Inclusive Rugby: How Canada's Gay Rugby Clubs Open the Sport to All
Written By: Brock Smith
At a time when homophobia and hypermasculinity still run rampant throughout men’s sports, inclusive rugby clubs are setting a shining example of how teams can encourage participation among those who have traditionally been under-represented across the game.
Inclusive clubs are community leaders, working to eliminate anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) sentiment at the grassroots level, and provide opportunities for members of the LGBTQ community to compete in sports through tolerant and accepting teams.
They seek to eradicate a culture of poisonous ‘locker room talk’ - hateful chatter within the traditional space of gay slurs and macho pranks - and focus as much on camaraderie and team-building as they do on skill development.
They foster a supportive and non-judgmental environment for its members, promoting equality and diversity, the removal of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and identification, and good health through physical activity.
They recognize that many members of the LGBTQ community who are interested in sports have likely had to face some variation of the internal question “Do I want to be gay or do I want to be an athlete?” at some point in their lives, and they provide a safe space for individuals to be both.
And, by all accounts, they’re damn fun to be a part of, too.
While rugby has been played for the better part of 200 years, the age of inclusive rugby is still in its relative infancy. Its formal roots can be traced back to London, England in 1995, when a small group of gay men met in a pub (editor’s note: a perfect locale for the birth of a rugby team) near King’s Cross to create the world’s first officially-recognized gay rugby club.
Canada itself is home to three inclusive rugby clubs. The oldest, Toronto’s Muddy York RFC, has welcomed cisgender gay men, trans men, and their allies to participate and compete since the club was founded 2003. Ottawa Wolves RFC was next, launching in 2008, followed by Armada Montreal RFC in 2014; since then, both the Wolves and the Armada have expanded their programming to include women’s sides, too.
All three clubs pride themselves on their diverse membership, and actively encourage members of all skill levels and body types to participate.
“Originally, back in the early 2000s, the team came together as a bunch of guys that wanted to create a positive and encouraging space to play a sport,” says Muddy York club president Omar Aljebouri. “Our club wanted to offer a team experience that not only focused on building skills, but one that also pushed the boundaries and helped enrich the LGTBQ community within the bigger community in Toronto and the GTA.”
For Aljebouri, the primary goal of inclusive clubs is to walk the talk – to provide a space that allows players to feel at home from the moment they attend their first practice.
“I remember when I first joined Muddy York, I felt completely welcomed right away, which is a hallmark of inclusive rugby clubs,” says Aljebouri, who is going into his third season with the club. “I wanted to join a team that could speak to my day-to-day experience, and I felt completely included. I felt like I belonged.”
“The club is extra-socially sensitive, which is what is really incredible about the composition of our membership. We’re a very progressive group of people that, in a way, is very reflective of the social philosophy that we have in Canada.”
Aljebouri describes how this progressive social philosophy allows for inclusive clubs like Muddy York to welcome a very diverse group of members.
“While Muddy York is a member of International Gay Rugby, we have many guys at the club who are not necessarily gay or trans. We have many straight guys, too,” he says. “It’s a very neutral space, which helps unleash the potential of our players. The stuff that many of us tended to worry about while playing for other teams, and can cause social anxiety for a lot of people, is really dealt with. You don’t feel any sort of tension. People do go out of their way to make sure there’s a place for everybody.”
With a framework in place to foster a sense of camaraderie both on and off the field, stories of unconditional welcoming being extended right from the get-go are commonplace for those who’ve played for an inclusive rugby side.
“The attitude of the team when I joined was so positive,” says Mike Fancie, former men’s captain of the Ottawa Wolves. “Despite playing for a number of teams prior to joining the Wolves, the welcoming atmosphere was something that I’d never experienced before. I really felt like part of a team right out of the gate.”
Fancie, who played with the Wolves from 2010-2014 and speaks as an ally, sees the social inclusion behind inclusive rugby as a crucial extension of the sport’s stated values.
“When we talk about solidarity, teamwork, and inclusivity, we’re talking supporting equity-seeking groups,” he says. “When you look at how inclusive teams come together, they provide access to the sport for people who might not have ever had the opportunity to play before because of their gender or sexual orientation.”
