This year, the Emerald Warriors hosted 45 teams from 15 countries in what was the biggest Union Cup to date. The welcome was truly legendary as sponsors supported the sporting community in hosting such a prestigious tournament. The famous Guinness Gates were repainted in rainbow colours for the occasion, and a wealth of international media lauded sporting icons like Lindsay Peat and Nigel Owens.
2019’s Union Cup was the first year a dedicated women’s tournament featured. As teams lined out to compete for the inaugural Ann Louise Gilligan Cup, it was not hard to spot the female players who are more commonly found togging out for their country and top tier AIL clubs. But as these warrior women lined out as proud members of the LGBT+ community, the absence of their male counterparts was stark. In 2019, the gender gap has never been wider than when looking at the number of actively playing elite athletes who have publicly confirmed their LGBT+ sexuality.
From Nicole Owens to Lindsay Peat, and most recently Katie McCabe and Ruesha Littlejohn, these athletes are the very definition of trailblazers; they go first to show that it is possible and they light the way for others. But men have not followed.
One man who knows this only too well is Nigel Owens, international rugby union referee. The man is a living legend amongst fans of the sport, not only for his sporting career, the highlights of which include refereeing numerous Six Nations games, Heineken Cup games and World Cup Finals, there is also his legendary sense of humour; he’ll regularly reprimand players with playful quips which sound like something a respected uncle would dole out to a favourite nephew who was acting the maggot. And Nigel is also a proud advocate and member of the LGBT+ community.
“I didn’t come out to be a trailblazer. It was just something I had to do, it was affecting my life,” says Nigel as we start chatting about the state of play for LGBT+ people playing sport at an elite level. But why are there still no male pro team-sport athletes publicly out?
“I think there are a lot of reasons. Some men feel the environment isn’t ready for them to be themselves at the top end of the game. I don’t see that as the reason, personally. One of the first games I refereed after I came out, I walked into the dressing room to do the boots and the players were in there half naked. No one rushed to put clothes on when I came in. I remember Ryan Jones, Captain of the Ospreys, he was in his boxers and he says ‘hang on, let me put some clothes on - I don’t want to get you too excited!’ and I replied ‘I’ve got standards!’ and everyone laughed and we carried on.
I didn’t come out to be a trailblazer. It was just something I had to do, it was affecting my life.
“So I don’t think anyone can say that rugby is an environment where you can’t be yourself, because it’s a lot down to the individual. When players are in their late teens and 20’s and playing in the professional game, accepting your sexuality is a lot of work. It’s not that rugby won’t accept them, it’s that they’re not yet accepting themselves. It’s only when you get to that stage that you can accept yourself, then you’re in a position to come out,” Nigel continues.
“And don’t forget sportspeople are in the public eye, maybe they don’t want to share this aspect of their private lives. Maybe they don’t want to be ‘The First’. Maybe they’re happy to be themselves amongst their family, friends and teammates but would prefer not to be on the front page of the papers.”
But then what explains the massive difference in the numbers of men and women coming out?
“Women are better at expressing themselves personally, speaking openly about their health, mental health, whatever is going on for them. There is a lot more tolerance of lesbians by men, than there is of gay men by men. Maybe that contributes as well,” Nigel continues. “Women don’t feel as uncomfortable in public, or that sense of danger in being who they are publicly, because men seem to accept girls being lesbians but won’t accept a man being with another man.”
It’s not a perspective I was expecting. While preparing for this chat with Nigel, tales of homophobia have flooded my timelines with the hashtag #CallItOut and then horrifying news broke of an attack on two queer women on London transport. Even if Nigel is correct to say that women are safer and more accepted in society at large out of deference of men, I think that’s problematic and symptomatic of bigger problems in heteronormative society. Problems which the rugby community is acutely aware of, given that the parent company of one of Union Cup’s main sponsors, Guinness, withdrew sponsorship of London Irish upon the announcement that they had signed disgraced former Ireland player Paddy Jackson.
“As society changes and becomes more tolerant generally, and as men understand that speaking about their issues and sexuality is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s changed a lot in the last 10 years, it will change naturally,” counters Nigel.
But how can the sporting community create a climate so that it is safe for men to speak publicly about things like their sexuality? I ask about the role of sports’ governing bodies and Nigel continues: “Welsh Rugby host inclusion days and they have done some training about inclusivity and equality. They’ve been hugely supportive of me over the years. They ran a campaign called No Bystanders to change people’s perceptions of what’s acceptable. It’s targeting the hearts and minds; you have to encourage people to change, rather than force change.”
I note here that the homophobic abuse levelled at Nigel in 2014 was called out by two bystanders who overheard it, rather than anyone on the pitch. Two year bans and fines of £1,000 each were handed out to the two attendees who were found guilty of aiming hate speech at the referee.
He sighs and says “It’s difficult to say if two years is enough because it depends on the people involved as well. I didn’t hear what was said, but a two year ban did send a message that that type of behaviour is not acceptable. Political correctness has gone to the extreme. People look for things to be offended by nowadays. Then you get people who go ‘hang on, I’m all for equality’ but when you’re treating people better because of who they are or their sexuality, or the colour of their skin... that hinders natural progression.
“Educating people is the important thing. Just explaining that some words might be hurtful to people like me. But sometimes I do hear things shouted at me from the stands and I laugh at myself and think ‘okay, that was funny’, but I have the ability to take a joke.”
I ask Nigel about the role his legendary sense of humour has had in helping the world of rugby accept him. “I think they know that it doesn’t matter what they say, I’ll take it in context and I’m not too shy to say something back to them. It happens a lot that I’m at an event and someone will say ‘where’s the wife from?’ and I’ll say ‘No wife, not married.’ Sometimes I don’t say I’m gay. If they ask me anything else, sometimes I’ll talk about it. Or else I’ll go up on stage and one of my first opening lines will be making fun of myself with my sexuality, and I know when I look at the person who’s asked about my wife, they’ll go bright red (laughs).”
Nigel is an immensely likeable man. He’s complex in a way that often leaves you struggling to accept he’s really thought through what he’s saying. He displays signs of a privilege that all too often causes fans of the men’s game to dismay. The decisions he has made have best suited him, and as a consequence he has become the first referee of his calibre to also be an ambassador for the LGBT+ community. Does he feel a responsibility for queer male athletes to come out and show other men that they can play elite team sports while they live openly in the public eye? He’s quick to slip back into the role of a favourite uncle, Nigel says “The best advice I can give is do it because it’s right for you. You shouldn’t have to come out and live your life in public. That needs to be respected. Don’t do it because you hear people saying, ‘We need someone out in the macho world of rugby’, do it because it’s right for you.”
Emily Glen co-hosts the podcast Fair Game, search @fairgamecast on social for a constant stream of news, views and opinions about female athletes at home and abroad.