Last year, I wrote a piece for Pride about why there are no gay racers in the higher echelons of motorsport. In January, Danny Watts found the article and emailed me, asking to come out on the blog, but it was eventually decided that we would create a content glitterbomb and do it in style (in Autosport and Daily Sports Car and Huff Post and Gay Times, among others). This plunged me into the world of queer gearheads, and there are now about twenty members in the Queer Gearheads group.
For this Pride, we decided to feature members who were out and willing to be visible for the younger LGBT+ folk in the audience who may have otherwise felt like motorsport wasn’t for them because there was no chance of meeting people like them in the sport/industry. We didn’t have any lesbian or trans folk – not for lack of trying – but we did have gay and bi folk, and tried our best to get some international spread (UK, USA, South Africa, and France).
The inclusion of Chris, our featured bisexual, was intentional for two reasons – bisexuals were instrumental in the creation of Pride as a protest march, and they’re often skipped over in discussion of LGBT+ issues. Bi erasure – the official term for leaving bisexuals out of the cultural narrative – is so strong in some circles that I’ve had an internet argument with a dude-bro who was convinced that the B in 'LGBT' stood for Bronies (men who’re into My Little Pony) not Bisexual.
I intentionally asked questions in the Pride interview series that would uncover issues within the community, and bring them into the realm of public discussion. This was not for clickbait fodder; this was because there is no other forum for discussing queer topics within motorsport, and therefore no way of including the LGBT+ or allied fanbase in the discourse. In the responses, there were a few themes, which I’ll expand on in the rest of this article.
Money, Money, Money
The strongest theme in the ‘issues we struggle with’ question was a lack of finance. Drivers and journalists alike have found it hard to find funding to get their careers going. While this is normal for journalists and drivers the world over, the problem seems to have been exacerbated for out queer people.
Being a polarizing public figure has its costs, and a lot of the more established US brands don’t want to lose customers from the Red-voting South by sponsoring a gay racer. British brands have no similar excuse, because over half the population supports same-sex marriage and most people from the UK responded positively to Watts’ coming out story when it hit the press. However, the reticence from sponsors and other entities continues. So if you’re reading this, you care about marginalised groups getting a chance in motorsport, and you have a company or brand of your own, please be in touch and we can put you in touch with some wonderful people who’re looking for financial support in exchange for brand promotion.
Being Taken Seriously
It would seem that the accusation levelled at fangirls (pejorative term used intentionally) of ‘You only support him because he’s pretty!’ is applied to gay men too. Anyone who claims that motorsport is a meritocracy need only look as far as female and LGBT+ journalists for proof to the contrary. Out queer people are lumped into the category of ‘too femme to like sports’ along with women.
Prof Michael Kimmel, a sociologist and distinguished professor of gender and masculinities, pointed out in his article about Jason Collins’ coming out that heterosexuality was a key part of the American concept of masculinity. It would seem that this belief extends to Europe and Africa as well. This idea that gay men are less masculine than straight men is out-dated and oppressive.
In Prof Kimmel’s email sig, ‘masculinities’ is pluralised. There are as many shades of ‘masculine’ as there are men. By way of example, some straight cis-men are total bosses at painting fingernails because their little girls wanted pretty nails, while some gay guys and trans men don’t know the first thing about women’s makeup techniques because they have no reason to care. The premise of Grayson Perry’s book ‘The Descent of Man’ is an invitation for men to question the norms of ‘masculinity’ handed down to us, and have fun with how you as an individual want to express your masculinity.
The perception that femininity is weakness – when in reality women, and gay and efeminate men need to work that much harder just to be seen as equal – is out-dated and needs to go. There are people who fit neatly into Pink or Blue, and that’s valid for them. There are also people who are shades of Purple, and that’s valid too. Being Pink or Blue or Purple doesn’t accurately predict whether someone will love a Pink, Blue, or Purple person. The shade of our gender expression, or who we love also don’t accurately predict strength or weakness, courage or cowardice. If anything, the ones who struggle more for legitimacy are stronger and more courageous, because they buck the trend.
A while back, a motorsport entity was worried that, if they made a point of inviting gay people, they’d have crowds of people in assless chaps scarring the children at the event. Every queer person I spoke to – both participating in the series, and others – about this snorted in derision at the thought that people would show up to a family event with their butt cheeks hanging out. The entity was fine with people showing up with Pride flags, but nudity was a concern. From the responses in the interview series, it’s generally understood by the LGBT+ community that kink wear is only appropriate outside the bedroom at Pride (or, one would assume, a play party, but we didn’t get into that). But even then, it makes some queer people uncomfortable, and the nudity is a major factor in their not attending Pride events.
It’s important to remember on this point that Pride started as a protest. It was a protest against the human rights abuses directed at the LGBT+ community, which continue to this day in many parts of the world, despite our ability to go to Pride in nothing but pink hotpants or assless chaps. It has become a party, and while there is a lot of progress to celebrate, there is still work to be done.
People at the first Pride in South Africa (in Johannesburg, in 1994) wore paper bags over their heads for fear of being fired or made homeless for their sexual identity. This was not unusual for early Pride functions, because of the oppression that faced the community in the eighties and nineties. The emaciated bodies of thousands of America gay men were left unclaimed in mortuaries during the height of the AIDS crisis, because their families refused to be associated with them. It was left to their friends, and sometimes big-hearted strangers, to make burial arrangements. Added to that, precious few clerics in the States would officiate the funerals of those gay AIDS victims, meaning that often Jewish gay men were buried by Christian preachers. (The theological literature doesn’t deal with other countries, but anecdotal evidence would suggest that some clerics continue to refuse to bury LGBT+ people.) The slogan, ‘We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it,’ that has been chanted at every Pride and LGBT+ protest I’ve ever been to started a battle cry, a call to rally together and be seen as fully self-actualised humans worthy of basic human dignity.
And this struggle to be seen as fully self-actualised humans worthy of basic human dignity is embodied in this incident with the motorsport entity. The LGBT+ community wasn’t invited to the party in case they acted just a bit too gay. They may be afraid of offending people by enforcing a ‘please be fully dressed’ request. But the assumption that the LGBT+ community will show up in assless chaps is discriminatory before we get to their response to that assumption. Not that they’re terrible people and we should spam them with hate; nobody needs that. But Thierry mentioned that something the straight community could do for us is to have open lines of communication between motorsport event organizers and queer people, which would have by-passed the whole situation in the first place.
What Straight People Can Do
If you’re reading this and you’re straight and not sure what to take from it, the good news is you’re most welcome as an ally. You don’t have to be queer to buy tickets to races in which LGBT+ people are competing. You don’t need to be gay to wear the merch you bought from their websites, or buy products from the companies who sponsor them. You don’t need to be LGBT+ to leverage your company’s marketing budget to sponsor a queer racer (Charlie Martin, a former Woman of the Week, needs £60,000 to race next year http://www.motorsportsisterhood.org/blog/woman-of-the-week-charlie-martin; Evan Darling needs about the same amount if not a bit more in US dollars, and is looking for first-time motorsport sponsors; you don’t need to look far to find someone who’ll take your money and make great videos about your company).
You can also call in homophobic comments when you hear/see them, regardless of whether you’re gay, straight, or somewhere in between. If you’re one of the ones making the homophobic and transphobic jokes on your friends’ facebook walls, with love, please cease and desist because it’s actually pretty mean and makes queer people feel very unwelcome. I don’t call in every comment I see on social media. I pick my battles – only people I know, or people who my friends are struggling to find words to call in – because there are simply too many to call in all of them and the exhaustion is real y’all! But the point remains that it carries far more weight when a straight person says ‘hey, not cool,’ than when a queer person says it.
For straight people in positions of power in motorsport, remember that with great power comes great responsibility. You can choose to hire a talented queer driver for your team, or host a tie-in event that makes LGBT+ people feel actively included. If you’re worried about something like people showing up half-naked and scarring the children, chat to the people you’re working with about creative strategies around the problems you’ve foreseen. Slow progress is still progress, and baby steps made consistently will take us to a more equal world.
Equality is everyone’s job. If we approached every situation aware of people’s intersecting identities and privileges/disadvantages, we would be more willing to give the more disadvantaged members of our community a leg up. Not a segregated series special for LGBT+ people to be a freakshow side-project. Never segregation. Just the boost that is within your power as a wing-buddy/ally. Look for those seemingly insignificant opportunities to amplify signals for the queer people you know/know of; call your friends in on their discriminatory behaviour; be open to change when someone calls you in on behaviour that’s been bugging them. Feminism is very ordinary magic, and it’s often made up of an encouraging word given here, and a little bit of knowledge shared there. Everyone can do that.
In case you missed any, the interviews are linked here in order of publishing:
Matthys Strydom, G, South Africa
Evan Darling, G, USA
Chris Stevens, B, UK
Thierry Courtois, G, France
Thierry Courtois is a professional graphic designer working for some of the biggest brands in the world. For the past three years he has done various freelance work in both motorsport and football. He has worked on projects with racing teams including Mahindra Formula E. He has done design, branding and photography work for various media sites, and is an active member and currently working on a marketing/branding project for Arsenal's Gaygooners.
Bridget Schuil: What were your biggest struggles in motorsport before coming out?
Thierry Courtois: Well I was never involved in motorsport prior to coming out as I did that when I was 17. As a kid/teenager I always wanted to be involved in F1, first as a driver (ha that never happened) and then as a designer (I wasn't good enough at maths). For me, the fact that there were (and still are) no sportsmen/women who are out whilst they are in their sporting careers sent signals that you can't be gay and work in sport. You won't be taken seriously, you won't get on with team members because you can't get involved in 'banter' and that you wouldn't be able to share hotel rooms etc with colleagues.
So I gave up any notion of being involved in anyway. Instead of was classed as a "weird gay" because I was gay but really into sports and not camp etc. So I didn't fit in with the LGBT+ community and I didn't fit in with the straight community either.
BS What have been your biggest struggles since coming out?
TBC Being taken seriously is often an issue. I walk down a pitlane and I get looks and laughs from mechanics, etc. It gets to you a little bit. I don't see how being gay prevents me from being able to do a job well or having an interest in sport that goes beyond liking a player or driver.
I also felt that a particular driver acted differently towards me after I made a comment that clearly alluded to my sexuality and that took me by surprise.
BS Now you're publicly out, do you get a lot of online hate?
TBC I've not had anyone purposely direct homophobic related comments at me but I have witnessed a lot of homophobic comments around sport. I don't stand for it and I will call it out when I see it.
I've also actively called out a certain former-F1 driver for his constant use of homophobic terminology in his tweets and instagram posts - not that he takes a blind bit of notice as he continues to do it. I guess he's like football fans that think it's all just 'banter'. Well it may be banter to them but it isn't banter to someone who is LGBT+.
