As someone who was never particularly interested in sports growing up, the idea that Kyle Yeats would be doing PR for a rugby club never even came close to entering his mind.
Holding the role of publicity officer at Aberdeen Taexali though, that is the exact situation that the 30-year-old finds himself in.
Born and bred in the Granite City, Yeats was unashamedly himself at school. He was more interested in musical theatre than sport, but even though he did not run into too many issues he still suffered a degree of bullying, and picked up a black eye after being punched in the middle of a school show.
Experiencing that sort of reaction in amateur dramatics certainly did not give him any confidence that he would get off scot-free in sport, a perception reinforced by school PE and his more sporty friends.
“I always say I’m not a competitive person, so I don’t know whether that played a part,” Yeats pondered.
“A lot of my friends are heterosexual. Not to say that it’s only straight boys that play football, but if they were playing football or golf I always thought it was pointless. I never saw any joy in kicking a ball around a field, or hitting a ball around a green.
“My dad’s a big golfer, so I think he would have loved if I had gotten into it, but there just wasn’t an interest there for me.
“I definitely grew up with the fear of not wanting to get picked last in PE, or look like an idiot. Throughout school when we were doing PE I didn’t feel as though I could get as involved. I never thought there was an opening for me to do that stuff.
“I love my friends, but a lot of my heterosexual friends – I have to put up with them making jokes like gay boys can’t catch, or if we were doing something like a casual game of tennis it always had to become hyper-masculine and ‘let’s take the piss out of Kyle because he’s not as good as us and doesn’t have the hand-eye co-ordination’. Now I’m like let’s try and tackle and see who wins here.”
Yeats’ journey into rugby was not, therefore, a direct one. It was only when he was a little older that he decided to work on his fitness levels, taking up running through the couch to 5k programme and eventually taking part in 10k fun runs and charity runs.
Then, at the second ever Grampian Pride event in Aberdeen in 2019, he caught wind of Taexali – who were then just six months old – and decided to give rugby a try.
“I think my mum had a bit of a heart attack,” he recalled.
“It’s definitely nothing I thought I would get into. I had never really done competitive sport, and I was going into a full contact sport at the age of 28.
“I went to Robert Gordon University, and I wouldn’t have seen the rugby team as something I could get involved in. I might have gone towards cheerleading or trampolining, but not rugby.
“It was the fact that Taexali are inclusive – I still don’t like getting picked last, but there’s not that fear that you’ll get picked last just because you’re gay.
“For me, I initially went along for the social aspect and then I started to enjoy the actual game. I was so proud to be on the team, all my friends know and I’m quite in their face about it.
“I do the social and publicity stuff for the club, so I’m quick to share everything that goes out, but there is also a part of me that is quietly really happy that I’ve gone against what my friends or relatives would have expected. I’m not a star player, but I’m decent enough, I’m not doing too badly I don’t think.
“I’m so keen for people to come along and watch us play. We’ve only done three matches, and they have all been away. I played in two of them, one in Glasgow which I managed to get a couple of friends along to, but other than that nobody has really seen us play.
“I’m desperate for people to come and see us, because they still refer to us as ‘gay rugby’. I don’t think they think we take it as seriously as we do, or that it’s the same game they have been watching on TV.”
Where the club stood when Yeats first joined in the summer of 2019 is drastically different from Taexali’s position now – on and off the pitch.
The number of people involved at the club has grown massively, from just half-a-dozen going into Grampian Pride in 2019 to around 30 people when training was still allowed at the end of 2020.
Success has come along the way, with Taexali bringing silverware home from the Hadrian’s Cup in Newcastle just before the pandemic hit, and with the club entering Scottish Rugby’s club pyramid system in the Caledonia North Yeats hopes they will continue to go from strength to strength.
“When I joined there was a feeling that this was starting to become something,” Yeats explained.
“Being there as we saw more players join and the club got more of a structure was great.
“I’ve lived in Aberdeen all my life, so I’ve always had the same friends, so I was a bit nervous about going along at first. I’m quite an outgoing person, but there is always that worry that they won’t like you. I went along with my friend, who is also called Kyle, so that put me at ease but they were all so welcoming.
“I don’t drive, and where we train is just outside the city centre, so I asked if I could get a lift and that was quickly set up. I still rely on that, and a lot of our guys do rely on that to make sure they can make it along.
“I was in the first game when we went to the Caledonian Thebans’ training camp. You play in the shadows of Murrayfield, and that was really exciting because we stayed in an Air BnB together so it was a really tight knit group.
“I’m sure every team is the same, but I do feel like we’re the closest rugby team that must be going. We look out for each other.
“That whole experience of going down was terrifying. There were so many things that we just hadn’t really considered, like when we went to Glasgow to face the Alphas, literally the weekend before we had done scrums for the first time.
“I’m a forward, second row, so obviously I was in these scrums, but because we had only really touched on them and weren’t perfect at them I feel like Glasgow realised that and were using that to their advantage.
“It was literally just a scrum, playing for a minute and then we’d be back in a scrum. I actually stood up and screamed at one point, I was just done with it, but we were complete novices.
