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Emma Wiggs: 'If a disabled person comes out as gay, is that going to be an extra thing? Maybe it’s another barrier'

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‘I think quite often there’s a stigma attached to females being sporty, that everyone must be lesbians,” says Emma Wiggs matter of factly. “I find that a real struggle, although I can’t really buck the trend,” she laughs.

With cropped hair and a muscular upper body, the reigning Paralympic, World and European para-canoeist champion is aware of being pigeonholed as a gay female para-athlete.

The 39-year-old admits she is not one to “beat the drum” when it comes to discussing homosexuality, having only discovered she was gay six months into her para-sport journey, aged 30, when she met her wife Gemma in a previous life as a PE teacher and a sitting volleyball player. Twelve years earlier she had become paralysed from the waist down after contracting a mystery virus while on a gap year sheep shearing in the Blue Mountains in Australia.

“I was working in a school and I had kind of settled for my life as it was,” says Wiggs. “I thought, ‘I’m in a wheelchair. No one is going to love me. I’m no good at relationships. Nothing is going to work but that’s all right, I’ll buy a dog and I’ll get some cats and I’ll be happy whatever I’m doing.’ ”

Of the 12 openly gay competitors at the 2016 Paralympic Games, 11 were women. The International Olympic Committee does not hold data on athletes’ sexuality, but it is thought to be a record number of out para-athletes at a single Games. Wiggs has her own theories as to why the number is so low in para-sport. “Maybe some feel like they have their disability to deal with,” she says. “If a disabled person comes out as gay, is that going to be an extra thing? Maybe it’s another barrier, as if they think they can’t fight another cause.”

 

Emma Wiggs tells Fiona Tomas she discovered she was gay six months into her parasport journey, aged 30 


Wiggs has endured her own battles, having spent years reconciling body-image fears with her disability and later, her sexuality. In the past, she dreaded turning up to events with her “wife and muscles” conscious of others watching her tiptoe around the notions of femininity.

“I was always really paranoid about being fat and in a wheelchair, because I didn’t see how I would ever shift it,” she says. “I used to eat no carbs; it was a body image thing. When I got that right, I made so many more gains in the gym, put on more size and the boats went faster. 

“My body shape is very different now compared to when I came into this sport. That isn’t feminine, so then am I exacerbating this stereotypical image of female athletes being gay, muscly, butch? Yes, I am.”

At Tokyo, she will aim to defend her VL2 canoe title and could create more history in the inaugural KL2 kayaking event. Making either boat will be an achievement in itself, having come close to quitting the sport after dealing with a debilitating wrist injury last year when she became dependent on a mobility scooter and hit rock bottom.

“For the first time in my life, I felt disabled,” she recalls. “It sounds a ridiculous thing to say 20 years after becoming disabled, but it did have a huge impact on me, from a mental health perspective, personally as well as professionally.

“For six weeks I had to be lifted everywhere, because I had one working arm. That was so impactful that it made me stop and re-evaluate everything. One thing that this injury showed me is that I’ve got to be more than Emma Wiggs the para-canoeist. My wife and coaching team were really important. It took me about eight months to ask for support. They’d been there all the time, I just hadn’t let them in.”

She lent on the same support network when she came out as gay to her family, a moment which seems trivial when framed against the gravity of her recent injury struggles. She jokes that the hardest part was breaking the news that Gemma has red hair, and recalls the beautiful bluntness of her grandmother. “We love who we love, dear,” the 96-year-old May Wiggs had said. “We had people like that in our day – we just didn’t call them lesbians.”

 

But Wiggs acknowledges her coming out experience might not be so relatable for others. A keen hockey player before her paralysis, she believes all sportswomen – both able-bodied and para-athletes – are not immune to the homosexual undercurrents that have historically stigmatised women’s sport.

“If you look at the percentage of females who drop out of sport, is that because if they carry on doing sport, people are going to think they’re lesbians?” she asks. “What does it matter? We can’t be doing that to people. It’s too important to have people choosing to not do sport because of what other people might speak. That’s a really dangerous place to be in. I’d love for that to change, because while I don’t buck the trend, I just think it would never happen in men’s sport. It would never happen to the same degree.”

Emma Wiggs, the para-canoeist, might not buck the trend ... but she couldn’t have put it any better. 

 telegraph