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.