As an avid supporter of the LGBT+ community I recognise the huge importance the month of February brings. For me, February brings the excitement of another important aspect of my life – rugby and the Six Nations!
I discovered rugby late compared to other players, but I think this is a typical story for a lot of female players, if you’re not taken down as a child because a sibling or parent has ties to your local club, you won’t discover it until at least university level. I joined my local club in 2010, having never even watched a game of rugby before (no, I can’t even remember the infamous 2003 World Cup final!), at the age of 22 and I’ve been in love with the game ever since. One of the things I’ve always loved about rugby is that it really is a game for everyone, equality is celebrated in rugby when there is a position for everyone on the team. There’s even different ability versions of the game and wheelchair rugby to allow for those who are less abled (though it’s no less aggressive, let me tell you!).
However, due to its physicality rugby is regarded as one of those ‘masculine’ sports and consequently it’s more difficult for gay players to publicly announce their preferences. It’s probably important to note here that this is only the case in men’s rugby – anyone who knows anything about ladies rugby will know gay players are loud and proud! Having said that, despite the stigma there are still some heroes of the game that I would like to highlight, and the attitude promoted by World Rugby is very much one of inclusion and equality which gives all players hope!
Wales’ most capped rugby player came out in 2009 becoming the first openly gay rugby player. Gareth had a hugely successful career gaining 100 caps for Wales and was also selected for the British and Irish Lions tour in 2005. His choice to come out publicly was motivated by the hope that it would help create a future where young gay rugby players could come out and be accepted. Gareth also credited his teammates support at this time and was stunned at their reactions – he had told them three years before coming out publicly and they’d kept his secret as their own. In 2018 he was attacked by a 16 year old because of his sexuality and instead of leaving the police to punish the assailant in the usual way he had other ideas that he hoped would raise awareness. Gareth requested to the police that the case be dealt with by means of restorative justice which involves a meeting between the offender and the victim in an effort to help educate the young 16 year old. You may have heard recently in 2019 that Gareth announced he was HIV positive having been forced to make the announcement after being blackmailed by a national newspaper, indeed, they had turned up on the doorstep of Gareth’s parents asking for their comments before he’d even had a chance to tell them! He has vowed to “break the stigma” surrounding the illness and has filmed a documentary with the Terrence Higgins Trust.
Nigel Owens is an absolute legend in my eyes and one of the best (if not THE best) referees in the world and is the current record holder for having referred the most test matched. He’s certainly one of the vivid personalities in the game and is credited for some excellent one-liners whilst refereeing (“this isn’t soccer!” comes to mind). Coming out in 2007in an interview with ‘Wales on Sunday’, Nigel received a great deal of support but said that he “had to think very hard about it because I didn’t want to jeopardise my career.” Later that year, after the World Cup, he was named ‘Gay Sports Personality of the Year’ and was later the recipient of the ‘Gay Sports Personality of the Decade’ Stonewall awards. Not only is he a huge spokesperson for gay rights, he has also spoken out about his own battles with eating disorders. His Twitter account is also pretty entertaining – a nice mix of supporting young players and calling out trolls.
Rugby Australia and Wakefield Trinity
In April 2019 Australian Rugby player, Israel Folau (a Christian fundamentalist) posted on his Instagram that “hell awaits” gay people and the entire rugby community rallied together to disagree. Some of England’s professional players replied and shared their solidarity with the LGBT+ Community on their own social media channels. The next month Israel was sacked by Rugby Australia who stated that Israel had been found guilty of a ‘high level breach’ of the players code of conduct. That ended his rugby union career. In January 2020 the Rugby world was surprised to learn that Israel had been signed to the Catalan Dragons, a French rugby league team. Catalan had an upcoming game against Wakefield Trinity who are proud to support their player, Keegan Hirst, who is openly gay. Once the signing was confirmed, Trinity announced that the day of the game against Catalan would be ‘Pride Day’ and invited as many local LGBT+ rights group along as possible! Unfortunately the game was postponed due to poor weather, but it was still an incredible response!
Mark Bingham and the Mark Kendall Bingham Memorial Tournament
An article like this is never complete without an unsung hero, one that you can’t believe you’ve never heard of, but boy have I found one!
Mark Bingham played rugby at school and throughout college, going on to play for the gay-inclusive San Francisco Fog rugby team. On September 11 2001, Mark embarked on ‘flight 93’ (after oversleeping and nearly missing his flight) from New Jersey bound for San Francisco where he was to be an usher at his friends’ wedding. Forty-eight minutes into the journey four terrorists stormed the cockpit and attempted to hijack the plane, it was suspected that the plan was to crash the plane into the White House in Washington. Along with Todd Beamer, Tom Burnett and Jeremy Glick, Mark put a plan together to take back control of the plane. During the struggle, the plane plummeted into an empty field in Pennsylvania, killing all 44 people on board. Their heroism meant that the plane never reached it’s intended target in Washington. But that’s not all...
In 2002, the International Gay Rugby Association and Board created the Mark Bingham Memorial Tournament (known as the ‘Bingham Cup’), a bi-ennial international event which see’s predominantly gay and bisexual male rugby players competing in teams for the Cup. This fantastic tournament has grown immensely since it’s inaugural competition and now travels the globe having been hosted in London, New York, Sydney, Dublin and most recently in Amsterdam. Speaking on the importance of the event, Marc-Paul Stufkens, one of the organisers said “Rugby is an amazing sport, first of all, and playing in any tournament is great fun. But to do it with people who have the same background as you, and maybe a shared story of struggle..." and at that point he fought back tears, knowing just how incredible the event was for people like him.
I love rugby because it’s an inclusive game, and I hope that the sport can continue to aspire gay players and break down barriers to help people feel comfortable in their own skin.