Fancie describes how joining the Wolves represented an opportunity to play rugby alongside “big-hearted, upbeat players” within a club culture that supported his social values.
“I’ve heard many stories from former teammates who didn’t ever feel like they could take part in the sport because of their perception of feeling welcome, or incidents that they experienced in the locker room. I can speak to experiencing that kind of pseudo-homophobic behaviour in the locker room with teams that I’ve been on that I know would not have made me feel welcomed if I were queer or trans.”
The need for inclusivity in sports is clear. According to Out on the Fields, the first international study on homophobia in sports, while a majority of lesbian and gay youths participate in organized sports, more than 75% believe sports don’t offer them a safe environment. A similar percentage are closeted while playing sports, apprehensive of prejudice from teammates and opponents.
The findings also showed that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youths are more likely to quit at earlier ages than their straight peers. And, as Fancie alluded to, a high percentage of participants of all sexualities (80%) reported witnessing or experiencing homophobia in a sporting environment.
“The notion there are teams in the rugby community that are specifically there to be inclusive and to promote the idea that ‘if you can play, there’s a space for you’ makes me so proud of our sport and the values that we put at its core,” adds Fancie.
Playing in leagues in southern Ontario (Muddy York), eastern Ontario (Wolves) and across Quebec (Armada), Canada’s inclusive clubs have found themselves largely supported by their heterocentric counterparts.
“The sport itself is the perfect place for an all-inclusive team to operate, because the culture around rugby, unlike other sports, encourages acceptance of the ‘other,’” says Aljebouri. “Our club has been improving. We’ve come a long way since those early years, and other clubs are noticing that. When other clubs see that we’re doing our part and we’re showing resolve – that we’re just as determined and motivated as any other team – we’ve earned their respect and encouragement. Other clubs have been nothing but supportive.”
Fancie echoes those sentiments, noting that in all his years with the Wolves, he found that conversations with opposing team captains after games typically involved a discussion about his players not giving up, playing hard, and showing grit.
“I think that there was a lot of mutual respect developed on the field, because we gave our all until the final whistle, and despite being completely out of steam, we’d still be out having a beer afterwards like a rugby player should,” says Fancie. “I think a lot of other teams gained quite a bit of respect for our squad, and it led to some really positive shifts in attitude. I wouldn’t necessarily say that our team was on a mission to change minds, but I think that by being on the field as an inclusive team, we showed a lot of people the positive roles that that inclusivity can have in the sport.”
That said, while rival teams have typically exhibited encouraging and supportive behaviour, discriminatory language still exists on the pitch.
“Let’s not mince words. It happens here and there,” adds Fancie.
Fancie describes one instance when he was on his own goal line holding up an attacking team, and in his zeal to hold the ball-carrier up, his hand grazed his opponent’s crotch.
“He got mad about it. He got mad about it to me, in my face, on the field, and it wasn’t pleasant. But I brushed it off because I knew that while the emotions at that particular moment in the game were high, it didn’t represent a general trend. These things happen, but they happen a hell of a lot less because of the fact that there is an inclusive rugby team playing in the league, and that people recognize and respect our team as big-hearted warriors who take rugby seriously.”
On top of their regular league play in Ontario and Quebec, all three Canadian inclusive clubs compete internationally in the biennial Bingham Cup, the world championship for international gay rugby and the second largest rugby tournament for 15-player teams in the world (following the Rugby World Cup). The Cup is hosted in rotating cities across the globe, including New York, London and Dublin.
“The Bingham Cup is an insane, unique experience because of the way that it brings people from across the globe together with a shared purpose,” says Fancie, who captained the Ottawa Wolves at the 2014 edition of the Cup in Sydney.
“It may be an amateur rugby tournament, but the quality of competition is incredible. Canadian teams get the chance to face well-established inclusive clubs like England’s Kings Cross Steelers, American sides like the San Francisco Fog, and the Sydney Convicts out of Australia. Some of these teams could wallop most amateur teams in Canada, and seeing that breadth of experience was really inspirational for teams like ours that were still developing.”
Since 2002, inclusive teams have gathered every other year in a different city to compete, celebrate gay inclusion in rugby, and honour the memory of Mark Bingham, for whom the Cup is named; he was a founding member of two of the first gay rugby clubs in the United States before he died on United Airlines Flight 93 during the attacks on September 11, 2001.
