There is a well-established inclusive rugby scene in Scotland, but not everyone chooses to go down that route.
However, if you want to get to the top of the Scottish Rugby club pyramid, you have to expand your horizons.
Colin Arthur never went down the inclusive club route – indeed, only the Thebans existed when he made the move into senior rugby. Instead, he had aspirations of going as far in the game as he possibly could, leading to him now being the only visible gay player in the Premiership with Musselburgh.
That can be a lonely position to be in, but while he would like others to follow suit, Arthur is not bothered by being an individual case.
“I have heard about some people, but it’s gossip. I have heard there’s someone down in Gala who’s open, but it’s like Gala YM or a team like that, so very much a lower league,” he said.
“Apart from that, personally I don’t know anybody. I’m sure there is, and I think everyone forgets that bi is part of the LGBT+ community, especially when it comes to mainstream rugby.
“There are probably a lot more people that would be under that umbrella, but they’re either just not open or they don’t feel the need to disclose it. Why would you? That’s the society we live in now.
“I don’t think being the only one adds any pressure. I’ve played against so many people and clubs, and made friends from so many of them, and none of them have ever really questioned that.
“It’s nice to know that people can look at me and see that you can feel open and that you can feel safe. That’s quite a nice thing, but it is daunting in terms of having people look at you and thinking ‘you’re the gay one’ or anything like that.
“I’ve got quite a thick skin and there’s only a few terms somebody can call me that I’ll kick off at, but I’m usually quite good, especially when it’s during a match and people’s adrenaline is running high.
“There’s only been one occasion someone’s ever said anything to me, and I was the last person to react to it. The referee was very quick to react to it as well. That was maybe six, seven years ago, so it’s not even recent.
“I’d love it if more people came out and were open about it. I would really love that, and it would kind of make me feel better in terms of it not being just me. It’s not as if you can miss me on a pitch – I’m a big guy, you can very clearly know who I am – but if anything it’s a nice pressure I think.”
Starting out in rugby
Like many others, as a child Arthur gave a multitude of sports and activities a go. Football, gymnastics, dancing, singing, acting – he tried it all.
Bullying at school even led to him going to karate and kickboxing as a way to try and “toughen up”, but when that fell by the wayside he picked up rugby.
Scoring a hat trick on debut as a 12-year-old, it seemed like Arthur had a natural aptitude for the game, even if he was using it to release the pent up frustration he was feeling at first. Whatever the motivation behind it though, something clicked, and he quickly found opportunities coming his way as he moved into adulthood.
“When I was younger it was an anger outlet – it’s always been my anger outlet,” Arthur reasoned.
“I was making a lot of new friends playing rugby, being part of a team, but then some of the team were involved in some of the bullying. It was very much about making a distinction between school and rugby, and I got really good at dissociating the two worlds.
“I got into Glasgow’s under-16s, I trialled for Edinburgh’s under-18s and played all the age grades up until then, so it wasn’t as if I was a bad rugby player or anything, but rugby was just a different part of my life.
“I started at Biggar and I was there until I was about 20. I had aspirations to play at a higher level, and at the time I was at university and I was playing for Edinburgh Uni and I got selected for Scottish Universities.
“We had played Connacht, and when I was 18 I went to college to study rugby performance – it was like a scholarship course. One of my tutors back then was coaching at Melrose and he saw the game against Connacht and then against Scotland’s Under-20s, and approached me and asked me if I wanted to go to Melrose.
“I absolutely thought it was a joke, because at the time Melrose were ‘the’ team in Scotland. I moved there for three years, and I was in and out of the first team. Players had established themselves and it was really difficult to try and get them out, as harsh as that sounds.
“I got to the point where I thought I’d try something else. I loved it there, but I was travelling back from Edinburgh every second day to train and play, so then I moved to Preston Lodge for a year – mainly for money. The money was good.
“After a year at PL, Kelso approached me randomly and offered me a little bit more money so I went there for a year. Then my coach from PL dragged me to Musselburgh and said ‘if you’re looking for your forever club, here it is’ and now I’m in my sixth year here.”
‘The gay rugby player’
Following Arthur’s path to different clubs was different levels of openness about his sexuality.
It was only at Preston Lodge he was first open about being gay, which in turn helped him at Musselburgh when working with the same people.
At first the old habit of dissociating different aspects of his life was still prevalent. Rugby was separate from university, and both were separate for the most part from his sexuality and personal life.
Now he is in a very different position, working to promote inclusion both for the LGBT+ community and others, and Arthur believes the culture in rugby is quite different now from when he started out.
“When I was at Melrose, I was trying to make it big, trying to make a name for myself, and the last thing I wanted was ‘you’re the gay prop’,” he recalled.
“I have been called that quite a few times, purely because I’m very identifiable. It doesn’t really bother me now, I’m more flattered that they know who I am even if it is for that.
“I’ve been playing at this level for so long now that a lot of people know me. There are people that I’ve played against for years that didn’t know I was gay because why would they ever question it? Why did it matter?
“Now, people have welcomed me in so many clubs. I know what I’ve had to go through trying to make it and being repressed when I was younger. Why should anyone else have to go through that? That’s what I’m working for at Musselburgh, to create a safe place for anyone.
“I always say inclusion is not all about your sexuality, it’s about everything. We’re talking a lot more about mental health these days, and neurodiversities, disabilities, race – it’s very much an open conversation at Musselburgh which is very welcome.
