Racing With Pride Committee Member, Leigh Armstrong has been involved in racing in some form or another for most of his life. He shares his story here, highlighting the progress which he has seen within the sport, as well as his hopes for the future.
I was hyperactive as a child and my dad would get me to sit still by reading the names of funny named horses running that day and then we would check the results the next day! I loved the excitement of racing and the first race I recall watching was the 1970 Grand National won by Gay Trip – a name that proved to be significant! I used to bunk off school in Wimbledon and catch a train to watch the races at Sandown, covering up my school uniform.
I had to leave home and school before 16 as my parents were not happy with my “lifestyle choice”. Luckily, I was tall for my age and managed to find work in the local bookies through a friend who said I was 18! I was effeminate and I didn’t feel comfortable conversing with staff or punters other than if they were a friend, and I often wore a dull jacket over my colourful shirts and took off my earring and necklaces before I went to work.
Racing jobs left me exhausted and fearful
At 17 I got a job as a ‘board boy’ at William Hills in Blackfriars HQ and at 18 I worked in the telephone credit section. There was a real macho culture there with merciless banter and a lot of homophobia. Thankfully, quick wit and racing knowledge neutralised some of the worst elements. I worked on racecourses and then in betting shops for a while, not being my authentic self until a dream job came along as a main stage bingo caller at Streatham Hill Theatre. Unfortunately, it took leaving the industry for me to feel I could be myself; I had exhausted myself feeling the constant need to fit in and adapt. I was always kind when people were merciless, and I was always funny in reply to rudeness. I was not myself much of the time, I guess is the point!
Fast forward about 30 years and I still didn’t really have anyone to share my passion for racing with, and certainly not amongst my LGBT+ friends who thought it was rather an odd pastime – the only interest was the annual call from friends and family (now happily reunited) asking for tips for the National and the Derby!
I guess growing up and coming out in the 70s/80s had a big impact on me. Being bullied at school and without family support, and then living through the AIDS epidemic and all the discrimination surrounding that had left me fearful and distrustful. I did not feel able to absorb the fact that the world was changing and, in many ways, had changed.
Nothing virtual about my identity
Then I found Twitter and I started to chat to people interested in racing and because it was online I didn’t feel so much the need to ‘tone down’ and revealed more of the ‘real me’, thinking the worst outcome was to be unfollowed! What I found surprising was that young straight guys were interested in befriending me, sharing tips and talking about horses. I plucked up the courage to join a syndicate with Martin Smith called “Little Princess Racing” and it was a total hoot, very accepting and I really landed on my feet. I then got involved in several other syndicates, some were ‘drier’ than others and I realised I was always limiting myself and gauging how open I could be.
Then something called Racing With Pride (RWP) appeared and I became a member, which was soon followed by a zoom meeting to introduce the group and members. I immediately felt comfortable and able to be myself – I quickly made friends, some of which are now amongst my very best friends. I applied to be a Committee Member and amazingly got accepted. Since then, I have been busy helping and supporting the committee in any way I can.
Stand out and be safe
Racing With Pride has given me the chance to help others feel more comfortable and less isolated in their identity and position in racing. It has also helped me to grow; I have been a visible ambassador for RWP at events such as Newmarket Open Weekend and Racing is Everyone’s Sport. I now feel able to enjoy myself without fear or anxiety. Racing With Pride has done that for me and demonstrates the progress that can be made, given my early memories of working in the sport.
LGBT+ History Month is about looking back, but also looking forward; after spending a lot of my life trying to fit in, I now know I can stand out and still be safe and happy in the sport I love!