Sam Abdulla: “I’d had the best time and I can remember it viscerally, and then I felt like it had been taken away from me.”

Sam Abdulla is proof of the impact inclusive clubs can have on someone’s life. Now chair of the Caledonian Thebans Rugby Club in Edinburgh, the Welshman returned to the sport after over 15 years in Scotland’s capital city having been driven out of the sport as a youngster.

Rugby is part of the culture in Wales, and Abdulla grew up watching and playing the game on a regular basis, but homophobic language from those around him gave the impression that any future in rugby would be a tricky one.

It is difficult, though, to say whether that was down to a couple of bad apples, Abdulla’s surroundings growing up or a culture in the sport more widely – although he is confident things have changed since then.

“You need to keep in mind I wasn’t 12 yesterday, so over the intervening two decades there’s actually been a lot of change and a lot more acceptance,” he reasoned.

“You can put it down to kids being kids, but people hear that language somewhere. People get the idea that it’s something worthy of derision and being criticised, and then that goes unchallenged by adults in positions of leadership because they don’t see it as malicious or bad.

From an early age, Sam Abdulla was made to feel excluded from rugby because he was different. Picture: Scott Barron

“Maybe it’s something that they’ve never struggled with, or that they’ve never had a context of it being anything beyond banter. I hate that phrase. I think the concept of banter is one of the most toxic things. You’ve wrapped everything that is hideous and wrong that people want to say up in ‘banter’ to make it okay.

“It’s so nuanced, so complex, that it’s probably impossible to fully disentangle whether that was rugby or whether that was this group of people – but whatever it was or wherever it stemmed from, it certainly was enough that I didn’t engage. It made me think that this is a space where someone who looks like me and acts like me isn’t welcome. The point of that language was to make me feel less than.

“I do think that rugby is more inclusive, but there are still challenges. The difference is that now I’m in my early 30s I’m comfortable enough with who I am, what my capabilities are and who I am as a human being, so that doesn’t faze me.

“Their issue is based on the fact that a gay man has beaten them at sport, and that’s on them. Actually, if it does anything, it just makes me want to beat them by more. That’s something that historically we’ve come across, people do not want to be beaten by the gay rugby team, and that’s where some of the homophobia has come from: we minced right over them.

“I do think the attitudes are more pervasive than just rugby – sport is just the place where it comes out. 

“In rugby specifically, I see a lot of action rather than just words. I see a lot of the big unions getting behind things like Rainbow Laces, I see people across the sport who come out. Take Gareth Thomas for example, I’m a little bit biased being Welsh but he’s one of the best rugby players the UK has ever seen. He came out as a gay man, he came out as an HIV positive man, and he is still lauded as an absolute legend. Look at Nigel Owens, regularly considered to be one of the best international referees that there’s ever been in the game – and very openly a gay man.

“He’s respected, revered, held in high esteem. I don’t think we see that enough, but certainly there’s more visibility in men’s rugby than you usually see in other traditionally masculine sports. Gareth Thomas is still a regular feature when you turn on the Six Nations or the Autumn Internationals and Wales are playing. It’s not like all of a sudden they’re casting him out. When you think he’s carrying the double stigma of being a gay man who is openly HIV positive, that’s incredible.

“I think the sport is taking active steps to showcase people who have differences and give them that same platform that cisgendered heteronormative white males get. That’s special about the sport.”

Following in role models’ footsteps

Gareth Thomas and Nigel Owens are two of the highest profile examples we have in the UK of LGBTQIA+ representation in men’s sport.

However, while Thomas came out in December 2009 and Owens two-and-a-half years earlier, there has hardly been a cavalcade of others following suit. In the 13 years since Thomas confirmed his sexuality, Sam Stanley came out in August 2015, Jack Dunne did the same publicly in June 2021 and Nick McCarthy added his name to the list earlier this year.

While still boasting far greater levels of representation than some other sports, three players in 12 years – two of which came in the last 18 months – suggests there may still be issues within the game.

“I guess people are still nervous,” Abdulla suggested. 

“If you look at it entirely at a statistical level, there are players within rugby at the national and international level who sit somewhere on the spectrum of gender identity and sexuality. It just scientifically has to be the case, but I think there’s still something about putting yourself out there.

