Team sports can often make members of the LGBT+ community feel uncomfortable. Will other people on the team be accepting? Will opposition players or fans make an issue of it? There are far more variables than in an individual discipline, and that can be enough to drive people away from sport altogether.
On a local level, that feeling can potentially be amplified without much of a support network in place.
However, there are inclusive clubs who look to give people that environment to play sport in the full knowledge that they can be themselves. And in the last year, one of those clubs has started up in Aberdeen.
Aberdeen Taexali is an inclusive rugby club named after the ancient name Ptolemy gave the north east of Scotland. They had their first training session in November 2018, and one year later have 30 paid members with a view to joining an organised league in time for next season.
“There’s a friend of mine that plays for the inclusive team down in Leeds, the Leeds Hunters,” club chairman Bryan Sinclair explained.
“He got in touch with me one day just asking if I thought that one could work in Aberdeen. From that, I put out a few messages on Facebook and had a bit of interest from a few people, and then set up our first training session within about a month of first putting out messages.
“The first training session happened just over a year ago, there was I think six people there, and it just built from there.
“I would definitely say within the last six months or so, it has really taken off. The initial period of starting in October and November last year, they’re not the most ideal months for people to be out and about training, or coming out to new things. We did a couple of events in April or May, and after that it seemed to pick up again, which was potentially weather related with summer coming in and lighter nights.
“We have got a mix of straight and gay people that play in our team, which is really good. Even just to have that mix, in the form that it’s currently at, it’s quite supportive. It’s good to see that we can have straight people on the team as well.”
Aberdeen Taexali is made up of players from a lot of different backgrounds – among their 30 members are teenagers and people in their 30s; some who have never played rugby before, some who haven’t played since they were at school and some who have played for other clubs – one even played for the inclusive side down in Cardiff.
But Sinclair is not one of them, as he does not actually play himself. Instead, the 39-year-old is happy to oversee the running of the club from behind the scenes.
Having grown up in Aberdeen but not coming out as gay until after he had left school, Sinclair knows the culture of the area very well, and he thinks the presence of inclusive clubs in the region could go a long way to making a difference for the LGBT+ community.
“For me there’s two sides to it, one is the mental health aspect of it all,” he said.
“Just being able to go along to something where you know that people have maybe had similar experiences, or are going through similar things, all doing the one sport that you can all participate in. It’s great for mental health and social aspects of things as well.
“Also I think there are a lot of pre-conceptions, especially around group sports and especially in things like football and rugby where it’s maybe seen as more of a “macho” environment. There might be people who are interested in sport who are not comfortable joining a straight team, for whatever reason whether that’s an experience at school or in previous team sports, and they know they can come along to our club that is fully inclusive and be with like-minded people who are not going to judge or anything like that.
“I think as a sport in general rugby is getting much stronger at being supportive for the LGBT+ community. Not just with clubs like ourselves, but in the mainstream sport as well. Nigel Owens and Gareth Thomas are guys have that have championed the way forward for LGBT+ inclusivity in sport, and it makes a massive difference and it makes it easier for clubs like ours to exist.
“I think it’s really important to do that at a grassroots level. We’ve got all age ranges in our team, but if people can see that there’s that kind of club available to them, from a younger age, and they can start playing rugby at whatever age they want to if they know there’s a club or the support there that they could join – or just in general in the sense that inclusive sports are a thing.
“No matter where on the spectrum you fall, there is a place for you in sports, whatever sport that may be.
“From the grassroots level, that then would hopefully filter up into the bigger leagues going forward, coming up from the bottom, and then there isn’t a need for these Premier League or Championship players in whatever sport to come out, because it’s been done already before they got to that level.”
There are currently 23 inclusive teams affiliated with International Gay Rugby UK, the governing body for the league Taexali are aiming to enter.
In the meantime they will look to arrange some friendlies in the new year, which will be the first officially matches Aberdeen Taexali play – although some of the club’s members travelled to Edinburgh to play in their recent tournament.
Even that was a couple of hours each way though, highlighting what could be the main stumbling block for regular matches: logistical difficulties.
“We are hoping to join the league next season, so we would be playing the Scottish teams and then potentially teams in the north of England as well – Newcastle, Leeds, maybe Manchester too – so distance-wise, trying to organise those games might be a bit problematic,” Sinclair admitted.
“But they are really championing for us to get involved. The more teams that IGR have, the better. Not just for the UK, but the IGR is an international company, so they have teams all over. I think they have over 100 associated teams across the world, they’ve got 80-something that are full members.
“We’re officially classed as a non-member at the moment. They have pretty much got worldwide recognition and support, which is absolutely brilliant. They do tournaments every two years as well, which involve teams from across the world getting together to play tournaments.
“We’re hoping to join the league next year, and I think if we can do that it will really set the level for the club. The guys in Edinburgh a couple of weeks ago did fantastically against some of the teams they were playing. They were playing some well-established teams and held their own really well, which does bode quite well for the league hopefully next year.
“Our coach Grant Skene actually plays for Garioch Rugby Club, and I know they do a festive match which is either on Boxing Day or on the 2nd January. We’re potentially looking to team up with them for that this year.
“Then into next year, we’re looking to organise some friendly games, because we have to have officially refereed friendlies to join the IGR league. Some of them could be against the other IGR teams, potentially Glasgow and Edinburgh, but at the same time it could be against local teams up here in the North East, which I think would be a great way to do it. Within the first six months of next year we want to get in as many games as we can.”
Aberdeen Taexali train twice a week, from 6.30pm on Wednesday evening and from 11am on Sunday mornings at Hazlehead Playing Fields.
But the midweek session could be about to change, as Sinclair is in talks with another club over potential joint-training, in order to make best use of floodlit pitches in the winter nights, so there may be a new partnership for the club in the coming weeks. Taexali have already received sponsorship from Specsavers and Cala Homes, and working with another local rugby club would just be the next sign of progress.
But for Sinclair, it has already been something of a whirlwind experience – and he has no intention of stopping any time soon.
“If someone had told me 18 months ago that I’d be running an inclusive rugby club I would have laughed at them,” Sinclair insisted.
“It’s one of those things, it’s just a good thing to be doing. I can enjoy the kind of involvement I have in the club, even though I’m not playing. It’s definitely a worthwhile thing to do.
“Just for me, I want to continue to build the club, get the name out there, get more people along to the training sessions and becoming members of the club. Then we’ll just see what happens after that. I’d love to still be involved in five years time, and maybe even have two teams on the go if we can get to that level. That would be nice.”