I have had hate thrown at me online and offline and whilst it hasn't been homophobic in content, it has felt that I was targeted because of it - for some reason they think I'm a weaker person because I'm gay. Well they REALLY don't understand how strong you are/have to be when you are LGBT+!
BS What would you say to people who said that Danny's coming out was 'not news'?
TBC I managed to open someones mind a little. They were saying some really inappropriate comments and disregarding the purpose of a sportsman coming out and I challenged them on it. I explained why it was important and relevant but without attacking them and thankfully they listened and took it on board and realised their comments were inappropriate.
BS There was an incident recently where an LGBT+ tie-in to a motorsport event was postponed due to concern by the organisers over 'inappropriate behaviour' at the event (eg. they were worried people would turn up in assless chaps). Does the LGBT+ community need to re-think its stance on the ethics of self-expression, or is this a stereotypical, and unfounded worry on behalf of the event organisers?
TBC Better communication with the community and fan groups can help organisers understand and anticipate the provisions required at events. Arsenal and the Gaygooners have a very good relationship with lots of open dialogue on both sides - motorsport and many other sports lack this.
BS Other sports have official LGBT+ organisations, for example Arsenal football club have a gay fans' club. When Danny Watts came out, there was talk of starting an official FIA organisation. Do you think, given the political orientation of motorsport governing bodies, that it would be better to have a queer-led queer org, or an official initiative run by well-meaning straight people?
TCB I am a member of the Gaygooners and do work with them at the moment. I think it is extremely important that any such organisation is run by members of the LGBT+ community. There is no reason why straight supporters can't be involved and there needs to be open dialogue with a body like the FIA and the teams and there is no reason why this can't be a straight representative. But when it comes to the promotion of LGBT+ rights and action against inequalities - it has to be directed and campaigned by the community itself.
What can motorsport entities do to be more supportive of the LGBT+ community?
For starters they need to recognise that there is a large number of fans from this community across all series and all levels - as well the drivers, team personnel etc. Motorsport lags way behind football in the UK and maybe it's a result of the international travelling circus as opposed to mainly domestic aspect of football. If football has a long way to go for LGBT+ inclusion in the stands and within the sport to allow a safe and welcoming environment, then motorsport is decades away.
As the number of LGBT+ supporters is still quite small, most fans, teams etc don't feel anything needs to be done and in many cases they actively disagree with any potential step forward (that is, the issue with grid girls, widespread normative sexism, and the homophobic terminology used).
BS What can individual fans and motorsport workers do to show their support for the LGBT+ community?
TBC Educate, promote, inspire and stay vocal. Football is listening thanks to the tireless long term work of folks like the Gaygooners - there is no reason why motorsport and other sports as a whole can't do the same.
This week’s Woman of the Week is Jess Shanahan, a motoring and motorsport journalist, and creator of The Racing Mentor (link here), a resource set up to help young racers find funding, with an associated e-course (link here). She started her career in a PR agency specialising in luxury interiors, moving over to motorsport PR work after forming a relationship with Rebecca Jackson. This led to doing PR and sponsorship work for Jackson, Team HARD and others. In 2016, she was team boss of Turn Eight Racing in the BRSCC Porsche Championship. This year, she has taken a step back from the racing, because demands on her time simply grew too great. Instead, she has prioritised creating The Racing Mentor and Sponsorship Bootcamp to empower young racers to do their own sponsor finding work. She also works on bringing new talent into other areas of motorsport.
Bridget Schuil: What is your first memory of motorsport?
Jess Shanahan: I came into motorsport quite late. It was in 2008, I was watching Formula 1 with my boyfriend and all his friends. I was trying to work out who I wanted to support – we had Ferrari fans there; we had a Red Bull fan; my boyfriend was a McLaren fan – and I didn’t want to support someone just because it was who my boyfriend supported.
I remember asking the question, ‘who’s the tallest?’ and the answer was Mark Webber. So I was a huge Mark Webber fan from that point onwards. I guess that’s my first real memory of motorsport, and that is how I got into the sport. I had been interested in cars before, but then I was interested in Mark Webber.
BS What do you love most about the sport?
JS I love the noise and the atmosphere. As much as I love watching racing on television, I would rather go to a club race every weekend and just absorb that kind of competitive family atmosphere with lots of noise and great smells, as well as the variety of cars as well. I really love that, so yeah, definitely the atmosphere.
BS Who do you think has been the most supportive of your career?
JS Probably Rebecca Jackson. She was my first ever motorsport client off the back of my PR experience. I’ve kind of grown with her as she’s gone from Porsche Championship and GT Cup to doing Le Mans, and then Mini Challenge this year. She’s been really supportive.
My family and close friends have also been great. I’ve made loads of friends through motorsport – both online and at events – so I’ve got a really nice circle of people on Facebook who’ve all been super supportive. I’d say I’ve been quite lucky, but Rebecca was my first client and the one who’s been with me the longest. We’ve been working together for so long and we’re definitely more friends than just employer and contractor.
BS In your career thus far, what would you say have been your biggest challenges?
JS I had to teach myself sales skills. I did sales not long after I left college, and I absolutely hated it. Then I went into PR, which was great. There was a little bit of selling involved, like when I’d ring a journalist, I’d have to sell my story and make sure they want it. I guess the skills are similar. I learned some skills there, but as soon as I then had to start working on sponsorship, it was a whole different kind of selling. It’s more a wheeler-dealer sales person kind of effort.
At the time, I was struggling with anxiety, I hated speaking on the phone, and all that. I kind of got used to it over the years, and found that the cold calling approach didn’t necessarily work. I had to literally go out there and make friends with people who could introduce me to other people, so I was going with a warmer approach. I recently completed a free course, which I’m offering to help people learn from those mistakes I made.
BS What have been your proudest moments and career highlights?
JS Watching Turn Eight Racing race to multiple victories in 2016 was amazing. I have one of Pip Hammond's Porsche trophies sitting happily in my office. It was also amazing to see Rebecca Jackson make her way from club racer to Le Mans and know I played a part in that. She's a phenomenal person and I'm proud to work with her.
As a journalist, I recently went to the launch of a new Abarth in Italy. While zooming around on a yacht after making multiple amazing contacts, I realised that it was the fulfillment of a goal I'd set myself five years ago when I quit my PR job. On a lake in Italy is definitely a time when you can think: Wow, I think I've made it.
BS So tell us about the origins of The Racing Mentor and Sponsorship Bootcamp. Where did those courses come from?
JS Racing Mentor came from a vision of teaching racing drivers to do something for themselves, rather than relying on someone like me to go out and find sponsorship for them. A course made most sense, and I was speaking to a lot of racing drivers about whether they’d prefer podcasts, long-form article, or videos and short articles. The answer came back that videos and shorter articles were their preferred learning format. Easily digestible information was better.
So I figured a course talking about all the mistakes I’d made when I was first starting made the most sense to me. I set up the Sponsorship Bootcamp email course first, followed by my Mistakes course, with the view that I’m going to do a more comprehensive course in the future based on the feedback I receive. It’s all outlined, it just needs to be written up and filmed. So yeah, it definitely came from that place of wanting to help people, but also needing to know how they learn. I think that was the most effective way.
BS Seth Godin bases his courses on Slack, so there’s no exclusive content, what people are paying for is input from and face time with an expert. Have you used a chat platform with your courses? Is that something that you’ve found that works?
JS At the moment, my course is set up with teachable.com. Within that, there is a comment system, but I’m not really using it for this course because the content is quite basic. The next course is ‘Ten Steps to Your Next Sponsor’. That’s actually an exclusive, because I’ve not told anyone about this yet. I’m going to utilise the comments system within the platform I’m building this course on, but depending on the level people choose when they pay for the course, they do get more input from me.
The higher levels get one-on-one time with me, be that a Skype call, like a proper hour or two of mentoring session, or a live chat session on a platform we both use. I want to keep people on the right track, and give them real-time input. I’m still kind of in the research stages of how it will all go together. I do really like Slack, but it’s not that popular because people don’t use it every day and therefore forget to check it. I’m hoping that if people pay for a course and it includes Slack, that they’ll use it because they’ve paid for it. I’m exploring options and I think maybe for me and the time-poor people I’m working with, keeping it within my course ecosystem would be better so people don’t have to stray too far.
BS And what’s your completion rate? The average for the internet is a 98% drop-out rate. How are your course customers thus far comparing to that?
JS With this ‘mistakes’ course, it’s very short and can be completed within twenty-five minutes or half an hour. At the end, there are email templates, and things in there as well. So I think a lot of people are going through the course to grab the freebies and move on. I think at the moment the completion rate is just under fifty percent. That’s with a very small pool of people who are already involved within my sales funnel. They’re already involved in the Racing Mentor Facebook group and what I’m doing, but it’s good to know the course is performing better than average.
The Sponsorship Bootcamp is an email course based around the basics of acquiring sponsorship. Because it’s automated, it’s got a 100% completion rate. There are tasks within the course that get people to pitch to me as Racing Mentor as though I were a business they wanted to seek sponsorship from. If they impress me, I am going to sponsor them, and I’ve already sponsored Nick Holmes as a result of his work in the course. So there is a lot of incentive for people to complete that, and I’d say maybe 30% of people have got to that stage. Obviously, there are more in the pipeline. I do hope they complete the course, because I love giving feedback.
I already know that a lot of people who’ve done that course have found sponsors from it, so I can see that my material is working. It gives me such pride to know that my content is helping racing drivers build cars, get on track, and find new sponsors.
BS Have you ever experienced sexism in motorsport? If so, how did you deal with it?
JS I haven’t through Racing Mentor, because my customer base so far has been people that I know. They’re people who are already within my circle. They’ve mostly been friends or friends of friends.
Working within motorsport, yes. I know that a lot of people have had some really, really bad stuff, which makes my experiences pale in comparison. But obviously, my experiences are still relevant, because they show that sexism is still alive and well.
The most recent example was when I was at Silverstone for a race, but I was there just to support a friend, rather than in any kind of work capacity. I was dressed essentially in my civilian clothes, rather than a team t-shirt or whatever. I looked pretty glamorous, because I thought, ‘Hey, how often do I go to a race track where I don’t have to be crawling around on the floor near a car?’ So I dressed quite nicely.
There happened to be a guy there that I knew from doing filming for my TV show Road Trip (link here). I hadn’t seen him for ages, and I basically spent the whole time talking to him. He’s a really talented camera man, but he’s not really into cars; he was also there to support our friend. So I was explaining some racing and car stuff to him, and we got speaking to a few other people in the paddock. One gentleman was talking about all these cars he’s worked with in the past. He kept showing pictures to my male friend, but then wouldn’t show them to me.
