22nd June 2017
The 99 call for equality
If one were to look at rugby from the outside, perhaps the strongest characteristic that runs through all the fans, players, coaches and backroom staff – and this is a big generalisation – is that of an obsession with precision. Was that offside, yes or no? Can I award the try? Why has it taken this long to get Henry Slade into the squad? Was the put-in straight?
It seems odd, therefore, that our sport is so full of ambiguity. The spirit of the game, for one, is a constant source of debate and disagreement. We are, as a sport, self-righteous and often pompous in our assertion that rugby is a great game that brings people together, teaches good values and promotes effort over results – but even these things are ‘up for grabs’.
As a Saracens fan, I have often listened to people saying “Well, if that’s the way you have to play to win then I don’t want to win,” as if somehow winning but not scoring scintillating tries is against the spirit of the game, not what rugby is all about, indeed not even “proper rugby”.
Despite all this, the rugby community agrees that ours is an inclusive sport, with excellent youth programmes, community projects and the freedom for fans to mix before and after a game. We can all get along swimmingly, all be friends and have a pint and curry and have good banter.
And there I make my stand. We do not have good banter. The ‘banter’ culture is a wider problem certainly than just the bar at the local rugby club at half-time, and by no means is ‘banter’ the root of the problem I would like to discuss.
The problem is that sexuality and gender in sport can never be precise things. Banter can never be precisely acceptable or not. All stand-up comedians have to stand up to the offence they may cause in the name of comedy, which they do, to a greater or lesser extent successfully.
Sexuality in rugby is seen in a very strange light by the community. The outside world sees it in a very strange way as well. I went to drama school, and trained as an actor, where I became much more aware of the difficulties faced by LGBT people on a day-to-day basis, grew up a little bit and handled the whole issue with more maturity. A lot of people there were astounded at my stories of tours and dressing room antics – as well as being moved by my stories of friendships, comradeships and downright courage.
They were astounded because the more they heard the more they convinced themselves of their pre-conceived idea that rugby is inherently homo-erotic – my stories of quite standard tour shenanigans seem to them to be clear examples of repressed young men expressing a hidden sexuality. They were surprised by their new understanding of how close a team can be, how much you are willing to put your body on the line for your mates – and how close the teamwork in a theatre company is to a rugby team.
Weirdly, the theatre world’s perception of rugby as being a place for repressed homosexuals to vent sexual frustration is as strange as the rugby world’s perception that all actors must be gay. Do I look at sexuality with the precision of a member of the rugby community? No, I certainly do not.
I want to see a time where someone says “England are playing tomorrow,” and is met with “Which team?” – because “England” is no longer synonymous with the English Men’s XV – a time where we have England Men and England Women and total equality. I want to see a time where a male or female rugby player can talk openly about their partner, whatever gender their partner happens to be, without it being a news story.
Unfortunately, until such a time as that, brave men like Gareth Thomas and Nigel Owens will make the news because the precision that rugby demands dictates that rugby is for heterosexual men, and by great kindness some lesbians too.
The women’s game is years ahead of the men’s game. At the Women’s World Cup Final a few years ago at the Stoop there were a huge number of same-sex couples walking hand in hand around the Stoop, enjoying the freedom and the lack of precision and pigeon-holing. I can’t imagine they would feel so free at Twickenham this Saturday.
The simple fact of the matter is that rugby’s obsession with precision does not extend to intolerance. We, as a sport, are doing good things. We are not evil. We have just created a precise world where even teams must conform to the way they are meant to be – The French must be creative and inconsistent, Leicester have to be cheating, Saracens have to be boring, Munster must always win everything, Women’s rugby isn’t as good to watch, girls’ sides aren’t as good as boys but they try very hard... the list is endless. We don’t mind you being gay, or a woman, as long as you
- Keep quiet about it because we don’t know how to banter with an actual, real-life homosexual
- Know your place
Speaking as the coach of an U18 Girls’ side, with a sister playing in the side, I had a centre, a winger and a fly-half who would all have displaced the starters in our club’s Academy side in their sleep. Yet the U14 boys are still given the top pitch and we are given a hillside area that smells funny known as “the paddock” for training. That is the natural order. That is the way.
It’s not the individuals to blame, it’s what we’ve created. We need to stop ‘bantering’, we need to start talking about sexuality, and once we’ve all got it off our chests who and what we find attractive we can all move on with playing the game and trying to beat the All Blacks again. We need to stop feeling like the sport is a heterosexual male, and think of the sport as something we do. Rugby has grown and grown but now we have lost control of its fundaments.
We cannot let the drunken idiot in the West Stand at half-time making loud homophobic jokes become the norm. We cannot let the Twickenham stands empty when the women come out to play after the men. We cannot be surprised if Joe Bloggs, number 8 for Suchandsuch RFC in the Premiership has a boyfriend. We cannot sell t-shirts saying “Football’s 4 Fairies”. We will never throw off the shackles of sexual and gender repression while we continue to mould and cast them.