FROM APRIL 2019 ISSUE OF WEST END PHOENIX
In 1985, three women started a lesbian soccer league, called Pink Turf, to have a safe place to play. Over the years, the league – founded by Shawn Strickland, Linda Copping and Kelley Sublette – and the community that grew around it became about a lot more than the game. This May, Pink Turfers will take the pitch for their 35th season in Withrow Park. Here, they talk about the difference a queer club makes
“Almost every important person in my life – almost every close friend – I met through Pink Turf. It’s even where I met my wife. I first flirted with Kari on the sidelines of the pitch, and now we’ve been married for 10 years.
Pink Turf is a very small and tight-knit community, kind of like a small town. Everyone knows you, or knows of you, and knows what you’re up to. There is a lot of joking around and laughter but also lesbian drama, disagreements and even some pretty good conflicts sometimes.
The intention was always more about socializing, meeting women and making friends than it was about soccer. As Pink Turf has grown over the years – from four to 10 teams – it has attracted a more diverse membership of players, including more straight women and more competitive soccer players. The social, flirty, lesbian feeling of the league has been diluted quite a bit. For me, this is a real loss, and I would like to see the league preserve the [original] focus. There are so few lesbian-focused spaces in Toronto.” — RACHEL ROSS-VANCE, player since 2002
“It was a very political thing for the founders to start this league in the ’80s. It was an overtly political move. They created much more than a soccer league – they created a political community. It was such a different time, not just for lesbians in a world rife with homophobia, but for women in sports. When I was in university, varsity women’s soccer did not exist. There were so few opportunities back then. I learned to play soccer by playing Pink Turf – most of us did.
The league was never exclusively lesbian; from day one it included our straight allies. Think about the fact that Pink Turf began in 1985. Homophobia was even more brutal then than it is now. You have to understand that the straight women who were willing to play with a bunch of lesbians were really and truly our allies. They were willing to play side by side with us. Their joining us was a political statement in itself. Back then, the people who lived in the houses bordering Withrow Park would call the city and complain about us – about women holding hands or kissing. And we did have a player once claim that she had been ‘attacked in the change room showers by a dyke.’ There are no showers. And many of the straight women who have been involved have been the biggest contributors and most fiercely feminist, most actively political. I’m thinking of Sonya Popovich, for example: She’s straight, and I’m not sure anyone else gave more time and energy and love to Pink Turf than Sonya did in her day.
As the years passed and as things have changed in society more generally, I have sometimes found myself downplaying the need for the league, but then something would happen that would remind me. I’d meet someone who was from a small town who had never done anything with a whole league of lesbians before – who couldn’t be themselves elsewhere. Pink Turf has always been about building connections to community as much as it has been about playing soccer. And this comes with its own challenges. We can’t just kick someone out if they are causing a problem – like being too aggressive – because we’d be kicking them out of more than soccer. We’d be taking away their community. Cutting them off from their social supports. [Our] Collectives have to deal with these sorts of issues from year to year.” — JOCELYN PIERCY, player 1986–2013
“I grew up in a complex of townhouses in Trinidad, in the kind of community where someone would attach a TV to a long extension cord, take it outside, and the neighbours would gather around to watch football during the World Cup. I was a tomboy – back then, I wanted to be a boy – and I always played football: It was my passion, my first love.
I came out in the last year of my undergrad at Queen’s, and then moved to Toronto. I joined Pink Turf because I wanted to meet other queer folks and I wanted to play football. Finding Pink Turf was one of the greatest joys of my life.
The biggest challenge [of being on the league’s Collective] is managing personalities. We don’t often want to talk about this, but we’re a traumatized community. Many of us are walking around with our wounds. And many of us come to Pink Turf seeking a kind of healing. I’m not being hyperbolic – just the act of coming out in a homophobic and transphobic world can be traumatizing. Pink Turf is a space to hold that trauma and to care for it. I’ve been thinking a lot about transformative justice and accountability recently; Pink Turf practised these things long before we had a language for it. We tried always to challenge harm without causing more. [We] tried to hold space for wants and needs of all kinds.
