Portraits of Pride was, like all best laid plans in 2020, unceremoniously halted due to COVID. Having spent the end of 2019 reaching out to clubs seeking interest in the project and then kicking off shooting in February 2020, I managed to spend just one month photographing rugby players before COVID put a stop to life, the universe and everything. Having scheduled, approximately, two clubs a week for three months Portraits of Pride came to an abrupt standstill. I originally had global aspirations for the project and had reached out to every gay/ inclusive club in the world and professional clubs in those countries. Unfortunately I missed my time lines for the clubs outside the UK but even if I had hit them COVID happened. As such these highlights and lowlights are based on my UK (only) experiences:
The most inspiring aspect of the project thus far has been the players. The primary aim of the project was to give a platform to the players to talk about their rugby experiences and put a face to their stories in the hope it would encourage others to join. By providing a platform I had the secondary aim to help promote gay/ inclusive rugby to both traditional and gay rugby fans, many of whom do not realise gay/ inclusive teams exist. Of the players I have photographed, there have been two main trends; new players coming to the sport and also returning players, both of whom have fallen and re-fallen, respectively, in love with rugby.
New players admitted too feeling uncomfortable or excluded or, even worse, bullied at school sports to such an extent they hated all sports. Attracted to rugby, many in order to build a social life, years later they are now enjoying and taking advantage of all the benefits the sport has to offer.
Many returning players expressed how they left the sport after experiencing homophobia at traditional clubs; one player walked away for several years after being the target of slurs from the touchline where opposition supporters shouted ‘Fag’ repeatedly at him while he was playing. Returning to rugby with gay/ inclusive teams players have found a community and team spirit they never felt with traditional clubs.
All these players have been attracted to the sport through the supportive and welcoming environment offered by gay/ inclusive rugby and at a time when traditional clubs seem to be struggling with numbers. South London Stags hit over 100 registered players in less than a year; Aberdeen Taexali, the city’s first inclusive sporting club, began life with less than a dozen players but then saw a constant trickle of a new player every fortnight.
There have been some inspiring stories of how rugby has helped players in regards to issues such as mental health, overcoming personal loss, body confidence etc… The project offers them all a voice to help encourage others to benefit from the sport.
It is worth noting that the project has also included straight players. Having played and hung up their boots, the majority of the straight players have returned to the sport to play alongside their brothers. As an inclusive project I have decided not to include their sexual orientation of the straight players in their captions as I do not believe it is appropriate.
Link to Portraits of Pride XV for the 19/ 20 season here.
The oldest gay/ inclusive team in the UK is over 20 years old and there have been a plethora of new teams set up in the last few years; despite the number of teams, no set formula or structure exists. Some were set up with support from International Gay Rugby (IGR), some from the RFU (*future support now looks to be under threat with the recent news of the loss of over 100 Rugby Development Officers and Community Rugby Coaches) while some have had no support whatsoever. What is clear is that there is support from some existing, traditional, clubs but geography also plays a key part.
An example of total integration are the Worcester Saxons who are a part of Worcester RFC. The club’s motto is ‘One Club’ and the Saxons are fully integrated into the wider RFC and enjoy all the benefits you would expect from an established club such as clubhouse, club strip, help with the fixture list etc. The York Templars, similarly, fall under the umbrella of York RI RFC; indeed while the Templars hold associate membership with IGR, York RI applied for and was accepted as an affiliate member of IGR. Players from both the Saxons and the Templars have also been invited to train and play for the existing established teams at their respective clubs, should they so wish and Saxons have turned out for the Worcester 2XV. A similar arrangement to York Templars also exists with the Belfast Azlans who play at Ophir RFC who provide them with a coach who has turned out for the gay/ inclusive team.
On the flip side there are teams with no infrastructure who play their home games at a local traditional club struggling for numbers (the reaction from the Club Chairman when he was informed of the numbers of the gay/ inclusive team was, apparently, priceless). There is also the team that is co- located and plays at the ground of a traditional club and therefore have use of the facilities and pitches but receive no additional support, which I know would be appreciated.
Of course the relationship between a traditional club and a gay/ inclusive team depends on the people involved. Integration does not suit everyone, such as the Lancashire Typhoons who use and promote the facilities at Preston Grasshoppers and have a mutually beneficial relationship while remaining autonomous of the traditional club who have offered integration.
3. WOMENS RUGBY
A key element of Portraits of Pride is inclusivity. The project has included gay players, who make up the lions share of the players, and also straight players and trans players. The more mens teams and portraits I took, the more it made sense to include the women’s side of the sport. A lot of rugby clubs have women’s teams and it struck me that I couldn’t honestly bill the project as inclusive if I didn’t include them. While the mens side of the sport is split into traditional and gay/ inclusive, the women’s teams are by definition inclusive. With the recent announcement that World Rugby is considering banning trans women from the sport, I believe the platform the project offers, to players to express themselves, is more important than ever.
4. VESTED INTERESTS AND LACK OF SUPPORT
The most disappointing aspect of Portraits of Pride is the lack of support from a sport that likes to claim it is open and welcoming to all. I’ve reached out to a variety of people, to help raise awareness of the project, but barely heard a peep back:
- International rugby football unions; my sole reply was from Rugby Australia who suggested I contact their Super Rugby teams (the Waratahs had already expressed they’d like to take part).
- All the English Premiership clubs (apart from Sale Sharks who I’ve already photographed), many of the whom incorporated the rainbow into their logo during Pride month; an initial reply from Bristol but no follow up communication.
- Club sponsors; all said they’d already allocated the coming year’s budget.
- Premiership Rugby saw a tweet aimed at them and asked me to email them; no reply.
- Guinness was interested in including the project during the 2020 6 Nations Championships, but after being introduced to their social media agency my only communication with them involved having to re-pitch the project six weeks later. I never heard back.
- I met with the Rugby Players Association who expressed interest and support; I am still waiting for them to introduce me to any of their membership wishing to be included.
- Former players turned pundits; one reply via a personal introduction.
- Sam Stanley, the first English rugby union player to come out as gay initially agreed, but then stopped replying.
- Rugby journalists; no reply.
- The rugby analyst with 33k followers on Twitter who after saying he’d support the project, then never replied to my request to retweet a post.
- The oldest gay team in the UK who, after saying they’d like to participate, ignored emails for months before finally replying to say they were too busy to take part.
- The rugby magazine who held a photo competition and included, amongst the shortlist, professionals, mens, womens, age group, amateurs and volunteers, but no gay/ inclusive entries.
- The investment bank who told me they couldn’t sponsor me as I am not a registered charity.
- The LGTQ+ charities, sporting charities, mental health charities I reached out to for support and to ask if they’d act as an umbrella for fund raising; none replied.
- International Gay Rugby, who I approached in 2019 told me they would not support the project as it was not niche or specific enough, before then indicating that they wouldn’t support any photography project.
Many of the sport’s stake holders, despite publicly flying the flag, seem only interested in self- promotion. Perhaps my attempts at communication have been lost in the noise; perhaps this is a reality of the commercial world, maybe it’s me. Whatever the reason, the lack of replies and support has been disappointing and has made me question the undertaking of the project.
On the one hand I have over 300 grass roots players who have supported Portraits of Pride thus far and dozens of amateur clubs still keen to take part. On the other hand, I have silence from almost the entirety of the rest of the rugby community. There is a certain irony in the binary reaction towards a project aimed at supporting the rainbow community.
Portraits taken: 315
Participating Clubs: 16
Clubs postponed due to COVID: 14