Written By: Felix Morris 14/2/16
THE impact rugby has had on this country in the last few years has been enormous.
With the World Cup hosted here in 2015, despite a disastrous result for England, and the Six Nations kicking off last week, the sport is once again on the collective minds of the nation.
For many players, rugby is way to keep fit while getting the adrenaline pumping, but for one club based in Southampton the game means inclusion, acceptance and for one man, even liberation.
Wessex Wyverns RFC is Hampshire’s first openly gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender inclusive rugby team and uses the sport to break down the stereotypes surrounding gay men.
The Southampton based club is open to all regardless of sexual orientation, but most of the 30 members are gay males, many of whom found rugby for the first time when they joined.
They compete against other openly LGBT inclusive sides from across the country with their next match against the Birmingham Bulls.
And they also play in teams from across Europe in the Union Cup, a European contest for openly gay rugby clubs.
Club chairman, Nick Vaux, said: “It is an all inclusive rugby club serving the South coast – everybody is welcome but predominantly the team is made up of homosexual men.
“I feel comfortable going to the club, the team is like a family and I don’t have to pretend to be anybody else.
“A lot of the guys feel that they would not have been able to express themselves in a regular team because they would be worried about name calling, even if it is a few friendly jokes, the jokes would still be there and some people don’t like that.”
The 34-year-old centre from Southampton, added: “We completely break stereotypes around gay men and we are not the only gay rugby club.
“Gay people do play sport but if I had not been part of this rugby club I would never have joined another club.”
Wessex Wyverns, which trains twice a week at Millbrook RFC, was founded in 2014 and now competes against other LGBT inclusive teams throughout the country.
Gay rugby around the world has also become a major league, with the Bingham Cup, an international tournament held every other year, seeing teams from across the globe competing against each other.
Andrew Lewis, 31, was one of the founders of Wessex Wyverns and said: “I have played rugby since I was eight and I never thought I needed to be part of a gay team.
“But I went to a couple of tournaments for gay teams and thought it was a great environment and I had a really good time.
“It was like two of my worlds colliding, rugby and being gay.
“But it is not even an issue, it is a rugby team and everyone happens to be gay.”
The team manager and number eight from Southampton, added: “It is too simplistic to say that homophobia exists in sport, it is more ignorance. The word gay is synonymous with being a bit rubbish.
“There is always a bit of banter in rugby, if you are in the changing room and someone says that is a bit gay it is like water off a ducks back for me, but for people who have been subjected to bullying from an early age they start to ask ‘is that aimed at me?’ “We have an element of banter here but when people make jokes you know they are coming from the same place as you.”
Inclusiveness has become a key issue in professional rugby, with stars of the game being openly gay such as Gareth Thomas and referee Nigel Owens.
But ignorance and discrimination is still something many LGBT men and women face on a daily basis, including one transgender couple from Hampshire who fell victim to a campaign of online abuse.
As reported in the Daily Echo, Test Valley Borough Council bosses were forced to pay out £5,000 in damages after a letter libelling the couple was published on the authority’s website.
And national figures released last year revealed police forces in England and Wales recorded 5,597 hate crimes against homosexual people in 2014-15, an increase of 22 per cent on the previous year.
One member of Wessex Wyverns has even faced homophobia in his home country of Syria.
Club president Tony Elias, 36, was born in Syria and moved to the UK after he met his husband, who is from the Midlands and also plays for the club.
Tony said: “Being gay in the Middle East is not allowed so me and my then partner moved here.
“In Syria I was never openly gay – Syria’s attitudes are still like what England was like 100 years ago.
“My family sort of knew but we didn’t talk about it.
“When I was a kid and I realised I was gay, I thought I was the only one in the whole world because I had never met another gay person before.”
But Tony, who plays prop along with his husband, had never even heard of the sport before he joined the club and eventually became president.
He said: “In Syria I had never heard of rugby in my entire life, my father put me in a boxing club and at the time being a boxer was one of the things I wanted to do.
“Before I came here I didn’t know what a tackle was or a ruck, it was all new for me and I had to Google it.
“We wanted to get involved with the club because when we moved here we did not have many friends so we were looking around Southampton and heard about the rugby club and we thought it would be a good idea to work out and also socialise.
“Since I started it has had a big affect on me, before I joined I never had a gay group in my life.
“For the first time I am together with others, here in Southampton, and I am able to talk about my life and share my experiences with other gay men.
“It is liberating because all that pressure I had growing when I was a child is all gone and I can talk to other people like me.”
Source: Daily Echo