After 40 minutes debating LGBT issues in sport, Matt Webb, chairman of gay rugby club Kings Cross Steelers, allows the front of officialdom to slip. Without any warning, he reveals how rugby has transformed his life.
“I wasn’t out to my parents until I joined the Steelers. That was only five years ago. I was 35 years old. It was thanks to the confidence I gained from the rugby and being around other gay men,” he says, in the middle of a discussion about how the loneliness of gay men in London has been a key factor in driving the club’s membership.
“I have a younger gay brother, so I knew there wouldn’t have been a problem, but I needed more confidence. Ultimately, it was the club that gave me that confidence to say to my parents: ‘I am a member of a gay rugby club and I am loving it and this is who I am and I am very happy’.
“Everything has been absolutely fine. I always knew it would be but it was about taking that leap. Being part of that rugby team and being accepted allowed me to be myself.”
In the Steelers’ clubhouse in West Ham, the conversation switches quickly from grave to tears of laughter.
Club captain Morgan McKinnon-Snell was a promising young player for Dorking in the same cohort as Elliot Daly, England’s first choice full-back who is now in Japan chasing the World Cup. But he turned his back on the game until finding his way to the Steelers.
He explains: “I did not want to be that gay rugby player. It wasn’t that anyone said anything, but I stopped going to the shower. Looking back, it was really sad that I couldn’t allow myself to do something I loved. But I stopped myself from playing rugby in university because I was gay.”
Moments later, though, the hooker is hooting with laughter about the club’s specific difficulties when on tour. Rather than apply rules around drinking, it is the use of the LGBTQ+ dating app Grindr that has to be monitored.
McKinnon-Snell says: “We are a young club, so we don’t have all the same traditions. We make our own. Imagine what it is like when you have 200 gay rugby guys all on Grindr. If we are at a tournament, it could be 1,000. That is pretty crazy, so that is something we have to restrict. You probably wouldn’t have to do that at most rugby clubs.”
Matt Wright, who studied fashion marketing, points out the mix of characters at the club. “We have some really camp guys here and then really masculine ones.” They all play their part.
Webb says: “We had a player who was very keen on gymnastics and cheerleading, he is very charismatic and quite loud and someone might think, how does he fit with rugby? He is now one of our best line-out jumpers; he is tall, lanky and light, he wins us the ball a lot. Because of his background, he has great control of his core and he brings that energy to the jump and he sees it as the theatre of the line-out.”
The Steelers were founded in 1995, the first gay rugby club anywhere in the world. Since then, there have been many major advances for the LGBT community, culminating in same-sex marriage becoming legal in the UK in 2014. So is there still a need for a gay rugby club?
Webb is adamant that the club is more relevant than ever. “We often get asked that. Our players still experience homophobia on the pitch, and in real life every day. The need for a gay club and to shout about it is more important than ever.”
Webb brings up Israel Folau and Billy Vunipola’s controversial social media posts – the Australian was sacked for suggesting homosexuals were among those bound for hell, and the England forward was warned over his own tweets. He believes they represent a wider problem in society.
“Over the years, it has been very much about letting our rugby do the talking, and we aim to win. But this past year has been particularly interesting with Folau and Vunipola putting out their social media posts.
“There have been some incidents of homophobic language on the pitch in the past year that have been more severe than we have had in a while.
“They haven’t been related to Folau or Vunipola, but there is more of an awareness of language now, through the likes of the MeToo movement, attacks on Gareth Thomas. There is more dialogue about homophobia now and, as a club, we have made the decision that we have to stand up and stand out more.”
While the club have a zero-tolerance policy towards homophobic language and abuse, with Webb and others working closely with the Rugby Football Union, Premiership Rugby and the Rugby Players’ Association, players are happy to take a more humorous approach.
Tax consultant and first XVs player Phil Miles says: “We have a straight coach, and he says if we get homophobic language to give the opposition a quick wink in the scrum. That shuts them up pretty quickly. Because you want to get in their heads too. Straight teams hate losing to us.
“They hate getting beaten by us and if they aren’t expecting it, they will start to get scrappier. They don’t expect it.”
Wright adds: “You can even kiss people on the nose! Sometimes it is just about being very friendly. I will keep apologising after I tackle somebody; ‘I am so sorry!’ I always apologise after a tackle – but I will do it again in a minute.
“I only stopped playing in school because I fell behind in my coursework, so they made me stop playing sports. I was out at school, I was known as the hardest tackler in the team, and so they were all a little bit scared of me, but there was no hiding I was gay.”
Charity worker David Brisdon, who came through the Steelers’ pathway as a beginner, is keen to point out how the club are changing attitudes on and off the field.
“Straight teams come to play us with preconceptions of what we will be like. They think we won’t be aggressive, that we’ll be rubbish and running around really camp,” he says. “Our mission is to change attitudes just by turning up and playing a killer game whether we win or lose. We bond and make contacts with people we never would have before.”
Wright chips in again: “They get a shock on the pitch and then in the bar.
“A lot of the people are surprised we have normal jobs. They think we will all be hairdressers because they haven’t met gay people in offices. They tend to encounter more gay people working in hairdressers or in bars. A lot of people, particularly in smaller communities haven’t met many gay people, so they don’t know what to expect.”
The Steelers’ excellence on and off the pitch was rewarded with the National Rugby Award for best men’s team for their dominance in the Essex leagues and for bringing through groups of up to 50 adult beginners into rugby each season.
They have also attracted a fan club from the professional ranks, including former England flanker James Haskell, who marched with them during London Pride as part of an RFU delegation.
Next year, former England captain Chris Robshaw, who attended Pride with another group this year, has pledged to celebrate with the club. However, the players are not quite sure if they will take on board all of Haskell’s recommendations, which include a pink tank float.
The question of an out professional comes up, but opinion is split. Some feel they would not like one player to have to carry so much scrutiny.
Wright thinks gay professionals should be proud. “It shouldn’t be the thing that defines them, it should become a passing comment rather than having to have a big press conference saying, ‘I am gay’.”
McKinnon-Snell says: “It would be difficult and a lot of pressure for the player. I would like to think our club can fill that gap for the moment.
“We can show there is a gay presence in English rugby.”