How Real-Life Quidditch Has Become the World's Most Progressive Sport
Who actually plays JK Rowling's made-up broomstick sport? We visited a quidditch tournament and found a safe space for people of all genders and identities.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
To you and I, the average spectator, Quidditch is a fictional sport made up by everyone's fave rags-to-riches Brit author JK Rowling. It's a game played on broomsticks that exists purely within the pages of Harry Potter novels or as acted out by Tom Felton and the old Weasleys on screen. Except that it isn't. For a small group of people, it's a legitimate, real-life game not dissimilar to the hoops-and-stick fictional romp it's based on.
The fundamental difference is that the real-life players don't fly—instead, they run with a stick between their legs. Obviously. Don't be an idiot. The stick acts as a handicap in the same way that not running with the ball does in basketball, or not being able to pick up the ball does in soccer. You can have up to 21 people per roster and seven players on the pitch: a keeper (goalie of sorts), three chasers (the ones who score the hoops and get the points), two beaters (the ones with bludgers who control the dodgeball side of the game), and the seeker (the one who chases the snitch). The snitch isn't a shiny gold ball with mechanical wings; it's a low-budget tennis ball in a yellow sock tucked into the back of the shorts of the "snitch runner."
As I found out at last weekend's Quidditch UK Finals in Rugeley, far from being a pastime championing masculinity and the male, quidditch is actually all about gender inclusivity. Teams are mixed, accepting people of all genders as well as those who reject the idea of gender entirely. It's the inclusive game of the future.
I met 21-year-old Jack Leonard, one of the editors of the Quidditch Post—a publication that reaches 40,000 readers a month—and player on Oxford University's second team, the Oxford Quiddlings. Leonard is gender fluid and found the sport in first year as a result of a Harry Potter obsession. But that wasn't why he stayed. "This is the very first sport to really support gender inclusivity," he explains. "If you're trans, you play as the gender you are. If you're non-binary, it's the same thing. That parity has really made Quidditch a really unique environment. This LGBTQ element has always been a part of the sport, but more and more so, it's something we're advertising. There are always going to be people who are curious and interested in sport but aren't comfortable in an environment that's potentially claustrophobic about gender and sexuality. Quidditch is the complete opposite."
In the International Quidditch Association's rulebook, there's a huge section dedicated to explaining preferred pronouns and the terminology surrounding gender identity. Take the "four maximum gender" rule. Each team is allowed to have a maximum of four players (not including the seeker) who identify as the same gender in active play on the field. As a new sport, it's literally founded on the idea of being a safe, inclusive space.
All the teams I speak to tell me they have at least one trans player, as well as non-binary players and a range of sexualities. The team Taxes, whose players come from all across the country, is one of the most LGBT-friendly teams in the UK. "I'm gender fluid. I approached a trans player, and we started this team together, which made a big difference to the vibe," explains 24-year-old Bex McLaughlin. "Our coach is also gender flux. Having non-binary people set up the team attracted more people who felt like that. We're coming from a team that often runs four genders. It's very diverse. We have to watch the gender rule for too many women, if anything."
Another member of their team, who wished to remain anonymous, says discovering Quidditch was intrinsically linked to finding their identity. "I didn't know the word agender or gender neutral before I got into Quidditch. But I knew how I felt, I wasn't a girl or masculine. But then I heard someone say, 'I'm gender neutral' at Quidditch practice, and they explained it to me, and just like an epiphany, it clicked. That's how I've been my whole life. There are so many people like that in this community."
Sporting tradition typically dictates that you have to pick a side: female or male. In Quidditch, people aren't forced to pick a gender if they don't want to. "Almost all sports teams at uni are sex-segregated, which is pointless," argues Zoe Ford, an agender 22-year-old on the Oxford Quiddlings. "In Quidditch, even the tiniest little girl can tackle a huge rugby guy. It makes the game dynamic really interesting."
