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Diversity and inclusion

Pride Month 2024: James Swanson on Pride in Tennis and LGBTQ+ Inclusion in Sport

• 4 MINUTE READ

For our second feature for LGBTQ+ Pride Month 2024, we sat down with the chair of Pride in Tennis, James Swanson, to talk about his route into the sport, his inspirations, and inclusivity in tennis.

James Swanson is a man who loves his sport. While the chair of Pride in Tennis, the LGBTQ+ network for tennis in Britain, obviously considers taking to the court his number one passion, he has experience working across basketball, ice hockey, football, and across rugby at a club, national, and international level. So where did this passion for sport begin?

“I was born in Cyprus, and in the years following our family moved to Germany, Italy, and lastly to Denmark. While there was a lot of moving around, the one constant was our engagement in sport; particularly tennis, table tennis, squash, and badminton. These sports formed the structure of our weekends, regardless of what country we lived in. Tennis was the most consistent feature of the four with our interest being both on-court as well as watching grand slams on TV. 

“I vividly remember sitting next to the courts in our apartment complex in Rome watching my parents play mixed doubles, and desperately wanting to participate myself.”

Playing together as a family helped James learn the fundamentals of the game, but it was thanks to an icon of the game that James found himself truly falling in love with tennis.

“I fully fell in love with tennis in the year 2000, when I watched Venus Williams beat Lindsay Davenport to win the women’s singles title at the Wimbledon Championships. Unknown to me at the time, this youthful fandom was the beginning of my inherent celebration of diversity, which has acted as a golden thread throughout my life in sports.

“My adulation of Venus soon resulted in a similar connection to Serena, who alongside Roger Federer and Monica Seles, formed the core pillars of relationship with the pro game on both the men's and women's circuits. They all brought something distinctive to the game and changed the landscape of the sport.”

James also recognises the platform that two other icons of the sport helped develop for tennis to be seen as one of the first LGBTQ+ inclusive sports – Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova. “Martina and Billie Jean were incredible trailblazers in a multitude of ways,” he says, “spanning sexual orientation, gender equity, and physicality in the sport.”

While their respective impacts on the game remain hugely significant, given there are a number of openly LGBTQ+ players on the WTA Tour, can tennis now look to build even more upon their legacy?

“I would say… it’s time for tennis to spring forward off the platform they built,” believes James. “We need to see even more celebration of current LGBTQ+ stars, even more fostering of inclusive environments in the sport, and encouraging authentic self-expression on both the WTA and ATP tours.”

A man sat in green seating, clasping his hands together, wearing a blue checked blazer jacket
James has experience working across many sports on their efforts around diversity and inclusion

Fostering inclusive environments is something James has worked hard on in his roles across multiple different sports, with some recent work being undertaken at Rugby Union club Harlequins and Arsenal in the Premier League. It’s something he takes great personal pride in, given how challenging it can sometime be to achieve.

“One of the biggest challenges is having to nimbly navigate the balance between advocating for LGBTQ+ initiatives internally, while also educating colleagues at the same time. Everyone has different levels of understanding and lived experience, so you have to bridge that gap, which can be difficult, especially when you’re looking to unpick ways of thinking and working that have been around in some cases for decades.”

These challenges, however, are being tackled head-on, which over recent years has led to an increase in LGBTQ+ visibility and awareness in many sporting environments. For James, this has been partly down to sports organisations becoming more diverse, and resources going to staff whose job is specifically around diversity and inclusion (D&I), and partly because sports organisations are recognising the importance and value of having diverse audiences in their communities.

For tennis, with Friday Pride Days at the LTA’s summer grass court events and the partnership between Pride in Tennis and the LTA both into its third year, huge strides have already been made.

“It really is amazing to see just how much we have achieved over the past three years in partnership with the LTA,” says James. “There are now 16 LGBTQ+ tennis groups dotted around the country, an increase of 13 since the formation of Pride in Tennis in 2022, and more clubs are being formed this year.

“Thanks to support from the LTA and the Lexus Nottingham Tennis Centre, we were able to host the inaugural Pride in Tennis Cup in October last year, which allowed 10 of these clubs to participate in a national team competition. This was just one of many illustrations of the grassroots impact our network is having in opening up tennis in Britain.” These achievements, alongside the creation of the Rally Allies programme and the establishment of the Friday Pride Day initiative across the LTA's summer grass court swing, are real sources of pride for us.”

Having been elected as sole chair of Pride in Tennis earlier this year, after being co-chair alongside the group's founder Ian Pearson Brown since the group’s inception in 2022, James knows there’s still work to be done, with growing the network further, working on developing their current programmes, and continuing to have conversations with groups across British tennis. But for him, the goal of Pride in Tennis remains clear:

“We’re a group… committed to broadening our reach across Britain, working with new partners to increase LGBTQ+ visibility in the sport.”

A group of people stood smiling at the camera, with a large screen behind them displaying the words, Pride in Tennis
James Swanson with other members of the Pride in Tennis network at their AGM, held at the National Tennis Centre in Roehampton, earlier this year

James’ passion for tennis and for inclusion within tennis is abundantly clear, and it’s through working with partners like James that across LGBTQ+ inclusion and other under-represented communities in British tennis, the LTA’s vision of ‘Tennis Opened Up’ can truly be achieved.

Pride Month

To find out more about the work we're doing around LGBTQ+ inclusion, including our partnership with Pride in Tennis, head to our inclusion pages.

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