When the sport of rugby was first played in the early 1800s, the idea of gay rugby was probably a truly bizarre notion. The schoolboys who conceptualised the rules of this game, characterised by its oval-shaped ball and H-shaped goalposts, could also never have imagined it would become as wildly popular as it is now.
It is believed that more than 6 million people across the world now play rugby, with about 2.36 million being registered players. Although it has traditionally been considered a very masculine sport, rugby is today played across the boundaries of country, culture, gender and sexual orientation.
Even so, some lament the homophobia that is still rife in the rugby world – remember Israel Folau’s firing earlier this year? As the game develops and aims to expel all discrimination from its ranks, many gay and inclusive rugby teams have sprung up all over the globe. Some (still too few) professional rugby players have also come out as gay to try and combat the stereotypes about the game and its players.
As the Rugby World Cup reaches its climax over the next few weeks, here are five notable gay rugby icons you should know about.
Gareth Thomas, now retired, is known as the world’s first openly gay professional rugby player, and is one of the highest try scorers the game has ever seen. He recently came out a second time, revealing this time that he is living with HIV and also that he is married to husband of three years, Stephen.
Thomas, a former British Lions captain, is one of the most decorated Welsh players of all time. He was awarded the Stonewall Hero of the Year Award and voted the most influential gay person in the UK in The Independent on Sunday Pink List in 2010, the year after he publicly announced that he is gay.
Playing on prop for Halifax in the Betfred Championship, Keegan Hirst publicly came out in 2015, noting that he didn’t think the decision would turn him into a gay icon.
“I just wanted to be me – but almost immediately, I was getting messages from guys who were married but knew they were gay, people who played sport but stopped because they were gay and didn’t want it to come out. You then realise you’ve got a position of responsibility you should deliver on,” Hirst told The Observer earlier this year.
Sam Stanley – known as the singing rugby star – became the first professional English rugby union player to come out when he announced he is gay in 2015. Stanley has played at centre or fly-half for Saracens F.C., the Bedford Blues and the Ealing Trailfinders, and has also represented England in the World Rugby Sevens Series. He continues to sing and play his guitar on social media.
Mark Bingham never played rugby professionally, but his legacy is intricately tied to one of the most terrible modern tragedies the world has seen, and to the growth of gay rugby overall.
Bingham was an avid sports fan who played for the gay-inclusive San Francisco Fog RFC. He was also a passenger on Flight 93, the plane that crashed in an empty field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001. Together with fellow passengers Todd Beamer, Tom Burnett and Jeremy Glick, Bingham is believed to have overpowered the hijackers of the plane, which was thought to be heading towards the White House or the US Capitol Building.
A biennial gay rugby union tournament was created in his memory, and held for the first time in 2002. Ever since, the Bingham Cup has been held in multiple cities all over the world. Speaking about the 31-year-old hero, the Chair of International Gay Rugby, Ben Owen, called Bingham “instrumental in sparking what has become the international gay and inclusive rugby movement today as a member of and founder of some of the first-ever clubs.”
One of the most well-known officials in the game, Nigel Owens refereed his first rugby game in 1987. In the years that followed, Owens would become the most capped official in test history – he still holds the record for the most tests refereed.
The Welshman came out during an interview with Wales on Sunday in 2007, to a mostly positive reception, and was named Gay Sports Personality of the Year at the Stonewall Awards in the same year. In 2015, he became the first openly gay official to referee a World Cup final. He is currently a referee at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.