Inclusive rugby team challenge rugby’s tradition of toxic masculinity

In the past some have viewed rugby with contempt, and the sport has been considered elitist whilst its players are stereotyped as blokes acting brash and bigoted, all in the name of ‘banter’.

Though it is a stereotype with some grounding, it has not infiltrated the London Stags, a Mitcham based gay and inclusive rugby team. 

Like many sides, the Stags play competitive rugby, share pints after practices, and even ‘pride themselves on a night out’.

Yet as members of International Gay Rugby (IGR) all this is done as a means of promoting inclusion and respect.

London Stags club captain Dan Howarth, 29, said: “We don’t align ourselves with rugby’s toxic masculinity. We do quite a few bravado things but it’s not at the expense of others and not prejudiced towards sexuality. 

“More often than not our members had initially avoided playing rugby because it is a bit macho and can be intimidating, and it is not a sport that allows people to develop their sexuality through their youth.

“I played a bit at high school and university, but growing up gay I was trying to hide it – to be honest I fancied the rugby boys, but I didn’t want them to notice.”

Having previously played for a number of teams across the world, Howarth’s extensive rugby experience is unique at the Stags, as 56% of their members, including chairperson Michael Smith, 35, had never touched a rugby ball prior to their involvement with IGR.

Smith said: “I hated school. I hated sport, and I hated the boys. It was always a horrific experience.

“I wouldn’t be able to go for a shower, I wouldn’t be able to change in front of the boys, and I would always be picked last. 

“I used to get teary, and I used to get shoved into the goals in football and shoved to the back in rugby.

“I quite liked rugby but thought I would never be able to do it because the boys didn’t like me. I remember watching the team events. They would wear the kit and receive awards in assembly, and I thought I will never get to be that person.”

Club treasurer James Ledward, 27, added: “High school PE was hell. I think my favourite moment in high school was the last ever lesson of mandatory PE.

“The first time I ever picked up a rugby ball was my first Stags training session. I knew there was no mandated contact if you didn’t want to do anything you didn’t have to, which was an approach that really appealed to me.

“My friends and family still don’t believe it now when I tell them I play contact rugby.”

Since the club was founded in 2019, despite COVID compromising its ability to practice, the Stags have grown on and off the pitch. 

Interest has soared, with over 90 people having enquired to join the club and 30 committing to a membership, including a heterosexual man seeking to distance himself from the toxicity of traditional rugby. 

Moreover, to cater for their existing membership, the Stags have found a new home at Mitcham & Carshalton RFUC, having previously played at Tooting Common since their inception.

Social and Communications Secretary Hugo Batista, 25, said: “I think we’ve blown up this year because a lot of people have been stuck at home, with limited exercise and workouts.

“People are looking for something different. I know now I am so bored of lockdown and life feels short. I want to meet new people, I want to try something different, and I want to push myself outside my comfort zone.”

In January the Stags were nominated for three Out for Sport awards, including Most Innovative Lockdown Initiative after various members conducted film clubs, book clubs, fantasy drag races and even a Mario Kart club.

They were also nominated for Club of the Year, whilst ‘inspirational’ head coach Faye Easton was shortlisted for a Club Spirit award.

Yet the Stags refuse to rest on their laurels, having rebranded their logo the same month to include a pride flag, a trans flag and the black pride colours.

Club Secretary Gerard Mclauchlan, 37, said: “We need to find a way to engage people in our community who feel that rugby is not for them. 

“A large percentage of our membership is still white males and it’s something we have to work to address. We say we are inclusive as we can be but we’re not as inclusive as it is possible to be. 

“We have tried to make a conscious effort to address this, by appointing an inclusivity officer and an LGBT consortium in Wandsworth.”

Already, the crest announcement has led a trans man to join the stags.

In celebration of February as LGBT+ History Month, one stag is raising spirits and money by running the distance between Dollywood and Hollywood – some 3665km – to support world-renowned LGBT+ charity Stonewall. 

The club social media is also celebrating by reflecting upon the lives of influential LGBT+ icons throughout history.

Looking to the future however, the stags are desperate to play some rugby. 

Team manager Jason Waters, 32 said: “We haven’t really played properly since last March, so our immediate goal is to get the confidence of our players back up again. That’s so important because rugby is a brutal game. I’ll certainly need my confidence built to be hit and smashed to the ground. 

“And our long-term goal is getting back to playing with our fellow IGR teams. 

“Also, I love a tour which we haven’t been able to do for the last year. For a 32-year-old man I still get to live the university dream and I can’t wait!”

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