- LGBT+ inclusive rugby is gaining new players while traditional clubs are struggling.
A rugby-loving former British Army officer has toured the UK, taking these photos of gay inclusive rugby clubs to shine a new light on the sport.
He discovered that sponsors and big clubs are ignoring the opportunities of the growing LGBT+ rugby clubs. But despite that, LGBT+ rugby continues to grow.
Moreover it’s been an eye-opener for the photographer – Andy Barnham – who is a former player himself.
He was aware of the Bingham Cup, the world championships of gay and inclusive rugby. But he didn’t know about the wider sporting community that makes LGBT+ rugby today.
We asked Barnham a bit about his photo project, Portraits of Pride.
‘Gay clubs are the best of rugby’s sporting qualities’
The project started as a fundraising campaign for UK gay club the Manchester Village Spartans. But soon the subject of gay rugby got under Barnham’s skin, encouraging him to expand to many more teams.
He told GSN:
‘Rugby is a sport I love and I played for 20 years. I started playing at eight years old at school and continued at university. I even played for my regiment when I served in the British Army. Sadly, a recurring shoulder injury saw me retire.
‘Despite this, few of my teammates were friends off the rugby pitch. For the most I trained, I played and then I left. Maybe this says something more about me than my teammates.
‘But last year the Manchester Village Spartans asked me to celebrate their 20th anniversary by photographing them. I also shot their local English Premiership club, the Sale Sharks, to create signed photos to promote the Spartans.
‘And through them and the South London Stags, I learned about gay and inclusive rugby.
‘Gay and inclusive clubs represent the best of rugby’s sporting qualities. They are social and supportive environments. And they are bringing back players who felt uncomfortable at traditional clubs, as well as attracting new players to the sport.
‘By photographing the players, and offering a platform for them to share their rugby journeys, I hope not only to offer a picture of the clubs themselves but more importantly to encourage others to step onto the pitch and benefit from the positives that the sport can offer.’
‘Flying the flag’ but not really interested
Inspired, Barnham reached out for support for his project. However, he was soon disappointed. He told us:
‘The sport likes to claim it is open and welcoming to all. So my biggest surprise was how little support I got for the project.
‘I’ve reached out to the top tier clubs, their sponsors and former players turned pundits to be able to include them and raise awareness of the project. However I’ve barely heard a peep back.
‘For example, Guinness was interested in including the project during the 2019 Six Nations Championships.
‘But after they introduced me to their social media agency my only communication with them involved having to re-pitch the project six weeks later. I never heard back.
‘Many of the sport’s stakeholders, despite publicly flying the flag, seem only interested in self- promotion. Perhaps my attempts at communication have been lost in the noise, perhaps this is a reality of the commercial world. Either way, it is disappointing.’
Inspiring players left behind by homophobia in sport
Despite those at the top of the sport not showing much interest, LGBT+ rugby is booming.
Barnham explains why:
‘The most inspiring aspect of the project has been meeting the new and returning players who have fallen and re-fallen in love with rugby.
‘Many new players have admitted feeling uncomfortable or excluded from sport at school. Even worse, some were bullied to such an extent they hated all sports.
‘Meanwhile returning players have expressed how they left the sport after experiencing homophobia at traditional clubs.
‘They have all been attracted to the sport through the supportive and welcoming environment offered by gay/ inclusive rugby. Indeed, at the moment traditional clubs are struggling with numbers but gay/ inclusive clubs are regularly gaining new players.
‘There have been some inspiring stories of how rugby has helped players in regards to issues such as mental health, overcoming personal loss, body confidence etc… The project offers them all a voice to help encourage others to benefit from the sport.’
‘Beer drinking culture’
Rugby is famous for its burly men and beer-swilling culture. We asked Barnham if gay rugby complies with this macho stereotype:
‘Rugby is certainly a robust and demanding sport which includes physical contact as a core element.
‘It teaches and insists on respect for one’s opponents and encourages socialisation after the match with your opposing team. The result of that provides the image of hard drinking combined with ‘high jinx’ contributing to a male/ macho perception.
‘From what I’ve seen, gay/ inclusive clubs retain part of this beer drinking culture. However it’s not to the same extent as traditional clubs. Until now, as I’ve attended matches with camera in hand and been working, I have yet to properly experience a post match celebration.
‘Women’s team are inclusive by definition’
But while gay rugby is gaining popularity, the sport can perhaps learn even more from its inclusive women’s teams. Barnham hopes to expand his project to them next:
‘A key element of Portraits of Pride is inclusivity. The project has included gay players, who make up the lions share of the players, and also straight players and trans players.
‘The more men’s teams and portraits I took, the more it made sense to include the women’s side of the sport. A lot of rugby clubs have women’s teams and it struck me that I couldn’t honestly bill the project as inclusive if I didn’t include them.
‘While the men’s teams are split into traditional and gay/ inclusive, the women’s team are by definition inclusive.
‘Last week it emerged World Rugby is considering banning trans women from the sport. That came after anti-trans campaign group attended a forum about the subject. So I believe the platform the project offers players to express themselves is more important than ever.
‘In fact, I believe everyone should be able to enjoy the benefit of sport. And, after all, rugby is just one sport. So if the project is successful, I hope to expand the project beyond rugby, to other sports, in the future.’
Meanwhile, you can check out some naked gay rugby players who stripped to fight cancer here. And learn about the 9-11 gay rugby-playing hero who inspired the Bingham Cup here.