Luke Harding: “I definitely feel I wouldn’t have engaged in something like a rugby club without some kind of LGBT+ inclusivity or safeguarding.”

It has been a particularly strange year for Glasgow Raptors chair Luke Harding.

Taking over the role after the pandemic had already started, to call it a baptism of fire might be being generous. He has had to deal with matches and tournaments being cancelled, being unable to train for long spells and the risk of members drifting away without any activity to look forward to.

However, it has also been a productive time for the club in some ways. The Raptors have rebranded after previously being known as the Glasgow Alphas, they have reinforced their partnership with LGBT+ Youth Scotland, and the annual bootcamp for new recruits is ongoing at weekends.

It all seems like a far cry from Harding’s perspective before joining, when he never expected to start playing rugby.

“I was one of those annoying people that everyone said looked like a rugby player,” Harding recalled.

“Absolutely not! A fly could kill me. It was always the comment I used to get, but I never played. Then I saw that there was an LGBT+ team, the Glasgow Alphas, so I thought I would try something new.

“It was great. I used to do Taekwondo, and you have to be tall, skinny and lanky, quite flexible, to be good at that. I used to get my head kicked in, so it was actually nice to do a sport that’s a bit more geared towards me.

“Before, I thought it was a hyper-masculine sport. When I went to university, it was the most I’d been around people who were part of the rugby team, which totally put me off doing it. I was scouted for it, but after going to one or two sessions I was like ‘absolutely not, these people are horrendous’. Just in the way they treated each other, I didn’t enjoy the atmosphere at all.

“I surprised myself that I’ve ended up becoming the chair of a rugby club. I never thought my life would be this way.

“It was all brand new to me when I joined the Raptors, it was an entirely new world. It has been nice. I didn’t expect to have hung around for so long and got so involved and end up on committee, so it must have been good.”

It still takes Harding (front row, second from the right) by surprise that he is currently the chair of a rugby club.

One of the things that kept Harding coming back to the club was the experience of going to tournaments.

In Scotland, the Caledonian Thebans host a camp every year, while other competitions include the Hadrian’s Cup and Union Cup, giving players the chance to take part in competitive matches while also immersing themselves in inclusive rugby and connecting with other clubs.

That off-field social aspect was one of the things Harding enjoys about the club the most, and he expects it to appeal to their new batch of players that have joined during the pandemic too.

“Because we’re in the IGR league, we used to travel quite a lot for our games,” he said.

“We’d be going down to Manchester or Liverpool, or across to Edinburgh, and it was so nice going away for the weekend and meeting these other teams, and having a great time while exploring other parts of the UK.

“The thing that really sold it for me was the Union Cup, which was in Dublin at the time, I think it was 2019, and that’s when so many teams were there. It felt like the LGBT+ Olympics, it was really nice and a really awesome weekend.

“We got beaten in the final of the Hadrian’s Cup be bloody Aberdeen Taexali last year – I was absolutely livid! We won one tournament, but it was before my time.

“I think that’s what keeps me here, waiting to go back to things like that and looking forward to introducing the new guys to those events as well.

“I definitely feel like most of the guys at the club come more for the social aspect, and just to keep fit. It is nice when we manage to train new people and get them involved in their first couple of games. They start to take it more seriously when that happens, but sadly that has been lacking in the last year because of Covid.

“From a growing the club perspective, we’ve definitely been more successful than I anticipated, but I still think there’s a lot of room to grow. We were getting really good numbers, and that’s fantastic, we were really happy about that, but I still think we can do better.

“Looking at other inclusive clubs, some of them out there have gigantic numbers. It would be nice to reach that level one day with Glasgow. I just want six team! In my heart of hearts, I just want six teams.”

One of the reasons often cited for joining an inclusive club is the support that it can provide for people.

The social aspect of the Glasgow Raptors kept Harding coming back just as much as playing on the pitch.

