defence that conceded just five goals in seven straight victories in the group and knockout stages, and her leadership helped her team-mates focus when it mattered most. Goalkeeper Maddie Hinch kept a clean sheet in the shootout, and fellow defender Hollie Webb netted the title-clinching penalty, but this was very much an ensemble piece.
For the Richardson-Walshs, the gruelling hard work that had gone into getting to Rio made for the sweetest success. Just two years earlier, Helen had missed out on World Cup selection despite battling back from two rounds of back surgery. Her perseverance was contagious - Kate had seriously considered hanging up her hockey stick in 2014, but forged on to one last Olympics. In their mid-30s, they are now enjoying the twilight of their playing days at HC Bloemendaal in hockey-mad Haarlem, west Amsterdam, their achievements an example to the next generation of what talent and dedication can deliver.
Both also want to address that aforementioned "balance" on talking about being LGBT in sport, mindful of the need to encourage participation and inclusion. Research conducted by the National LGB&T Partnership with support from Public Health England shows 52 per cent of those identifying as LGBT do not meet government recommendations for physical activity, while 63 per cent of those surveyed by ICM for Stonewall in September said more needs to be done to make LGBT people feel accepted in sport. At the Summit at Old Trafford, those old taboos will be on the table and tackled, and any elephant in the room confronted head on.
Olympians getting married would have always piqued the interest of a sports-mad UK public, but Kate and Helen's union was unquestionably headline news. "Our relationship and being open had such an impact, not only on the LGBT community but also the media," acknowledges Helen to Sky Sports, who are part of the TeamPride coalition of organisations supporting Stonewall's Rainbow Laces campaign. "It's something that hadn't been a topic of conversation before; there hadn't been anything to speak about. So bringing it to the fore is great - the more it can be spoken about in just the usual way, like how you'd talk about the Kennys, for example - the better." Cycling's Jason and Laura claimed five gold medals between them in Rio, and celebrated their wedding day the following month.
At the Summit, the Richardson-Walshs will be part of a panel discussion on 'The Importance of Allies', sharing their experiences in GB women's hockey and the environment that fostered a team of winners. "Sexuality came under the huge bracket of diversity and difference in our squad," says Kate. "It was more about accepting and understanding everybody for who they are, whether that's to do with their sexuality, background, ethnicity, or beliefs. To be aware of each other in that close-knit environment is so important when you play and train together as a team."
This is why the Summit is really good - there will be lots of CEOs joining us, those people that actually run the sports and can make a difference.
Helen on Stonewall's Rainbow Laces Summit event
When sloppy language or slurs combine with secrets, the atmosphere is divisive. "Throwaway, banter-type, locker-room comments have an immediate, strong and lasting effect on people hiding parts of themselves and parts of their lives," explains Kate. "I think it goes across lots of topics, but particularly LGBT stuff. Mental health is becoming more talked about, but I feel this is going to be the last taboo.
"You've got to be in a place where you're comfortable in your own skin."
It wasn't always thus in hockey. In the inquest that followed the British women's disappointing first-round exit at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, concerns were publicly raised over the sexuality of key personnel. "We were in that team, we were around those conversations," recalls Kate. "But my first hockey club, Didsbury Greys, had all sorts of women playing in it - of different backgrounds, ethnicities, sexualities. I was immersed in that world from a young age, so for me it was absolutely normal whether somebody had a relationship with a man, or a woman, or a man one time and then a woman the next. It was not even an issue for me.
"So I found those kind of comments really confusing, and a bit old school even then. Those views were still held in society as well at that time, but society has come on a huge way, and in hockey too obviously."
Helen is proud that her sport now sets an example. "Our experience back then shows the importance of those people in charge of the sport, and the coaches," she says. "This is why the Summit is really good - there will be lots of CEOs joining us, those people that actually run the sports and can make a difference. If they don't jump on board with this, it won't change."
Then and now, the team environment in women's hockey provided the sanctuary on such matters. Helen notes strong personalities who command respect have always set the tone. "We've been playing for 17 years and when we first got into the team, we were just whipper-snappers and didn't have much of a say," she adds. "But there were people in there who held the dressing room. Towards the end of our career, we were those people - the experienced ones." The abiding message was that every player should be able to be themselves without judgement. Other sports can learn from that, she says, particularly when it comes to sexuality. "You've always got a handful of players in the team - whether they're wearing the armband or not - who control the dressing room. The power that they have is just incredible. If those people were to do something and change the script, support these campaigns, that would have a massive effect. That's how they can change it - and it would change in a second."
That applies to every team, in every sport, at every level, insists Kate. Insensitive locker-room banter is part of the problem. "If one of those natural leaders in a squad hears someone say 'that's so gay, you're so gay'... if someone immediately stamps on that and says 'it's not okay for you to say that' and shuts it down, then that's a really strong message. It can seem like such a small thing, but really it's understanding how those small behaviours every day add up to a big meaning and a purpose."