I thought, ‘I’m literally the only other person in this conversation who cares about cars!’ so I had to ask him specifically if I could see the pictures. It wasn’t until my friend pointed out that women get treated very differently in that kind of environment that I thought, ‘Oh wow, that’s actual full-on sexism!’ I just thought the guy was being rude, but looking back I’m pretty sure it was because I was a woman.
It wasn’t until just as we were leaving, the sexist guy’s wife was speaking to me, and I was telling her what I did for a living, all of the motorsport stuff I did. He was so interested after that! I just left. I wasn’t having any of that from him.
BS In that context – being subjected to sexist treatment by someone you can’t seek recourse against without negatively affecting your career, like a boss or someone in a position of power over you – how do you deal with that? Did you do any self care? How did you rebound and stay polite even though he was treating you unfairly?
JS It’s difficult, really, especially when, let’s say it’s a boss or someone like that, there’s an element of ‘I need to be nice to this person because they pay me.’ While I don’t think anyone should stand for sexism, I think we should save our energy for the fights that matter. I was able to just brush him off, because I’ll likely never see him again.
But I think when you’re in an environment where you know that person, if you can tell they’re doing it out of habit and societal norms rather than being malicious – it’s not overt ‘I don’t think you’re good at this because you’re a woman’ sexism, but more the kind that’s ingrained into everyone – you can open a dialogue with that person. Say ‘this made me feel uncomfortable.’ Ask them not to do the thing that upsets you, and offer concrete suggestions of something less oppressive for them to do instead.
It’s easy to get caught up in our heads, thinking ‘I’m never going to be good enough; they don’t think I’m as good as a man at this,’ but most of the time you can open a dialogue if you’re calm and make it known you don’t think they actually meant it. I think a lot of people – men especially – get really angry if you say anything that implies that they were sexist, because they don’t think they are.
The problem is that they might not be overtly sexist, but everyone is a bit sexist because that’s how most of us have been brought up. It’s in the media; it’s everywhere in motorsport; you can’t really get away from it. That’s what’s sad, and I think that’s why people should speak up about it if they feel they can. But I’m aware that not everyone can do that when someone’s paying their bills, or has a tendency to get aggressive, or something like that.
For me, I don’t want to say that I’m used to it, but I’m quite thick-skinned. I was able to laugh about him with friends and family when I got home. I was able to move on, because he wasn’t a huge part of my life.
BS What advice would you give to girls and young women who want a career like yours?
JS I’d say get out there and start learning the skills you need to do this kind of thing. If it’s motorsport PR, start making friends with racing drivers on social media. Start reading newspapers, magazines, and websites where their press releases and achievements are placed. Maybe even ask for work experience with someone who’s already doing motorsport PR. I think it’s really important that people get a feel for what this is about before jumping into it.
Most of the time, you’re not going to be able to just find a job doing this. It’s more likely that you’re either going to have to do tonnes of work experience and then kind of funnel yourself through from an assistant or admin role, or you’re going to have to do what I do and go the self-employed route. A lot of people I know who are young and looking for work experience or a part-time job are looking in motorsport and motorsport only. That’s great if you can find a job, but most of the time they want really experienced people. My first PR job was in luxury interiors, which is so far from motorsport it’s unreal. But it gave me the skills to know what I needed to do to sell a story to journalists, and write a press release, and so on.
Some other advice, I think writing about motorsport is a good way to get into any aspect of the sport, because it throws you right in at the deep end and gets you talking to drivers and people in that sphere. Start a blog, or start pitching ideas and interviews to websites whose content you like and respect. You might need to do a little bit of work for free at the start. I feel a bit strange suggesting people work for free because I don’t think anyone should; I think everyone’s work has worth. But when you’re just starting out, it’s important to get your name and your writing out there, which is why a blog tends to be better.
At least with a blog, you’re writing for yourself for free, and you have more freedom to monetise that with sponsored posts or affiliate marketing. But if you do want to build a bit of a portfolio, look for websites that will take on guest content. I run a motoring and automotive website called turneight.co.uk, and I accept guest content. I pay a token fee for beginner writers, and obviously work up as the relationship progresses and the writer matures. I understand the need to get your work out there, but I don’t want people to write for me for free. It’s not a huge amount of money, but at least people aren’t writing for free because I don’t want that. I tell people off for not paying writers when they can afford to, it's not right. Exposure doesn't pay the bills.
I run two or three blogs that are quite well-read, and when I’m posting on them regularly I earn about six hundred pounds a month. That’s just from sponsored posts and people paying to place content on my website. A lot of people look at affiliate marketing and that kind of stuff for monetising their blogs, but I think guest posts on paying blogs and sponsored content and collaborating with brands can be a lot more valuable, if a little bit more hard work.
Jess has made several resources available to our readers. We'd like to encourage you to take advantage of these great tools. Your career will thank you!
- Join Sponsorship Bootcamp (an email course to help guide the sponsor search) here
- Read Jess's DriveTribe article about becoming a motorsport journalist here
Chris Stevens started a blog called Grand Prix Review at the age of fourteen, under the guidance of a political journalist who was a friend of the family. He cut his teeth writing race reports about Formula One, which got him noticed within the F1 Twitter crowd. This led to him being noticed by independent motorsport websites, and he began writing about F1 for Inside Line Media. While at Inside Line, he started podcasting and covering Formula E. He is now writing for Formula Spy, and podcasts on Downforce Radio, doing the Missed Apex (F1), and eRadio (Formula E) shows, and hosting Lean Angle (motorbike racing). He is also in the Autosport Academy.
Bridget Schuil: At what point in your career did you come out to friends and family, and are you officially ‘out’ in motorsport?
Chris Stevens: I sort of came out when I was seventeen to a very small group of friends, which very quickly became the whole school. That’s school for you! I was in the sixth form at the time. I didn’t come out to my family for another couple of years.
I was sat in my room one day, and it was kind of eating away at me. So I stormed downstairs – my mum was watching television – and I said, ‘Mum, I’m bisexual.’ And she said, ‘Okay,’ and I left the room. That’s about as good as it gets regarding parental reactions, as far as I’m concerned. I phoned my sister the same night to come out to her, and she came out to me as well. So it went doubly well, I think.
In motorsport, I’m not necessarily out. I think there are people who work in motorsport who are aware that I’m bi. I haven’t, like, announced it; I’m not advertising it, but I’m not hiding it either. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t define me. It doesn’t really need to have a place in my career, but at the same time – and I think this is a harsh truth of the world we still live in – I’m only twenty years old, and being very publicly out could come back to bite me. It can burn a few bridges.
I’m not saying I’ve had that direct experience in motorsport, because I haven’t and I’m very fortunate to not have come across that. Everyone’s been very lovely. But it’s not something I would want to take the risk on. So I’m not walking around shouting about it, but I’m not hiding it either.
BS So what have been your biggest struggles in your motorsport career?
CS The biggest thing has been finance. 100% finances! When I first started out, I was eighteen years old. I went to Formula E pre-season testing (for season two) about a week after I picked up my A Level results. I was working for a website that didn’t earn any money, so I couldn’t be paid for it. Everything that I did for journalism was funded by a part-time job that I have, and I’m still using that to fund my career, essentially.
It was that way for about eighteen months before I joined the Autosport Academy this January. They pay for the stuff I do for them – the work that goes in the mags, when I go to the 750 Motor Club races, which I’m the correspondent for this year. They’ll pay me for that. I’ve picked up a freelance job in PR that pays me, as well. But all the international stuff – my work for Formula Spy – I’m not being paid for.
So it has been a bit of a struggle. If I can get to the point where I can just do journalism and get paid to concentrate on motorsport, that’ll be a big moment in my career. I’m not quite there yet, but I’m getting there.
BS Have you experienced discrimination, or overheard homophobic comments and jokes? Conversely, are you ‘out’ enough for people to thank you for being visible?
CS I haven’t had so much experience of that in motorsport, and I’ve certainly never had any online hate. I’m really grateful for that, because there are a lot of people who do get that, and it’s really unfortunate. I’ve had some discrimination just in general, around town, but nothing overly dramatic. I don’t want to make it seem like I’ve got it bad, because really it’s been an odd comment here and there, which doesn’t upset me at all.
When Danny Watts came out, I did write a big thing about it on my Facebook and Twitter, because obviously there were people who didn’t quite see the point in him coming out, why the story was picked up by Autosport in the first place. I wrote a big thing about it – ‘Well, here’s the reason; that’s why he’s done it!’ – and I got a lot of positivity off of that. But in general day-to-day interactions, I’m not enough of a public LGBT+ figure to receive either good or bad comments from the wider community.
BS I’m glad you haven’t experienced the hate, but the gratitude stories I’ve heard have been really heart-warming. I hope as your career progresses you get to experience some of the community’s positive intention.
CS I hope so as well! I’d love to…even if I can influence one person, to help them achieve their goals, that’d be great. I’d like to think I’m not just being an influence to LGBT+ people. I hope I’m being an influence to other young people, sort of fifteen, sixteen years old, who think they can’t get into motorsport journalism because everyone in the Formula 1 paddock is forty or fifty years old. I mean, I’ve done that. I was nineteen when I first went to Barcelona for pre-season testing, and by far the youngest person there. So I hope I’m not just being an influence in one way, but in lots of different aspects. I hope that I can inspire people to think that they can achieve more.
BS So what do you say to people who said that Danny’s coming out story wasn’t news?
CS I think people who said it wasn’t news were looking at it from a very literal point of view. They’re saying, ‘What does it matter? It doesn’t make any difference to his driving,’ which is absolutely 100% correct. They’re not wrong on that.
But the reason it’s so important for LGBT+ people to get media exposure is for young people who are too afraid to be who they are. And this is something that Danny said – he worked in the high adrenaline, testosterone-filled, high octane world of motorsport. It is about as stereotypically masculine as it gets. This is a community that, really, is still very closed off to women. Advances are being made in that regard, but ninety-eight percent of people visible in motorsport are still men. I think even fewer people are openly LGBT+.
So if you’re a young queer person who wants a career in motorsport, there’s your new hero, your new icon. It’s a sign that there’s a path, that they can do this thing. It’s a sign that they’re safe and can be who they are no matter what they want to do as a career.
BS Would you still say that even in the context of some people thinking that Danny was trending because he’d had a fatal accident?
CS I think it says a lot more about the people reading it than it does about the people publishing it. That’s quite a leap to make, isn’t it? ‘Oh, someone’s trending; they must have died.’ That is quite the leap.
I know Danny isn’t someone who gets regular media coverage. LMP2 isn’t the most talked-about category, especially by the big generalist publications like Autosport. Most coverage focuses on the bigger picture. Not many people read about LMP2.
