Connect with us

Tennis

LGBT+ History Month: How one South London tennis group helped change minds and save lives

Published

on

The UK’s longest running LGBTQ+ Tennis Group, ACE Players Tennis Croydon, has more layers than meets the eye. Formed in 1977 by members of the umbrella group of Croydon Area Gay Society (CAGS), the tennis group has remained intact for 47 years, and during this time the social and health and wellbeing impact of the groups functions has taken various forms.

This month is LGBT+ History Month and the theme is Medicine, part of which shines a light on the history of the LGBT + community’s experience of receiving healthcare and the complications faced plus ensuring their historical contributions are heard and recorded.

A major part of the tennis group’s evolution was shaped by the turbulent times the world faced 40 years ago, as group members and those close to them dealt with the emergence of the HIV/AIDS epidemic that sparked fear, uncertainty, ignorance, and prejudice within large parts of the UK.

Leigh Armstrong joined the tennis group in 1984, and like many players at the time found comfort and gained confidence from joining a social group of like-minded people playing the sport they loved within an envisaged safer environment. 

Leigh recalls the awe-inspiring work of the tennis group, their partners, family, friends and supporters in fighting HIV/AIDS, developing services for people living with HIV and AIDS and helping to educate the local community and eradicate the stigma surrounding the illness. 

Leigh with actor Simon Callow who officially opened the Eagle Court site in 1995 pictured here at a fundraising stall selling balloons which were launched at the event some of which were returned from the North of England and even the South of France.

“In the mid 1980s, the tennis group had several people who fell ill in a relatively short space of time, with serious and unusual health complications and it was unclear what the diagnosis was. It appeared randomly and people became seriously unwell in a short space of time and required significant support,” said Leigh.

“At the beginning of the epidemic, there was little understanding of how people contracted the virus and how to limit the spread and manage the illness. There was a great deal of fear and ignorance as people became concerned they could catch the virus through basic contact. Due to the unknown nature of the illnesses people were contracting, the National Health Service was struggling to understand, combat and treat HIV/AIDS; some of their own staff were concerned about contracting the virus via direct contact with patients.

“Some of the tennis group members who remained well started to practically support and advocate for members who had become ill. Until that point, many of the tennis members only met at the courts and did not necessarily socialise away from playing tennis. So, it was a marked step up to start to support and personally care for someone who members may have formerly seen as ‘just a tennis playing friend.’

“Especially as it became clear people were often isolated from family and existing friends due to fear and ignorance.

“Having seen your friends and colleagues becoming unwell and dying it felt important as a group to organise ourselves and make a direct contribution to try and improve services and care for those affected. Due to the random nature of the virus, if you were fortunate enough not to contract the virus it felt a duty and responsibility to do all you could to help those less fortunate.” 

1990-ACE-Players-Follies-Production.jpg

This picture features the finale of the second Ace Players “Follies Production” in 1990. Most of the people in this picture were either tennis group members or friends and family. Tennis group members produced and directed the shows as well as acting and fundraising at the event. The Tennis Group reclaimed the name AcePlayers when it relaunched in 2022.

In December 1987, tennis members and their family and friends formed a group called the ‘Gay Health Link Group’ which quickly become the AIDS Care and Education Project (ACE). The aim of the Project was to provide services for people affected by HIV/AIDS, to advocate on their behalf and to help educate the local community. At the same time, the Project provided a bridge to the local health authority and health services helping them to be able to provide services in a better way. 

From 1987 to the Ace Project’s natural end in 2001, the tennis group and associates were instrumental in funding and staffing two community health centres originally in 1987 in Croydon and then in 1995 in Mitcham in South London. £700,000 was raised through fundraising events during this time with the Tennis group producing theatre shows and organising regular tennis tournaments as well as hosting wine tasting and race night events plus supporting many other events such as auctions and jumble sales. 

Leigh said, “Amongst the tennis group and their friends, there was an untapped reservoir of skills, knowledge and experience with, most crucially, members having the ability to transfer these to new and different settings within the healthcare and wellbeing environments. Suddenly in a time of real health crisis affecting its own community, the tennis group was able to organise itself and make a real difference to their local community.

“Many players in the tennis group and their partners and friends formally or informally supported the ACE project for the entire 14 years. This included becoming management committee members, fundraisers, trainers, therapists and cleaners. Throughout the journey, the Project educated the local community, assisted the learning of healthcare professionals so they could care for patients in a better way, and supported over 800 people living with HIV/AIDS, initially by helping to manage end of life care, right through to when anti-HIV+ drug treatments became available which meant the project could help people live their best lives such as getting back to employment.

1995-The-Ace-Project-Building-in-Eagle-Court-Mitcham-Surrey.jpg

This building opened in 1995 and was the 2nd HIV centre built from the fundraising efforts of staff, CAGS, the Tennis group, family and friends and other volunteers. The centre provided a drop in space, buddy service, meal service and therapies for people living with HIV AIDS as well as providing training and education services for healthcare professionals and members of the public .

“In short, our small LGBT+ tennis group in Croydon put together research and information and then put a structure in place so we were able to say, ‘this is what the needs are, this is how we can help ourselves and our community and this is how the NHS and other health care professionals can support our needs.” 

Today, the Ace Players Tennis Group has close to 200 members, with a diverse membership including many nationalities and ethnicities taking part and ages from 28 to 80 playing regularly and continues to provide a safe space for its members to get out on court and keep active. The group continues to be primarily a social group facilitating connections between members and providing events and activities off court and checking in on members you play occasionally or haven’t been for a while. Players come from across Greater London, travelling on a Sunday from as far afield as Ealing and West Drayton to Croydon to play in a supportive environment on hired courts at Shirley Park LTC where they feel accepted no matter their sexuality or gender identity. Members regularly report back how their health and wellbeing are enhanced by playing in the group, and how positive it is to belong to a group where they can be their authentic selves and feel confident safe and supported. 

With many younger members joining, the future of the group is bright, but while the priority is to look forward, Leigh is keen to ensure new members know what people have gone through to get to this point: “LGBT history month provides the opportunity for us to share their experiences and to ensure their part in developing services and activities and combatting discrimination is recorded and not forgotten.” 

Continue Reading