As the Rugby World Cup gets ready to kick off this week, USA Rugby has signed a “memorandum of understanding” with International Gay Rugby (IGR) that has a very lofty goal: To end homophobia in all areas of the sport domestically.
While several gay rugby players have come out in recent years, high-profile incidents of homophobia have colored the sport’s progress on LGBT issues. Last November, openly gay rugby official Nigel Owen was subjected to homophobic abuse by England fans when refereeing a match against New Zealand, and admitted that despite being a top referee — he will officiate in the upcoming World Cup — he had considered quitting his job due to the frequent homophobic slurs hurled at him by fans in the stands and in social media.
Here in the U.S., a recent international study on homophobia in sports, Out on the Fields, singled out America as the worst English-speaking country. According to the survey, 70 percent of Americans believed that homophobia is more common in sports than it is in the rest of society, and 84 percent have experienced or witnessed homophobia in sports.
“First and foremost, this is a huge step for the sport of rugby and the sports community in general,” Hudson Taylor, founder and executive director of Athlete Ally, said of the memorandum. “I know that this is definitely going to make it easier for LGBT people to participate in rugby in the future, and also make it easier for those who are active now to come out.”
The memorandum itself doesn’t provide any concrete rules or resources aimed at getting rid of homophobia in the sport, but Thomas Hormby, the press officer for the IGR rugby team Nashville Grizzlies, told ThinkProgress he considers the language in the memorandum — “USA Rugby recognizes the right of any player, official, coach, and spectator to be involved in rugby without bullying, discrimination, or exclusion of any kind” — strong enough to render it a significant step.
“I think that you start with changing policies, and that helps change the culture,” Hormby said.
This memorandum comes on the heels of a banner month for the rugby LGBT community, as two high-profile players, British rugby league player Keegan Hirst and English rugby union star Sam Stanley, both came out as gay and received great support from the public.
In March, World Rugby signed a similar memorandum with IGR — an organization that has 56 amateur teams around the world, and hosts the gay world cup of rugby, the Bingham Cup. (Named after Mark Bingham, the gay rugby player who died on September 11, 2001 on United 93, and is believed to be one of the passengers who stormed the cockpit and overtook the hijackers.)
The popularity of International Gay Rugby has certainly helped make the rugby community at large more open to LGBT inclusion, as have other trailblazers. Ian Roberts, a popular Australian Rugby League player, came out way back in 1995; Owens came out in 2007, becoming the first active gay rugby official; and two years later, Welsh rugby union stand-out Gareth Thomas announced that he was gay.
Through it all, Ben Cohen, a huge rugby star, became a prominent LGBT and anti-bullying advocate. His voice — as such a popular and respected player, and as a representative of the straight community — was invaluable.
“When you have people in positions of power that believe it’s the right thing to do, then change starts to happen,” Taylor said. “There’s an assumption that all male athletes are straight, and that goes along with that hypermasculinity. That’s an obstacle for athletes who want to come out, but it’s an asset when allies speak out.”
The progress for LGBT inclusivity in rugby isn’t happening in a vacuum. In the U.S., gay marriage is finally legal everywhere after the Supreme Court ruled this summer that state bans on gay marriage were unconstitutional. According to Taylor, the average age of a person coming out has gone from 26 to 16 in the last 25 years, which has made schools, both K-12 and collegiate, much safer spaces for LGBT athletes. This week, Princeton offensive linemen Mason Darrow became the first active Division I football player to come out.
Darrow told Outsports that his teammates and coaches have been nothing supportive. In fact, his head coach Bob Surarce was relieved when his lineman told him the news — he was afraid that Darrow was going to tell him he was injured.
There has been some progress in prominent sports leagues in the United States, too, with athletes such as Michael Sam, Jason Collins, and Robbie Rogers publicly coming out, and organizations such as Athlete Ally and You Can Play working directly with leagues to address LGBT issues. But there is still a long way to go in the pro ranks — since the average career span of is so short, too many gay athletes get stuck weighing the risk versus the reward of coming out, and decide not to take the chance.
“As an athletic community, we haven’t done enough to take away those risks,” Taylor said. “We need more coaches, athletes, owners, sponsors, and fans to be explicitly visible about their support for LGBT athletes.”
Statements like the one that USA Rugby made this week can make a difference — if they are backed up by continued action and support to end homophobia in the sports. Words alone aren’t enough.
“We’re not at the beginning of the end, we’re at the end of the beginning,” Taylor said. “There’s a tremendous amount of education that still needs to occur if we want LGBT community to be embraced in sports.”