How Harlequins made LGBT+ history with professional rugby union's first Pride Game
A year ago, as Storm Dennis raged, rainbow flags were fluttering at The Stoop as Harlequins hosted a pioneering Pride Game; players past and present Simon Miall and Elle Bloor join project leader James Swanson to explain why the event meant so much, and what happens next
Last Updated: 15/02/21 4:07pm
When former Harlequins lock Simon Miall accepted an invitation to return to The Stoop a year ago for a matchday with "a new spin", he brought along his biggest fan - his mum.
Miall had quit Quins in 2007 after five seasons as a professional, choosing to pursue a career in the City instead. On his departure, Dean Richards, then the club's director of rugby, described him as "a model professional on and off the field, and a tough competitor".
Later, Miall transferred to New York to work as a financier and investor. He is speaking to Sky Sports from his kitchen, via Zoom, reflecting on memories of his stint in elite rugby, what brought him all the way across the Atlantic for this particular league game on February 15, 2020, and how the family connection tied in.
"Mum was always very supportive and would come to most home games," he says. "She loved being back at the club with me." You could say their attendance that day was a show of support for love; many others in the crowd of 14,000 would concur.
This was the Pride Game - a first for professional rugby union - and it mattered to Miall. Soon after moving to the US, he had met events planner Chris, who would become his husband in October 2018. Photos from their wedding weekend - a "wicked" three-day party in Lake Como - had run in an in-depth feature article on the website of Harper's Bazaar just a couple of months before his trip back to Twickenham.
With the weather "raining upwards" due to Storm Dennis and visitors London Irish running out winners, the occasion was not as glamorous as Miall's nuptials in Italy. Yet it had its own celebratory significance, representing a marrying-up of rugby and the LGBTQ+ community, in which Miall has found he fits in rather well. "Two important parts of my life were now able to sit comfortably side by side. Before, they didn't."
He describes his coming out journey as "a process of discovery" that caused him hidden difficulty during his playing days. "I had girlfriends, and I had boyfriends. It wasn't obvious to me which way I was going to go.
"Over time, you become slightly duplicitous about it. You don't answer questions. You find your way around things. It was uncomfortable for me.
"Certainly within a rugby environment, where you leave it all out there, the team is very important. You get a very tight-knit group of people, so if you're not being 100% honest with them, it doesn't sit that well - and it didn't with me."
Keith Wood, Jason Leonard, Will Greenwood, and Andrew Mehrtens are among Miall's old team-mates, and towards the end of his time at Quins, the second row was being tipped by Richards for international recognition himself. Eventually, however, opportunities outside of rugby took on greater appeal, and taking that step changed his life both professionally and personally. The latter brought some challenging conversations; one objective of the Pride Game was to assist anyone else who may find this topic tricky to talk about.
Taking place in LGBT+ History Month, the match carried an overarching message of welcome, and respect for diversity with regards to sexual orientation or gender identity. Landing this effectively, however, would require more than just a tagline pinned onto a Premiership fixture.
Putting together the building blocks was James Swanson, who leads on customer experience at the club. "I was driven by wanting to share stories but also to spark conversation," he says. Like Miall, he's from a rugby-loving family and also part of the LGBTQ+ community. He had previously been part of the fan experience team at Tampa Bay Lightning when the NHL franchise had held its first Pride Night in 2017 and was able to take the learnings from that into his Quins preparations.
"Holding a Pride Game was not to suggest that Quins had any problem or that rugby is not good at LGBTQ+ inclusion," he explains. Rather, it stemmed from an awareness of the power of stories like Miall's and others from the community. "Fundamentally, I wanted our Pride Game to be representative of the entire acronym and to be rugby centric. So I spoke to as many people as I could within the sport and particularly inclusive rugby, to get their feedback.
"The term for me was holistic. I wanted touchpoints across the entire matchday, from retail, to giveaways, to online content, a pre-game panel, to LEDs, to what the referees were wearing, all emphasising that this was a day about LGBTQ+ inclusion, that inclusion is important to us, and that we want everyone to feel part of it."
Warm welcomes and icebreakers
Elle Bloor plays for Harlequins Women and also works for the club's community rugby department. She was among those helping to widen the engagement. "On the morning of the game, we hosted a minis tournament supported by over 20 clubs affiliated to Quins - we provided them with information beforehand about what the club was doing and why. All those players, their parents and families, visiting school groups, they all came to The Stoop afterwards for the match. It was special for me to have that direct connection with fans and youngsters, and to just start a conversation."
A series of short films formed the basis for the online content - Miall was among those featured, but so were Harlequins season-ticket holder Abby Barletta, the Kings Cross Steelers, and Bloor's team-mate Jade Konkel who had recently announced her engagement to partner Helen. "I was certainly very moved when I heard Jade's news and the way the club told her story was very touching too," says Bloor. "That's something that is a really special occasion. Often you see more personal pieces of content in the men's game but it hasn't been so consistent on the women's side, so this was another nod to equality."
As sport moves with greater surety into the territory of mental health, with an understanding of how off-field life affects on-field performance, the diversity of human relationships is a topic that's now handled far better in dressing rooms. Miall had been dating a girl at the time he left Quins, so coming out meant he did "a kind of 180" on sexuality for many of those close to him.
