Sports Complex

Serving Out: Leigh-Ann Naidoo's Volleyball as Activism

Jim Provenzano | July 04, 2006

South African beach volleyball player Leigh-Ann Naidoo - Photo courtesy Gay Games
Coming out as one of fewer than a dozen lesbian and gay athletes at the 2004 Athens Olympics wasn't initially a political act, but more of a personal choice for 29-year-old Leigh-Ann Naidoo of South Africa.

"It was important for me to be out because it meant that I could totally share my life and experiences with my partner (Kelly Gillespie), who went with me to Athens," says Naidoo.

Her team's inclusion in the Athens Games made history, being the first African volleyball team to ever compete in the Olympics. To prepare, the team traveled to seven countries on four continents, often playing twice a day for six months. Although they placed 17th in Athens, competing, Naidoo says, was a victory in itself.

That's because for decades athletics in South Africa have been entirely segregated under apartheid. Even though the law was changed to mandate integration, for most economically disadvantaged blacks, simply getting basic sports training is still nearly impossible.

"Rugby and cricket remain predominantly white, while soccer remains predominantly black," wrote Naidoo in an e-mail. "This would lead one to believe that the issue in sport is still mostly a racial one. With the racist apartheid era behind us for over a decade, it is becoming more evident that the inequities that remain are still of a class nature." Although the new South Africa protects human rights through a very progressive constitution, Naidoo says, "The day-to-day lives of the poor (majority black) people of the country is the same, if not worse, than under apartheid."

This remains true in athletics as well. "Many of the black athletes that play professional sport are privileged persons," she adds. "They go to private schools and are part of the upper and middle class. People see a few black faces on national teams and they assume that sport is no longer segregated."

Such economic difficulties affected her own career. With few sponsorships available, Naidoo and her teammate Julia Willand (who is straight) set about getting their own assistance, by forming a fundraising campaign and tournament tour.

By 2003, the duo finished 9th at a tournament in Indonesia. They placed 17th at the World Championships in Rio de Janeiro and 5th at a tournament in Italy. Preparation for Athens, Naidoo says, reaffirmed the significance of her participation there. "I'm still experiencing the benefits of having embarked on an Olympic campaign."

After the 2004 Olympics, Naidoo took a break. Although she played beach volleyball in Chicago while she lived there from 2004 to 2005 (her partner is studying in Chicago, but the two also share a home in Capetown), and intended to compete in Chicago's Gay Games VII (to be held July 15-22), she re-injured her left knee's anterior cruciate ligament, and her training now is solely gym-based. After an operation in June, she has nine months of recovery before returning to beach volleyball.

Leigh-Ann Naidoo - Photo courtesy Gay Games

For now, Naidoo serves as an ambassador for the Gay Games, and is an eloquent spokesperson for racial equality in sports. Currently studying for a social science master's degree at the University of the Western Cape, her thesis focuses on the history of progressive (nonracial/anti-apartheid) volleyball. Naidoo explains how sport was used in South Africa as a tool for activism.

"When the apartheid government banned all political organizations in the 1960s," Naidoo says, "political activists started organizing youth through sport and cultural events through the nonracial sporting movement. Set up in opposition to the apartheid-segregated sporting organizations, the youth groups successfully campaigned to have South Africa expelled from the International Olympic Committee and many other international sports federations." Such actions, she says, aided her country's move toward the end of apartheid.

Naidoo's knowledge of the subject has personal and family roots. Her father, Derrick Naidoo, was an unsung hero in the earliest work toward desegregating athletic clubs in South Africa. The elder Naidoo served as president of the country's first nonracial volleyball organization, helping to create the first opportunity for black children to play the sport in which his daughter would later excel.

"My father was always fighting both racist and exploitative policies and therefore was not part of the negotiated settlement that happened in sport and other sectors," says Naidoo. "People from all racially classified groups are able to compete against and with one another at all levels. There are development programs and quota systems for national and professional teams."

Yet, South Africa's 2004 Olympic team was still 80 percent white, because, Naidoo says, "access to facilities, coaching expertise, and finances is still disproportionately weighing in favor of the privileged, white minority."

Injustice for lesbian and gay Africans also remains a problem. "Many black lesbians living in townships (the sort of equivalent of ghettos, with informal housing like shacks or iron huts) put their lives and safety on the line by being out," says Naidoo. "The townships are a very unsafe space for many (elderly, women, children), but particularly for gay people. Many lesbian women living in townships have been raped because they are gay. Many of them are choosing to be out – some of them at a very high cost."

There have been advances, however. Gay marriage will officially be legal in December 2006. And a Soweto women's soccer team is receiving full scholarships to attend Chicago's Gay Games. But despite such progress in her country, Naidoo believes that more growth is still needed.

"LGBT community groups are easy to form in terms of the law of the country. But this doesn't necessarily mean that this holds true in all spaces in South Africa," she says. "We have a majority Christian country. I think that if it were put to a vote, gay marriage would not be legalized."

Only last year, South African LGBT athletes and organizers launched a near-successful bid to host the eighth Gay Games, to be held in 2010. Cologne, Germany, eventually won the bid.

But the upside of the lost bid is that South Africa's fledgling LGBT sports community may have gotten a well-needed boost, and a bit more respect.

"There are many attitudes that need to be changed in South Africa, as in any other part of the world," says Naidoo. "One can only hope that people, through continual exposure to difference, will become less discriminatory and more accepting."

Jim Provenzano is the author of the novels PINS and Monkey Suits. Read more sports articles at www.sportscomplex.org

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