How rugby's Hull Roundheads are making gains against homophobia
On IDAHOBIT - the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia - meet the gay and inclusive Hull rugby club winning hearts and minds, including those of players who aren't LGBT
Last Updated: 19/05/19 6:11pm
Oliver Hookem was expecting to feel like "the outcast" when he turned up at training with the Hull Roundheads as a new recruit.
"Knowing it was a gay-friendly environment, and with me being straight, I thought that it would be very tribal," he says. A former county-level player who was keen to play rugby again and improve his fitness, he'd heard good things about the city's inclusive club, launched last August. But going along for the first time, he still had some concerns. "I had very stereotypical views of what the players and people would be like - not from any hatred on my part, just complete unawareness from never having been in those circles."
One of Hookem's work colleagues had mentioned that his brother had been with the Roundheads for a few months. "He spoke so positively about the effect the club was having on his brother. I mentioned that I'd played union, and it started this whole conversation which I needed to hear at the time.
"I'd just broken up with my fiancé. I'm a dad myself, and I'd had to move back in with my parents at 26. I was really lost. I was awake one night about 3am, and it dawned on me how much I was missing rugby. I used to play every week, I still loved the sport... I even missed just having a rugby ball in my hands. I'd gone up to around 20 stone in weight. I felt like I didn't have a place."
Hookem decided to grab his boots one midweek evening and rock up to the Roundheads' session at the University of Hull Sports Centre, just to see what it was like. "I was immediately greeted with what I can only describe as people bringing you into a family. Within seconds, all those stereotypes I had were thrown out.
"I felt at home. I'd gone for the sport, but it was more about the people. No matter if you were gay, straight, bi, trans - you walk in and you just feel accepted. I call it 'the hug'. I joined, and my view on the world changed."
A rising star in sales and business with a local signage firm, Hookem's worldview on matters LGBT+ had been largely shaped by his environment, his circles of friends. "We're a northern, rugby league playing, fishing, sort of 'macho' town.
"Growing up, there were only a couple of gay-friendly pubs and clubs in the city centre. It's improved now, but it couldn't have been the easiest place in which to come out."
Hookem has since heard a few of those coming-out stories from his Roundheads club-mates, of which there are over 50, and he's recently borne witness to a dose of discrimination too. Last Tuesday, Hull's local paper reported on the club's dazzling new yellow kit and its plans to play in both the Union Cup tournament in Dublin in June, and the Bingham Cup in Ottawa next year. When the article was posted to the Hull Daily Mail's Facebook page, it attracted over 1500 reactions and comments, some of which were homophobic.
"They're only on the team for the after-match showers... Don't play them, they'll scratch your eyes out... wouldn't like to be in the front row... don't get dry bummed every week..." Other comments, more offensive in language or tone, were either reported as a breach of the platform guidelines or deleted by moderators.
Club chairman Dr David Eldridge, who last summer founded the Roundheads (their name is inspired by Hull's English Civil War heritage), observed the comments wearily. "There were a lot of clichéd old homophobic jokes," he says, "and lads finding it funny to tag in their mates and suggest they join - a way to call them 'gay' and demean them. It was pretty tired and predictable - the kind of homophobia that we've all lived with."
'We welcome players regardless'
Eldridge's exasperation is understandable. If Hull doesn't exactly spring to mind when you think of LGBT Britain, you may be surprised - its first Pride march was held back in 2001, and within a few years a number of gay venues were popping up in a city with around a quarter of a million residents. More recently, Hull was the UK City of Culture in 2017, with the LGBT+ community's annual parade that year also handed the honour of being the first national UK Pride.
In sporting terms, Hull City FC have issued summer statements backing Pride in Hull, while Hull KR's support for the HIV and sexual health charity Terrence Higgins Trust came to wider attention last year through a special kit featuring the lyrics of club anthem 'A Little Respect' by Erasure, sung by THT patron Andy Bell.
So in a sign of the times, the Roundheads are the city's first sports club to be established with the LGBT+ community in mind. Yet even in their short lifespan so far, the Roundheads have found themselves asked to explain their existence, to varying degrees - and when they don't get the chance to do that, confusion can quickly escalate. "We use the designation of being a 'gay and inclusive' sports team - we're not an exclusively 'gay' club," says Eldridge. "We did originally identify ourselves as an 'inclusive' club only, but that label seemed to confuse people even more as to what we're about."
When the local paper reported on their new kit, the headline referenced the Roundheads as Hull's "first gay rugby team". Eldridge and his players soon saw a collective head-scratching exercise start to manifest in the Facebook comments. "There were people saying that if someone set up a 'straight team', that would be discriminatory, so why do we need an exclusively gay team?" The newspaper article stated later on that the club was 'gay and inclusive' - but that detail was easily missed on social media.
