A new wave of queer swim groups are embracing the benefits of cold water and community
A wet and miserable July morning in the Lake District and a group of swimmers are making their way into the chilly waters of Windermere. Nothing surprising about that you might think, but this is a swim with a difference.
More than 40 LGBTQIA+ people joined the Plunge for Pride at the inaugural Kendal Pride – surely the first Pride festival to feature a wild swim. I was proud to lead the swim, billed as “open to all who would like to experience the joy and community of wild swimming.”
Many swimmers were taking to the open water for the first time. It is a trend that is being repeated up and down the country as more and more queer wild swimming groups are popping up on our beaches, lake shores and riverbanks.
“When I was swimming in West Reservoir or in Hampstead there were a lot of obviously queer people who swim,” says Luke Stamps, founder of Queer Outdoor Swimming, a London-based queer cold water swim group. “I realised that people were using cold water therapy as a way to manage their issues, whether it be guilt, shame or loneliness. People go to the water to help resolve these issues. And I realised that there was a lot of queer and gay people swimming, but they were all swimming alone.”
LGBTQIA+ swimming groups are nothing new. Out to Swim, a masters club based in London, Bristol and Brighton, was founded in 1992. What is different is the focus on mental health rather than training and competition.
Luke discovered cold water swimming in lockdown when his mental health took a battering. After finding that the cold helped settle his mind, he looked for a queer cold water swimming group to join but drew a blank. So he decided to form his own.
“I was trying to create something more spiritual and mindful with a mental health focus,” Luke says. “A space where people can swim slowly, take it easy, meet one another and have the sense of community.”
The question that is always asked is ‘why do gay and queer people need their own groups?’. LGBTQIA+ people are more likely to suffer with mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression and insomnia. The struggles with identity, repression and guilt that many queer people face can lead to serious mental
health issues that we might not feel confident addressing in front of straight people. With the mental health benefits of cold-water swimming so well-publicised in the media, many queer people are taking to the water to try it for themselves.
“When you go into cold water, you have to accept it. You breathe and you brace yourself, and then you adapt and you move on,” says Luke. “This is a good skill for life in general, especially for queer people. Just breathe and take it one stroke at a time.”
Queer groups also provide LGBTQIA+ swimmers with a safe space where they can feel confident to be themselves – whether in the open water or the pool. Michelle Weltman, head coach at Out to Swim, explains the ethos of the club: “It is about providing a safe space for swimmers because some of our community still experience homophobia or transphobia. We are like a family and come together to look after each other, it’s more than just swimming.”
The Pride swim was a reminder of how far we’ve come and where we’re going as a community. As I led the swimmers into the water, I reflected on my own queer swimming journey: from 15-year-old me swimming endless laps of the school pool as an escape from being bullied for being gay to guiding more than 40 LGBTQIA+ swimmers into the open water. How wonderful to now be part of such a supportive community.
“It was a brilliant moment, seeing so many LGBTQIA+ people experiencing their first ever wild swim,” says Jamie Hooper, chair of the organising group of Kendal Pride. “We wanted to give everyone the chance to experience the joy of open water swimming, taking people on an adventure to enjoy the outdoors in an inclusive and safe way. It was wonderful to see so many smiling faces.”
Find out more
Queer Outdoor Swimming: queeroutdoorswimming.co.uk
Queer Swimming Margate: @queerswimmargate
Out to Swim: outtoswim.org
Kendal Pride: kendalpride.co.uk