We had a registration process that asked players to self-report – to rank themselves in terms of ability. As we got to know players, we sometimes had to re-rank them; women often downplayed their own abilities. We tried to balance the teams with roughly the same number of really good players and beginners. People could sign up with a friend. Sometimes, a player would end up on a team with an ex or an ex’s new girlfriend and want to change teams. As much as we could, we’d accommodate such requests. We wanted everyone to want to show up and have a good experience. We had to draw a line somewhere, though: One woman wanted to change teams because she was placed on the lavender team and she didn’t want to play in a lavender jersey. First of all, no. Second of all, has she not heard of the ‘lavender menace’? We were willing to change up teams for emotional issues or safety issues, but not aesthetic ones!” — MICHELE PEARSON CLARKE, player 1998–2006
“I was living on Pape and I happened to walk by Withrow Park one Saturday and saw a bunch of women on the field. They were playing and chatting and laughing and looked like they were having so much fun. Later, when, as a straight woman, I googled Pink Turf, I felt that I could fit in as what they called ‘lesbian-positive.’ So I joined. It was only at the end of my first season that I came out as straight. I felt like a fraud but I didn’t want to be kicked out of this amazing league.
So I became the token straight woman, but I never felt uncomfortable. And that says a lot. There were lots of jokes made at my expense, a lot of suggestions that maybe we should play ‘shirts and skins,’ a lot of ‘You’re straight? Oh, too bad.’ The question ‘Whose team do you play for?’ is never straightforward in Pink Turf. Year after year I get the question ‘Are you still straight?’ And I love all of it. The teasing means that I’m okay, that I’m accepted for who I am. I really do turn the ‘coming out’ narrative on its head. This might be the only space I’m in where I’m the minority.” — CINDY WORSLEY, player 2001–2018
“As players got better and the league became more competitive, we had a big decision to make: Which way did we want to go? We decided that we wanted to keep the league recreational, fun and inclusive of all levels. There were a few really aggressive players and the Collective needed to put processes in place, to create boundaries on acceptable ways to play. That is when the league banned slide tackles. Shortly after that, we created a disciplinary committee and drafted a Code of Conduct to deal with issues of aggression and conflict when they arose.
Pink Turf was changing the unwritten rule of sports about being competitive but also about changing the attitude of ‘win at all costs.’ So players get equal playing time regardless of their ability and regardless of the score of the game. Players of different abilities all playing together – this was and is something different than most leagues are willing to try.” — JOCELYN PIERCY
“In the early 2000s, I was part of the Collective that changed the way teams are formed. It’s not even that certain teams were stacked and winning all the time, it was that some of the same women were playing together year after year. It was boring and kind of cliquey. The Collective wanted to put a stop to this.
This was pre-internet, when we still did mail-in registration. My mailing address was used as Pink Turf ‘headquarters,’ and I would number and date-stamp the forms as they arrived. We anonymized the players on slips of paper, cross-referencing to names for later. So what became important was not the name, but their skill-level (a self-ranking system from one to five) and preferred position (goalie, defense, mid-field, forward). A player was allowed to sign up with one other person. In those cases, we stapled the slips of paper together with the higher-ranked player on top. And then the Collective (one rep from each team, ideally) got together in person, at my house, and sat around a table making the teams. Again, it was a blind process – we didn’t see any names: only rankings and positions. We tried for an even distribution. At the end of it all, we had the big reveal, and each team rep would learn the names of the women on her team for the upcoming season.
I retired after playing for 22 years. But that only lasted a year – I returned for the 2018 season. I had so much fun, and my body held up well, too. I was a contributor! I’m considering signing up again for this year, 2019. But I’m not sure. Perhaps last summer was my last hurrah and I should leave it be – end on a high note.” — ANNE STEVENS, player 1994–2016 and 2018
“Back in the day, teams signed up as teams. Thank god that changed – it used to be a veritable Battle Royale! That simply stopped being a feasible way to run the league. There were too many issues with teams being completely dominant, which is never fun. And it was far too insular, too cliquey. If friends only sign up with friends – how intimidating and potentially exclusionary is that for brand new players, who might be signing up more for the social aspects of the league? So many of us used to go out for brunch after our games, get to know each other. Often brunches lasted long enough to include multiple teams and became all-day affairs.