Eldridge welcomed the opportunity to clarify in a follow-up. "We welcome players regardless of sexuality or gender identity, and actually we have a lot of straight-identified players. Sexuality itself is not the significant element. What is significant is that we are creating a safe space where gay, bi, trans, straight and queer men can take up sports they didn't have the confidence to pursue before."
We needed an inclusive club, a safe place to bring people back to a team sport they'd played before and also bring in those who had never really considered team sport.
David Eldridge, chairman
May 17 is the annual International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia - an awareness day commonly known as IDAHOBIT which has been running for 15 years. The date corresponds with the decision taken by the United Nations' World Health Organization in 1990 to remove homosexuality from its International Classification of Diseases list. The argument that a stated LGBT-friendly sports club might be wholly unnecessary nowadays is harder to make when reminded that, less than 30 years ago, to be gay was considered by a UN body to be a disorder, not a variation.
The Roundheads would love to be able to consign discussions on homophobia to the history books, but amid the legacy of Section 28, statistics showing a rise in recorded anti-LGBT hate crime, rugby's Israel Folau saga, and the kind of education gaps displayed in those aforementioned Facebook comments, it's a shadow that can't be shrugged off completely.
Eldridge, a senior lecturer in American Studies at the University of Hull and an expert in civil rights, understands better than most that the road towards equality is long, and is travelled by people on different stages of their journeys. He also knows that human stories help to light the way. "I didn't like the idea that we were 'hitting out' against homophobia," he says, reflecting on some of the angles taken. "I wanted to give a better explanation.
"I was able to go into some detail as to why our members felt we needed an inclusive club, a safe place to bring people back to a team sport they'd played before and also bring in those who had never really considered team sport - myself included." Squash had previously been Eldridge's sport of choice before he founded the Roundheads. He was inspired to do so after learning of how the Leeds Hunters rugby club had helped a friend in need - "he'd suffered from severe depression before joining them, and I saw this huge change in him" - and became determined to provide a similar opportunity for LGBT+ people in Hull.
Allies were always a key part of the proposition too, and Eldridge wants more people to hear their tales. "Some of the greatest stories have been about the transformation in attitudes of straight players who have joined us. For a few, it's almost like a 180-degree turnaround, just in their awareness of some of the implicit homophobia that's out there.
"I don't mean the open slurs - the disgusting statements, or the hatred. It's the assumptions that are made, the low-level banter, the 'jokes' - the kind of thing that eats away at people, and the derogatory, denigrating attitude behind it."
'Strength and beauty'
Looking back, Hookem says he saw himself as "a blank canvas", someone who would hear the kind of casual language that makes LGBT people bristle, only for the words to wash over him. "It's not that it didn't matter, it was just a thing that happened. Language being used quite rudely, or that immediate brush-off of being gay as some sort of life choice." But since joining the Roundheads and, more recently, adding his voice to those of his club colleagues on some of their media spots, he's found himself targeted too.
"I've been receiving quite a lot of homophobic messages - from friends, and old acquaintances or colleagues - challenging the fact that as a straight man I shouldn't be there.
"They say 'oh, so you're this', or 'oh, so this is what you do now', or 'I didn't know you were...' I wouldn't want to repeat some of the words.
"There's also a suggestion that I'm on a different level, along with the people that I play rugby with - almost like we're second-class citizens. 'So that's what you do now? Why? Why are you playing with a load of people that do this?'
"And I'm thinking - do what?! Live their life? Enjoy the people that they are? Love who they love? I've heard some amazing stories at this rugby club, that I'd never have listened to before - how people have struggled with coming out, or with changing genders. And they're enjoying sport in a place where they don't feel judged. There's strength and beauty in that.
"It doesn't matter that I have a different sexuality. And it's not really judging me, it's about judging the people I see as my family - trying to use it as something derogatory, that people should be ashamed for being gay or 'different'. I suppose I was blinkered before. I wasn't paying attention that this is going on all the time."
Laura Huntenburg was more familiar than Hookem with the long-term effects of those microaggressions, and how they are often heightened in team sports environments. As a rugby-mad club development officer at the University of Hull, she had researched LGBT+ inclusion in sport and also the International Gay Rugby movement, whose story began in London in 1995 with the foundation of the King's Cross Steelers. The world's first gay rugby club were followed in the UK by Manchester Village Spartans three years later, with clubs also established in the US and New Zealand. In 2000, an IGR board was established; there are now over 70 affiliated clubs worldwide.
Huntenburg, who also had rugby coaching experience, was intrigued to read the initial August appeal for members posted to Hull message boards and forums by Eldridge, who works in a nearby building on campus. "As I knew a bit about IGR, I messaged him to say it was a great thing for the city. He said let's meet up. We had a chat and I was really interested in getting more involved.