BS (Speaking as a long-standing Bruno Senna fan…) Mainstream coverage of WEC pretty much only focuses on the sharp end of LMP1.
CS Exactly. Thing is, the statistics speak for themselves, you know. Those guys go faster, so they get more coverage. LMP2 isn’t regularly in the news, but it is quite a leap to see someone’s name trending and assume the worst.
BS Especially since Twitter now puts those handy little subtitles under the trends these days...
CS Yeah, exactly. There's no reason to jump to conclusions and overreact.
BS There was an incident recently where a motorsport-LGBT+ tie-in was planned for an event, but the motorsport organisers postponed it because they were concerned that people would show up in assless chaps like they do at Pride parades. Do you think that’s an unfounded worry and a bit oppressive, or do we as the LGBT+ community need to shape up a bit?
CS I don’t think we need to shape up at all, so long as people aren’t being completely inappropriate at what is a family event. You know, Pride is…is…is Pride. It’s about being who you are and expressing yourself in the most wonderful and dynamic ways and I absolutely love that. But you wouldn’t go to a family event dressed in your Pride clothes, because that’s just wildly inappropriate. It’s got nothing to do with people being queer; it’s down to the way they dress as humans. Assless chaps are an inappropriate thing to be wearing.
That said, I do think that the viewpoint expressed by those event organisers is based on a media-created, stereotypical image of LGBT+ people. I think motorsport people should have the faith that LGBT+ people would not turn up in that kind of dress.
BS When Danny came out, there was talk about starting an official FIA organisation – in the same vein as initiatives like Arsenal FC’s Gay Gooners fan club – to represent LGBT+ interests in motorsport. Given the political orientation of motorsport governing bodies and their silence on his coming out, do you think it would be better to have an official initiative – that will probably be run by straight people – or a group organically formed and run by queer people?
CS I don’t want an LGBT+ fan group. That’s just separating us from the herd. I can see the benefit of an official organisation, because they can represent interests at a policy level. I’m maybe sceptical. I’m not sure what such an entity can bring to the table if they’re all straight.
Even just a space where LGBT+ people can come together and get things off their chest that have been bugging them, or talk about any experiences that they’ve had, then I think that’s a good thing. But in terms of the bigger picture, I don’t think such an organisation would have a massive impact in the way the world works.
BS It would have little impact even if it was run by queer people?
CS It would definitely help. But it depends what the LGBT+ community wants out of motorsport. I can’t speak for all LGBT+ people, of course, but if your average LGBT+ fan just wants to go to an event and enjoy it, then there’s nothing stopping them. I’ve never come across any issues with gay-bashing fans. I can definitely see the appeal in getting queer people together as a support system to bring up issues. But other than simply raising awareness of LGBT+ people in motorsport and making it less of an ‘odd’ scenario, I don’t think we have too many issues, to be honest.
BS What do you think motorsport entities – teams, series organisers, governing bodies – can do to be more supportive of the LGBT+ community?
CS Well, what was really great to see in the V8 supercars was there was the rainbow car, wasn’t there? it was great to see? I think more stuff like that. Find some LGBT+ sponsors – companies owned and run by queer people, brands that are popular in the LGBT+ community like Netflix, brands that have been vocally supportive of LGBT+ issues like P&G and Adidas. Things we can identify with. I think that’s very important.
What I don’t want to see is an LGBT+ dedicated fan group, because I think that’s separating people unnecessarily. I want to be able to talk to any motorsport fan. I don’t feel like they need to be an LGBT+ fan.
Make LGBT+ people feel safe, comfortable, and welcome – not making homophobic jokes and slurs at events or on social media, use queer-friendly branding and sponsorship – and they’ll find their way into motorsport on their own. You know, it needs to become less of a taboo. I think the media has a big part in that as well. I’m not just talking about in motorsport, things like Danny Watts getting news coverage for coming out. I’m talking about the media in general as well, because the images of LGBT+ people that are shown on television and movies at the moment…it’s getting better, but it’s not brilliant.
(I had a rant about Netflix cancelling Sense8 here, since that’s the most accurate and positive portrayal of queer and trans characters I’ve seen on TV thus far. Chris has never watched Sense8, and is clearly missing out on a key piece of LGBT+ pop culture. Netflix need to renew Sense8. Write to Netflix and tell them this, if you care about positive portrayals of LGBT+ characters in the media.)
BS What can individuals – fans, people who work in motorsport – do to be more supportive of LGBT+ community in motorsport?
CS I think just be kind people. There’s not really a lot to making LGBT+ people feel comfortable in the world we live in, but it makes such a massive difference when people make the effort. Doesn’t it? I know that homophobic language can be thrown around very casually. If people would nip that in the bud, it’d be a really great start. And just not see our being queer as such a big deal.
In terms of the big picture, we have a lot of progress still to make, but for the individual, my sexuality does not define me. People shouldn’t define me by it either. But in general, just keep being great, awesome, amazing people to all of your friends and the people you meet, regardless of whether they’re LGBT+ or not.
Evan Darling always loved motorsport, but came to racing as a career by accident. After moving out of his parents’ house when he came out (he has since reconciled with them), he became an auto mechanic to support himself. Soon after he started working as a mechanic, he built a club racing car – a Datsun 240Z – and raced it on and off in the nineties. He discovered he was actually good at racing, and got more serious as a result of doing well. He started winning more and more races, until he won a championship, and decided to race professionally.
He started racing in the GrandAm and World Challenge series in 2007, and got good results. He also publicly came out in 2007 in an attempt to raise awareness and support for the Trevor Project, an LGBT+ focussed anti-bullying campaign, among other queer philanthropic causes. The combination of being a polarising figure in a traditionally conservative sport, and the crash of the US economy in 2008 shrank his sponsorship pool. This led him to instructing as a means of earning a living while trying to raise enough sponsorship to continue racing professionally.
Bridget Schuil: What were your biggest struggles in motorsport before publicly coming out?
Evan Darling: Before coming out, my struggles were that pretty much everyone who wasn’t born into a giant pile of money has a hard time racing. Finding money to support my addiction without having the resources to do it on a level that I really wanted to was probably the biggest. I mean, I had a partner all the way through the nineties, when I got into this sport. He would come to races with me, and I never really hid it, but I never really talked about it. I never actually came out, but all the people who interacted with me knew the person I was with was my life partner. In the racing world, it really didn’t seem to be much of an issue.
When I went pro, it was a different story. Even today, as a peer or an instructor or paid driver at a club event, I get scrutinised a lot harder by other people. I think that’s because I’ve kind of earned my way up to a certain point, and so people get jealous. Petty people are really stupid to discriminate because someone’s earned something.
BS What have been your biggest struggles since coming out?
ED Acquiring and maintaining enough sponsorship to compete on the pro level.
And my other biggest struggle is what we’re doing right now – technology! (We were interviewing via Skype.) You know, communicating and technology. It’s not using the devices, the operating of all these new apps and programs that I struggle with; it’s being able to keep up with them all. There’s just so many forms of communication. It’s not just email any more. It’s different messaging, different ways to share data. It’s really getting kind of mind-boggling for me. I’m trying to keep up with it and stay with the times and utilise all these channels to get sponsorship, but it’s really difficult.
BS So do you get a lot of online hate?
ED I have gotten quite a bit of it. It comes and goes. Whenever I try to do a publicity campaign, or I try to raise funds and put it on my Facebook fan page, I get inundated with really, really awful small-minded comments. I try to delete it, and put a positive spin on everything.
Like, this past week, I was pretty much off the grid because I was doing the AIDS/Life Cycle ride. It’s seven days; we went five hundred and forty-five miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and raised fifteen million dollars. It was a real positive, fun thing. We stayed in these little camp grounds. It’s pretty amazing. If you look at my Facebook feed, you can see pictures. My business partner Brian Darling – no relation, other than a common surname – and I raised a significant amount of money for the cause, and I went and rode and did the whole event. It was a pretty life-changing experience.
BS So tell us a bit more about Life Cycle.
ED This is the twenty-fourth year Life Cycle has been running. It started out as a little event to raise funds and awareness for AIDS and HIV. Now, it’s the biggest annual fundraising event – I’m pretty sure it’s the biggest – for HIV/AIDS in the world. It happens every year. It supports the San Fransisco and Los Angeles LGBT Centres. It helps people within the community get the medications and healthcare they need. Especially in today’s times in this country, people with HIV and AIDS are on edge because of the things that are happening with health insurance.
I mean, there were a lot of people that were displaced from their families and homes; they don’t have anywhere to turn; they weren’t able to get the education they may have wanted to get, or pursue the potential they could have achieved. They can’t afford to have all this wonderful health insurance that costs eight hundred or a thousand dollars a month. If you’re infected or have a terminal illness or a pre-existing condition, your insurance can be two or three thousand dollars a month, which is simply unaffordable for someone who’s just trying to survive. It’s kind of a tough deal.
This whole ride brings awareness and much-needed money to those causes. And it is an absolute tonne of fun. I mean, there’s themes, everybody’s enthusiastic, and it’s three thousand people. There’s six hundred and fifty roadies – people who support the whole circus that goes from town to town – while we get on our bikes and ride anywhere from sixty-five to a hundred and ten miles a day. It’s pretty epic. So my back hurts, and my legs hurt right now. I have a pretty stiff racing bike, and it really took its toll on me. I just finished a little nap, and I’m going to go sleep like a baby tonight!
BS Do young queer kids contact you to express gratitude for your being out and visible?
ED Oh, I’ve got a lot of wonderful friends on Facebook – on my fan page and my personal page – and I get people thanking me all the time. Strangely, I get a lot of straight people coming up to me. I’ve had a few incredible experiences where I was at a race and someone came up to me and actually thanked me for coming out. I’ve looked at them and thought, ‘You’re a sixty-something year-old straight guy, what’s the deal here?’ Then I find out that their kid had come out, and they’re trying to find common ground to talk. The father is a racing enthusiast – and the kid may have no interest in race cars – but at least now he’s got something he can talk to his kid about. Like, ‘Oh, there’s a gay racer.’
My original charity that I was trying to help was called the Trevor Project. It’s a teen LGBT+ suicide prevention website and resource. It’s very important. You talk about statistics, and how many kids out there are committing suicide. It happens more often than people really want to understand. You really can’t count how many of these kids are committing suicide because they are LGBT+. They can’t help it, and they can’t come to terms with it, so they make this terrible thing happen, and we lose them. And that’s one more life we could have somehow saved, just through being happy, comfortable, and ourselves. My goal has always been to say who you love should not determine who you can and cannot be. That’s my motto, and it encapsulates everything I represent.
BS Have you used being out and queer as a USP to differentiate yourself in your sponsorship search, and has it helped or hindered your career, or made no difference?