“We’ve got people coming out and saying ‘I’ve got ADHD’, or ‘I’m getting tested for autism’, that sort of stuff. If you had that a couple of years ago, people would have just been like ‘oh my God, what does this mean, what do we do?’ It’s really nice seeing how comfortable people can be.”
Leading the way
One of the ways Arthur has been welcomed at Musselburgh is by the club’s support of the Rainbow Laces campaign.
He pushed for his teammates to wear the laces, and has even reached out to other teams asking them to do the same, without any issues cropping up.
Arthur also wrote a post about the campaign for Musselburgh’s website in which he opened up about his journey, and was featured in The Offside Line in an article about it too.
He fully believes in the influence of visibility, and he wants clubs at the top to keep backing such initiatives proactively.
“It was very special,” Arthur explained.
“The first time we did Rainbow Laces, it was very strange asking a full rugby club to wear rainbow laces. You feel like you’re asking it for that cause, but every time I handed them a pair of laces, they we’re like ‘yeah, of course I’ll wear this for you’ – well, it’s not for me, but I appreciate the sentiment.
“It’s just the small things you can do. We did Rainbow Laces again this year, and now that we’ve been in the Premiership for a few years I’ve made these connections, so I approached GHA and I approached Marr, and they were like ‘of course we will, why wouldn’t we?’
“All of Marr’s teams did it, I think they had three teams out that day, and GHA did it with both their teams as well. GHA said they’d already done it before, but they didn’t advertise it. I was like ‘why didn’t you?’, because that’s a huge thing. If we can get more traction within higher levels of rugby, that’s what we need because that’s what people see.
“One of my goals is to hopefully try and get every club in the Premiership – or whatever league Musselburgh happen to be in – to wear these rainbow laces. If we can get every one of the 10 teams, you know, 20 people, you’ve got all that funding right there for Stonewall let alone what publicity that brings in.
“Articles in places like The Offside Line, they get so much traction, it’s actually insane. When they said they would like to do a piece on me I was like ‘yeah, of course, why wouldn’t I?’
“Then our social media folk have been really, really good. I was asked to do something, I just sent a bit of a blurb and they said they weren’t going to touch it and just put it in as it was because I made them cry.
“It is tough, obviously, trying to be vulnerable. You’re basically exposing yourself, and especially these days everyone has some sort of mental health issue, so it is difficult.
“I very much told myself that if I can influence one person at all, so that they don’t feel the way that I felt when I was younger, then that’s a success. That can be coming out, or having a safe space, or even just saying you don’t have to restrict yourself to playing the lowest level of rugby because of who you are, you can improve and go the distance.
“Unfortunately I didn’t quite make it, but I’ve made a big enough name for myself that I’m confident I can try and have an influence.”
A new challenge?
Arthur believes his playing days in the upper echelon of club rugby are slowly drawing to a close, so he is already planning for what is next.
Thankfully, he is unlikely to be short of options. He recently attended the Caledonian Thebans’ clinic as a coach, and found the weekend so inspiring that he would have no issue crossing over to help inclusive clubs in Scotland – or even further afield.
“Now that I’m nearing retirement, I’m very much looking forward and seeing how I can have the biggest influence through working with the Thebans, working with Glasgow Raptors and Aberdeen Taexali and whatnot,” he added.
“I can help coach these players so that they don’t feel stuck and if they want to push themselves and try higher levels, then they can do.
“The clinic really opened up my eyes. It was a very different feeling – everyone was there to learn, everyone was really keen, but everyone was so friendly and just wanted to chat to you. There was no ill feeling at all – even if you beat someone they just said congratulations, which is how it should be.
“It was strange, but it was quite funny because obviously while coaching I was trying to make light of things, introduce myself and all that, but a number of people were like ‘oh, we thought you were straight’. They just assumed I was straight, they didn’t know I was one of them.
“I think it’s because IGR rugby doesn’t really ever cross with mainstream rugby unless it’s international stuff, or Edinburgh or Glasgow. Realistically, why would anybody know who I am? That’s what I said to myself. Even though I rocked up thinking I play at a much higher level, once I got there it was like ‘this is a different world, this is their world. They make the rules, I’m the person coming in, therefore why should they know me?’ It was very much an enlightening moment, to never assume.
“After that weekend finished, I started thinking that once I reach my goals in my playing career, I think what I’ll do is probably step down to either a lower league or an IGR League and see what I can do to help people.
“I’m qualified to coach to a certain level, so part of me is like ‘can I make this into a slight side hustle?’ I met some lovely people from Manchester, London, Colchester, places I’ve never thought of going to see or play rugby. Now I’ve got connections where I could go down and help improve some players if they wanted to, or invite them up if they ever wanted to come on tour. There’s so much that you can do.
“Working with LEAP, I’ve realised and Musselburgh have realised how much needs to change within clubs. There are practical things, and there are policy things, procedure things, all the usual stuff.
“Sport in general has a long way to go. Obviously rugby does as well, but I think it doesn’t help that there really aren’t many people who are out. You’ve obviously then got that gap between them and the IGR teams. I’m sure there are people out there, I’m sure there are players out there that are open to their club or to their friends or whatnot.
“Nobody needs to plaster their face around the place, but if you can help other clubs be more inclusive, then why wouldn’t you?”