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No one size fits all approach: Out and About group from Scotland's LGBTQ+ sports charity Leap Sports helping break down barriers to physical activity

By Andrew Henderson

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For a long time, the LGBTQ+ community and the sporting world have been seen as distinct groups.

In recent times, though, efforts have been made to knock down some of the barriers that LGBTQ+ people face in accessing sport.

This time last year, charity Leap Sports launched their Out and About in the Highlands project, aiming to get as many people from the community involved in physical activity as possible – particularly in rural areas.

Backed by The Ideas Fund and working in partnership with the University of the Highlands and Islands, 169 different people have attended 31 events put on by the group in its first year across the Highlands and Moray.

Those have ranged from social walks to taster sessions in sports like curling, disc golf and climbing, and more opportunities are on the agenda for the future.

"If you drew a big circle, we've done a lot within about half an hour from Inverness, and that has gone really well," project lead Graham Munro said of Out and About's success so far.

"That's great in that catchment area, but where we still struggle is getting clubs, groups and organisations outwith Inverness to have that same involvement with their local LGBTQIA+ community.

A group of Out and About in the Highlands participants on one of their walk and coffee events.
A group of Out and About in the Highlands participants on one of their walk and coffee events.

"The goal was to remove the barriers, and we're doing that in a specific area. Where we haven't had the success we would like yet is in rural spaces.

"Ultimately part of the initial idea was that it would be community led. We seek feedback from everyone about what they got from events, how they felt at it or after, and also what else would be of interest to them.

"That has then helped me as the project lead to go and look for these inroads into other activities – that's how the curling came about for example.

"People should get involved and reach out if there's something they would like to do, or if there's something they are already a part of that would be good for us to work alongside.

"That could be existing sports clubs and groups, or an individual with a passion for a particular thing – can we support them get a group together to come along and experience what they find exciting about physical activity?

"What's been really nice is that some of the things we have ended up doing have come about from interactions with people who have come along to events. Someone came along to an event and spoke about their passion for dance, so we held a taster session.

"If we could find people from within the LGBTQIA+ community who have a passion, then we can definitely look to try and support that and make it more than just them, and people might be more likely to come along if it's something that's run by, led by or held by someone from the community."

With it still being fairly rare to have LGBTQ+ involvement in sport, UHI have been helping to conduct research as part of Out and About.

For researchers Rebecah MacGilleeathain and Trish Gorely, it has been a learning curve. MacGilleeathain's focus is on LGBTQ+ issues, while Gorely's speciality is on physical activity and health, but neither have previously been involved in a project combining the two topics.

There are broad themes in the experiences they have been documenting, but so far their main takeaway has been that there is no "one size fits all" approach to bringing more LGBTQ+ people into sport.

"Some of the findings from the project is that it's very much down to past experiences in school and things like that," MacGilleeathain explained.

"People have told us about the experience of being bullied in sports or physical activity spaces in school, and that's been a lasting fear for them going on into adulthood when they want to access sports clubs and sports spaces.

"Is it a safe space? That's something that has come out really quite strongly within some of the data that we've we've collected.

"It's really about looking at sports clubs and how we can use this data to help support sports clubs create safer spaces so that they're inclusive for all."

Gorely continued: "Within that, the LGBTQ+ community are not a homogenous group, so the experiences are very different at a broad level within the initials.

"Within any one of those sub-groups, you have quite a variety of experiences as well, so it's a challenging ask for Leap Sports because they have this very heterogeneous group who are very different in their outlooks and their experiences. Unfortunately a large percentage of those experience are negative, but it's not the same negatives.

"It varies by orientation, it varies by what sports they have tried to engage in. It varies by whether they have come from outside the Highlands and moved to the Highlands, whether they've lived all their life in the Highlands, whether they were in the Highlands and went away and now they've come back.

"All of that broader life experience is a factor. People who come from outside the Highlands, or have been away and then come back, they have a very different view through lived experience of being somewhere else."

MacGilleeathain added: "Within that as well, particularly in the Highlands, there maybe aren't as many out people, and that coupled with experiences of sports previously can be a barrier.

"Like Trish was saying, some particular members of the community we've spoken to who may be non-binary or trans have a very different experience again.

"They have concerns about changing rooms, and are they even allowed in that sport? Where can they get changed, are there gender neutral places? That is a real barrier for that particular group of people to coming in and enjoying physical activity and sport."

While the challenges and barriers are of natural interest to researchers interested in making sport a more inclusive place for all, there have been plenty of positive experiences as well.