ED On the sponsorship side, I think it’s hindered, for the most part, because it shrunk my base. The way I see it now in retrospect, I can understand. Even if it’s a really LGBT-friendly company already in sponsoring race cars, they’re going to be very reluctant to sponsor a gay person, because they’re just going to lose market share from the existing conservative fans. Yes, they’d gain fans for showing support, but it’s a risky thing to do for a very large corporation.
Where I thought it would help me – and I’m still hoping it will – is that I can find a company that has the foresight to do something like this that isn’t already a racing sponsor. If they want to get into this industry, they’re not going to lose anyone; they’re going to gain people for their support. So I’m trying to target the fashion and jewellery industry, and a few others that you don’t really see on the sides of race cars. So I’m trying to push in that direction and see where that goes. Hopefully someone’s brave enough to slap their brand on me, and let me wave the flag for them, so to speak.
BS What would you say to people who said that Danny Watts’ coming out was ‘not news’?
ED Well, it is news. A lot of people fault a lot of sportspeople for coming out after the fact – when people retire, and then they come out – and that happens a lot in this country.
BS That was a theme in the data I collected on the response to Danny’s coming out.
ED Well, yeah, it’s true, and it’s what’s on people’s minds, so it does come to the front as one of the comments that people come up with. You’ve got to look at it from his perspective as well. He was married, and he came out later in life, and he had his realisations later in life. So he was already embedded in his career. Coming out is pretty profound. It could end his marriage and his career, all in one shot. So I’m sure he had to keep it pretty quiet, or risk damaging everything he’s all about.
From my perspective, I came out at the beginning of my professional career, hoping that it could carry me a little bit. There are a lot of football, baseball, and basketball players who come out, but they generally come out at the end of their careers – in the twilight of their careers or after they’ve already retired. So I’m trying to blaze a new path, and give people something to watch, so they can say ‘Hey look, the gay guy’s on TV racing a car! Let’s see what he does.’ You know, even if it’s just that, I don’t care. If it gets people to turn the TV on and watch, for the series – GrandAm and World Challenge and IMSA, all the series that I really strive to be part of – I think they would benefit from that. Even if people aren’t understanding what LGBT+ people are, I think this would give me a chance to show people that we’re just like everyone else. I can win a race. It doesn’t matter that I am who I am.
BS There was an incident recently where a planned LGBT+/motorsport event tie-in was postponed because the motorsport group organising the event were concerned that people would show up in clothes that were inappropriate for a family atmosphere. Do you think that the fear of men showing up in assless chaps is an unfair stereotype of LGBT+ people, or do we need to do something different in our public image?
ED I think there really is a middle-ground balance for all that. I mean, yeah, if you go to a Pride parade, it can get a little racy. Especially in some of the bigger cities, it can get a little out of control. Just like any community, there’s a side to it that people see, and there’s a side to it that people judge. If someone goes to a queer sporting event – like a gay run, or the Life Cycle – there’s going to be some campy style in there. That’s perfectly fine; it’s personal expression. We’re human; we need to do that.
At Pride events, it’s kind of expected that people dress in crazy, outlandish outfits. That’s part of our culture, really, and that’s something that needs to be accepted. If you don’t like it, then don’t go to it. But I don’t think a big ol’ guy in assless chaps should be sticking his rear end in a nine year-old girl’s face at the side of the road during a parade. You know, don’t bring your child to a Pride parade, but don’t bring your assless chaps to a St Patrick’s Day parade. That’s sort of the balance that needs to be found. Everybody needs to respect each other, and then we can all get along. If we don’t respect each other, we won’t get along.
Just look at the US. It’s beginning to be a disaster in some areas. It’s crazy. It’s more divided than ever. I’m hoping something happens, something changes. So that’s my perspective on that. That’s the ‘assless chaps’ speech.
BS Other sports have official LGBT+ organisations – for example, Arsenal FC’s Gay Gooners Fan Club. When Danny came out, there was talk of starting an official FIA organisation. Given the political orientation of motorsport governing bodies, do you think it would be better to have an organically-formed queer-led organisation, or an official initiative run by well-meaning but probably straight people?
ED I think there should be no difference between straight and gay, as far as the racing organisations are concerned. We have some ‘racing for diversity’ programs and stuff here, but I think within big organisations like the FIA, if we had LGBT+ organisations formed through those, the initiatives would probably fizzle out, because it needs to be run by someone that puts it together as an LGBT+ person, or a fan, or a person who understands the problems. If, say a person from the racing community that comes out and they go to the FIA or whoever, and they want to start as part of the FIA, that would be a great thing. I think that would work.
But just a bunch of straight people saying, ‘Okay, we’re going to have a diversity program. It’ll work. We’ll just say that everyone’s accepted and everybody can join up here,’ I think that would just fizzle out and disappear. That would de-emphasise who we really are. I think a fan-led thing is more acceptable, and having an equal receptacle in the FIA to accept these groups and organisations as any organisation is where it needs to be. You need people on both sides.
BS What can motorsport entities – teams, series, and governing bodies – do to be more supportive of the LGBT+ community?
ED They can give me a drive! (Laughs.) The organisations themselves…I think maybe get a little bit more gender equal, a little less with the grid girls and trophy girls. I don’t know if you follow cycling at all, but the European and Australian circuits are quite funny because they have pro racing for women and men. There’s hundreds of years of heritage on this. So the pro guys come in, and they always have really pretty trophy girls kissing the winner on both cheeks at the same time. And there’s some really funny characters who’ve poked fun at the whole tradition and got himself in quite a pickle a few times.
But if you look at how it’s been handled there, you can see how it’s weird. They tried to have paddock boys for the women’s race, and had guys wearing these little speedos, trying to kiss the girls, and the women are like ‘Why is this strange man trying to kiss me?’ type thing. It was really awkward, and it’s assuming that everyone is straight and want random people of the opposite gender to kiss them. I suppose if we wanted to make it really awkward, we could put a guy on one side and a girl on the other and see what happens. It would be really awkward on TV, and kind of highlight how weird the tradition is. That stuff needs to go away.
In advertising, you’re always going to have the hot guys and the pretty girls and stuff, because it sells. I fully understand that, but in celebration and official business, I think it should probably get put in a drawer and closed and left there. (Laughs.)
BS What can individual straight fans and motorsport workers do to show their support for the LGBT+ community?
ED They can support their local gay racer, or LGBT+ person that’s in racing in some form. You might not know who they are, so welcome everyone to the motorsport community with open arms. I mean, in this country, it really kinda starts on the racial side. We have a lot of racial issues in this country. There’s a line, and we’re way in the back. The white guy hates the black guy, and then they finally accept the black guy, and the black guy and the white guy hate the gay guy.
How does this all work? How can we get everyone together? Maybe we can start a hashtag or something that gets everyone together, for each person to individually and publicly commit to accepting people for who they are, and not who they love. That would be the first great step, to have general people say ‘It doesn’t matter to me. We love you regardless. We like to watch racing, not watching a drama unfold from your personal life.’
I just want to be a race car driver. That’s where I’m happy. I get in the car; I strap in; I race. I do well, and that’s what makes me happy. When you’re racing in a car, going around a track, everything is covered. You don’t know who’s in that car. it could be a three-headed alien being, operating the car from outer space. You don’t know. It doesn’t matter who you are; you’re just racing a car.
That’s the beauty of motorsport is it doesn’t matter who you are if you can drive. If you’re good at wheeling a car, you’re good at wheeling a car. That’s what counts. Once the helmet goes on, it doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight; you’re a racer. If people understand that – that we’re here for the sport, and we’re here for the fans. If our personal life becomes an interesting part of that, that’s fine too. If people do a search and look up their favourite driver or rider or whatever, and follow us. If they’re not interested in that and they don’t want to see it, they don’t have to look at it. I just want to be accepted as a driver
Firstly, thank you for not blocking our account the last time we criticised you. I know you don’t like being told that people disagree with you. It was big of you to not block us, so thank you.
I saw your article about equality a few weeks ago, and I’d like to say well done for having the courage to write about it, knowing people would disagree. It was a solid first attempt at writing about feminism, and I want to encourage you to think and write more about this. Equality is becoming a theme in society broadly, as well as in racing specifically, and the people who jump on board the train will go further than those who don’t.
In addition to your piece, I also saw the work of women who picked holed in your argument. They could have been more gentle, yes. It is because I was aiming for kindness of tone that this letter to you took several weeks; my initial drafts were less polite.
We (people who have read up about feminism prior to becoming internet-famous) have an advantage over you in that we were introduced to feminism and learned our praxis while we had relative obscurity to hide behind as we matured. We had the benefit of friends who gently called us in when we were doing things that hurt people. You don’t have the joint advantages of internet obscurity and a loving, feminist squad to recommend reading while you think about equality.
That said, there is a certain thrill to trying out new things when the world is actually watching. It can be very rewarding to write about something new and find a group of people who understand and appreciate what you’re talking about. I have found that by running this blog, even though I initially had misgivings about standing up and bearing the brunt of the trolls on behalf of women in motorsport who don’t have the freedom of opinion that a freelance writing career affords.
In this article, when I say ‘sexist,’ I don’t mean ‘terrible person.’ We live in a society that is set up to advantage abled, heterosexual, white men; we’re all a little bit sexist (and racist, homophobic, ableist, etc), because our parents raised us with their beliefs, which were inherently sexist (racist, homophobic, ableist, etc). I mean no offense. If I were a doctor and you came to me with a broken leg, you would object if I called it something other than a broken leg. Discrimination is a sickness, and calling it by its name and talking about its structure helps to undo some of the havoc it’s wreaking.
So, with love, I’d like to introduce you to a few concepts to keep in mind as you write about women in the future. It’s not a minefield if you know where the path is. So, yes, I will call you sexist in this article, but it’s said in the full knowledge that you are no more sexist than the average for your demographic, which happens to be more sexist than younger demographics who have read the literature on equality. Herewith some signposts pointing you to the path.
No Sexism In Motorsport
This is a logical fallacy. All of society is sexist. As a microcosm of society, motorsport is sexist too. Additionally, very few power positions in motorsport are held by women, so we are disadvantaged by not having decision-makers at the table. Thus, we as motorsport are more sexist than the societal average, and this is one of the factors contributing to the sport’s decline in popularity among what Paul Mason described as ‘the ultra-liberal, hyper-connected youth.’
Going back to the broken leg analogy, if I as the doctor told you to ‘walk it off’ because it was nothing, you would sue me for malpractice. And yet that’s essentially what we’re doing when we use language that diminishes very real problems in people’s lives. By denying that there is a problem, we’re missing a huge and valuable data set that could inform how to change it. Motorsport thrives on new data; let’s not miss huge chunks because we’re scared of what we’ll find. We already know it’s not a great situation, but we can use where we are now as a baseline to measure progress and the impact of new policies.