For many in the LGBT+ community, being able to openly talk about their lives away from sport is not something that comes easily in a club environment, unless they are part of an inclusive club.

To an extent, Harding found that himself in the taekwondo and running clubs he was part of before joining the Raptors.

“It just wasn’t really a thing that you ever really talked about,” Harding reasoned.

“In those two or three groups, I never really encountered any other LGBT+ people in them, so it wasn’t really something that was ever discussed or talked about.

“They were all lovely people, I’m not criticising them at all, we just never really spoke about it much. That’s why it has been so different to be part of an inclusive rugby team, you’re constantly talking about these issues and it becomes so easy to talk about your personal life too.

“I only really came out when I was around 20 or so. I was out before that to close friends, but it was something I was never really comfortable talking about to strangers. We weren’t exactly close friends in my sports groups, so it wasn’t something I was overly comfortable talking about at the time, and I don’t really know why.

“It just changed through other people normalising things and describing the same experiences as me. As you get older as well, you tend to stop caring anymore and just go for it.

“Being 18 and part of the taekwondo team at university, I couldn’t imagine telling someone that I went to a really awful Grindr hook up. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable about those kind of things at all unless I was speaking to someone who had been through the same sort of experiences.

“I think I got embarrassed a lot back in the day, but obviously I have no shame now. It’s great, I’m really thankful for all the people that I’ve met along the way that have been part of the Alphas or the Raptors.

“It has honestly been such an anchor for my mental health during the pandemic. There was always something to do, whether that was socials or fitness sessions on line, or trying to get some training in where the restrictions allowed.

“Personally, I haven’t had too many bad experiences, but I’ve heard several negative experiences from other people unfortunately. I definitely feel I wouldn’t have engaged in something like a rugby club without some kind of LGBT+ inclusivity or safeguarding.

“That really encouraged me to try it, and I’ve found I really enjoyed it, so hopefully we can have the same effect on other people who might have previously thought that might be a barrier.”

Rugby has had one of the highest profile battles over inclusion over the last year or so.

The “conversation” has centred around whether trans women should be allowed to play rugby, with World Rugby going as far as to announce guidelines indicating they should not – although some national governing bodies have rejected that.

Harding has seen his confidence grow exponentially – and he would love for the club to have the same impact on people from other parts of the LGBT+ community.

Clubs like the Raptors provide a space for anyone to enjoy sport regardless of sexuality, gender identity or experience level. Really, they would like to see more people taking advantage of that.

“We’re a very white, homogenous team unfortunately, so we would love to have more representation from other communities,” Harding added.

“We’re still very male-oriented. Some of the inclusive clubs do have female teams, so I would love to have more female representation on the team as well.

“Apparently a lot of women rugby players are quite happy in female-only clubs. They don’t seem to have as many worries or concerns about joining a female rugby team, they feel welcome.

“I don’t know if we actually need to get more female representation if they feel like there are already safe spaces out there, but I would love to improve our relationships with the female clubs that already exist, or trying to get more involvement with our own club.

“I would love to increase trans inclusion as well. We used to have two regular trans players, and unfortunately we’ve lost them because they moved to different countries. I think we currently have one trans player, but we would love to have more.

“There’s lots we want to do, it’s just thinking about how to do it that we’re struggling with. Hopefully we can get some more exposure, which will lead to more people.

“It’s very tricky, because we are still governed by the Scottish Rugby. We also play against English clubs, but we’re only allowed to play in male-only games, which I think is still quite a big barrier. If you’re a trans man, you have to get things from doctors and send in paperwork to Scottish Rugby to get approved to participate.

“We’re not allowed to have trans women playing in male-only games. It’s much harder for trans women to participate in women’s rugby, it is easier for trans men to play with us.

“We have to be the example of how it can work. If trans inclusion can’t work at an inclusive rugby team, how is it going to work on a global scale? We definitely have a responsibility there to prove that trans inclusion is possible.”

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