Cricketers at London’s Graces Cricket Club come from diverse backgrounds: there are Indians, Pakistanis, one Bangladeshi, a New Zealander and an Australian, and of course a few Englishmen. But this isn’t your usual cricket club in the world’s most cosmopolitan city — this is perhaps the world’s first and only gay cricket team.
They play cricket, discuss life, fight for LGBT rights, and create an environment where gay men and women can be themselves in a world that can often be homophobic. Named after England’s most famous cricketer W G Grace, it came to life in 1997 at a pub called Central Station, outside Kings Cross train station. Two men, Jonathan Hardisty and Duncan, the pub’s owner, put an advertisement in the Pink paper that was popular with the LGBT community: anyone interested in a game of cricket was invited to come over. Much to their surprise, enough people came in to form a team.
One of them, a Pakistani, who like many of his other teammates prefers anonymity, was homeless in London and battling suicidal thoughts. Until he met Hardisty who pulled him out of the streets and brought him into the team. It gave him a sense of belonging he had never felt before — and still doesn’t — in the wider society. He still leads a dual life, as do several others.
Another player, a Bangladeshi, just got married to a woman last month. “I don’t know how that marriage is going to go. It’s of course harsh on the lady, family pressure can be cruel. More than friends, I must say, it’s what the families think about you that determines how easy or difficult your life as a gay person can get,” says Hardisty, the chairman of the Graces Cricket Club.
Consequently, not many want to be interviewed, and not many feature in group photos of the team. Even the scorecards at http://www.gracescricket.org.uk mention only their second names — Mohammads and Bhatias. However, says Hardisty, “The best thing is we haven’t really faced much homophobic comments from opposition teams.”
It’s not entirely hush hush, though. The father of a 14-year old girl called Hardisty to say that he wanted to bring his daughter who had discovered her sexual identity early in life. Hardisty was surprised at the call; he himself had come out only when he was 30. Born and raised in the small town of Portsmouth, not far from Southampton where India recently played a Test against England, he grew up in fear about his sexual identity. “It was all-boys school, and you know how they can be. Conservative society, and they would bully boys perceived as effeminate.”
What helped Hardisty was that he loved to play cricket and other sports. “The stereotype was so strong that gay people can’t be sporty that it helped me live unnoticed because I used to play all sports.” He had liberal parents but it still took him exposure to London to gain self-confidence. When he came out to his mother, she wasn’t surprised. “She said she was waiting for me to come out and one of the first questions she asked me was when I would bring someone home to meet her.” Hardisty realises he is a rare lucky person, even in England.
He is curious about the recent Supreme Court judgment decriminalising gay sex, and apologises in jest for the 19th century British law that forbade “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal”. “Section 377 (of the IPC) was draconian, right,” he says.
He says the Indians in his team closely followed the proceedings in court. “They have one request for you. They want to know whether the situation back home has changed. Can they be more open?”
Hasn’t anyone come out yet? “Some have. But mostly the ones who are estranged from families and so don’t care about what they think. Lest you think it’s all Asians, not all Caucasians have come out (either). Everyone does at their own time, when they want to, when they are finally comfortable about it.”
The comfort is what Hardisty hopes Graces Cricket Club can provide to its players and supporters. “All I want is to provide a friendly environment to people. That they can feel absolutely comfortable to be themselves. For some of us, it’s not as easy and natural as you would think. It’s a disgrace that in 2018, such is the case.”
In London’s Soho, pubs scream “Award-winning gay bar” and such. In the tube stations and on the escalators, men kiss men and women embrace women, but Hardisty says it’s still not quite seen as normal everywhere in the country. “In London, maybe, in certain parts of the city, but not in England. Some regions are still conservative. I can only imagine what the case would be in Asia.”
Has the club thrown up love affairs too, or is everyone too focussed on the game?
Hardisty laughs, pauses and says, “It’s quite surprising that there are not many love affairs within the club. It’s strange, come to think of it! One more thing that I have always found surprising is that we have struggled to find gay women cricketers. You know the reason? More women who play sports are lesbians and they don’t really need a separate club. They all get along well with each other. Not much discrimination. Women are better than men that way.”
But other good things do happen at Graces. The Pakistani cricketer is now in a much better space. “He has applied for asylum, and we are arguing his case at the Home Office with the help of an organisation that supports gay Asian men in England. It’s a conservative government and we don’t know how it will turn out, but at least he is in a good space mentally. Hopefully, we have played our little part in that.”
Hardisty married his long-time partner a few years ago, and remembers the time when gay marriage was legalised in England. “I remember, outside the court, groups of Jews, Muslims, and Christians stood together in protest against gay marriage. I thought, if this is what brings you lot together, then this world is crazy!”