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Leveling the Playing Field

On November 1, 1995, a group of six gay men met in the Central Station pub in London to comb out the details of forming the world’s first officially recognised gay rugby club. It was in this moment that the infamous King’s Cross Steelers was born, and it paved the way for the 134 LGBTQ+ rugby clubs that exist worldwide today.

Of these, three are proudly housed on the island of Ireland. The Emerald Warriors were the first to form in 2003, followed by the Belfast Azlans in 2005, and most recently, the Cork Hellhounds in 2020.

In response to the development of this, at the time, niche sporting community, what is now known as the International Gay Rugby (IGR) board was founded, and this year marks its 20th anniversary.

Heading the IGR20 celebrations is none other than Ireland’s own Darren ‘Morro’ Morrin, Head Coach of the Warriors and an all-round rugby enthusiast.

Morro has been involved with rugby for longer than the IGR itself has existed - it “seems like a lifetime,” he admits. “I started my rugby career in Malahide RFC and I’ve been there ever since, in terms of a player.”

“While being there I’ve also coached a number of teams… I’m kind of not just a player, I’m all around in terms of management and coaching.”

With a clear undying passion for the game, Morro has always shown signs of his desire to increase participation within the sport. He worked with Leinster Rugby as a Club Community Rugby Officer for a period of time, visiting local schools to develop interest among primary and secondlevel students.

“My rugby career has taken me all over, to be honest, not just here in Ireland but I’ve played overseas, I lived in New Zealand and played down there as well. I think it’s a great community to be involved in and a great network to be involved in. You make friends for life and it’s not just the 80 minutes of the game.”

Having played on-and-off with the Emerald Warriors for a few years, the team appointed him Head Coach for the 2018/19 season, a role which he has held ever since. Being a part of an LGBTQ+ club grants you access to yearly international tournaments including the Bingham Cup -a worldwide tournament; and the Union Cup -a European tournament. These events are organised by the IGR, and this is where Morro first came into contact with the organisation.

‘For the love of rugby, no matter who you love’ - the IGR was set up to promote equality and diversity through the elimination of discrimination. It is no secret that members of the LGBTQ+ community, mainly gay male and transgender athletes, are often pushed out of or leave sports for various reasons. The IGR aspires to break down the barriers that queer people face, providing players with a safe space to compete while improving their physical health, mental health, and social life. The organisation relies entirely on a team of over 200 international volunteers working yearround to achieve their ever-growing list of goals.

Their core aim is inclusivity, not only within their own network of clubs, but universally. Through working with governing bodies such as the IRFU, RFU, and World Rugby, they provide information to the broader community on how best to promote diversity and inclusion within their setup.

With IGR regional reps in every area of the world, teams can avail of their knowledge and experience, and as a result, implement the best policies for their LGBTQ+ players.

Inspired by their work and always eager to get involved, Morro reached out to the current chairman, Karl Ainscough- Gates, to offer his services. “Little did I know he was lining me up to be in charge of this 20 year anniversary,” he remarked - and just like that, his fate was happily sealed.

“I’m the lead for the IGR20 which is obviously the celebration of the 20 years,” he explained. “With that, we’ve come up with a few initiatives in terms of a first-ever line of global merchandise, we’re doing a few partnerships with a few different companies, coaching videos and coaching tools, marketing and social media campaigns, all just to draw a light on clubs, get to know who’s in the community and who’s in the IGR network.”

Perhaps the most exciting initiative is the prospect of the first-ever IGR awards night, due to take place in London in October. “The King’s Cross Steelers are the oldest IGR club so we said it was fitting to have the first one in London, and it’s a good central location with everything that’s going on at the moment.”

Although it may not be possible to host clubs from the likes of America and Australia at the event, they still aim to have the Irish and UK teams, along with some visiting from the continent. Following this year’s launch, the awards night will continue to take place every second year as a part of the Bingham Cup, ensuring global representation postpandemic.

