“What the hell am I doing?’ I paced outside the sports centre one late August afternoon.
I looked up, grateful for the shade of the dark green canopy that almost hidden me from sight. Here I was, about to throw myself in one of my greatest fears.
Join a rugby team.
Not just any rugby team. An inclusive rugby team.
I confess, the thought of joining a sports team had me in a cold sweat. I remembered being the one picked last at school, subjected to jeers and shame, because I wasn’t viewed ‘manly’ enough despite wanting to join in the frolic of playing football, rugby or any other sport going. More so, I wanted to feel a sense of belonging. Be a part of a team. Have respect, discipline and sportsmanship and more importantly, teamwork.
I couldn’t figure it out as a lanky and skinny teenager yet to discover the life of the world. Why didn’t my classmates want me to join them? Why did they have to simply subject me to homophobic taunts? No matter, how much I tried to score a try, any attempt of mine would be responded with a few oohs and ahhhs of my classmates skipping around with limp wrists, mocking me at every turn.
It was probably this that stopped me from being the person I actually am.
Yes, I’m gay. I know that now. But looking back at that teenager, I was, then, a complete mess of confusion, embarking on a discovery of who I was, only to be held up at the pass of the mountain I had to climb, by the ‘bullies’ I endured at school. I was forced to act like a ‘man’ – and the only way to do that was to not be true to myself.
Without any support given, I had to hide who I really am. Throughout college and university and my early adult life, I viewed with paranoia that someone was going to ‘find me out’.
I could feel this sense rushing back to me as I stood under this canopy of a tree, now in my early thirties, my fingernails gripped into palms, my legs becoming restless and my mouth suddenly becoming dry.
I was about to take part in the first ever ‘give it a try’ session to join an inclusive Rugby team for gay, bisexual, transgender and straight gay-friendly people being set up in Hull. This meant teamwork with complete strangers, actually trying to grip a rugby ball in my hands without dropping it and more so, having the confidence to walk out on the pitch and simply not bat an eyelid.
I was utterly scared.
‘Right. It’s now or never’, I clapped my hands together and strode forward into the sport centre playing grounds and spied people milling about at one end of a rugby pitch. A couple of faces I recognised from the gay bars in Hull but had never spoken to them. Oh god, would they have a bad impression of me already? I could feel the tightness of my sports shirt top clench around me.
Suddenly, the coach all asked us to pair off to do warm ups and I found myself face-to-face with a stranger who looked panicked as I did. In some ways, seeing that face gave me a bit of solace. I knew that I wasn’t alone.
It wasn’t until that we got tangled up that we suddenly found ourselves giggling and shooting bantering jibes at each other. I half expected the other guy to start complaining that I was useless, but he didn’t. Immediately, I felt a sense of acceptance and tolerance. More so, included.
For the first time that day, I smiled.
Before long, switching partners, I found myself on the floor trying to wrestle and grasp the other guy to steal his ball away. Then we all passed the ball calling out each other, learning facts about each other. Then we played a game of rugby, a first for some and a long-overdue sequel for a few, myself included.
It was the first time I could properly enjoy Rugby and be a part of a beginning of a team with respect.
This, my friends, is the Hull Roundheads RUFC.
Now, nine months on, this baby has become a juggernaut in East Yorkshire and on the national stage. With five matches, weekly training sessions, and countless friendships under our belts, it’s fair to say that the 40+ members of us have become a family.
I’ve never known to be accepted for the whole of who I am in any part of my life. I can just be me. Not only have I come to totally respect everyone who plays and supports the Hull Roundheads, I have found deep life-long friendships within.
Why should you ask? Because the Hull Roundheads are inclusive, welcoming players of sexuality or gender identification. More so, we are extremely proud that have more straight-identified players than other IGR (International Gay Rugby) club that we know of. Sexuality itself is not the significant element. What is significant is that the Hull Roundheads are creating a safe space where gay, bi, trans, straight and queer men can take up sports they didn’t have the confidence to pursue before. Sounds like me, hey?
Speaking to other players, I found out that many, like me, didn’t have that confidence precisely because of the homophobic culture that became evident in the social media trolling generated by the recent Hull Daily Mail article about our kit launch. Lesbian, gay, bi and trans people often gave negative perceptions and experiences of sport, whether that’s due to bullying in school sports, feeling intimidated down the pub during live events, or coming across anti-LGBTQ+ language on social media. Some of our players have played before in rugby, league or union, but typically were not out at school or in their previous teams, because the environment wasn’t supportive or welcoming to gay individuals. Many others felt excluded from sports from an early age, because the culture surrounding it was so hetereo-normative, sexist, and laddish. Also, equally importantly, I have become friends with several trans players who have been expressively excluded and compelled to leave teams before. That to me, was a complete shock. To this day, the toughest and the most real of players have been the trans players who I utterly adore and respect to my very heart.
Did you know that less than one in five members of the LGBTQ+ community are members of a sports team? And 84% of those who do play say they have experienced homophobic insults while playing sport?
This is where the Hull Roundheads RUFC have come in – offering a safe and inclusive space. Rugby is definitely one of the most progressive sports in its efforts to stamp out homophobia and make sport ‘everyone’s game. Just look at the censure of Israel Folau, or by the vicious assault on Gareth Thomas last November. There’s still a way to go.
But for me, The Hull Roundheads are my safe space and my family. We’ve had an outpouring of positivity from the local, region, national and international regions in reaction to the negative and homophobic comments online, and I’m utterly gobsmacked. I’ve worked in media and marketing and I’ve never seen anything like it.
I really do have to thank the Hull Roundheads. They’ve been my lifeline for me to accept finally who I am after tumultuous years of self discovery.
I just wish that clubs like the Hull Roundheads RUFC were around to support me when I was younger. They would have been able to:
- Guide me to believe in myself and achieve everything I want to;
- Offer a support network and a safe and inclusive space for my sporting endeavours and more;
- Help me accept and recover from a sexual assault, thus helping me to trust people again, breaking down my walls to love and no longer feel shame about it (I’m okay now);
- Support me in coming out to my friends and family earlier;
- Educate me earlier on in sexual health;
- Give me role models I could openly confide in.
And there are countless other ways in which a team like this could have inspired and encouraged me. This is why gay/inclusive sports teams are needed for everyone especially for those who are going through school and facing homophobia. Offering a safe and inclusive space to anyone to express who they are can be utterly rewarding for their soul and for their heart, to believe in themselves as the best person they can possibly be.
And the Hull Roundheads can offer that. Playing and laughing around on the pitch with teamwork, respect, enjoyment, discipline and sportsmanship.
For that reason:
I am so proud to be Hull Roundhead.
Learn more about Ed on his blog