It is fair to say that when it comes to sport and LGBT+ issues, it is behind other sectors of society, particularly in male dominated sports. Football, for example, has had and still has a poor relationship with the LGBT+ community. While many clubs have support groups for the LGBT+ community, abuse is still clear to see.
We have seen clubs like Brighton and Hove Albion often targeted for homophobic abuse and chanting, while in the United States, players use homophobic language towards fellow players, and this has resulted in matches being suspended or players refusing to play on. Similar incidents have occurred in cricket, tennis, and boxing over the years, and it is the inherent fear in players and fans, that is the reason we have only seen a handful of professionals in these sports come out, because they know the abuse that they will be subjected to will be incessant.
Yet, rugby union is very different to any other sport. Rugby union has always prided itself on the fact is a game played gentlemen and it’s a game full of respect, and this has been clearly seen when it comes to accepting those involved in the game who are part of the LGBT+ community. In 2007, rugby referee Nigel Owens was one of the first sportspeople to come out as gay, and Owens spoke of the fear of coming out;
‘It got to the point where I thought: do I carry on with my life, or do I try and hide it and continue with refereeing? Or do I come out and risk my career? There was no one openly gay in the world of rugby then’
Since coming out, Owens has said he felt born again, and although he has been subjected to some abuse by individuals in the stands, the rugby community has come together in an effort to stamp this out. During a match between England and New Zealand in 2014, Owens was the subject of homophobic abuse by an individual in the stand. However, two other fans immediately reported the individual to security and he was subsequently removed from his seat and given a lengthy stadium ban for any rugby match. It is this swift and robust response that is needed in all sports to make anyone who is part of the LGBT+ community to feel accepted.
Two years after Nigel Owens came out, former Welsh captain Gareth Thomas announced that he was gay, and while feeling the same fear as Owens did, Thomas felt it was important for him to come out, and to inspire others who were in the same dark situation that he was in;
‘I don’t know if my life is going to be easier because I’m out but, if it helps someone else, if it makes one young lad pick up the phone to ChildLine, then it will have been worth it’
In 2018, Thomas was attacked by a 16-year-old boy in Cardiff, and while police asked the former Welsh captain if he wanted to press charges, Thomas wanted to meet the boy and talk to him about LGBT+ issues and educate him. Since then, Thomas has been pushing for laws to be introduced in sports ground, in particular football stadiums to make homophobic abuse on par with racist abuse;
‘I wanted to leave behind something permanent that will create an environment for footballers, players, fans, boardroom where people will feel safe to be themselves’
There is no doubt that numerous sports have to improve their image when it comes to LGBT+ issues. However, rugby has shown that it is a true supporter and leader in the acceptance of the LGBT+ community. Some of the leading rugby union nations like Wales and England have created LGBT+ teams, allowing players to play the game without the fear of being judged on their personal lives. It is actions like these that make rugby union a driving force in the movement to support the LGBT+ community.