One example MacGilleeathain came across was only open about their identity at Out and About events, and not in other areas of their life, which shows the impact that such a space can have.

Some have begun to splinter off and arrange their own activities and get-togethers, while for others just coming along and giving different sports a go has been a major success story.

"There is someone who, on a personal level, moved up to the Highlands just as lockdown hit," Munro recounted.

"They lived a very lonely lifestyle whilst being unwell, and they wanted to interact but didn't like bars or those kinds of spaces where they're expected to interact with people in a particular way.

"They came on a walk and have gone on to take part in other activities and now they're looking at doing some bigger hikes as well – that's an individual who possibly wouldn't have had the opportunity if we didn't have the project here.

"Within the walks in particular you can see progression from the people coming along, and the friendships they're forming. There were people who were really quiet at the beginning and didn't talk to anyone, and now they have started interacting with the people who are there and are going on to take that bigger step of doing the other hikes.

"Someone did say to me after our climbing session that they really enjoyed it, but they would stick to climbing hills rather than climbing walls. They wouldn't have even given it a go before though.

"One of the nicest things that we did was our engagement event in Inverness. We invited people from Inverness and the surrounding areas to come and talk to us, and we were able to meet people who wouldn't necessarily have come to a physical activity but now they are coming along to events that we're putting on.

"That's really nice for me personally, seeing people coming along to one thing and getting involved and then coming along to something else as well.

"It's sometimes beyond sport, and that's the bit I sometimes forget. It's not always about people coming to the events and gaining something physically from the event, it's about what else it gives them.

"Do they leave feeling happier? Yes. Do they leave with a greater sense of themselves? Possibly. Do they leave with a bigger opportunity to engage with people outside of physical activity spaces? Yes, definitely."

While more than happy to create spaces for LGBTQ+ to take part in sport, Out and About aims to make existing sports and clubs around the Highlands more inclusive places.

That is where UHI hope their research comes in. They can take their findings to clubs and organisations like High Life Highland as examples of how they can attract more people to their spaces.

"I think there's some interesting work going forward, working with different groups – not the participants, but the committees, the clubs, the organisations about what it means to be inclusive and how to be inclusive," Gorely reasoned.

UHI professor for physical activity and health Trish Gorely.
UHI professor for physical activity and health Trish Gorely.

"I'm aware that Graham has encountered people who just don't know how to be inclusive. They are fearful that they'll do it wrong, or that they will lose their other members by being inclusive.

"As a die-hard physical activity promoter ultimately the dream would be that if someone wants to do an activity, they can go to a safe space and do it and it doesn't matter what ethnicity they are, what orientation, what their capabilities are or anything like that.

"Actually, physical activity spaces – and I use that to include everything, sport and all movement – should be spaces where anyone can go, have a go, enjoy it and feel safe.

"That's a really massive goal, but that's ultimately what I would want to see. I struggle to work out why it's so difficult to achieve that, but it is very difficult.

"I'd like it to be done tomorrow, but that's probably a 10-year plan because we've got a lot of cultural stuff to break past and a long history of acting in a different way. If that's the position we're in when I reach retirement in a few years time, then I will be very happy."

MacGilleeathain added: "The plan is to hopefully take some narratives from community members that we've worked with and possibly get some UHI drama students to voice them and do a little bit of filming so that we've got kind of a legacy film created from the project that can be shown to sports clubs to help them to gain some understanding of the experiences of community members and help encourage more inclusive practices within physical activity and sports clubs in the Highlands.

"That's one plan that we've got, and then I think Leap Sports have got some wider collaborations coming from this project through the connections and the networking that's been done with High Life Highland – and maybe even some football teams up here. That's pretty exciting for me – what a legacy that would be!

"It's more than just putting rainbow laces in your boots. It's about the attitude and culture of the places, and of the people that are setting it up.

"One of the learnings that we've found, particularly in more rural places in the Highlands, is that sometimes it's very much driven by a leader of the sports group. Of course that's very valuable, and if you've got a fantastic and enthusiastic sports leader who wants to be inclusive then that's brilliant, but it can sometimes be person dependent.

"I think that's an issue anyway, in other other areas of life too and not just in sports and activity clubs. That can be both a good thing and maybe a challenging thing if that person decided they're moving away or they're going to do something else.

"It's about how we help support and create sustainability with this as well for the future.

"I'm for more inclusivity in all kinds of activities in the Highlands. Projects like this will hopefully help to make a start a bit of that, and maybe we are starting to chip away at those barriers which is fantastic."

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