This year, our Rainbow Laces campaign is celebrating the impact sport has on LGBT+ people, and the impact that LGBT+ people have on sport. In this blog, Joel shares his story about how joining an inclusive rugby team helped him to embrace his LGBT identity.
Growing up, rugby was my school, social and family life. My closest friends were those who shared the same school and rugby club as me. My family and rugby life were intertwined because my dad coached the age grade teams I played for, and later on he became the rugby club’s chairman. So rugby engulfed every aspect of my life. It was a huge part of who I was (and, I should say, still is), but there was another big part of me which didn’t fit into the very macho valleys environment I was in – which was that I was gay.
From a young age, I felt that if anyone found out who I really was it would have massive repercussions for every aspect of my life. Anyone who knows me will know that I’m quite introverted, sometimes quiet, and keep myself to myself. Many might think that it’s just my nature to be like this, but on reflection, I think it’s more that I conditioned myself to be that way. I saw it as a defence mechanism – I could rely on that temperament to avoid drawing attention to myself.
By keeping my sexuality secret I was able to blend into the environment.
This ‘defence’ worked. By keeping my sexuality secret I was able to blend into the environment. I was able to play the sport I loved, I was able to build a close bunch of friends, I was able to enjoy the best three years of my life by being part of a successful youth team. Yet most importantly, I was able to share these experiences with my dad, who influenced and orchestrated it all.
I couldn’t ignore the underlying nagging thought that I would lose all of this if they knew who I really was.
But in spite of these achievements, I couldn’t ignore the underlying nagging thought that I would lose all of this if they knew who I really was. It was mentally draining: the alarm bells that would go off when a boyish conversation would turn to girls, which as you can imagine was quite often in a rugby environment. Or when a subtle gay slur – or even outright homophobic statement – was made in passing, which, again, was unfortunately quite common.
Rugby as a whole adopts a welcoming and inclusive message.
However, I don’t want the message here to be that this is what a traditional rugby environment is like. Rugby as a whole adopts a welcoming and inclusive message. The issue was a wider cultural one, influenced by the area and environment I was in. This behaviour was as common, if not more so, in school, sixth form and other social situations. Yes, it hasn’t been an easy experience, but the last thing I want this article to be is one of self-pity. I know how lucky I am to have a family who has shown nothing but support and love to me since I started coming out two years ago. When I was at my worst and in a state of self-isolation it was them who got me out of it. It was opening up which started my process of healing.
In fact, it was my family who spurred me on to train for the Cardiff Lions RFC when I moved to Cardiff to study my Masters degree. I’m ashamed to say that I was very reluctant to do so at the start. My own ego and narrow-mindedness meant that I disregarded the idea of playing for a gay and inclusive rugby team because I didn’t view them as a ‘proper’ rugby club. I say this because I know that people who are in the same position I was in may share that same view. Yet by coincidence, in my first day of my Masters, I met a player from the Lions on my course and I decided to give it a go.
A year later, I’ve met some great people from the Lions. It’s still a rugby environment and I was surprised to find out that there were both gay and straight players on the team. Even though we might not be world-beaters, we’re competitive nonetheless – we even won our league last year. The Lions have given me a new lease of life. I’m happy to say that I feel part of a team again – a team I can be fully open and comfortable within.