Chris Young: “If a top player comes out, good for him, but when it’s in your face you can see that everyone’s here to play sport at the end of the day, and everyone’s the same on the pitch.”

It should not be a surprise that Chris Young is a rugby player. Growing up in Larne, his dad – a life-long member of the local rugby club – had him playing touch and tag ruby from an early age. He was not allowed to play football at school, where rugby dominated in the form of fiercely fought intra-school tournaments.

There could, then, be plenty of reason to wonder instead why Young now calls the Glasgow Raptors – who play competitively relatively rarely – home.

After leaving school, Young took a break from the game for several years before returning to action in Brighton. To explain why someone who was rugby through and through decided to take time out, you have to go back to how his playing days at school ended – and it is a story that will sound all to familiar for some.

“We had these psychotic house tournaments, where every house in the school had a team made up of all ages,” Young recalled.

“The captain was obviously someone who played for the first 15 in the final year of school, then there was me at maybe 11 or 12 taking this terrifying winger on for 10 minutes. That was a baptism by fire, but it was alright.

“I actually had to leave my rugby team in school, because the coach for us was a Baptist Lay Preacher, and he found out I was gay, and he did not like it. That put me off for a wee while at university, but I was very happy to get back into it at Brighton.

“It was one of things, a nail in the coffin. It was obviously pretty stressful all round, but after that moment I was like ‘I’m sick of it now’, and I didn’t take rugby up again for a while.

“I didn’t really have the energy to argue back at that point. I’m sure I could have if I wanted, but it was all very matter of fact.

“He just said that he didn’t think I should be playing, and that he had spoken to other members of the team and they didn’t think I should be playing. I found out afterwards he hadn’t, he just unilaterally made the decision.

“I still speak to a lot of the people I did play with, so I think it would have been fine if I had argued, but I was 17 and I think I was the only person out at my school at the time. There are three or four now, I know that, because my cousin still goes to that school.

“It did bugger up my A Levels, I had to resit some of them the next year, which didn’t exactly remove stress from my final year, but it wasn’t the end of the world. I started to realise that it was all built up in my head as well, nobody really cared.”

Chris Young feels he could have had a much worse experience coming out in Northern Ireland.

That was at least one consolation – Young did not face the same issues after coming out at home. That is not to say it was all smooth sailing, as he was essentially outed. Word started spreading after Young confided in friends, which meant it was a race against time to tell his loved ones even when he wasn’t entirely ready to do so.

While some teachers clearly took issue with his sexuality though, he did find support from some unlikely sources in the community.

“It’s a small town in Ireland, so everyone knows everyone’s business constantly,” Young reasoned.

“It was like ‘right, who in the family needs to be told’, and it made it’s way around school. I think if it hadn’t happened I would have been one of those classic closet cases at least until I was into uni. I wasn’t ready, but it kind of forced me to be ready.

“It wasn’t terrible, I could have had a much worse time. My family aren’t very religious – they’re Methodist, presbyterian, they go to church but they’re not fanatical. My friends generally were fine with it, with one or two exceptions, but there always are.

“I came out to my mum when we were watching Will & Grace on a Friday night, drinking a glass of wine. She asked me if I was sure, but how many boys in Larne do you think were watching Will & Grace with their mum on a Friday night? That must have been a hint.

“My dad wasn’t exactly enamoured about it for a couple of years, but he came around after I went to uni. He’s very good with it now, there’s actually a local distillery in Derry who had released something for equal marriage, and he bought me that for Christmas.

“My dad has a bar in Larne, and half of the crowd was kind of rough. There was this guy who was quite notorious locally, and he quite liked history. I did my degree in history, I was always really interested in it, so we would talk about Time Team and that kind of thing.

“He took me to the side day and said ‘Chris, I hear you’re gay, is that true?’ I told him the truth, and he said fair enough, he wouldn’t pry, but if anyone gave me bother to tell him. That was a good revelation.

“That was what amazed me, it was people I didn’t expect that were fine with it. A lot of it was built up in my head. The coach at my school was a twat obviously, but if I had the energy to fight it I’m sure the team would have stuck by me no problem.

“I’ve found that in rugby especially. When I found my way back in at Brighton, I was playing for Hove and they were very welcoming.”

Before moving to the south of England, Young spent time in Glasgow for university. With memories of how his time playing rugby at school came to an end fresh in his mind, he did not like the atmosphere within the university side at the time and decided to stay away from playing rugby for the time being.

One of the key aspects of the Glasgow Raptors that convinced Young to keep coming back was the atmosphere.

Instead, he continued to be an avid supporter of Ulster, and following them allowed him to bond with his dad as the elder Young came to terms with his son’s sexuality.

Health and fitness remained high on Young’s priority list though, and he took up rowing for a spell at uni. Rugby was still there at the back of his mind though, eventually tempting him to return.