Men have an advantage in our society, or, more’s the point, women are at a disadvantage. Basically, policy-makers make decisions to benefit enough people rather than all people. This is a largely implicit bias. For example, we all think a male engineer is normal, and see a woman engineer as an outlier and therefore treat her differently. The blindness to this bias is what angers people when men write about women and try to slant it as though women have disadvantaged themselves instead of their being affected by a society-wide system of oppression.
The same privilege/disadvantage scale exists in areas that have nothing to do with biological sex. It exists on a racial spectrum (white people on average get more chances and fewer hurdles than non-white people), on a sexuality spectrum (straight is seen as ‘normal’ and in many places people are punished with varying degrees of violence – ranging from sideways looks and snide remarks to fatal beatings – for being anything other than straight), on a gender spectrum (cisgender* men are privileged over cisgender women, who are in turn privileged over agender, genderqueer, and transgender people), on an ability spectrum (abled people are advantaged over people with disabilities), on a wealth spectrum (rich people are advantaged over poor people). And the list goes on.
Acknowledging that you have privilege does not diminish it. If, hypothetically, you and I were to go on Sky F1 together and give opinions, most of the audience would prefer your opinion by default because of your being male. Even if we were talking about feminism to Sky, and I alerted the audience to your male privilege and their implicit bias, the majority would still prefer your opinion because men are seen as more trustworthy.
You can, however, leverage your privilege. Using your social status as a white, abled, heterosexual, cisgender man, you can write about the more controversial topics, and be taken seriously. When you write about women, people see you as trying to do something; when I write about women, I get called an ugly/fat/angry lesbian.
Dare To Be Different
You say in your piece that Susie Wolff didn’t set out to change attitudes, but to introduce young girls to the sport. What she’s doing is valuable; I’m not decrying her contribution to the cause. But attitudes do need to be changed.
You quoted Ruth Bunscombe as saying, ‘It’s so important that we fight the archaic stereotype that women and motor sport “don’t go together” to prevent misinformation and dogma prescribing a subset of career choices for girls.’ That statement contradicts your assertion that attitudes don’t need changing. What Bunscombe calls ‘misinformation and dogma’ runs deep in our society.
When Tatiana Calderon’s Sauber test drive was announced, the English press almost all called her ‘woman driver/girl racer Tatiana Calderon’ in their headlines and lead paragraphs. These constant reminders of her gender from the press are a form of discrimination, when set against the background of the comments from Bernie Ecclestone and a multitude of other prominent and ‘reputable’ men about how sub-standard women drivers are. (For contrast, the South American press called her ‘la piloto colombiana,’ or ‘the Columbian racer,’ which is a less discriminatory title.) Calderon isn’t a woman driver; Calderon is a racer, and should be written about as simply that.
F1 and the Karting Drop-Out Rate
You mention that girls drop out of karting at an alarming rate. Do you know why? From the data set I’ve been collecting over the past two years, there are several reasons for this. All of them are sexist in some way, which I will explain in the paragraphs below.
Money is the primary reason girls drop out of racing. Because the dominant narrative is that women can’t drive, are sub-standard athletes, etc., sponsors are reticent to fund girl racers. The ones who are funded are generally the ones who adhere to society’s feminine norms – see Danica Patrick – rather than the ones who deviate in personal style – see Simona De Silvestro and Bia Figuereido, among a legion of others who are ‘sporty girls’ rather than ‘girly girls’ and struggle to leverage brands market-segmented towards women. This is sexist because it only allows one narrative of women. They must be pretty, compliant, and not rock the boat, or they don’t get funding.
Another primary reason women drop out is because of sexist treatment. They will never say as much to you, a man who will quote them in print and give them a reputation as a complainer. They will tell me about their sexist treatment, on condition I don’t print their comments. This is how I know it exists, but it is still unspoken because they don’t want to compromise their careers by being a complainer. If you’ve ever spoken to an engineer about Pascal Wehrlein (who, it should be noted, has less white privilege than you and I), you’ll know that being called a complainer isn’t a desirable characteristic in a driver. It is therefore rare for a woman to speak up about the sexism in motorsport.
What you call ‘getting asked out a lot’ often takes the form of sexual harassment. Women don’t want to be asked out while they work. Asking them out while they work is assuming that they are sexually available, which is sexist.
This ‘getting asked out a lot’ that you speak of happening to women in motorsport sometimes escalates to rape. Again, we rarely hear about these cases. Research shows that only about 10% of rapes and sexual assaults are reported to the police. As you read the Elena Myers article I linked to, notice how it is the victim of the crime whose life is negatively affected by symptoms of PTSD as a result of the incident, while the rapist is out on bail with no consequences other than a civil suit. That is normal for rape cases. The man is trusted; the woman is dismissed, minimised, victim-blamed, and in some countries even punished with lashes for reporting a violation of her bodily autonomy.
There are other sexist things in motorsport that contribute towards the problem of girls leaving the sport. (Male) F1 drivers make comments about how women can’t race. Circuit designers make women’s bathrooms fewer and further between than men’s bathrooms, forcing women to run to the other end of the paddock for a pre-race wee. People discourage girls from racing because it’s ‘unladylike’ or ‘unfeminine’ and ‘boys don’t like competitive girls’ and other blatantly sexist rubbish, which they eventually buy into if it’s repeated enough. Parents publicly shame their sons for losing to girls at karting, which makes the boys bully the girls.
This bullying of girls on-track extends right through the feeder series to what Pippa Mann called ‘the pit-wall swipe,’ a colloquialism to describe male drivers closing off an overtake by pushing the female driver into the nearest wall, which mostly goes unpunished by the stewards because it’s ‘a racing incident.’ Seriously, watch Tatiana Calderon’s races; note how many times the commentator says, ‘[Other driver] has crashed Calderon out,’ compared to how many times the commentator says, ‘Calderon crashed herself out.’ I studied her performance last season (after a male journalist dismissed Calderon as ‘another South American crasher’), and the vast majority of incidents weren’t her fault.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of sexist issues to tackle in motorsport. There are many more, but time and space limit. That said, these are issues you are well-positioned to write about in terms of your sway within the community. If you don’t understand something I’ve said and would like to ask questions, mention or DM @mtrsprtsstrhd on Twitter, or inbox the Motorsport Sisterhood Facebook page. If you would like to read some books about feminism that were written from a male perspective before asking questions, Guyland by Michael Kimmel and The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry are both stimulating and thoughtful reads. If you would like a proof-read on an article about women to make sure you don’t earn the ire of every feminist on the internet, inbox the socials for our rates, turn-around times, and submission protocols.
* Cisgender: the gender assigned a baby at birth matches the gender they identify with as an adult; not transgender or another gender identity minority. (Please do NOT refer to cisgender people as ‘normal’ because trans, agender, and genderqueer identities exist as a natural part of the gender spectrum – and have done for millennia, according to historical and archaeological evidence – and therefore implying they are ‘not normal’ is viewed as pejorative.)
Matthys Strydom discovered motorsport as a teenager. In 1997, he saw an advert for a racing school in his local motorsport magazine, which cost a month’s salary, but the desire to race was so strong he raised the money to do the event. As it turns out, the man running the school – Nino Venturi, the then-chairman of Formula Ford in South Africa – was a family friend, and he encouraged Matthys to buy a car and go racing. Venturi found a 1978 Hawk DL19 race car for sale in Cape Town – about 1500km from Where Matthys lived in Pretoria – because the owner was emigrating, which Matthys bought on Venturi’s recommendation.
He spent ‘97 practising as often as he could, and started racing in ’98, qualifying last at the first round in Kyalami, and crashed out from tiredness on the third lap. Spurred on by the challenge, he started a fitness regime, and pursued the sport competitively. In 2001, his friend wrote the car off in the wall, prompting him to buy a new car. By 2004, he was qualifying on pole and winning most races, taking his first championship. The next year, he was offered a drive in the Z-Tec series, but the car was lacking upgrades, leading to lacklustre on-track performances.
At the end of 2005 he reverted to Formula Ford, where he took the ’06 and ’07 titles. The ’08 season brought budget problems, so he didn’t race a full season. After finding sponsorship for the last two races, he finished fourth in the championship. 2009 brought the toughest and sweetest driver’s title, which he won on the strength of the point awarded for fastest lap. In 2010, he moved to Formula GTI, using a friend’s car, and led the championship for half a season until reliability issues struck and relegated him to second in the standings. He returned to Formula Ford for 2011, but the formula had changed, and he continued to race behind the newer cars until 2015. He still does occasional fun races in his Formula Ford car.
Bridget Schuil: At what point in your racing career did you come out?
Matthys Strydom: I came out to close family and friends in 2001. Obviously, when I came out to my parents, there was a few acceptance issues and so on. For the first two months after that, it was a bit tense. I was still living with my parents, and I was very anxious that they might kick me out of the house. I think that’s a common fear for a lot of LGBT+ people when they come out, especially back then. Maybe today it’s a little bit easier, depending on your region and demographics. Obviously, in Russia you don’t talk about it. After that two months, they started warming up to the idea, and obviously did a lot of research. To a certain degree, they’ve been very, very supportive.
Towards the end of 2003, I got into a very stable relationship with a guy my parents really liked, and that lasted for three years. He attended basically all the races. It was kind of an unspoken thing at the race track. People saw us together, sometimes hugging and stuff like that, and maybe a quick kiss here and there. Other racers saw that, but I never got the feeling that they didn’t accept it. It was kind of plain sailing, if I can put it that way.
I think at the time I was very lucky to be one of the front runners on the track. I think that kind of put me in a position where they accepted that fact a little bit more easily. I must say that I did have this fear in the beginning, when I realised I was gay and this was how it was going to be, that I would be targeted on the track, where they deliberately crash into me or whatever the case may be. So that was a fear that I had. I don’t know if I was just lucky, or if they really just accepted it for what it was, but that never happened. Obviously, I can only speculate on whether they actually respected me as a fellow competitor, or was I just kind of lucky that they just accepted that I’m gay and it did not bother them. But yeah, it was kind of an easy ride, really.
BS A lot of straight guys I know are willing to maintain a sort of armed truce with gay guys, as long as the gay men don’t treat them the way they treat women. Obviously, if you were in a relationship already, your being gay is less threatening to their heteronormative masculinity than if you were single and trying to hit on them. Do you think that was part of the plain sailing?
MS Very possibly. Obviously, I didn’t deliberately hit on anybody. Perv, yes; I perved on some of the guys driving, but other than that, I kept my distance from the other guys. I’m not really a touchy-feely person; I like my space. So I didn’t try initiate anything with any of my competitors.