There are people now who claim that Pink Turf is no longer a lesbian league or a queer league, that the straights outnumber the queers, and that it’s a big problem. I disagree with this, and think that number is incorrect. I’ve played for 20 years and have been a team rep for many of those. I’d say that the teams are about 75 to 80 per cent queer. Straight women always have been and still are a minority. That we have straight women sign up from year to year and again and again means that we are achieving what the league was meant to do in terms of inclusivity and acceptance.
I have had both trans men and trans women on my teams in the past two years. Trans players are accepted, but it’s been a learning curve. Players attempt to get teammates’ preferred pronouns right. ‘He’ or ‘she’ is a lot easier for me to get right than the plural ‘they’ and ‘them.’ I’ll be the first to tell you that I fuck up all the time. But I try my best to acknowledge this and to correct myself. In my experience, this is what has mattered most to team members – the willingness to try, the effort to get it right. I’m not too proud to self-correct when I get it wrong. I know it’s a cliché, but habits die hard. I have to stop saying things like ‘Let’s do this, ladies!’” — KIRSTI RACINE, player since 1998
“I grew up on the island of Guernsey; it’s beautiful, and it’s fine if you fit in to its conservative, binary ethos. I did not. When I came to Canada in 2012 and did some internet research to find a soccer league to join, I could not believe it when I found a lesbian soccer league. I was floored such a thing existed and was excited to sign up. I was on testosterone at the time, and gender non-conforming, but I still went by ‘she.’ The first question that I was asked by the first group of women I met was ‘What is your preferred pronoun?’ Astounding. It was the first time I’d ever heard that question.
I’m a trans masculine person. I would consider joining Pink Turf again, but I’m worried about standing out. I have facial hair now. What is their policy around trans players, I wonder? It’s probably not a clear-cut issue for the current Collective.” — JACK JACKSON, player 2012–2013
“Last year, we had a surprising incident: A team captain complained about having a gender non-conforming person on her team, announcing that she ‘didn’t sign up to play in a co-ed league.’ It was surprising because, as a captain, as the representative for her team, she should have been well-versed in our policies. We explained our mandate of inclusion to her, and she still wasn’t satisfied. That captain is not returning this year, and, as a Collective, we sat down and reviewed the language in our Code of Conduct, which is pretty comprehensive. We thought the language of inclusivity was already explicit, but we tweaked it again. If our policy was at all ambiguous before, it isn’t now: Trans and gender non-conforming players are welcome in Pink Turf.” — CHARMAINE EASTON, player since 2009
“I played soccer in high school. I also played in competitive indoor and outdoor leagues. We practised regularly and performed set plays. Everyone understood their position and knew how to play it. Pink Turf [on the other hand] was a little like the Wild West: no set plays, ladies trying to slide tackle, your own teammate attempting to take the ball off of you (I’ve never gotten over that one). I adjusted by realizing this was a recreational league and everyone was welcomed regardless of skill level. The best way to help my team was to make sure I passed the ball to players who were not as skillful as I was, hoping it would help build their self-confidence: The more touches you get with the ball, the better you get. I really enjoyed watching these players get better year after year.
Pink Turf was special for a couple of reasons. I loved that I could be ‘out.’ My partner at the time would sometimes come and watch my games and it felt so liberating to be able to introduce her as my girlfriend and have no one bat an eyelash. There were a large number of women I met in the league with whom I am still friends and still see on a regular basis – most of us have retired from Pink Turf. I was fairly newly out, and Pink Turf helped me find my community. I have since broadened it, but Pink Turf was the foundation, the root that has spread and morphed into many other things.
I always assumed anyone who joined the league was a friend or ally – or at the very least, open-minded. Being a person of colour I’m also very sensitive about excluding others. I understand some gay women want something that they can call their own and I get that. I don’t know what the right answer is [about whether the league should be ‘lesbian only’].” — HOLLY LIDDELL, player 1997–2008
“In 2003, as an older, late-blooming lesbian – I came out in my 40s – I met Karin [Lapins] on the Gay Canada dating site, and it turned out that we played on separate Pink Turf soccer teams. I met her in person for the first time on the Withrow pitch, after her game and before mine: A year later, we moved in together; a year after that, we married; a year after that, Karin was diagnosed with endometrial and ovarian cancer. She recovered and our lives went on, with each spring bringing a new Pink Turf season. In 2011, Karin was diagnosed with stage 4 liver cancer: Three weeks later, she died with my arms around her and my head on her chest. When Karin’s funeral service was held at Metropolitan Community Church two Saturdays later, Pink Turf teams honoured Karin’s passing with a moment of silence on the field at the same time as the service. After the season ended, a memorial sugar maple was planted on the northwest side of the park, next to the walking path near Logan and Hogarth. I’ve retired from Pink Turf, but I still return to the field to sit under Karin’s tree.
