Anita Asante and Beth Fisher on relationships in women’s sport

Last October, Beth Fisher and Anita Asante were introduced at an event themed around being LGBT+ in sport.

“It was great to meet you there…” says Fisher to Asante, before they both break into fits of laughter. Six months on, they are in lockdown together at Fisher’s home near Cardiff. The former Wales hockey international now works as a TV sports reporter. “I’ve been recording at home and going into the office to edit,” she says. “It’s still full on.”

Meanwhile, Asante has been following training instructions sent to her by Chelsea – staying active, doing keepy-ups in the back garden, nutrition, and mental health. When called upon, she’s been there to assist Fisher media-wise and has been doing the occasional interview like this one. However, this is the first time they have been asked to chat as a couple.

The starting topic is Lesbian Visibility Week – an awareness initiative that is celebrating the diverse community of women-loving women – but it’s how that ties into sport and education that really interests them both.

“I’m quite a private person,” says Asante. “It’s partly my personality, and partly because I haven’t had that kind of media and exposure.

“Being gay or lesbian in women’s football was taboo for such a long time. There was a period between two generations where this negative bubble sat, and players were distancing themselves from the ‘label’ and the stereotypes. It was not seen as beneficial to the growth of the game and there were people in positions of power saying, ‘don’t brandish your sexuality’, or things like that.

“It influenced our generation, making players feel they couldn’t be fully open with the audience. Now we are starting to see the shift again into this modern period where there’s more freedom to express yourself. Megan Rapinoe, Ashlyn Harris and other US players have been at the forefront of that and have shown that who they are as people and their relationships can be a positive way to interact with the sport.”

We are proud to support @football_v_homophobia campaign to #bintransphobia ⚽️? #transally

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‘Don’t be afraid to be different’

Fisher recently wrote for a special LGBTQ edition of Telegraph Women’s Sport about how learning to accept herself was also about learning to accept the word ‘lesbian’. She was a Living For Sport mentor in a previous role with Sky Sports and was recently named a Stonewall Sport Champion. She has other ambassadorial roles too and is often invited to speak in schools. She always emphasises the beauty of being different.

“Growing up, even into your early 20s, you worry so much about what other people think of you. When I was able to push that all away, it was such a release. The older you get, you know who the most important people are in your life and that’s all that matters.

“For LGBT people and anyone in a minority really, it’s about accepting yourself and being proud of who you are. My mum would say ‘don’t be afraid to be different, be afraid to be the same’ – and it’s true. When I go into schools and talk to kids, about social media and all these things, I can see they’re so desperate to be liked and to be the same. We have to let them know that being different will take them so much further in life.”

Asante says that as a girl, there was pressure on her to conform to gender roles – her grandmother would ask her what she thought she was doing by playing football – but sport was the space in which she felt most comfortable to be herself. “It was difficult,” she explains. “For some now, it’s still a lonely path. One of the challenges that comes with growing visibility is that each person is very dependent on the systems that immediately surround them. If you feel that support isn’t fully there for you, it’s very hard to navigate.”

Her football journey built up character and confidence early on – an England debut at 19, and five league titles with Arsenal, including a Quadruple of trophies in 2007 – but by the time she left England to play pro soccer in the States, she still was not out to her parents.

“I expected a negative response from my immediate family,” says Asante. “There was quite a strong religious faith there, and our African culture. I felt they would worry how everyone else in our circle would respond.”

Later, there was an honest conversation about sexuality with her younger brother Andrew which began to ease her concerns over what the wider family reaction might be. “Then when I was back from America, I was in the car with my mum going to the supermarket one day and she just outright asked me. I’d wanted it, to be honest, and I said ‘yeah’. She had a hard time taking it in initially, and it took a while for us to really talk about it on a deeper level. Largely, there was silence.”

Asante returned to the US and was grateful for some time to reflect. Then her father called. “He said, ‘your mum told me’. I was like, ‘OK…’ But then he quickly said, ‘I’m just upset you didn’t tell me first’. My dad and I have always been very close. I was so grateful. And I thought, ‘yeah, why didn’t I tell dad? I tell dad everything!’

“My mum won’t mind me saying this – it was hard for her. But I think my dad made her see that the worry was ridiculous, and that there are far worse things your child could be. It was a rollercoaster and I know it’s like that for a lot of people.

“Ultimately it brought us all closer. My brother is also gay – and out – and for both of us, having each other as an ally in the family has been very comforting.

“I think on the whole it’s tougher for boys. It certainly was for him, as a young black gay man. But also for me being the eldest child, there was expectation – marriage, kids, and fitting that idea of ‘normal’.”

Filtered out by Instagram

Asante would spend eight years playing abroad in the US and Sweden before returning to Chelsea in 2018. Her friends and current club-mates include the Switzerland forward Ramona Bachmann and Sweden full-back Magdalena Eriksson, who are dating West Ham’s Alisha Lehmann and Wolfsburg’s Pernille Harder respectively.