“I’m a university lecturer, and one of the first things I do is talk openly about my boyfriend because I don’t want my students either thinking that I’m not a safe space if they are LGBT+, but also I don’t ever want them thinking they have something over me by finding this information through social media.

“I’m very openly gay and that’s about me having control of my own narrative, and I think when you’re on a big platform, that pressure is so magnified. What will people think of me, or what will people expect of me? 

“Gareth and Nigel were suddenly role models. The second there is a slip up, they hold the responsibility for being representative of every iteration of LGBT+ – every gender diversity, every sexual diversity that there is, it’s all on them – so I think the pressure of ‘what does that make me?’ is something that stops people sticking their head above the parapet. 

“When you go to a rugby game and there’s cheering, it never feels as vicious as it can in other sports where there’s racism and sexism and misogyny and homophobia. None of that feels so rampant as an outsider looking in, but that ‘what do I have to be, and what happens if it goes wrong?’ definitely puts people off. 

“I guess there’s always that thing of if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. Having someone like Gareth Thomas or anyone at that level in rugby be out when I was growing up, that would have been amazing and what I needed.

“Even somewhere like the Thebans – if I’d been a young gay kid and I knew that there’s this safe space where I could play rugby in a few years, I would have been able to see these gay men doing this thing that I loved. Maybe at 16 I would have had the language to articulate what I was and understand my sexual identity. Maybe that would have made a difference, because you do need that visibility.

Abdulla returned to playing rugby through the Caledonian Thebans, and has thrown himself headfirst into the club ever since. Picture: Scott Barron

“Let’s be perfectly frank – as far as is acceptable to wider society, as a cis, white, gay, I’m at the top of the tree as far as LGBT+ and gender diversity goes. As a bi man, your identity is erased, you’re just waiting to make up your mind. If you’re trans, it’s so much worse. Then if you bring in any kind of intersectionality – HIV, a disability, a person of colour – you’re doubly screwed. I’m white by all intents and purposes, but my background is Arab. If you go just back as far as my mum, her cousins and family are more Arab-presenting, so if I had that additional marginalising factor, then again it could be different. It’s still that respectability politics, isn’t it? It’s like there is a right kind of different to be.”

Controlling your own narrative

While Abdulla makes a point of being open about his identity at work, doing so in sport presented a slightly different challenge.

It took until 2018 for him to go along to a come and try session at the Thebans, but once he went back into rugby there was no looking back. Within months he was a regular at sessions, even going on to join the club’s committee before rising through the ranks to becoming the Thebans chair earlier this year.

Throwing himself headfirst into the club was a sign that the passion for rugby that had been lost was once again well and truly ignited within Abdulla.

“I’m sure if I reflect on it, it probably was a bit about taking back control,” he recalled. 

“It took me a long time to build up the courage to attempt to go back to playing rugby. I continued to watch on and off, but never with any real passion. Then that started coming back, and for me there was something about it that brought me joy. 

“When I was a child, I remember walking off the pitch just as I started playing, my mum and my grandmother were sat waiting for me and I said to them ‘this is the greatest game in the world’. I’d had the best time and I can remember it viscerally, and then I felt like it had been taken away from me. So going to the Thebans, as an adult, was very much about reclaiming that thing I loved, trying to see as a grown up when I didn’t have those preteen anxieties – just a very different set of generalised anxieties – whether this was something that I could be part of.

“It absolutely was. This was a bunch of people who got my experiences. The way I describe it is that I’d been in Edinburgh for about 10 years before I went to that training session, and I had friends through people I work with, my boyfriend was from Edinburgh so his friends became my friends, but when I joined the team I found my own community in Edinburgh I hadn’t felt like I had before.

“That was new and different, and it felt right. It felt like it gave me what I needed. Do I fit in here? Does this sport that I want to be part of have space for someone like me? Going along proved that it did.

Abdulla’s passion for rugby has been reignited, and he is loving every minute. Picture: Scott Barron

“Then I thought I could be part of doing this for other people. There are things I see that can be done better. There are things I see that we can build on. I’ve always been of the mindset that if you want to be part of something changing, you have to be part of it instead of sitting on the sidelines and saying this isn’t good enough.

“This club means so much to me because it allowed me to feel like I could come back into rugby, and I wanted other people to have that opportunity. From there it just snowballed, and then the previous chair was like ‘I’m done. I’ve done three and a half seasons, someone else needs to do this’. There I was, thinking I could do that, and then I found out how much is actually involved in it!

