Earlier this year, The United States Tennis Association (USTA) announced a decision to sponsor a screening of a documentary featuring four LGBT amateur tennis players. All four of the athletes compete in an international gay and lesbian tennis tour, the Gay Games as well as in the United States Tennis Association (USTA) regional leagues. The creator of the Queens at Court documentary, Shiv Paul is a British-Indian consultant and life coach based in New York City. Shiv spoke to GLAAD about his documentary as well as the inclusion of LGBT athletes in sports:
What inspired you to film the documentary?
Tennis has always been an influential part of my life, principally because it is one of the only things I really understand how to do! Even if I am not executing well, I know what I need to do and, with so many things in life, you're not only trying to work out the rules of something, but also how to execute and why something is not working the way it should. When I moved to New York, I was suddenly exposed to this complete gay tennis world with an international tour, leagues, Gay Olympics...It was incredible and I wanted to document that in some way. It became much more about the human stories of this world and why, in a sense, this world even came into being. QaC has many levels and on one level it's about the sport of tennis but on another about people's search for self-acceptance and belonging.
Do you think that due to the recent international discussion about LGBT equality, sports organizations such as The United States Tennis Association feel more pressure to promote the inclusion of LGBT athletes and fans?
Not exactly. This discussion about the inequality of LGBT rights is not new; it's just been given a media spotlight on an international, billion-dollar stage because the human rights of some of that stage's participants have been violated by Russia's anti-gay legislation. This has given organizations, countries and individuals that have always had a strong history of and interest in being inclusive of LGBT and other diverse athletes and fans a chance to show their opinion on the matter with a lot of visibility. And the USTA is one of those organizations that has always had a strong interest and history of being inclusive. They have invited me to do a screening and panel discussion for the entire USTA staff. I think that speaks to their mission to instill the idea of diversity in their own organization. It's set for June 19th.
How much of an impact could such a documentary have on professional tennis players planning to come out?
There already have been plenty of out female players in the sport. What you are really talking about is a male tennis player coming out. There are undoubtedly gay male tennis players on the circuit but they are not in the spotlight. Coming out is hard enough but when you know by doing so you will be faced with widespread hostility, loss of earnings and the chance to not do what you feel you were born to do -- and even if you do have the chance, to have your lifestyle constantly referenced when judged on your skill-- that is overwhelming. What I would like the film to do is make people involved in sport in all its aspects to feel more tolerant and accepting of diversity. If it changes from that angle, then one day whether a sportsperson is gay or not won't even be an issue. I'd love the film to encourage a professional tennis player to come out - that would be wonderful. Maybe he and I can start dating and tackle the world's inequality together!
Sponsoring an LGBT documentary is a big stride. What do you think should be the next step for the USTA to ensure equality for all athletes?
It's a huge step! To my knowledge no other large sports organization has put their money where their mouth is in this particular way. What other sports body has sponsored a first time director's small budget grassroots project, not just by giving money, but by using its muscle and having a hands-on approach to getting this message seen and discussed in large scale venues? In terms of ensuring equality for all athletes, organizations already have some programs in place. For example, the Lawn Tennis Association had expressed interest in using a truncated form of QaC for their diversity training programs for players and coaches. This is exactly what I want to be doing: to develop tolerance and acceptance programs and workshops for athletes, coaches, athletic directors, friends of athletes etc. that are delivered as part of an ongoing curriculum by sports bodies, colleges, universities etc.
In what ways does Queens at Court challenge the mainstream representation of sports and athletes?
It certainly challenges people's notion of what it means to be an athlete in a physical sense because we are transgender, obese, people of colour. But it also challenges people's notions of what it means to be gay and a gay athlete. It also shows the seriousness with which we take our sport, the competitiveness, which I know many people underestimate because they have a certain connotation that if you are gay and play a sport, you're probably not very good. It also shows the camaraderie and the love for it.
Can you describe for us the four players profiled in the film? What makes them relatable to viewers? What about their stories is unique?
Giselle, an Asian [trans woman], is a successful entrepreneur who has just moved from New York to Berlin. Chip is a white 50 year old man who lives in DC. He is a large lad who in his own words "has never had a (romantic) relationship." It would be very easy for him to hide away from the world but he is a survivor, a fighter and he lives life. Jean is a black ex-military vet who toured Iraq and Afghanistan and has had to contend with war trauma and DADT. And there's me. I'm gay, Indian, and had a foot in both cultures. I think we all challenge the stereotypes of our categories. We are all in various stages of self-acceptance but we've all had to contend with adversity in life, and we've all managed to do that and come to a happy place. But it's a constant process. I think this is what makes us relatable.
A huge moment in the history of sports and gender was the 1973 "Battle of the Sexes" between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. How do you think things have changed since then in terms of gender perceptions and being LGBT in sports?
More than that event, Billie Jean's creation of the WTA has done more to create tolerance and acceptance between the male and female tours. I think that whole movement has shown - what with the strong female players of today - that women's tennis is as sexy, powerful and revenue-generating as the men's tour. At the end of the day, sport is a business and an industry; whereas in the past, women's sports were relegated to the second tier, today in some cases, like in tennis, that has changed because of the people in it. An all Williams tennis final is as likely to sell out a stadium as much as a Nadal-Federer or Nadal-Djokovic final. This is where things have become a little more equal.
What about tennis (and sports in general) do you think makes an effective arena for social change?
Sport shows and develops character. It's a space where you have to use more than your physicality to be successful. It teaches self-awareness, leadership, connection and teamwork - even the so called individual sports like tennis require teamwork and listening skills (with your coach and trainers) for you to succeed. Sport is also incredibly influential. And it doesn't require much to get started.