At the most recent Bingham Cup in Nashville, 2016, players on record-high 42 teams from 21 countries travelled to Tennessee to participate. Two years later, the competition’s rapid growth is showing no signs of slowing down; the 2018 tournament in Amsterdam is anticipating the arrival of 60 clubs.
“The socializing is what sets the tournament apart… try to think of it as a big conference,” adds Fancie. “It’s a chance to reconnect with old friends, get to know a new city, and enjoy beers with rugby players from all across the world. There are tons of relationships that start at the Bingham Cup. It brings people together.”
Canada also has its own version of the Bingham Cup; the Beaver Bowl is the country’s largest inclusive rugby tournament, hosted by Muddy York*. Traditionally held over Labour Day Weekend*, the annual tournament is open to all gay, bisexual, queer, trans and allies players, fans, and teams from across North America.
[*Shaking things up in 2017, the Beaver Bowl was held in Montreal in mid-August as part of the city’s 375th anniversary and Pride Week celebrations.]
First played in 2010, back when it was billed as a ‘Highway 401 clash’ between Muddy York and the Ottawa Wolves, the tournament has also enjoyed strong growth over the past few years. Recent Beaver Bowls have drawn teams and players from Boston, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.
“I’d like to think the Beaver Bowl is a reflection of the progressiveness of our society,” says Aljebouri. “I know there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done in terms of breaking barriers, but I think the fact that more and more rugby players are interested in playing and travelling across the border to come to Toronto only shows that the tournament has a demonstrated value as a safe space for strong competition.”
“The tournament, as an institution, is very valuable in that it gives gay rugby clubs that have only been around for five or six years the chance to play against others that have that same level of rugby development under their belt,” adds Fancie. “When Muddy York and the Wolves play each other, or many other inclusive sides from across North America, it’s an even playing field between the two teams. It’s anyone’s game, and everyone’s game.”
Beyond the rugby itself, inclusive club members often cite the off-the-pitch social aspect of club as a primary draw to participate. Yes, teams often go for the standard post-practice and post-match drinks, but all three Canadian inclusive clubs are also very active within their communities; they’re perennial participants in their respective cities’ Pride festivities, host numerous fundraising events for local nonprofit organizations, and are known for being progressive community leaders.
“I really value the impact that gay rugby clubs have on their communities by going above and beyond,” says Fancie. “There’s always something happening that’s being organized by the Wolves. This is a team that has bi-monthly bar nights, that a social committee organizes, that aren’t just for the team, but also for the team’s community. Their events broaden the horizons of the team, bringing together community members who want to learn more about the team’s space. The Wolves are a community. They participate. They show up.”
Through their work in their local communities, inclusive rugby clubs demonstrate that their mission of equality and opportunity extends far beyond the painted lines on the pitch.
“I think by being a part of Pride, and many other events throughout the year, we’re able to help activate our community,” says Aljebouri. “We’re making sure that we’re visible to those looking to be a part of what we’re working towards, and that we’re getting an important message across that safe spaces can exist both on the field, and off, in our day-to-day lives.”
Looking ahead, Aljebouri sees the future of inclusive rugby in Canada as bright. He calls it a “rugby renaissance.”
“We’ve reached the point where we’re able to have serious conversations about long-lasting gay rugby in Canada that can play a positive role in helping more people learn how to play rugby, to be physically active, to be part of a sport, and to become better people as a result,” he says. “I can feel the momentum building with new generations of progressive and open-minded rugby players.”
Growth in inclusive rugby shows no sign of slowing down, and for good reason.
After all, the very basis of inclusive rugby is an extension of the values extolled by the sport of rugby itself: integrity, solidarity, and respect.
And, above all else, it’s an idea that everyone, from all walks of life, can support.
“Speaking personally, I know that when we talk about ourselves as straight rugby players, we talk about ourselves as allies and the principles of the sport that we hold close to our chest,” says Fancie. “Supporting gay rugby is a way for us to put those principles into action, and to put our money where our mouth is, because at the end of the day, I firmly believe, as I hope that everyone does, that if you can play, there should be a space for you on a rugby team.”