When my daughter, Angela, turned 18, she approached me about joining Pink Turf. She’s straight, but she wanted to spend time with her mom, in a place where her mom was fully accepted, fully herself. That I got this awesome opportunity to bond with my daughter, my ally – in terms of my Pink Turf experience, this has always been the icing on the cake.” — JANICE MARTIN, player 2000–2016
“I joined Pink Turf out of curiosity. My girlfriend, Kerry Manders, had been playing for years, and I wanted to know what it felt like to be on the pitch, to run for the ball, to cheer with teammates. But I had never played a team sport before. I was terrified, convinced that my team would hate me within minutes. What happened instead was the generosity this community is known for: Gigi [Knowles] and Marina [Scassa] gave me the benefit of their coaching experience, teammates were encouraging and got me to laugh at myself, and I finally learned how to kick a damn ball. But best were the post-match brunches, when these amazing women, athletes and amateurs, swaggered sweatily into the local pub, ordered trays of nachos and told stories about games and romances and lives. I only lasted two seasons, but I learned more about women and community in this league than I had before or have since.” — BRANDY RYAN, player 2009 and 2011 and Kerry Manders’s wife
“Our refs are a part of our community. Robert refereed all the games himself [for 20 years], even when we grew to five games a day. That’s a long workday, and in the dead of summer, sometimes in 40-degree heat, for years and years. When he had to retire, he passed the torch to his brother-in-law, Harry, with the instruction to ‘take care of my babies.’ He was not going to leave us without a replacement that he trusted. And Harry passed the torch to John; all of our refs have worked hard to ensure a seamless transition between them. Robert always had a keen sense of the various skill levels on the pitch. If I did an illegal throw-in, he’d turn over possession. If a newbie did an illegal throw-in, he’d give the ball back to her, offer a word or two of instruction, and say, ‘Try again, sweet pea!’ The point has always been to have fun and to teach the game to women who want to learn it. In another league, these disparities wouldn’t fly. Can you imagine in our more competitive leagues anyone being given a mulligan? No way. But in Pink Turf, they are standard.” — KIRSTI RACINE
“Robert was an old-school Scottish lad who loved us as much as he loved football; he was a gift to Pink Turf – his love of the game, his personality, his sense of fairness and his sense of humour. And he would brook no nonsense, no disrespect toward himself, another player, the game. He didn’t bat an eye at our myriad queernesses or our expressions of them – the on- and off-field shenanigans and affection and kissing. He was this grouchy, straight, older white man who was just so good to us. Robert was a reminder for me of what is possible across difference.” — MICHELE PEARSON CLARKE
“The respect and camaraderie that develops among players and teams [in this league] far exceed their competitiveness. Any differences on the pitch are quickly resolved. Sometimes new players show up from other, more competitive leagues. They soon enough discover through their teammates, captains and referees that the league has more important goals than competing to win. The key ingredient is communication between the Collective, team captains, individual players and referees. People in all of these positions may come and go, but must always keep to the ideals that drive the league.” — JOHN KAY, referee since 2011
“Team sport is such a good metaphor for lesbian community, really: the idea that you get nowhere alone, that you have people on your side, people who care about making you better, making you look good, passing things over and on, mates to lift you up and to carry you when you aren’t having your best game. The principles of team sports are the principles of being in community. Somewhat paradoxically, the more rights we’ve gained, the more separated our communities have become. We used to need each other more – because we only had each other. Now, the community is really much more divided, and it’s easier for those with power and privilege to assimilate into mainstream communities and not necessarily be with other queer folks. While some might not necessarily see a ‘need’ for a queer women’s soccer league any more, I feel just the opposite. It is as vital now as it ever was. Perhaps more so.” — MICHELE PEARSON CLARKE
“Over the years, the league has changed from predominantly lesbian to what we’d now call ‘queer-positive.’ When I joined, there were maybe one or two straight women per team – more and more joined over the years. But the biggest shift that I’ve witnessed has to do with queer families. In my later years, I’d look over at the sidelines and there would be all sorts of kids running around. Lesbian families were much rarer when I first joined the league.