As a campaign, Rainbow Laces continues to expand - last November's weekend of action brought significantly increased visibility. Sporting LGBT role models like the Richardson-Walshs remain rare, however, and for anyone struggling with their sexuality in a heteronormative world, standing on the sidelines can seem safer than joining in. "For me, it's about showing an array of LGBT role models," says Kate. "So for every LGBT person out there, they can look to someone and say 'I can relate to that person because of x, y and z - they've chased their dreams and I won't be held back because I'm LGBT'. We need to break down stereotypes, and show everybody." She knows her own sport is not exempt from that situation either. "When we talk about hockey, we're only talking about women's hockey, not men's. There is no openly gay male hockey player in the national squad and I don't think there ever has been. I think that's because they've not had anybody there willing to talk about - they've not had to face it, think about it and understand it."
As the UK's most popular sport, football often finds itself open to similar criticism, some of which Kate believes is warranted. "Some people say 'we don't need a footballer to come out' but unless we are talking about it and someone is brave enough to be themselves and be open, people will ignore it." Both her and Helen are fans, of Manchester United and Tottenham respectively. "I'm a patron of the Proud Lilywhites (Spurs' LGBT supporters group)," says Helen; it's a role which her wife envies, as United are yet to establish an equivalent of their own. "Some of the things you hear shouted by fans on the terraces is awful. As a gay person, if I was in that environment playing, I think it would be incredibly difficult to come out." They are interested to hear from football leaders at the Summit about how they are taking action. "It's the biggest spectacle in the world, particularly the Premier League, and also massive business," says Kate. "It's a great way of combining massive corporations with huge sporting teams and organisations, plus athletes and players too. If we can get all those people talking and representing the LGBT community in a positive way, we'll be making great strides forward. And if you've got the opportunity to have a say, you should be taking it."
People don't talk about it, and then you end up just not doing anything - which is just the worst thing.
Kate on the need for education on homophobia
One benefit - and potentially on a global scale - of football's increased involvement will be education to combat homophobia, and only with the help of allies (people that aren't LGBT supporting those who are) can that education reach those in need of it. With their hero status, players are in the perfect position to make a difference as allies and stand up to homophobic abuse, particularly on social media. So why don't they? "It's really difficult for footballers these days - they're so high-profile and any little wrong thing that they might say can just get blown up," concedes Helen. "It would be amazing if they were to do that but I understand why they don't. If there was a wider network that could support them within that, then that could really help. Education is key for everyone." Kate would also like to see more guidance for players. "I would imagine they're unsure of what to say. It's a bit the same in disability hockey, where we got involved - you're really anxious at first, you don't know the terminology, you don't want to say the wrong thing, you're not sure how to address somebody. People don't talk about it, and then you end up just not doing anything - which is just the worst thing. Understanding what's best to say, how best to address it - give the players the tools to do that."
Kate revealed on Twitter last month that she had recently received an abusive letter in the post, soon after her and Helen had attended a Buckingham Palace investiture ceremony (a photo of the beaming couple featured on the front page of The Times). She dealt with it by sharing a brief reply back via Twitter.
"Compared to a footballer, it's minuscule amounts. But it has come as a shock," she admitted. "Everything we'd had had been positive, particularly in the hockey community. This stepped outside of that and went into a wider public viewing point so you attract different perspectives. It's important to say it's not okay, because some people will be getting it every day - young people at school being called things to their faces... that's a lot worse than receiving a few letters in the mail, or tweets from a dodgy account. Social media channels can do more to protect people. Initially, when I made a few complaints, Twitter took down accounts. Now I've sent four or five reports on various accounts and they've come back and said they can't find anything wrong with the tweets. Now bearing in mind they're accusing me of paedophilia, grooming and all kinds of horrendous things, that they don't feel that's abusive is, I think, outrageous. Social media channels can do a lot more than they're currently doing." Hundreds of fans and followers tweeted Kate to show support.
When out and about in person, it's traditional assumptions which the Richardson-Walshs have to correct. "We say as LGBT people, we come out almost every day," explains Kate. "We're checking in at an airport, they say 'oh, are you sisters?' and we say, 'no, we're married...' Constantly you feel you're outing yourself, it's never-ending. It's made easier when people say 'okay' and don't bat an eyelid." More common is dealing with everyday sexism - but both are wise to underlying homophobia here too. "For example, you get in a taxi having been at an event representing hockey and the driver says 'you're too pretty for hockey players' or' you're too feminine, too girly'. It can be brushed aside but those stereotypes stop people thinking sport is for everybody. For men and women, we have those ingrained gender social stereotypes - if you fit into that mould, it's hard, and if you don't fit into that mould, it's hard too.
"I think actually that's where hockey is starting to do good work. People who from the outside say 'ah, she's sporty, short hair, muscles... she must be a lesbian'. Actually she's not - but she is still supporting LGBT issues, and she has LGBT family and friends."
There's no place for pigeonholes in the Richardson-Walshs' world, and no restrictions placed on ambition either. Even in the midst of a relegation battle with their Dutch club Bloemendaal, their appetite for a challenge is immense. Helen points out a considerable experience gap between her and Kate and the rest of their club-mates - "there's a 16-year-old, and the oldest other than us two was 24 when we joined!" Yet she scored twice last weekend in a vital 3-2 win at Pinoke, with Kate alongside her in the team; the relegation play-offs are next. Who would dare write them off? After all, they'd never dream of letting something as frivolous as age hold them back - consign that kind of attitude to the history books where it belongs.