But why is there a need for specifically LGBTQ+ clubs? Can’t queer people just play with local teams? Of course! But as Morro continuously reinforces, “It’s not just rugby”.

He elaborates, “It’s people who are moving to cities that might not know where to go or where to reach out, may not be comfortable with going to nightclubs or on dates to meet people at first, and they enjoy the sports side of things.

“Don’t get me wrong, it is a rugby team, but it’s the friendships you develop, it’s the networks you develop.

It’s a safe space for people to feel comfortable with their sexualities while playing sport.

“We know everyone here at the club has their stories - and we all have our stories, everyone in the world has, and I think it’s knowing that everyone has gone through something similar.”

There is a clear and obvious unity within these teams, and the social benefits are understandably just as valuable as the health benefits. Not only do you meet like-minded people within your club, but the international tournaments allow you to make connections in every corner of the world.

In addition to that, you don’t have to be an out-and-out rugby player to get involved. Tag and touch leagues are becoming increasingly popular for those uninterested in playing full contact, and it’s inclusive for all genders and abilities. Taking it one step further, if you have no desire to be a player at all, there are still countless opportunities available within clubs.

“I think that’s one thing with rugby that’s great - it’s not just a full-contact game. You can play touch, you can play tag, you can volunteer, you can help on committees… If people don’t want to play the sport they can help with the organisation, fundraising, marketing, the team manager roles. There’s definitely roles and areas for people to get involved in off the pitch as much as there is on the pitch.”

Speaking to Scott De Buitléir, Vice President of the newly formed Cork Hellhounds, it was evident that even during the landscape of a pandemic, these clubs continue to provide great value to an array of individuals.

“We established the Cork Hellhounds in October 2020, in between lockdowns of various levels, and tried to get interest and momentum going for the new club both online, and in-person when it was deemed safe enough,” he explained.

There was a real buzz among all involved when launching this new team, and despite disruptions to training and in-person socialisation, virtual events like quizzes and workout classes allowed members to quickly become well acquainted.

Support poured in from the IGR network, and De Buitléir remembers that clubs from Ireland, Europe, and further afield were “delighted to see that a new inclusive rugby club was emerging Leeside.”

“That spurred us on, even when other aspects of the pandemic were challenging,” he added.

The personal impact that these clubs have on their members is immense. Karl Rhodes of the Belfast Azlans is one of the team’s longest-serving members, but prior to joining, he admits that he never thought he “would have the confidence to play”.

“I was never sporty in school, but always thought rugby would be a good sport to get into,” he comments.

The Azlans are Northern Ireland’s only inclusive club, welcoming players from all sections of the country “regardless of sexuality, cultural, or religious backgrounds”. Despite being nervous for his first training session, the warm welcome and accommodating atmosphere of the team quickly put Karl at ease.“The guys all have varying levels of experience, and they took the time to show me everything they know.

“Joining the Azlans has been one of my big accomplishments to date. I have made some great friends, and being part of the team has boosted my confidence and outlook.”

This is the reality of what the IGR and its clubs have done for queer people over the last two decades. Richie Fagan, Club President of the Emerald Warriors, says that the organisation’s work “has resulted in a worldwide community of rugby clubs which offer a safe space for people to play, watch and participate, and to enjoy its positive collective experience.”

When the Warriors hosted the Union Cup in Dublin in 2019, Fagan says they received “incredible support” from the IGR. It was the first time that there had been a women’s competition included in the tournament, and the trophy was named after Ann Louise Gilligan - an instrumental figure in achieving Marriage Equality.

As the IGR celebrates its 20th birthday, it commemorates all of these milestones and changed lives along the way. It is remarkable what those involved have done to date, and the steps they take over the next 20 years will undoubtedly have an even greater impact.

To stay up to date with the IGR20 celebrations, or to get involved with the community, visit the board’s official website igrugby.org.

This article appears in the 367 Issue of GCN

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This article appears in the 367 Issue of GCN