In my first season, I was very aware that I was a straight woman in a community that was not my own, that was unfamiliar to me. I was definitely more reserved than I usually am, as I felt outside my culture. I did a lot of observing and listening to conversations about topics that were outside my experience. I was never uncomfortable and I didn’t feel as though anyone purposefully excluded me, it was just new. I took time to figure out what my place was.” — MARINA SCASSA, player 1997–2016
“I was born in Portugal, and moved here when I was 12. I was picked on in elementary school. I couldn’t speak English, was called a FOB – fresh off the boat. I started class in the middle of the school year, when the soccer season was already over. But the next year I started playing soccer in September and all of a sudden everyone liked me. Because I was good. Fast-forward to me at 18 and joining Pink Turf – that’s as young as you can be in this league. It was the first league I’d ever played in outside of school. I was so keen to play and I was very competitive. Pink Turf wasn’t about the social for me back then. I was very serious about it: ‘What do you mean, soccer for fun?’ I needed to win. I was that player who rolled her eyes a lot and would look at someone who wasn’t very good and think, ‘What are you doing here?’ I wasn’t very nice, and people probably hated me. It took some time, but I learned. I realized that the point is for everyone to get better, to have fun and work to their own potential. I still find it hard sometimes, especially mid-game. I still say things I regret. But I’m better than I used to be.
I was raised in a family where the attitude was that soccer was not for girls. It’s hard, because if I’d been playing my whole life – who knows where that could have taken me? Mom still doesn’t get it. If I’m sore or injured, she says, ‘See? What do you want to go out and do that for?’ My dad watched me play for the first time three years ago. He cried.
For all of my Pink Turf years, I’ve been playing with my sister, Elsa. We’re both gay. Once in a while we take a break and sign up with other people. But it’s been so special for us to play together – we have a kind of closeness that feels like it’s us against the world.” — ANA OLIVIERA, player since 1998
“When Ana and Elsa – who are both really, really good players – don’t sign up together, the rest of us look at the schedule to see when they will be playing against each other. Because that is fun to watch!” — CHARMAINE EASTON, player since 2009
“There’s a level of respect in this league that’s really unrivalled, in my experience. Pink Turf is about league first, team second, individual third. The more skilled players know who they can play hard and who they should back off. We try to avoid negativity on the pitch. And we have a five-goal mercy rule: After five goals, players will often try different positions, and put someone in net who is not a goalie, that sort of thing. We want to keep it fun – it’s not fun for a team to get hammered out there.” — CHRISTINE GAGNE, player since 2018
“The Spanish league [I played in] folded and we were looking for a place to play. We joined Pink Turf. Most of us were straight or just beginning to explore sexuality. This was our first exposure to a large group of gay women from all walks of life. The diversity in Pink Turf was unbelievable – I’m talking not only in terms of lesbian and straight, but in terms of race and ethnicity. There were Black women and white women and Asian women and Spanish women and Portuguese women and just so many different kinds of women.
I grew up in Sudbury. Soccer was not an option for girls. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, I spent summers in Yugoslavia. I’d see men playing soccer there and I just fell in love with the game. But it was the Old Country. Girls and women didn’t play – weren’t allowed to play. I mean, I had to walk behind men when I walked in the village; there was no way I could share a soccer pitch with them.
When we supported each other, we really supported each other. Women who had babies often brought them to the field and it really was a beautiful embodiment of ‘it takes a village.’ Everyone on a team would take turns holding a teammate’s baby. We are all aunties.
When I was 30, I was diagnosed with a tumour on my lung. I was deemed young to have this type of ailment. My thoracic surgeon knew that I wanted to continue playing soccer, so he made an unusual incision. I was a guinea pig for his students but, more importantly, I was able to slowly regain my strength so I could join my girls on the pitch.” — SONYA POPOVICH, player 1987–2003