“Fast forward to two months later and we’re taking home a cup, it was just insane. I unfortunately wasn’t at the Newcastle trip for the Hadrian’s Cup, but that’s why I’m a big believer that we really need to be going out and playing games, because that’s when you’re highlighting things that you’re missing out on in terms of skills.
“That was the second week in March, we trained on the Wednesday and had a bit of a celebration, and then Covid happened. The carpet got pulled from underneath us, which was gutting because there was so much momentum. That was the development league, so we were moving up and we were going into the Caley North with our eyes open.
“We can keep training for as long as we want, but everything changes in a game setting. I know myself, in training I don’t want to get too aggressive when we can do contact stuff. When you’re playing with your friends and teammates, you go a bit easier, but I think you can see that everyone is a bit more aggressive in an actual game when it’s all to play for.
“It has been an exciting journey to be part of, and I do genuinely feel like once we get this pandemic behind us, we’re going to continue to grow.”
Like with so many other clubs, leagues and sports, the pandemic has made it difficult to continue the progress Taexali had been making.
For those already affiliated with the club though, it has been an important support network through trying times.
The early stages of Taexali focused on the social aspect of being an inclusive club as much as the competitive side, partially to forge a good atmosphere early on and partially as a recruitment tool.
That off-field interaction has come to the fore in recent months when players have been unable to train, and Yeats is under no illusions as to how important that has been.
“Obviously we can’t do it just now, but the social side of the club is very lively,” he insisted.
“I was social secretary when I first joined the committee, and there were our official social events which were usually to try and recruit new players and for team building, but WhatsApp was always buzzing too.
“It might have been somebody’s birthday, or there was a match on, and people would be asking who wanted to go out, so we were very quick to form a close knit group.
“I think that’s vital, rugby is such a team sport that if we didn’t have those friendships or respect for each other it wouldn’t be the same. I’m sure it’s the same for all team sports, but my knowledge is very limited. You have to trust who’s on the field with you, that’s so important.
“One thing the committee was really championing early on in lockdown was everyone’s wellbeing. We did a lot of quizzes, and we did life drawings of out head coach Grant Skene. He’s quite thirsty on Instagram anyway, but he sat for us nude.
“This time around we’ve done innuendo bingo, we did a virtual pride alongside Grampian Pride, but we did our own thing as well where we got players talking about what made them proud.
“There were things like our top LGBTQ+ programmes to watch on Netflix, we highlighted some sports stars, we did a lip-sync to Cher’s Song For The Lonely which was my little passion project. I’m a big Cher fan so that ticked my box right away.
“We will slowly get back, we’ve started doing one-on-one training where people can meet someone else on the team, Grant has given us home work-outs to do, and then when we were back training Grant split us into two groups of 15.
“We really wanted to do whatever we could to get back on, and then more recently we did the steps challenge. We’re always quite happy to be there for anyone and offer our services. Brandon Jones is our vice-chair and welfare officer, he’s clued up on mental health.
“I look after a quarterly newsletter, and that includes mental health tips, because I do feel like that’s important. Players are always really grateful for it. Just now, everyone’s going through the same waves in a different boat, or whatever the phrase is.
“We’ll do whatever we can, and we’re open to more suggestions too. I know the club was a bit of a lifeline for me during the first lockdown, and I’m sure it has been for others too.”
When restrictions do ease, there are big plans afoot for Taexali, and high on Yeats’ agenda is changing perceptions of what the club actually is, and he hopes that will become easier once the club can return to competitive action.
“It would be great if there were more clubs like Taexali – in Aberdeen right now there are us and the Front Runners,” Yeats reasoned.
“It would be great to see a football team. It would be so important just now, and it has put a fire in my belly that we should be promoting this and talking about why it’s beneficial.
“Like I said before, my friends still see it as gay rugby, they don’t take it seriously. That’s why we really want to build a committee, to drive a change in attitudes whether that’s inside the club or externally.
“I think there needs to be a really good game between Taexali and one of the local rugby teams, who are a bunch of straight guys. If we give them a good run for their money, hopefully people will look at us differently. I think right now there is a perception that we’re just going to play with other gay teams.
“On social media, engagement is up, more people are aware of us. So I think we’re definitely on the cusp of hopefully changing attitudes – we just need to put our money where our mouth is.
“Currently we’ve got two straight guys in the team, and I think that’s wonderful. We can really say that we are totally inclusive – the majority of people identify as gay, we’ve got one trans male and a couple of heterosexuals. We’re very fair to everyone.
“That’s what annoys me when people say it’s gay rugby. It’s inclusive, because it’s not just about what sex you’re attracted to, it’s also for people who have never touched a rugby ball before. It’s true what they say, anyone can be a rugby player, there’s a position for everyone.
“When I started, I didn’t even know you needed to pass the ball backwards, that’s the level I was at. I took the bus to my first training session, and I actually have Instagram pictures of me Googling the rules to rugby. I had absolutely no idea, so I was looking all this up.
“You can go from the very start, and one of the things that I learned then was that it’s a good sport for starting at a later stage. You don’t need to come having played all the way through school to be good at it, you can still learn and develop, which the majority of our squad have done.”