"I'd started playing myself while I was at university, and really found my place in rugby. It's infectious and contagious, and takes over your life in a positive way. I knew what a huge gap there was in sport for gay, bi and trans people - there's such a low percentage that take part in team sport.
"I went along to one of the first sessions with one of the RFU community coaches, Greg Bone. Both Greg and I were really excited by it - the guys were so interesting, and they'd really listen to what I'd say. It soon made me fall in love with coaching again."
What could you do differently? Come and speak to the Roundheads, or your local LGBT-friendly club. Engage with the community.
Laura Huntenburg, coach
She's now affectionately known as 'Mother Roundhead', working alongside Bone every week to help both the regulars and the new faces. "Roundheads isn't just about backgrounds, sexualities, genders - it's also about people with different abilities or experiences in the game. It's enabling people to gain confidence, go on a fitness journey, accept themselves, meet new people, get a better social life... it's truly transformative."
'Engage with the community'
She wishes that those posting negative comments about the club on Facebook could spend just an hour with the players, and listen to their stories. "Some people look only at the one tagline - gay, or LGBT - and it creates a bit of fear. They haven't had the same struggles or oppression, and they find it frustrating because they've got no way of relating to it. Then they just lash out. But if they got to know the people, it would be totally different."
The education arm of the Roundheads exercise has been warmly embraced by the local East Yorkshire RFU as well. Early on, two trans men contacted Eldridge, explaining how they had previously played with women's clubs. "Billy and Jamie were at different stages of their transitions, but both had been compelled to leave their clubs and had found that pretty heart-breaking. The rules just didn't permit them to play." Along with Bone and his boss, James McKay, they studied all the regulations and submitted player applications.
"There were archaic questions and attitudes towards gender identity evident in some of the RFU paperwork but full credit to them, we got the approvals through," says Eldridge. "The local RFU had never experienced the situation before, but were interested and wanted to support as best they could. It was a learning curve for them - and they stepped up to it."
Less than a year since launching, the Roundheads roster is proudly representative - buy into the club culture, and even if you're not 'out' or you never needed to come out, you're in. While a sense of identity is important to every individual, when the whistle blows, labels no longer apply - and the mixed reactions in Hull to news of the team's progress is largely a reflection of that dichotomy, particularly with regards to sport.
For her part, Huntenburg takes no issue with the term 'gay rugby', even though the 'inclusive' umbrella covers more people, because of the timeline of the movement. "Everyone will have their own thoughts on this but on the name IGR, and respecting the history of the organisation, that's really important to me.
"If we tried to take 'gay' out of it, my worry is that it would turn into something that it's not. You're almost pandering then to people who say 'why do we need a gay rugby team, or an LGBT rugby team, why do we need to have that label?'
"I remember reading an article about the formation of the Steelers. There were some eye-opening images of old London rugby clubs that had signs on the outside saying 'no gays, no women' - and it's not that long ago. We need to respect that this was vital at one point for people to be able to enjoy sport. It's been a huge movement to have gay rugby clubs.
"It's great that we still shout about it, because the last thing you'd want is for people to sweep it under the carpet. It's the same thing with Pride - it's still a protest, and something we can't let people wash over."
And will rugby, and sport in general, eventually get the better of LGBT-phobia? Huntenburg is optimistic. "We need to have more of those 'softer' conversations about why it's important. With some people, it's like talking to a brick wall - they just won't get it. Shouting at them isn't going to make a difference, and to fight them every day is exhausting.
"People often associate homophobia and transphobia with violent, aggressive crimes - public lynchings, and incidents from years gone by - but it's not just that. It's also comments that are disrespectful, and making decisions for LGBT people instead of listening to their needs and their challenges.
"It's the kind of people who say 'well, this rugby club is inclusive, why don't you go and play there, why make your own team?' But if some people have left your club, or you don't understand why LGBT people won't join, take a look into what your provisions are.
"What could you do differently? Come and speak to the Roundheads, or your local LGBT-friendly club. Engage with the community."
As someone who touched base, paused for thought, and then engaged - both with the sport he loved, and the Roundheads message - Hookem can visualise a route through to the try line. "The end goal for me and my team-mates is that these conversations don't have to happen.
"When we can just sit and accept each other for who we are, we wouldn't need to talk about 'inclusive teams' because every team would be inclusive, and every team would have players from the LGBT community who feel they can play that sport."
Eldridge echoes that view. "We've got some fantastic players who would do extremely well playing in any league. Those who are gay, bi or trans - I want them to go on and become ambassadors, as out proud men, because that's how we're really going to start changing people's attitudes... when we're playing alongside everybody."