When I first moved to Vermont, I joined a softball team. It was a great way to meet new people, but it was also a place where I knew I would find other queer people. At the time I was identifying as a female, and finding queer women in sports was like finding lint in a dryer. I met friends — yes, gay ones — who I still have today, 20 years later. I was also given access to a new-to-me sport: rugby. The local club needed players, and I was willing to give it a try.
I played two seasons a year for many years, coached for a few, and have friendships and stories that will last a lifetime. When people find out I played rugby, I feel a sense of pride every time they reply with admiration. Yes, it takes toughness and a special grittiness to play such an intense sport, but the real pride comes in knowing that I played and coached a game that went beyond performance on the pitch.
I have been involved with athletics since I was a kid. I know the rewards, and want my kids to experience them too. Sports are a great way to keep kids active, give them the benefits and lessons from teamwork and sacrifice, and will teach them discipline and responsibility. I have been around boys’ and men’s teams too. All of these locker rooms have machismo, misogyny, and toxicity. We still live in a society that has standards boys and men must achieve to be masculine. While rugby has all of the goods other sports offer, it still has some bullshit, but there is an overall difference to the sport that allows for more variation of self and less ego to accept the differences in others. If you want a sport that will proudly support your kid for who they are while challenging them in the best ways, sign them up for rugby.
Like any sport, there are degrees of skill level and competition. From club to international play, rugby can meet you where your fitness and athleticism takes you. But no matter what your level of skill, USA Rugby has a very clear message for players of all ages: “USA Rugby believes everyone should not just be allowed, but encouraged to play rugby. Our sport is rooted in a deep history of inclusion and the belief there is a position for everyone on the field and in our sport.” This includes all gender expressions, gender identities, sexual orientation, and race. If you want to play rugby, you need to respect marginalized people and embrace diversity. The sport is no more dangerous than football—rugby players actually have to learn how to tackle—or any other contact sport.
There are plenty of age-appropriate ways to get the youngest players on the pitch and no coach in their right mind would put any young athlete in a position to get injured. But the rugby coaches I have met know that it’s never too early to build confidence and inclusion. All body sizes and abilities are celebrated because every body type is needed on the pitch. Bodies aren’t asked to be changed to fit in somewhere because there is always somewhere to be. Rugby is a rough sport, but it’s a safe space.
When I showed up for my first practice as a rookie I was terrified, but it wasn’t because I was queer. I was nervous about tackling and words that I didn’t understand yet. Line outs, mauls, and scrums were confusing, but being accepted by both straight and queer teammates was pretty easy. I soon realized the men’s team was just as accepting, and not just because of some lesbian fantasy they conjured; they supported their gay teammates too. Transgender players were welcomed, and over the many years of traveling for a sport I loved, I realized I loved the culture even more. We were each other’s family members, the ones who loved us unconditionally even when our own blood relatives disowned us for being queer.
Sadly, there has been a recent policy review by World Rugby that is considering banning transgender women from playing the sport because of “safety concerns.” The rugby community was quick to start a #tackletransphobia on social media to show support to our transgender and nonbinary teammates.
We at IGR Rugby reject this proposal, and stand with our Trans & Non-Binary players in solidarity to protect their #RightToPlay and call on @WorldRugby to do the same! #TackleTransphobia #RugbyForAll #IGRugby #WorldRugby pic.twitter.com/jIwDZO1ngp
— IGR International Gay Rugby (@IGRugby) August 19, 2020
And yes, there will always be a few assholes in the bunch, but the same inclusive spaces have been provided for Black players and players of all races and religions. Rugby players and international teams were quick to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement and knew well before the NFL that taking a knee shows respect to teammates who are being hurt by systemic racism and determination to make it better. In a statement by Premiership Rugby that showed support for the Rugby Against Racism project, the league vowed: “We are committed to build on our work through initiatives like Project Rugby to support black communities, as well as plans to further enhance work in LGBTQ+ rights, gender equality and to improve the access to our sport for those from low socio-economic groups and those with disabilities.”
When I coached high school rugby, the athletic director confided in me that he valued the girls’ rugby club as much, if not more than, the other school sports. He treated our club like a varsity team and provided the same amenities. This wasn’t because of our winning record; it was because without rugby, most of my players would not have graduated. My players were high risk in many categories that were barriers to their academic success and emotional well-being. Most of my players were not natural athletes or even very athletic. They were outcasts who needed a place free of cliques, judgement, and fear. Being “different” was expected and not something to hide. They needed to keep their grades up to be active members of the team, and what they got from the sport motivated them to do so.
Feeling accepted and providing outlets for those who often feel left out is why rugby is on the right side of the sidelines regarding social justice and equity.