It's certainly an odd sport to watch. Massive dudes are getting floored by skinny genderqueer people with dreds; plus-sized people are bowling around smashing half-deflated balls into trans women. Plenty of people tell us they'd never had got into sport at all if it weren't for Quidditch, since it welcomes people of all body types and abilities too. In fact, as Leonard tells us, it's better if there is that variation. "There's a range of positions, tactics and approaches you need. Take the person with the snitch, for example. Some snitches are 'cardio snitches.' They run around a lot. There are some tanks who can just hold you at arm's length. There are some who are small but know martial arts and can outplay you."
In case you were starting to worry, even the demonized cis male can find a haven here. Andrew Price, a 21-year-old player for the Nottingham Nightmares, feels welcome too, but for another reason. "I wanted to get physical and tackle and slam people to the ground, but I never really got into rugby and by uni age, I thought, I'm probably not good enough to make the team. It was too late." With Quidditch, there's a lower entry level. Since the sport was only born a few years ago, not many people could have played it from birth.
It makes sense that, like Price, most people here are at university. Universities are political hubs. It's almost inevitable given the ongoing collective conversation that a sport like this would spring up at some point. It's just weird that it took Quidditch to be that sport in the first place.
However, as we get to the semifinals, it's notable that it's Oxford's first team, Durham, Warwick, and Nottingham playing, and later, it's Oxford who take home the title. Despite the philosophies underpinning the sport, it's visibly white and middle class. I suggest this to Leonard, who disagrees, saying that some of the first universities to have teams were Keele and Chester. Southampton draws players from both Southampton Uni and Southampton Solent; Bristol too draws from University of Birmingham and University of West of England. That said, the teams do reflect the demographic of the institutions.
So if it's mostly university students playing, who are the spectators? Who chooses to spend their weekend watching an outdoor Quidditch match in the middle of Staffordshire? Mostly, it's the other students cheering friends on, or the players' families. There are, however, a decent number of people here out of curiosity, having seen it advertised. The Paduano family has turned up because their 14-year-old daughter is a Harry Potter fan, and they wanted to know what the fuck it was all about. "We were just so interested," the dad says. "I'm slightly disappointed that they aren't real broomsticks. But it's a fascinating game—more physical than we were expecting. I think it has value as a spectator sport. I could see children absolutely loving playing this." The kids, aged 7 and 8, were in agreement.
Those kids might be in luck because Quidditch could soon be rolled out in schools. There's a non-contact kids' program with a whole rulebook that Leonard, and his high-flying pals are trying to roll out into the curriculum. Imagine a future world where there are gender-neutral kids all running around with a stick between their legs instead of boys playing rugby and girls throwing a netball. The more you watch the game in action, the more that doesn't seem an improbability.
But it still has a little way to go. No one beyond this lot really thinks Quidditch is a real sport, yet. "Something that we're really trying to campaign for is to get it Sport England recognized," Leonard tells me. "For that, you need to tick stuff off the list—all of which has been done—a national tournament, national governing body that is also moving into a charity status. Hopefully, in the very next year, we'll be recognized, and then we get grants, access to better facilities and so on."
Quidditch may be a sport that most cynical footy-loving dads would sneer at. It has fully fucked with tradition. There's an intense lovey-dovey vibe that was never there on the school playing field. After the final, Oxford and the losing team get in a line and hug one another, with a handshake, and properly linger in the embrace. "We love each other, truly. Across all teams," Leonard says, watching this parade. "We're all in it together and all best friends."
How this grassroots lovefest will survive if Quidditch really got taken to the masses is yet to be seen. How large can a safe space become, and can it be mainstreamed? Basically, Leonard explains, everyone wants Quidditch to get recognized and to grow but not at the compromise of the core values. "The four gender rule is very important and at the heart of everything we do. I really can't see that ever being changed. If the Official Guild says we have to be gender segregated, it'll be the one thing that means we don't go through it. We'll say no and draw the line. Quidditch is inclusive. Not just a bunch of Harry Potter obsessives pretending to fly around on brooms."
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