World Football Champion & Co-President of Gay Games talks to myGwork’s Pepi Sappal about her sporting journey as a lesbian footballer


If there’s one person who is as passionate about football as the Lionesses, it’s world football champion and coach Joanie Evans. She was a key member and one of the original founders of the trailblazing Hackney Women’s Football Club – the first open and out lesbian team in Europe back in the eighties. The team made their first debut at the Gay Games in 1994 in New York, which attracted over 14,000 people.  

Joanie is also a Gay Games medalist, winning a gold medal with the Amhurst Aztecs in the 2002 Gay Games in Sydney, Australia, where the international team was made up of women from the UK, New Zealand and Italy. 

Originally from Birmingham, Joanie was an athlete who ran for her school and the West Midlands County as a teenager, but she was never really given the same opportunities as her male peers back then: “One of my male friends went on to run for one of the UK’s top clubs and then competed in the Commonwealth Games representing England. But as a girl, I just wasn’t given the same opportunities. I loved to play football with my brothers. But I actually didn’t play for a team until much later in adult life, as I didn’t know there were any women’s football teams.”

It wasn’t until she came out, at the age of 25, that a friend told her about the women’s teams. So, in 1989, she joined Hackney Women’s Football Club and was surrounded by other lesbian players. “As a team, we were always open about our sexuality, despite the abuse we received,” she recalled. “It wasn’t easy as we were in the middle of the AIDS crisis. Even as lesbians, we felt like we were being targeted, and the discrimination didn’t just come from the sidelines.” 

When she started to play football, a top player warned her not to reveal that she was a lesbian because it would set women’s football back 20 years, even though women who played a male-dominated sport were perceived to be lesbian. 

Despite the backlash, together with Hackney Women’s FC, Joanie fought hard to tackle discrimination battles on and off the pitch. “Even the football league tried to bring a case against us for bringing the league into disrepute, accusing us of influencing young girls, simply because of the fact we were an openly gay team,” she highlighted. “Of course, we fought back, and the league was found to be in the wrong. It was a huge win for us. Being out and authentic ourselves meant that we played better football, which resulted in many wins, putting the team on the map for women’s football.” 

Joanie believes her team set the precedent for women’s football today. Thankfully, as a result of role models like her in sports who were not afraid to speak out and be out and open about their sexuality and the discrimination they faced, things are changing. The UK’s Lionesses are a testament to that as they have won the hearts of sporting fans worldwide.  

Nevertheless, Joanie acknowledges that coming out and being visible is still not easy for both aspiring and seasoned sporting professionals who fear homophobic abuse. To help raise awareness of homophobia in sports, Joanie has participated in documentary films as well as other media platforms. As a result, more out LGBTQIA role models are now speaking out to level the playing field for women and LGBTQIA people in sports.  

A lot of that success can be attributed to Hackney Women’s FC, thanks to Joanie and her teammates. “It’s not as hard as it was. It’s probably easier for women to be out in sports, but we really need more men to come out. Out LGBTQIA role models are still rare in popular men’s sports like football, so we still have some way to go to overcome discrimination and really achieve LGBTQ+ equality in sports,” she highlighted. 

After being a football player for many years, Joanie went on to be a coach at Hackney Women’s FC. She also became the diversity and inclusion director of the Federation for Gay Games, before becoming a board member. For the last eight years, however, she’s been heading the Gay Games as co-president. In fact, she was the only Black woman on the Federation’s board, which was mostly White, until 2017. Now under her leadership, there is much more diversity, with representation from countries around the world including India, Mexico and Hong Kong, as well as Europe and the US. 

Joanie was invited to become the co-chair of the Gay Games around a decade ago; a role she does alongside her job as a legal advisor at London’s Law Centre. She is currently busy promoting the 2023 Gay Games; it’s her eighth Gay Games to date and the third one that she’ll be attending as co-president. 

This year’s delayed Gay Games, resulting from the pandemic, will take place in both Hong Kong and Mexico’s Guadalajara (from 3 to 11 November 2023) for the first time. The Gay Games is also celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. 

Founded in 1982 in San Francisco, the Gay Games – the world’s largest inclusive sporting and cultural event that’s open to all – has altered stereotypes about LGBTQ+ people. It’s an opportunity for amateur athletes of all backgrounds, and especially those from marginalised communities, to showcase their sporting talents on a global stage.  

Joanie believes that the Gay Games will continue to be a catalyst for bigger and more positive change and much-needed LGBTQ+ inclusion in both Latin America and Asia this year. “We know that wherever the games have previously been, it’s made a massive difference to the community despite any controversy, often resulting in more LGBTQIA centres as well as more visibility, awareness and acceptance,” confirmed Joanie.  

She wants LGBTQIA women worldwide wanting to pursue sports to go for it, and to consider attending the Gay Games. “Thanks to events like the Gay Games, there is more hope and opportunity now than there has ever been, especially for the LGBTQIA community. There are also more opportunities now for women to participate in sports like football than ever before.” 

Her main goal has always been to create an open and inclusive playing field in sports for all, particularly for women, regardless of their age or how they identify. She has successfully done that in football in the UK, as well as internationally through the Gay Games.  

Her efforts have not gone unnoticed as Joanie recently received the Out For Sport Lifetime Achievement Award. She was honoured to receive the award in recognition of her influential role in women’s football and being a role model for LGBTQIA people in sports. The award was particularly meaningful for her because it reminded her of the British sportsperson that the award is actually named after – Ivan Bussens. He not only competed at water polo at the Gay Games but also raised the profile of LGBTQIA sports, having co-founded the Out for Sport organisation, representing LGBTQIA clubs in London and serving on international sporting associations. 

“Ivan Bussens played a pivotal role in my journey in sports by encouraging me to get involved in the Gay Games and its board,” shared Joanie, who is probably the most loyal and longest-serving co-presidents having served four terms – that’s eight years since 2014.  

She is determined to continue to provide inclusive opportunities in sports and wants to let people around the world know that the Gay Games are for both the LGBTQIA community and allies. “I want to encourage people of all ages to come to our games and compete. The Gay Games offer an open playing field for anyone interested in sports, whether you identify as LGBTQIA or an ally.”  

“Thousands have already registered to attend this year’s Gay Games,” confirms Joanie. “Will you?” she asks. 

Click here to find out more and register for this year’s Hong Kong Gay Games or here for Mexico’s Guadalajara Gay Games. 

 The Federation of Gay Games is a proud community partner of myGwork (also the official media partner of Gay Games 2023).  

DIVA magazine celebrates 29 years in print in 2023. If you like what we do, then get behind LGBTQIA media and keep us going for another generation. Your support is invaluable. ✨

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