I couldn’t have raced without my dad. My dad was – and still is – my mechanic. He prepares the car, and goes to all the races, and he does all the dirty work and all of that. I think it was also a case of my not wanting to embarrass him at the race track. I just kept my cool and was a normal guy racing. I didn’t mix my two worlds too much, except when my boyfriend went to races and stuff. We still wouldn’t rub it in people’s faces. We respected that maybe people weren’t too open-minded about it, so we kind of kept it to a minimum. Obviously, there were times where I won a race or something, and I was in a festive mood, and had a quick kiss and a hug or whatever. But we tried to keep it discrete.
BS In terms of the things you feared becoming struggles, being out as gay didn’t affect your career at all?
MS No, not at all. From a gay perspective, I don’t think I struggled at all.
The real struggle in my career was really finding sponsors, and not because I was gay, just because it’s a difficult economic scenario, especially here in South Africa. If you don’t know somebody, or have a connection to a company somewhere, it’s extremely difficult to get sponsorship. You don’t just rock up at a company’s door and ask for sponsorship, and think you’re going to walk out with a cheque. It just doesn’t happen that way.
So from that perspective, no, I can’t really say that being gay had any negative effects for me. My real struggle was purely budget.
If I may add on that, another thing here in South Africa, and I think it’s a common thing in racing worldwide, the series organisers want more cars on the grid. Sometimes you get to a race and there’s between six and ten cars entered. To have good racing, you want twenty or thirty cars. From that perspective, I don’t think they really care about somebody being gay or not. As long as there’s a car on the grid, representing that formula, the series organisers are happy.
BS In terms of the response from fans and younger drivers, has anyone approached you to say thank you for being visible, or that you’ve inspired them to go into racing because it’s less homophobic than they thought? Alternatively, did you get any hate from anyone?
MS Obviously, I’ve had a couple of friends supporting me at the races. I had to work quite hard to get them there, because they were not very keen on cars or motorsport at all. They didn’t even really know how to drive properly. I rallied all my friends to come to the races, and support me.
In terms of haters, I really haven’t experienced any hate from anybody, gay or straight, in the motorsport arena. A lot of my friends at the time were very camp and readably gay. You could spot them a mile away. And nobody said anything, nobody looked at us funny. It was really kind of a very easygoing scenario.
If I think back about it, gayness was only legalised in 1996 in South Africa. I think it was 1996. (The ANC-sponsored post-Apartheid constitution outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation, among other identities and was passed in May 1996. Sodomy laws [those preventing sex between two men or the ‘commission of an unnatural sexual act’] were ruled unconstitutional in 1998. Lesbian sex was neither recognised nor legislated against under the Apartheid regime. Same-sex marriage was legalised in November 2006 – Ed) By the time I was starting to go up the ranks and my openly gay friends were coming to the track, it was 2001, only a few years after legalisation. We all know that you don’t change people’s perceptions within that short a time, so I was very surprised. Obviously there was that little bit in the back of my mind that thought it could go down an ugly road. I don’t know if we were just lucky, or if the guys really just didn’t mind. But we really encountered no hate speech or haters or anything like that. If I think back about it, it was really great.
I haven’t knowingly encountered any other gay racers on the South African scene. Maybe I have and they’re still in the closet; I don’t know. But I don’t really know if I was a role model for them. I know I inspired one racing career, a guy who watched me race when he was still in school and I was at the top of my game, but he’s straight. He actually ended up buying one of my old cars, and he started racing, and we became friends. Him and his then-girlfriend – they’re now married with a kid – came to races, and we’re still friends. I must say it was quite an honour to know that I’ve inspired somebody to actually go and start racing.
BS you used your sexual orientation as a USP or personal brand differentiator when approaching sponsors?
MS One of my sponsors – he’s a Jewish businessman about my dad’s age – has the trademark for Guess and SissyBoy jeans here in South Africa. He’s had a fair amount of contact with the LGBT+ community, being in fashion, and he knew I was gay when he sponsored me. I knew he knew. He never made mean comments, but instead of talking about me getting girlfriends, he would talk about guys. He sponsored me for a number of years. So it was not really a USP, but I was honest with him.
Being gay can be kind of a no-no for sponsorship, depending on where you go. I was probably just lucky, getting in touch with the right people at the right time. The last couple of years that I was sponsored was Sage, who I still work for. I started working there, and when they found out I raced they suggested we could look at a sponsorship package. Since Sage has a very diverse hiring policy, I could be out at work with no problems.
BS What do you say to the people who tweeted that Danny Watts coming out announcement was ‘not news’?
MS Well, if it wasn’t news to them, then obviously they knew about it. That’s my take on it. Depending on who they are, obviously, how did they know he was gay?
BS They were people who were obviously identified as motorsporty people from their Twitter profiles, who may have seen the announcement trending on the topics list and thought he’d had a fatal accident.
MS Obviously, there’s a flip-side of the coin. Maybe there’s a couple of queer people that Danny as the protagonist of the story, and you and Christine as text analysts were not aware of. Maybe that’s why they said it wasn’t news. They had their gaydar on and they could see that Danny was gay before the announcement.
Maybe the straight people are just erasing and minimising that news for themselves. Maybe the straight women wanted a chance with Danny and are disappointed. But yeah, I’m not too up to speed with that story, so I can’t really comment.
BS There was an incident recently where an LGBTQ+ tie-in was planned for a motorsport event, but the organisers postponed the tie-in over concern that if gay people came to the event there would be ‘inappropriate behaviour’ (the example of wearing assless chaps was given). Is that an accurate reflection of how the queer community is perceived by outsiders and maybe we need to shape up a bit, or do you think that straight people relying on the stereotypes of what they see in the media is perhaps a bit closed-minded?
MS (Laughs) Well, I think a 50-50 situation. Yes, that’s stereotyping the queer community. I mean, not everybody walks around in pants that show their ass. Not everybody is like that. From our side, there are a lot of risqué costumes at Prides, but the media portrayal of this plays a large part in this when they do cover events like that. Obviously, they want to attract as much attention to their channel as they can, so of course they’re going to show the world the most radical guys out there with all their radical costumes.
So to a degree, yes it’s a bit of a 50-50. Straight people can’t really stereotype the LGBTQ+ community like that, but also from our side, we should maybe re-evaluate how we present ourselves at public events. When we go to things like LGBTQ+ tie-in motorsport events, we’re representing the community to the world. Maybe to a certain degree what we’ve shown to the world thus far is exactly what they were worried about. I’m not saying we can’t have fun or be ourselves, but if we want to be taken seriously, maybe we could do things a bit differently.
BS Other sports have institution-led LGBTQ+ organisations and fan clubs – for example Arsenal Footbal Club’s Gay Gooners fan club. Do you think motorsport needs something similar? If so, should that be led by LGBTQ+ people with all the understanding that goes with being a member of the community, or an official FIA-sponsored entity with all the institutional benefits (and conservative politics) that go with that, run by what we assume will be straight people?
MS I know of a gay rugby club here in South Africa, but I actually looked around for a motorsport organisation when I first came out and found nothing. I haven’t really researched any other sports’ queer facilities.
I think the question goes a little bit deeper than just what it presents, because I was watching a documentary about gay people in France, which was made in 2013. What shocked me was that French people are pretty much not ready for gay people. There’s a lot who do gay bashing. I was quite surprised, because I’ve had this impression that Europe, particularly Western Europe, was very queer tolerant, that homophobic violence wasn’t an issue any more. When I watched the documentary, I was really shocked.
Now this ties back to the FIA, because where are their headquarters based? France. So if homophobic violence is normal and acceptable in France, I don’t think an organisation based there is the best fit for the task at hand. That’s why I would definitely support a queer-led organisation. Maybe linking to the FIA, although in my opinion I’d think that there would be some friction if they were linked.
(#NotAllFrenchies are violent homophobes; there are some very nice ones. But yes, as a culture, France does equate heterosexuality and masculinity. Perhaps more so than other nations, if gay bashing is bad enough to warrant a docco on Netflix - Ed)
Something needs to be done, in the same way as other sports are making an active effort to include their gay employees and fans. I think what the FIA can maybe re-look at is that they are selling a product. To be honest, viewing figures are on the decline, people are struggling to find sponsors for their teams and series. If you look at the numbers, there’s been a drop in TV ratings. They’re trying to sell this product. They need to sell it to every audience. They would attract quite a lot of new fans if they were to include queer people and provide representation in their series, like Formula 1 maybe. I’d love to see an out LGBTQ+ Formula 1 driver.
BS What do you think motorsport entities – series, teams, sponsors, etc. – can do to be more supportive of the LGBTQ+ community?
MS That’s kind of a difficult one, because it’s easy to say they should look into getting more gay people involved in motorsport, and maybe even represent motorsport at queer events like Prides and so on. But will that really…if you think about it, will that really go down that well? What actual benefit will there be for straight motorsport people to go to Pride? Nothing really.
In terms of myself – and other gay racers, although I don’t know of any other queer racers in South Africa – if we actually go to Pride with our cars, that could make a difference. I was invited to bring my car to Pride and have it on a trailer in the march when I was still racing, but I had another engagement that day. I don’t know if they thought I didn’t want to or something, but I never got another invitation. But things like that, just to raise a little bit of awareness of the other worlds people inhabit, I think would go far.
Another thing that might sound a bit wrong is to maybe also approach schools. A lot of people these days are coming out as queer a lot younger than when I was growing up, some when they’re fourteen or fifteen. I’m sure there are a few queer kids who are also into cars and motorsport, and we could maybe raise some awareness there about racing as a career.
BS What can individuals – fans, drivers, other people who work in motorsport – do to be more supportive of openly queer racers?
MS I think, as I said previously when I talked about taking all my friends to my events, people can try bring members of their non-racing communities into the racing sphere. Even though – and I’m talking from experience here – it often ends up being an eye-candy thing. None of my friends went and hit on fellow attendees, but they did do quite a lot of perving of drivers and other fans. So I think it’s actually kind of a nice vibe to get everybody together, regardless of their sexual orientation. There’s a lot of gay guys going to rugby and football matches…does anyone care that they’re gay? They don’t.
So I don’t really see a problem in that regard, and I do talk from experience. We didn’t get gay-bashed or anything. Obviously, nobody approached us, and we kept to ourselves. If we’d gone over to the straight guys and hit on them, that would have changed the vibe. I think it’s just a case of being supportive of people if they know they’re also queer. Obviously, it’s also up to the gay racers to raise awareness of what it’s all about, asking people from LGTBQ+ organisations to come and support them at the track.
Obviously, this is very regional advice. Obviously, people in Russia or somewhere like that can’t be openly queer without risking their safety. But here in South Africa, we were the fifth country in the world, and the first – and to date only – African country to legalise same-sex marriage; we have our human rights protected by our constitution; we can be a lot more open about being gay. But people mustn’t let fear of rejection hold them back.
