It’s Brighton Pride weekend – with a virtual festival this year – and to mark the occasion, we caught up with Worthing-based wheelchair racer Lizzie Williams…
By Jon Holmes
Brighton Pride is the UK’s biggest Pride festival – and 2020 is a very special 30th anniversary for the event.
It was back in 1991 that a Pride protest returned to the city for the first time since the early 1970s, with the LGBT+ community and allies taking to the streets to stand united against Section 28. Since then, Brighton Pride has continued annually – although this year, it’s all happening virtually with ‘We Are Fabuloso!’ on the Pride TV Network YouTube channel from Friday to Sunday.
At Sports Media LGBT+, we believe it’s important that sport is represented at Pride – and just a short hop down the coast from Brighton is the home of a Stonewall Sport Champion!
T54 wheelchair racer Lizzie Williams is based in Worthing – “it’s the next best thing to Brighton,” she says, “not as many hills!” – and as well as pursuing her para-athletics ambitions, she’s also using her voice and platform to speak up for LGBTQ+ equality.
Lockdown has limited Lizzie’s training considerably in recent months. “I was out on my balcony with a set of rollers – like a cyclist, I can put my two back wheels on the back and push away without moving anywhere, which is very convenient. However, at the same time, when you’re training for like an hour and a half, it’s kind of tedious because I like being stimulated by looking at other things around me!”
However, from Monday, she’ll be back out on the track where she belongs. Before that, we caught up with her for our ‘My Pride In Sport’ series, following on from our chats back in June with Michael Gunning, John Dickinson-Lilley, and Amazin LeThi.
There have been several regional Pride activations happening virtually in recent weeks and as well as Brighton, there’s still more to come, such as Pride Cymru’s Big Week and Alternative Manchester Pride in late August.
“Pride is all the time anyway,” says Lizzie. “It’s for the people, for the community, it’s not just for June. It’s great to keep the conversation going and hear other people’s experiences throughout the year.”
And now for the Q&A…
JH: Hi Lizzie! Why is it important for sport to mark Pride?
LW: Sport naturally doesn’t discriminate. If you’re passionate about sport – and it doesn’t matter if you’re grassroots, or if you want to go to the top and become a Paralympian or Olympian – you should be able to feel comfortable and supported, just being you.
How is the para-sports world faring in terms of Pride involvement?
I’m not sure if we’re any better or worse than other sports bodies. One of the biggest things in sport at the moment is the Athletics Pride Network – that’s the biggest thing that I’ve ever witnessed from a national governing body or team. People can sometimes seem to jump on the bandwagon a bit – get the Pride colours out there with a post or a comment – although often when you dive deeper, there’s not actually much more there. But this year, something’s really forming with the APN, a support network is coming into place, and it’s awesome to see that.
How did your involvement in the APN come about?
Donna Fraser, who’s the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion lead at UK Athletics, got in contact with me and asked if I wanted to be a part of it. I’d heard about it and was really interested to join, and literally then she emailed me and said ‘come join up’. I was so excited! I’ve been able to share it with a few other people I know in athletics who are LGBTQ+ too so that’s nice.
Donna is such an influential position within British Athletics and UK Sport in general, with all of her work in D&I – it’s just really cool to see. She plucked me out and she’s probably plucking other people out as well, and just saying that this is something that we think you could really benefit from. That’s great, especially if you’re part of the LGBTQ+ community, because you can be a bit anxious sometimes to take that first step to connect with a network like that. So to have someone approach you and give you that opportunity, it’s that helping hand that you’re really happy to take.
One of the best things about the network is it’s not just for British athletes. There are people from all over the globe who are connecting. I really hope that they’ll take it back to their NGOs, and get the ball rolling in their own countries.
How has your journey as an out athlete been?
I’ve only really been ‘out out’ – living my authentic self – since about four years ago, and I’ve been in sport my entire life. It’s made a big difference to me. I’m not having to have that weight building, of not being sure of what my family and friends were going to think of me… when you’ve had that kind of pressure in your mind for years, and you then think about coming out, you just form all of these possible scenarios that could happen. ‘I’m going to have no friends, my family’s going to disown me’ – all of that, and it’s horrible. To just be free of that is the most incredible feeling – you feel invincible, and whatever you do in life, you can really just go out there and smash it.