Visibility comes not just on the pitch but also through Instagram, where the four of them are all hugely popular. Lehmann has over a million followers, while a picture of a kiss between Eriksson and Harder at the World Cup last summer received great attention and countless likes across social.

Fisher is not at all surprised to see people in sport falling in love with each other – whether they are straight, gay, bi, or still working it all out. “Sport is a massive common interest – it’s like anything, it’s that common denominator. We’ve both been out with other sportswomen.” What’s important, she feels, is being mindful that everyone should be represented. “I was chairing a panel discussion recently where Magdalena was speaking and I asked her whether if she fitted the stereotype of a butch woman footballer, would she get the same reception? She told me ‘absolutely not’ and recounted a friend who’d been badly trolled just because she had a short haircut.

“We’re still in a society that is obsessed with being good-looking, and fitting in. Life may seem perfect on Instagram, but it isn’t. There are plenty of couples out there who are reasonably high-profile who are more private, maybe for that reason. But also, there are girls and boys looking at the profiles of all people in sport and it helps them to know that it’s OK to be in a relationship with another girl or boy.”

Asante insists sponsors should be more conscious of their responsibility on this, while for Fisher, visibility means being seen to be authentic in whatever field you work in so that people can relate and maybe even feel they can reach out for advice. They agree that the problem for everyone when it comes to discussing sexuality is when the conversation becomes oversexualised.

“That’s why it’s very different for men in sport who want to be potentially out in their life,” says Asante. “For women, there are people for whom being in a lesbian relationship is seen as sexy or cool. Nine times out of 10, it’s men who then comment and that emphasises this threat to women and their bodies. A compliment is fine but understand that these are elite athletes. Often they’re getting oversexualised based on either their aesthetics or their sexuality.”

There’s more freedom to express yourself… who players are as people and their relationships can be a positive way to interact with the sport.

Anita Asante

Moves to make education more inclusive encourages them and Asante points out LGBT learning is crucial for parents too. She’s grateful to soap operas for giving her mum extra insight into different kinds of relationships. “She talks about these characters like they’re real, like they’re our neighbours! She’s so invested in the stories and will ask me questions afterwards. That’s one way TV really helps young people.”

The shadow cast by Section 28 – the UK anti-gay law which held back a whole generation of pupils and teachers from even mentioning sexuality – has not yet been cleared, insists Fisher. “Our generation that was educated in that way are now parents so whether you’re LGBT or straight, there was silence in terms of education. It’s hard enough talking about the birds and bees with your parents, let alone anything more complex. When I was young, it would always turn into an argument – ‘what’s the matter with you?’, getting angry. We’ve got to be more conscious that it needs to be a conversation.”

Coaching, causes, and change

During the pandemic, Asante and her Chelsea colleagues have been highlighting domestic abuse as an issue that needs more discussion. She appeared in a video made in support of the charity Refuge, featuring players from the men’s and women’s teams as well as coach Emma Hayes.

Whether you realise it or not, we all know a woman who's experienced #DomesticAbuse and #COVID_19 has only increased the risk.

Massive thank you to players and managers at @ChelseaFC for taking part in this video. To support survivors, donate here: https://t.co/bJNskOsrm5 pic.twitter.com/ubusAlbRTX

Fisher has been impressed by football’s collective activism for good causes in recent weeks. “When I came into sports media, I was a bit blasé about where football sits in the world but we’re again seeing the power it has. It’s also about recognising how the women’s game is different from men’s, such as in commercial terms, and the direction that it’s going in.”

Asante is a member of the FIFPro global counsel and is concerned by the organisation’s recent report outlining how the growth spurt of women’s football could be stunted by the knock-on effects of coronavirus. “It makes for stark reading with all the possible scenarios, but a lot of players are already living those situations.” Ensuring the WSL’s future is on the agenda at Premier League and EFL meetings is essential, she adds, as well as the need for greater boardroom diversity. “Men are still controlling all aspects of the game, predominantly. Another problem that the pandemic has highlighted is some of the irresponsibility of football economics.”

Player representation and the politics of football interest Asante greatly and she also intends to take her coaching badges soon. She will turn 35 next week. “I’ll play as long as my body will allow but I want to start to see how my skills and personality fit into that coaching role.”

Developing her role as an Amnesty UK Ambassador is another ambition. “I’ll always tie in my passion for wanting to make change along with my football career,” she says. Internationally, LGBT rights tend to still be the toughest to get onto the list of talking points but being more open about relationships might be one way to make that easier.

Fisher agrees. “We need spaces where it’s safe to ask questions, and the other person knows you’re not there to offend. Talk about culture, sport, sexuality, whatever.” For both, visibility for women in sport isn’t so much about being seen – it’s about being listened to.

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