In a sport that treats women as commodities, it probably comes as no surprise to anyone - least of all the women who work in the sport - that sexual harassment happens. It comes from fans, from team members, from pretty much anybody who wants to get with a Motorsport Girl and hasn't had sufficient education in asking for consent. So, herewith a short guide to dealing with this ever-present violation of bodily autonomy.
Let's start with a definition, so we all know what it is we're talking about. Sexual harassment is defined for this article as:
Any unwanted and uninvited sexual attention, whether via electronic media, verbal harassment, or physically threatening behaviour.
Going through that sentence slowly, let's pick it apart.
Whether or not attention is 'unwanted' is dependent on the recipient of that attention, not the giver of the attention. If you do not want to receive sexual attention - whether you do not ever want it from that person, or just don't want it in that moment - it is classified as 'unwanted'. What you want is valid, regardless of their desire for sex or other intimate activities.
Now let's deal with 'uninvited'. This one is a little bit trickier, because a fall-back defense of sexual harassers (and rapists, although most harassers don't take it that far) is 'but she wanted it!' See Jacob Zuma's courtcase regarding the rape of his lesbian niece, in which he claimed she was aroused and it was his manly duty to 'satisfy' her.
Contrary to popular opinion, being female in public is not a sexual invitation. Neither is wearing a skirt. Or a tank top and tight workout pants. Or attending a nudist function completely naked and not chaperoned by a man to defend your honour.
If you are reading this, thinking to yourself, 'Well, how am I ever going to get laid if I don't at least try?!' this section is for you. The trick is in playing a long game. It may work out for you; it may not. But playing a long game in seduction is they key to not intimidating your target, and therefore avoiding harassment suits.
Reid Mihalko (a sex educator, based in San Fransisco) suggests non-sexual flirting - playful conversation, joking, and other fun things - as a warm-up to anything more intimate. If the response is warm to those things, invite the object of your affection to a quieter, more private place - the balcony of the bar, a secluded location. Preface this suggestion with 'it's okay if you say no,' or 'I can handle my disappointment if you don't want to, but I think it would be fun.' This gives them the space to accept (yay!) or decline (aww!) your invitation. The crucial part is that it's an invitation, not a command or a threat (unless you're both into D/s games, in which case, fair play to you; stay safe, sane, and consensual).
Check out Reid Mihalko and Cathy Vartuli talking about flirting here if you are unclear about how to hit on people politely. And here's their video on flirting for shy people. Check out Ester Perel talking about mating in captivity (with some solid tips like 'leave distance for them to come to you' that work even at the beginning of relationships). Check out Helen Fisher talking about the neurobiology of romantic love. I'm hoping that resources like that will give y'all the confidence to approach people in a way that isn't going to spook them.
If you are generally on the receiving end of the harassment, a different skill-set is required. I'm about to give you some advice that, at face value, is oppressively sexist. I am about to tell you to ignore your first instincts, and tone police you. There are reasons for this advice. Herewith a step-by-step guide to dealing with harassment (also doubles for bullying and trolling, as well as people giving you a shot of serotonin [happy hormone released in kindness situations] to make a complete data set for my research project on online interactions in motorsport that stimulate either dopamine or cortisol).
STEP 1: COLLECT EVIDENCE
If the harassment (or bullying, exceptional kindness, etc.) happens via a digital medium, screenshot the messages and as much of the past conversation as is available/relevant. Obviously, this isn't applicable if the conversation has happened on SnapChat, as the messages disappear, but write a little summary of what had transpired in the chat up to that point. Screenshot every subsequent interaction in the conversation.
If you'd like to participate in the research project, send the screenshots to bridget dot schuil at gmail dot com. (That's my personal mailbox, and the one that's checked most often.) I will send you a research participant agreement that serves as a mutual indemnity and confidentiality agreement. At no point will I tell your harasser that you have submitted evidence against them; this is simply to get an accurate picture of who the repeat offenders are, and what strategies are most effective in rebuffing them safely.
STEP 2: DECLINE CLEARLY AND POLITELY
Say 'no thank you' to harassers. The 'thank you' is an important part of that. Why am I telling you to be polite to someone who just violated your autonomy? Hands up if you've ever responded rudely to a harasser and had them respond with 'Geez, learn to take a compliment,' or 'There's no need to be rude when I was being nice.' Probably a majority of us.
Telling them to go f**k themselves, while satisfying as a knee-jerk response, sacrifices your position on the moral high ground in their minds (and the minds of their lawyer, and therefore the judge/jury in a court case). It is sexist that this is the case, yes. We should be allowed to express anger when someone text-rapes us or gropes our bums or is otherwise sexually threatening towards us, yes.
However, intentionally provoking a shame response (shame being 'I am something bad' whereas guilt is 'I did something bad') by calling them a sexist asshole to their face isn't going to produce behaviour change. 'Nice toilet seat cover! Please don't send me more topless/dick pics? I'm already happily monogamous with someone,' is less likely to leave them feeling like they're not good enough. It's not about them; it's about you (in your response...it totally is about them, but pointing that out to toxic sexists often gets a violent response in my experience).
I do understand how sexist that advice is. It gives no room for recourse in the face of a blatant violation of your freedom of choice. It is, however, maintaining your place on the moral high ground. You're much harder to attack when you're standing on the moral high ground. The moral high ground is a much more easily defended position. Go there and stay there as far as humanly possible.
It is entirely possible that your harasser won't hear your first 'no'. After two 'no's, hit the block button to prevent that crazy stalker from taking up any more of your time. No remorse; they had two tries to give you respect, and that's enough for anyone, really.
Sometimes you can't block them, and the situation becomes a bit trickier. When that's the case, stay polite, but just repeat yourself like a stuck record. At some point, they'll get the hint. Maybe strengthen it to 'Seriously, please stop hitting on me. I'm not keen for coitus with you.' If they don't stop, or they escalate and get violent, report them to your local police station. There's little the police can do about harassment in most places, but the rape/death threats are there on record if/when they do get caught for an offense.
STEP 3: SELF CARE
If you've sent me screenshots for the motorsport online behaviour research project, you are entitled to a confidential session where I hold space and let you talk it out. If you have a friend who's good at holding space for you, call/text them and make time to process before you go to bed. Either way, get a second opinion. People who harass, bully, etc. are generally good at mind-games, so you will need someone to tell you in words that you aren't crazy, what they did was uncool, it's normal to feel ugh after that, you're not alone, you didn't invite the behaviour, etc.
Other options for self caring at this point include: playing a musical instrument, meditating, colouring in/doing art, going for a walk (preferably with your space-holding friend), eating chocolate (which produces happy hormones, but obviously keep it within reason because of the possibility of carb-related diabetes and heart disease), taking a bath/shower to help you feel clean again. Do things to interrupt the 'I am something bad' head-voices that spring into life when people are mean to us.
STEP 4: JUSTICE
If you want to report them to the police - bearing in mind that there's little they can realistically do at present; laws may change in the future, so lodge the evidence - take your phone down to the police station, ask for the digital crimes or sexual crimes division, and submit all the evidence you collected. You can choose whether to press charges, or simply report the crime. If you press charges, you may be required to testify (and this is one of the reasons I think we should attempt to maintain the polite but clear 'no,' because their lawyer will attempt to discredit you to win the case).
There is rarely official recourse for sexual harassment. The only real justice available to you is social justice. Cultivate a feminist fight club (see the book of that name for an explanation) of friends who'll hold space for you and soothe your soul. This is important.
Cultivate a group of guy friends who get it, and will stand up for you and other women when they see other men being uncool. If you don't know anyone like that, find the fence-sitters in your friend group, and invite them into allyship. Gently call them in when they do sexist or triggering things. Lend them your copies of Michael Kimmel and Feminist Fight Club. Aim to add one guy to the group each year, and encourage them to say something when they see something.
If your harasser escalates to rape, please go to your nearest rape crisis centre immediately, even/especially if you are travelling. If you intend to prosecute the rapist, put your clothes (the ones you were raped in, not your full wardrobe) in brown paper bags, one per item of clothing. While he's doing the thing, stay present enough to scratch him to collect DNA under your fingernails. DO NOT SHOWER OR WASH YOURSELF IN ANY WAY! This destroys evidence. Go straight to the nearest emergency room and ask to have a sexual assault exam.
Some rape crisis centres have ties to their local ER, and have survivor kits (some of them include soft toys for young survivors, the necessity of which breaks my heart) on hand for you when you go for your exam. Find a psychotherapist (note the use of the protected term; this is a serious trauma which causes severe PTSD, among other things) who specialises in sexual assault, and see them regularly until your symptoms subside (and then probably sporadic sessions for a while after that).
As far as possible, we (as a society, but also on the micro level as individuals) should seek restorative justice, regardless of how heinous the offense was. Hurt people hurt people, and it's more likely that your assailant was horny and socially inept than a pathological sadist, psychopath, or sociopath. Rates of those mental illnesses are far lower than rates of rape and sexual harassment, which speaks of a mindset/culture issue more than neurological pathologies in individual offenders.
I'm not saying it's easy. I'm not claiming to be one of those ultra-zen people who's never fantasised about torturing her rapist to death. But forgiveness (not forgetting, just not stewing and being bitter) is the secret to happiness. When interacting with and prosecuting offenders, we need to aim for restorative justice, rather than vengeance. Restorative justice rehabilitation programs have lower rates of recidivism than vengeant, shame-driven 'justice'.
Class Action Law Suits
If the online behaviour research project reveals one or several serial offenders, we will retain legal counsel and give you the option to participate in a class action suit against that person/those people. It is more likely to be a civil suit than a criminal case. Participation will be entirely voluntary. We will not subpoena you to testify if you don't want to. But we would like to give you the opportunity for recourse if we find a viable avenue for that.
Finally, a word to the men who get it in the audience...
The kinds of people who sexually harass women are usually sexist men. They don't really have space in their worldview for women saying no to them. If you are out, and you see a situation you think is uncool with a strong rapey vibe, ask the woman in question if she'd like you to buy her an angel shot. That's code for 'would you like me to wingman you away from this guy?' If she says yes, be cool, and get her to safety. If she's unconscious or clearly TDTF (too drunk to f**k) and a man is all over her with intent, don't bother asking, just be a bro and wingman her back to her friend group. Hang out with them until the threat to their safety has passed.
You may never receive a cookie for your good work, but I'm pretty sure you're scoring points with Jesus/Karma/the Universe and it'll likely come back to you some day.
If reading this has brought back memories you'd put away for a rainy day, and you want to talk it out, use the email address above, or inbox one of the socials. If you're trying to understand this whole consent business, and/or how to be a better wingman, that inbox is open to you too.