Have you seen your self-confidence change as a result?
I’ve never really been a very confident person. High school was a really tough time for me – even college had its challenges. I then had a pretty traumatic accident which again threw my life right up in the air. So I’ve always been a bit ‘wobbly’, so to speak. Coming through that felt like I was really taking control of my life and then to come out was just the cherry on top. I’ve grown in confidence so much and this past year, I’ve never been a part of so many opportunities as now, especially with Pride season and to join in the conversation around being LGBTQ+ in sport. That’s just been so freeing.
What advice would you give to someone like yourself who’s LGBTQ+ in sport and thinking about being more visible?
From my own experience, I really needed to have that support network around me, to give me that encouragement and confidence to just go for it. Whatever your sport is, scope it out, and identify a few key people – strong allies – who might be able to give you that support, whatever it is that you need. Just take one small step at a time. It’s not a race, it’s just your confidence, whatever you feel you’re able to do. There’s no rush, just aim to be comfortable!
Have you felt that support growing within para athletics?
My perspective is a little different because I’m a developing athlete – I’m not on any of the academies, or part of any of the national teams yet. That’s my goal. But that is something I’m excited to find out and question, within the APN too. This year, I had goals of trying to make selection for the European Championships, but that’s obviously been moved ahead to next year due to the pandemic. It’s going to be held in Poland – and it wasn’t even until I was watching Global Pride recently that I learned how Poland might be a scary place for a queer person. So I’ve got lots of questions and some anxieties there, about wherever my athletics career will take me. I’d want to know, will I be supported? What is in place? How will you reassure me?
What does success look like for you?
Success for me is just giving all that I can. When I’m competing within each season, success isn’t any medals or any particular titles, it’s personal bests. I’ve always found the wins are my own wins for myself. If it’s knocking 0.01 off my PB, that’s the best thing for me because I’m getting better. It doesn’t really get any better than that – you can wish for a gold medal but there’s only one out there. However, you can knock so many seconds or minutes off of your times, and the possibilities there are endless. I’m just training to get faster and faster, and that just spurs me on.
As for the Europeans in Poland, I’m quite thankful I suppose that we have an extra year now to prepare for that. That’s definitely my focus for next year – I really want to get that GB vest!
What’s been your proudest moment to date?
I had a cool opportunity in 2016 to help showcase wheelchair racing at a Diamond League meeting in Zurich. I was pretty fresh to the sport, only a year or two in. I got put on a plane out to Zurich, put up in a really nice hotel, where there was free ice cream which was just awesome – at the same time, it’s like ‘no, you’re here to compete, don’t eat the ice cream yet!’ We rolled out into this stadium and it seated about 30,000 people. I’ve never had an experience like that since. But to just have had that opportunity, to help showcase wheelchair racing, with all those young people watching and it was televised too. That’s really a massive part of why I love sport and what I want to do within sport, off the track – to show disability sport to people and encourage them to get involved.
It’s often said that Pride is a protest. What are you fighting for?
Pride will always be a protest until LGTBQ+ rights are seen as human rights all around the world. Laws and legislation may be different in our country than in other countries, but we need equality everywhere – you can’t just know that discrimination is going on in other places and think ‘that doesn’t matter to me’. It should matter to us because we are a community and we should fight for our community all around the world. It’s a particularly scary time when you’re looking at trans rights – even down to the freedom to use the bathroom that you feel is most comfortable for you.
You’re prominent on social media, with over 20,000 followers on Instagram. Do young people sometimes ask you for advice and guidance?
Yeah, a small handful of people have reached out to me. I’d hope more would feel confident to do so. There are so many influential people you can reach out to on social media – I think that’s one of its greatest tools, in having the power to type down what you really struggle to say in real life. I’d definitely be open to having that kind of conversation with anyone.
Your Stonewall Sport Champion profile and your recent #SportPride2020 Insta post both identify you as a queer athlete. Why is the ‘Q’ in LGBTQ+ the best fit for you?