"It's something you think about for so long - probably all you've been thinking about, even - and then you just drop it on them. For me, everyone was so amazing about it." He mentions former Quins winger Tom Williams as an example of the empathy he received. "He was very emotional, saying 'I feel so sorry for you that you didn't feel you could tell us earlier'. I told him it wasn't anything to do with how I thought he would reply, it was more to do with me and the journey I was going through.
"Like with all these things, when you finally make the right decision, you wonder, 'why didn't I do this earlier, because it feels so right?' The reasons you had for not doing it seem silly in hindsight. But I got to where I needed to get to. Not everybody does.
"That was the narrative of the Pride Game - it can make a conversation easier or start a conversation that might not otherwise have happened, such as between a son and their father, or a daughter and their mum. That's super powerful and worth all the effort."
Before kick-off, commentator Nick Heath chaired a pre-game chat that included Miall, exploring the panellists' experiences and how welcoming rugby is for LGBTQ+ people. "My mum listened to that and for someone from an older generation, it was probably a bit of an eye opener, particularly around trans inclusion.
"She didn't know what to expect from the day and was a little nervous. The headlines you tend to see are generally about negative incidents when it comes to being LGBTQ+ in sport - homophobic slurs or abuse, players getting depressed, awful things like that. But fortunately, some fans just about remembered me, and were coming up to say very kind things - 'great for you, so glad you're happy', etc. That was impactful for me but also for my mum, to see that positivity around inclusion.
"I know it might not get people to click or sell newspapers, but if our stories make the headlines as well, that's very progressive and powerful. She really enjoyed it."
Quins also commissioned new research from Monash University that helped to contextualise anti-LGBT+ language and behaviour in men's and women's rugby, showing that while the use of slur words was still commonplace, it was more motivated by peer pressure and a desire to 'fit in' rather than outright homophobia.
Women's rugby has its own challenges too, as Bloor explains. "Girls are less likely to take part in a typically 'masculine' sport out of fear of being judged by their non-LGBTQ+ peers. Often that's comments like 'it's not feminine, it's not pretty' - there are still negative stereotypes of a female athlete in rugby."
Despite the best efforts of Storm Dennis to put a dampener on the day, Bloor says she was "having a ball" when everyone moved outside for the main event - the Premiership match action itself. Players from the Steelers and other inclusive rugby clubs formed a guard of honour behind children with Pride flags that fluttered in the high winds. Then there was an explosion of colour. "Every rugby game should have rainbow smoke grenades going off!" she laughs.
Another memory sticks out too. "Simon was about to do the Mighty Draw at half-time, and we wanted some people to stand behind him wearing rainbow T-shirts.
"There was a group of teenage boys so we asked if they'd do it, and be on camera. There's always a bit of apprehension that they might turn their noses up at it and say no, but they were all like, 'yeah, let's do it!' It felt like a real moment - it was no big deal for them, which is a nod to progress and how attitudes of acceptance are becoming more commonplace.
"We had messages from the clubs that had come along to the morning session and then to the game itself, saying the weather was crap, the scoreline was rubbish, but that they had such a fantastic day at The Stoop, because it was colourful and there was loads going on."
Swanson was able to point to various successes - a strong response on social media, high-performing digital content, the biggest food and drink spend all season for a Saturday kick-off, and a crowd size that ranked in the top three Quins attendances of 2019/20. "A lot of senior people who didn't know what it would look like suddenly realised how impactful it was. Very quickly, there was talk about what we were going to do next year."
One follow-up phone call came from a Quins member who is trans. "She came along to the match although not as her authentic self. However, she said the environment we'd created and the message we sent out had convinced her that she was surrounded by people who would support her. When she comes back - and we've had a long wait now because of the pandemic - she plans to be herself."
A further indication of care for the fans arrives on the one-year anniversary of the Pride Game, with Quins officially launching its own LGBTQ+ supporters' group - another first for pro rugby. "It was a natural next step for the club to ensure that LGBTQ+ inclusion is further woven into the fabric of Harlequins' identity," said chief executive Laurie Dalrymple. On Wednesday evening, Heath will chair an online panel chat focused on support for the community - with Konkel among the guests - on behalf of the Harlequins Foundation. Meanwhile, with the current Premiership campaign running into June which is Pride Month, there are hopes for another themed fixture if fans are allowed back at The Stoop by then.
Miall says he would fly over again from the States "in a heartbeat" if circumstances allow a repeat, although with him and his husband in an adoption process, the timing might dictate otherwise. His love for Quins and rugby runs deep, despite the distance - "unfortunately in New York, I have no one who really wants to watch a game with me!" - and he wants to give back.
"As well as my mum, one of my godchildren, Alex, was at the game with his parents and sister. They were wearing Pride T-shirts and waving the flags. Seeing everyone, young and old, embracing the day meant so much to me.
"Not being out while I was playing wasn't really an issue for me at the time because I was still learning about myself. But what bothered me a little bit afterwards is that I didn't use that opportunity to maybe help others. This was a chance to put that to bed and use the platform that I have in some capacity."
Along with Swanson and Bloor, Miall hopes other rugby clubs take a closer look at the various activations and consider staging their own events. He's also proud to have contributed to a moment of LGBT+ history in sport.
"It's always felt like Quins are a progressive club. If any club was going to do this, I can see why Quins would be the first."
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