Last year I was introduced, via the Manchester Village Spartans and the South London Stags, to gay and inclusive rugby. As part of their 20th birthday anniversary I was asked to photograph both the Spartans and their local English Premiership club, the Sale Sharks, with the portraits of the Sharks players being printed, autographed and sold at auction to help raise funds for the Spartans. While I was aware of the Bingham Cup, the biennial world championships of gay and inclusive rugby, until then I wasn’t aware of the wider sporting community that participated in it. The idea for Portraits of Pride celebrating the passion and diversity of rugby players came about as a result of these initial portraits. Having served in the British Army I am aware of the benefits of team sport and being in a positive environment. They include the obvious benefits that physical exercise offers, but also enhanced communication, co- ordination, team work and camaraderie. Being part of a team widens your social circle and sport is known to improve one’s mental well being.
Rugby is a sport I love and I played for 20 years, until a recurring shoulder injury saw me retire. I started playing at 8 years old and continued to play at school, during my gap year in Hong Kong, for Edinburgh University and the Taipei Baboons during my students days and at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and for my regiment when I served in the British Army. Yet few of my team mates were friends off the rugby pitch. For the most I trained, I played and then I left (maybe this says something more about me than my team mates).
In the UK rugby is an autumn-winter sport. It’s a robust sport which includes physical contact as a core element with training often occurring at night in the cold, the rain and the mud. The basic rules are easily distilled but the nuances are complex. It is tough and demanding but also for people of all shapes and sizes. It teaches and insists on respect for one’s opponents and encourages socialisation after the match with your opposition. It prides itself on respect and acceptance.
However there are negative macho undertones in the sport. A recent study, by professional club Harlequin FC who partnered with researchers from Monash, Australia’s largest university, found almost half of male rugby players admitting to recently using homophobic slurs. Key findings included;
– 69% of male rugby players heard their teammates using slurs such as fag or dyke in the last two weeks,
– 42% of these players admitted to using this language themselves in the same time period,
– 67% have at least ‘one’ close gay friend and 69% want the language to stop,
– Player reported language is motivated by peer pressure, and typically used to get a laugh out of others, or ‘fit in’ on their team.
Gay and inclusive clubs represent the best of rugby’s sporting qualities. Social and supportive environments, they are bringing back players who felt uncomfortable at traditional clubs, as well as attracting new players to the sport. This project, Portraits of Pride, looks to support these clubs and players. The portraits are being offered to those photographed for marketing, promotional and personal use and I hope to include current professional and also retired players to help raise awareness of the project. It is a personal project and I aim to photo as many gay and inclusive clubs in the UK in 2020. By photographing the players I hope not only to offer a picture of the clubs themselves but also to encourage others to step onto the pitch and benefit from the positives that the sport can offer.
International Gay Rugby (IGR) has decided not to officially recognise nor support Portraits of Pride. Next year I look forward to working with the clubs outside of the UK that I am connected with through this project that I am unfortunately not able to reach this year.