“It did ignite something in me, but I don’t think by any account that my story is special. When it comes to the team, within the GBT membership – we don’t have any female members actively playing, but we are LGBT+ as an organisation – I don’t think there’s anything that is wildly different. We all to some degree have the same hang-ups around being gay and being in sports. Most of us at some point pulled away from that, or thought that this wasn’t fun for me, but we still had that interest in it.

“I’m not special. No LGBT+ person in sport has it easy. Even within female sport, where at the risk of massively stereotyping you see more openly gay women playing, those hang-ups might be slightly different but they’re still going to be there because we have them from our day-to-day lives.

“That’s going to carry over, but having safe spaces for people to come and play sports is so important. I would feel confident at this point that I could go into a mainstream club and be comfortable enough in who I am as a gay man, but also in my rugby playing abilities. Four seasons ago, you wouldn’t have caught me looking twice at anything that wasn’t actively a safe space.”

20 years and still going strong

The Caledonian Thebans turned 20 years old in 2022, and Abdulla at the helm has ideas to take the club forward.

Still, it is always nice to see clubs maintain a strong connection to their roots, and earlier this year players who have taken part in 50 competitive matches for the Thebans were honoured at a presentation ceremony.

As well as bringing the club forward and continuing to make rugby a more inclusive place for prospective players in Edinburgh, then, Abdulla is keen to strengthen ties to their origins too.

“We have members and former members who are still linked to the team that have been involved – if not from the very beginning – for about 15 years,” Abdulla added.

“When the stuff around the 20th anniversary came out, a guy reached out through Instagram. He set up the club, and has since moved to Australia. He was really glad to see the Thebans were still going, and would love to catch up for coffee. Life has gotten in the way, but he sent me pictures from where they used to meet in The Laughing Duck, which was a bar in in Edinburgh.

“To me it’s wild what these guys did off the back of just wanting to play sports. There are some people, like our secretary, who have been with the Thebans for longer than I would like to bet. Then we’ve got several people who still play and train with us who have been active for well over a decade. We’ve got people who are still connected to the team and want to be involved in events that we do because it’s a big part of their lives.

“I do wonder what it’s like for those folks. It will have changed substantially, because the language around LGBT+ people has changed substantially. Only in the last few years we’ve looked at our constitution which still talks about being a gay rugby club. I have been in the process of updating that, it just needs to go through our AGM so we’re more inclusive in our language.

“Even things like how do we talk about non-binary players, how do we work to recruit more women players – and I mean women in every sense of the word – because we make our decisions on our membership based around identity. We do have to follow our union rules in relation to trans men and if we had trans female players, we would need to do that as well, but we would also work to create a space where trans female players could be included. 

“Since we changed our constitution to bring in women we’ve had players come along, but it’s been one or two, so I’ve realised we have to do something to make those people feel safe and included. We probably need to work a little bit harder to be a destination rather than a default.

“What we want to do is make this club as strong and as big as we can. I’d love to see us extending out to touch rugby, walking rugby, all of this stuff that opens up the game and diversifies the game for different body types and intersectional identities. I’d love to create those spaces where people don’t have to stop playing rugby while they’re a supporter who still has an itch that needs to be scratched.

“We started to get involved in some mental health work too. LGBT+ people have a disproportionate presentation of mental health. Men famously don’t talk about their mental health. Why would we? Spaces like sport tend not to be the places where you talk about your mental health, but we know the benefits that come from physical activity, so I want to push that a little bit more.

“We have people who come with all the problems that life throws at them, so it would be good to have a couple of people who are a bit more clued up and could say ‘okay, I hear what you’re saying. Here are some resources that you might want to think about, and I know I need to check in with you next week to see if you need some help in reaching out’ if anyone comes to them with problems.

“The world is difficult enough at the minute, particularly when you add in the stigma that comes along with being an LGBT+ person. So I want to consolidate what we do, continue to do what we do well, and think about how we can continue to push our own boundaries as well as maybe challenging those boundaries that might have been set for us.”

One thought on “Sam Abdulla: “I’d had the best time and I can remember it viscerally, and then I felt like it had been taken away from me.”

  1. Pingback: Colin Arthur: “It’s nice to know that people can look at me and see that you can feel open and safe.” – Pride of the Terraces

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