Is the rugby world really in union?

scrum

The World in Union. It’s one hell of an optimistic Rugby World Cup slogan but try telling it to the men and women still ostracized by their clubs, fans, and countries, for being gay.

One Guinness advert featuring Gareth Thomas talking about his isolation as one of the very few openly gay sports stars, doesn’t mean we have reached a good place for LGBT sportspeople.

A Vice News story last month, which celebrated 20 years of the world’s first gay rugby club, the King’s Cross Steelers, made the bold claim that we are living in a “great time for LGBT sportspeople”. But this subjective viewpoint depends on whether you are a glass half full or half empty kind of sportsperson.

The 2015 Out on the Fields international study on homophobia in sport shockingly revealed that 77% of participants in the UK had “witnessed or experienced” homophobia in sport – and yet we are supposedly one of the most tolerant nations in the world.

Last week (October 7) gay rugby documentary Scrum opened at the Iris Prize Festival – Cardiff’s international gay and lesbian short film festival – whilst the Rugby World Cup plays out at the Millennium Stadium.

The irony of this cultural pairing is priceless. The Australian documentary which tracks the 2014 Bingham Cup – an international gay rugby union tournament – focuses on an Irish backpacker, Canadian jock and stoic Japanese outsider, who have had to travel across the world to be accepted as gay rugby players in the inclusive Sydney Convicts club.

The Bingham Cup was founded in 2002 in memory of American gay rugby player Mark Bingham who was one of the passengers to bravely tackle terrorists on the Airlines Flight 93 during the 9/11 attacks. Inaugurated by the International Gay Rugby Association and Board, the Bingham Cup soon became the gay equivalent of the Rugby World Cup.

Yet the very fact that gay rugby exists as a separate sporting entity highlights the ridiculous segregation that still exists between straight and gay players. Could you imagine if there was a black and white rugby cup?

Scrum director Poppy Stockell, says the results of homophobia in sport survey are “pretty grim” and stigma continues to surround gay rugby as her film attests.

The most affecting scene in Scrum, which led to emphatic audience tears during its premiere at the Sheffield DocFest earlier this year, was the sight of 15 men crying in the locker room before the tournament final, as they recalled the past abuse and suffering they had endured in sport and the wider world before finally finding acceptance and unity on the gay rugby pitch.

Irishman Pearse Egan was taunted and bullied at school and was the kid no-one wanted on their team. “I was called poof and they would say don’t pass the ball to him…I was asked to leave every sports club I was in”, said Pearse. And he didn’t just face abuse from school bullies, Scrum captures his painful recollection of the horrific moment he was humiliated by his homophobic Catholic school teacher in the middle of class.

Pin-up Canadian Brennan Bastyovanszky claims he was forced out of an amateur rugby league club after they discovered he was gay. He found himself frequently sat on the bench and decided to seek out a more inclusive club landing himself a position as loose head pop in the first team of Sydney Convicts.

But Japanese player Aki Mizutani took the most dramatic steps of all, leaving his home country to find refuge in Sydney.

These individual stories capture the stark prejudice that still exists in sport worldwide and prevent players from coming out.

But at least international rugby is trying to tackle the problem – right? In March this year World Rugby signed a historic agreement with International Gay Rugby to collaborate on the continued promotion of equality and inclusiveness in rugby.

International Gay Rugby Chairman Jeff Wilson called the agreement “a momentous occasion for LGBT athletes, supporters, officials and administrators and the people who support them in the game of rugby”.

Meanwhile Andrew Purchas, executive producer of Scrum and Vice president of International Gay Rugby, said is was only the “first small step” in eradicating homophobia in sport, and there was lots more all sports could do.

With this in mind the Bingham Cup is working with the Human Rights Commission and Australian Sports Commission to develop a Pride in Sport Index.  This will be annual measure of sporting organisations, clubs and teams measure of inclusiveness. In Australia the national sporting organisations of rugby, rugby league, soccer, cricket and Australian Rules have all agreed to be participate in the in the index.

But some may argue that measures such as a Memorandum of Understanding or pride index only serve to underline the poor state of affairs surrounding homophobia in sport in 2015 and we still have a very long way to go before the world is truly in union.

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