LGBT rugby in Manchester: an interview with Manchester Village Spartans

Earlier this month Leeds Rhinos became the latest rugby league club to reaffirm their active lead in the fight against homophobia. Dedicating their home match against Widnes Vikings to raising funds for Stonewall, it represents the latest in a substantial number of efforts within the sport to diversify and push for equality, following the launch of the multi-faceted equality campaign, “Tackle It”. It also comes just two years after the RFL took a hard-line stance towards the Castleford fans caught hurling abuse at Gareth Thomas, the first notable rugby player to ”come out” whilst active in the game and a year after Stonewall awarded RFL a place in its top 100 gay-friendly workplaces.   Altogether this has had the effect of encouraging some commentators to say rugby league, whilst still having considerable way to go to eradicate homophobia completely has made more significant ground than football in recent years.

It’s sporting twin, rugby union, has made significant grassroots level efforts to attract more LGBT defining people to the game who may have distanced themselves from the sport due to fears or experiences of homophobic attitudes. The International Gay Rugby Association Board (IGRAB), a predominantly union based organisation founded in 2002 as an umbrella organisation for the growing number of inclusive, self-defined LGBT rugby clubs around the world, is trying to promote rugby as a non-discriminatory, all-inclusive sport .

This year its gay rugby world cup, named after player Mark Bingham who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, celebrated its sixth contest in Manchester.The city is also home to IGRAB member Manchester Village Spartans RUFC, formed in 1999 initially to provide a supportive playing environment for men who identify as gay or bisexual. Gareth Longley, representative and player of the Village Spartans, talked to me about the positives of having self-defined LGBT-friendly rugby teams, how the sport is making progress in terms of equality and what more there is to be done to reach a time when self-defined LGBT teams need no longer exist.

Why did you choose to get involved with the Village Spartans?

I’d always played rugby as a kid but when I came out just before going to university I gave it up because the perceived macho image of university clubs didn’t appeal to me and due to a fear of discrimination within them for being gay, although this was only a perception rather than due to an actual bad experience. It was only when i moved to Manchester when i was 24 that i got back into playing rugby after discovering the Spartans.

Do you think that LGBT rugby clubs are important to the LGBT population?

I think they are important. It’s not that they necessarily act principally as a haven for people who fear being persecuted for being openly gay, although LGBT teams can be a valuable place to gain enough confidence in the sport to perhaps join a mainstream team or at least play with others regardless of their sexuality. We hope that rugby players and officials in general are really trying to work towards greater inclusivity within their clubs both nationally and internationally.

LGBT teams can, however, additionally offer a certain type of social understanding that a chiefly straight team can’t always do to the same degree. On a night out for example, Manchester Spartans go predominantly to the gay bars and I can talk to them about my relationship more openly because the majority of them are gay too so I think it offers the opportunity to feel a real part of the team both on and off the pitch due to having that common ground in social terms. We hope to be capitalising on this aspect with gay men interested in rugby.

At the end of the day we are there to play rugby and our team is an inclusive one, it’s by no means exclusive to any particular sexuality so we welcome all men who show an interest in playing for us. I think self-defined, LGBT-friendly teams work both ways in attempting to encourage inclusivity and diversity whilst highlighting to everyone that sexuality is by no means a barrier to being good at sport.

Do you think that rugby is more progressive in terms of its attempts to ensure substantial LGBT equality and inclusivity than football and if so, why?

I think rugby in the main has been more progressive in this area. I can’t comment on rugby league but in terms of rugby union I’d say that maybe this is due in part to the fact that historically union was and continues to be a lot more of an upper middle class sport where it’s been easier for people to ‘come out’ due to their more privileged positions. This can be seen on an international level too to some extent.  Rugby Union is now gaining popularity in the more affluent gay scenes in countries where it’s traditionally not been played such as the US within some expensive universities.

In general though, perceptions in sport are changing for the better across the board in terms of real inclusivity due to changing social attitudes. Sexuality shouldn’t be a barrier to sport and I envisage a time where in ten, 15 years we won’t have to have LGBT teams because sport will be completely inclusive. We’ve still got a long way to go yet though both in union and league as in other major sports.

Have you been successful in attracting more LGBT people into the sport?

I think we’ve helped make an impact; some people shy away from the sport at school because of fears that they’ll be discriminated against for being gay and feeling that they couldn’t adequately identify with the people that they were playing with. LGBT teams offer people the chance to take up the sport at a much later age than in regular adult teams where a certain standard of playing is more likely to be expected. Because of this it has the ability to offer newcomers a safe inroad into the sport that’s more open to beginner level playing.

We like to give opportunities to people who haven’t come from a sporting background not only to gain confidence to play the sport but get involved in the team-oriented social side too. We want to give people the chance to become involved in an activity that’s bigger and broader socially than just going to a gay bar, its giving people the chance to be part of something bigger that comes with a solid support network founded on team mentality.

I think hosting the rugby world cup in Manchester definitely highlighted the sport’s attempts to encourage people interested in playing the sport but with little experience to get involved, but I’m not sure that it alone radically increased our team’s LGBT following or participation. 

What do you envisage for the future of LGBT teams such as yours?

Now that we have an established team our focus is to improve the quality of the rugby that we play. Being a niche team in the past we’ve struggled to get enough players to ensure we’ve got reserves which has limited us in terms of inevitable injuries that players suffer. We’d love to do more outreach to change people’s perceptions of gay men not being sporty and to encourage gay men and boys that do like sport to stay involved in it; unfortunately we don’t have the resources to be able to do that effectively at the moment. We hope that by improving the standard of the team will be able to challenge any continuing stereotypes some people may still hold about gay men in sports.

Now that we’ve been established for a while people’s attitudes towards us have changed; they realise that we are just blokes who happen to fancy men and are good at rugby. Hopefully that’s something that will ripple throughout the community; we want people to see us as rugby players first and as gay men second.

I think educating people that just because you’re gay it doesn’t mean that you’re going to jump on them in the shower or be remotely interested in them is an important part of what both LGBT teams and the wider rugby community need to focus on. Hopefully with the support of big names like Ben Cohen, Gareth Thomas and Mark Bingham alongside other notable LGBT public figures and governing sports bodies like RFL and RFU we will all play a part in helping stamp out homophobic bullying in sport. 
The Manchester Village Spartans team photo

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