“I started to think about playing again around my third year at uni,” he explained.

“I didn’t like the uni team too much, but I started looking around for a club to join. I think it can be quite intimidating to join club rugby, not for any homophobic reason but you just don’t know where to start. I suppose it can be a bit cliquey everywhere, but rugby is a bit more of a niche in Scotland.

“Moving down to Brighton coincided with seeing adverts from Hove, so I was like ‘right, I’ll finally do it’ and six months later they said to me that there was a gay team starting out, and asked if I would like to play for them since I was more of a social player. I went across and played for them, and the atmosphere was great.

“I found that the training regime was a bit easier than I was used to in school. I don’t know whether we just used to get absolutely brutalised back then, but I found it easier.

“We played a team in Worthing, which is the next city along to the west of Brighton, and they humped us 108–0. I had two black eyes after it as well, it was really bad. After that the committee decided to find more teams to have friendlies against, so we played the Wessex Wyverns, the Reading Renegades and all that down there.

“There’s always a really nice atmosphere, the friendlies were really nice, but then we started playing in leagues which was a big learning curve for everyone. All the teams are really quite competitive down there. We had a lovely reception, all of Sussex is pretty good.

“I played for two years in the fourth league I think it was, and we only had one homophobic issue the whole time. The response was great, the referee sent him off instantly, which was good to see. Even mainstream rugby is pretty good at that.”

It may sound like stating the obvious to say that Brighton is an accepting area for LGBT+ people, but Young believes that inclusive clubs have been able to make a positive impact in the area regardless.

Young believes his former club, Brighton & Hove Sea Serpents RFC, have made an impact in what is already a welcoming part of the country.

Aside from geography, several people in rugby from international commentators to other members of the International Gay Rugby family have all spoken about the welcoming nature of the sport. Indeed, it is one of the few team sports to feature LGBT+ athletes and officials at the highest level in the UK, but Young feels that clubs are making a difference at a grassroots level too.

“Their women’s team is National League, and they’re something like 90% lesbian, so they kind of had to be welcoming, and they made sure the men’s team were as well,” he said.

“Gay teams have really been driving acceptance in the league. I know my dad, he’s probably quite representative of older-school rugby opinions that think gay teams aren’t as good, but even he’s come around. It has definitely made a positive impact, which is nice.

“I’m not going to discount Gareth Thomas’ impact, that has been massive too, but I think it’s one thing seeing that happen, it’s much harder to ignore the five or six boys you play with or you’re going for pints with afterwards.

“It’s a bit more abstract when you see it on the news. If a top player comes out, good for him, but when it’s in your face you can see that everyone’s here to play sport at the end of the day, and everyone’s the same on the pitch.”

Having successfully worked his way back into playing rugby in Sussex – including a spell on the club’s committee in Brighton – there was no doubt in Young’s mind that he would keep playing as he returned to Glasgow. The only question was where.

He eventually plumped for the Raptors, then known as the Alphas, and has been working to help develop and grow the club ever since – and a return home may even be on the cards at some point in the future if pandemic restrictions allow.

“I knew that inclusive clubs were a good way to get back into rugby gently up here without taking a chance on three or four random clubs and hoping I would find one,” Young added.

“There are a couple, but I had met some of the Alphas in the Union Cup, so I thought I would seek them out. I had a couple of friends who were on the Caledonian Thebans’ committee, so they were trying to convince me to play for them as well.

The Raptors and the Thebans, based in Edinburgh, are the two most established inclusive rugby clubs in Scotland.

“I’ve lost a bit of weight, so I’ll probably be a utility forward across every position this year. I used to be a hooker for Brighton, but unfortunately our chairman is the long-established hooker here, so I can’t shift him to the side. It would be a bit of a coup if I did.

“My ambition is that we will have a second side soon. When I first joined the Raptors, it was quite hard to get 18 people to sign up for a match – just enough for substitutes.

“I think we now have 50-something paying members in theory, so we should have the numbers for a second team. It’s off-season, at the height of summer when everyone wants to go on holiday, and we’ve already been getting enough for a team and a half, so hopefully that’s a good sign.

“After that, it’s just a case of trying to get everyone blooded into matches. Everyone has been doing passing drills for the last year, so we need to get them more into the meat of the game now.

“By nature of being inclusive, you’re starting at a slightly lower skill level. You’ll find there are a lot of people who haven’t played since they played touch at 11 or 12, but people pick it up quite quickly generally.

“The bigger teams are better at this, because they will have a full side and then a couple of development squads, and there will be a lot of movement between the squads.

“There’s talk of playing in the league as well, but that’s maybe more for next year. This season, if we can get everyone up to a decent level, we can play a few matches against teams around Scotland, over the border and across in Northern Ireland – that was the plan before, but it had to get pushed back.”

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