I was having this conversation with my mum recently. I was saying I feel more comfortable identifying as queer and she was a little shocked by that. I’m still learning about the term queer from history but I kind of feel like this generation has redefined it and that it’s my identity within this community. I don’t want to put a different specific label on myself because I’d almost feel confined. I feel queer is an expression of both my sexuality and my gender identity and the perfect label for me, because I’m proud to be part of this community. I don’t really feel like any of the other letters or labels quite do it! Queer just seems limitless.
At the end of the day, I just want to feel comfortable where I am, and I’ve reached that place now.
I’m sure that will resonate with a lot of young people in particular who are reading this…
Honestly, I spent such a long time when I was in high school trying to figure out the L, G, B or T – I look back on all that now and think ‘you would have done yourself such a favour if you’d just stopped worrying about which box you were in!’ I don’t want to be confined, I’m just happy to express myself in the way that I do and not worry about it.
Pride is also a celebration. Who or what do you give thanks for at this time?
I give thanks for all of our community, and everyone in these last few decades who have continued to fight for our rights. I’m just happy to be alive, be here, be present, and keep pushing for freedom, equality and respect everywhere.
Do you have any LGBTQ+ role models who you looked up to?
I don’t think I really had a particular role model when I was growing up. I would just scour the internet and watch YouTube videos of all the vloggers who were talking about coming out and stuff like that. I would be watching them all the time. There were loads of people that I’d watch and some I still follow now which is really cool.
It was huge for me, and my partner Rosa did the same. I tended to follow a lot of the American vloggers – skylarkeleven (Skylar Kergil) was one of my favourites!
What would be your Pride anthem?
I always find music questions really hard because my favourites change all the time!
I really love musicals because the songs tell part of the story and I find that relatable. My mum, my sister and I would often go up to London for a show. I really love The Lion King – the colour, the vibrancy of that – Billy Elliot, Blood Brothers… there’s so many!
Dear Evan Hansen, Hamilton, and another Lin-Manuel Miranda score, In The Heights, are on a lot for me at the moment. It’s so sad that West End theatre for this year is still looking cancelled – I really feel for all the casts. It’s a horrible situation.
Let’s go for ‘You Will Be Found’ from Dear Evan Hansen – it’s amazingly empowering, I love it!
Is there an LGBTQ+ moment in your life that really made you proud?
Being selected as a Stonewall Sport Champion is my proudest moment. I’ve followed the great work that Stonewall have done over the years and to then have them reach out and pick me to be one of their 12 Champions is just incredible.
To have their support is brilliant. It’s just the opportunities that have come with that too, and to connect more and be in touch with other LGBTQ athletes in sport has been encouraging, inspiring, and very motivating.
We haven’t all met up in person yet – I really want to meet everyone! Tom Bosworth is also in athletics so we’ve got that common ground. Once this is all over with lockdown, I would love to get together with all of them and hang out and just get to know them a bit more. You see so much from them all online, and I’m sure they’re really great people.
What would be your message to someone who knows they are LGBTQ+ but who is struggling to find their place in Pride?
It’s OK – don’t panic, don’t rush. Whenever you’re ready, start building that support network around you because that really is going to be your base for whenever you want to make those next steps. They’re going to be there all the time to give you the encouragement that you need. And if you want to reach out to me, I’d love to meet and chat with you and share my story – if that will encourage someone else to make steps forwards in their lives to live as their true and authentic self, let’s do it. It’s so amazing when you can get rid of that weight, and not feel scared or anxious to hide from anyone.
Finally, Brighton Pride is going online this weekend. How have you found virtual Pride season?
I haven’t really been to many physical Prides. I like the parades, and then afterwards is kind of a bit too much for me – as a disabled person in a wheelchair trying to navigate through crowds of people, it ain’t going to happen. So being able to have that virtual experience, taking in everything and learning so much, like I mentioned with Poland – it’s an educational part of Pride, and really it’s the whole reason why it exists in the first place. You can’t get all that without taking a global tour.
If you’ve been inspired by reading this article and would like to connect with our supportive sport and sports media community of LGBT+ people and allies, please contact us (confidence is guaranteed). You can also email Jon at email@example.com.