International Gay Rugby’s (IGR) outgoing chairman Ben Owen is understandably proud of the work that has been done during his two-year term.
Owen, who handed the reins to Karl Ainscough-Gates at the end of June, has presided over a period of growth for the organisation, as membership grew from 74 clubs to 89.
Bolstered by a volunteer workforce of around 200, the IGR executive committee has also tackled a number of social issues, primarily systemic racism, transgender inclusion and the growth of women’s rugby.
Those issues remain at the top of Ainscough-Gates’ in tray as he assumes the chairmanship, alongside structural reform. But as he departs, Owen says that rugby is a proven safe and accepting space for the whole LGBTQ+ community.
“We’ve been a much more active voice in terms of LGBT and inclusion on the global stage, we’ve been providing a lot more services to our members,” Owen told World Rugby.
“The organisation is moving more towards the inclusive label rather than just the ‘gay’ label, and looking much more at intersectionalities of different identities within the LGBT community and how discrimination is felt by other people as well.
“We’ve also done a huge amount of work on transgender with World Rugby and internally, and produced resources. More recently we’re looking at racism within the game, within our clubs, within our organisation, putting in measures to tackle systemic racism.
“So the church is as broad as it can possibly be now and that’s the way it’s going moving forward. And it’s in part due to the success story of rugby with gay people, that has now become — in the vast majority of the world and the unions — such an accepting space for LGBT people.
“It is the next logical step [to start] moving much more in line with World Rugby’s ‘Rugby for All’ policy that this sport is for everyone and our clubs really represent a safe space for anyone, for whatever reason. If they feel like they can’t go to the club down the road then come to our club.”
Owen began working with IGR as part of the organising committee for the 2015 Union Cup in Brussels, where his passion for rugby had been reignited.
Having grown up in Rugby, and attended Rugby School as a day pupil, he played the game as a child but gave up after coming out as gay at the age of 14.
The decision to stop playing was not one Owen would take now. His peers and school had been “super supportive”, but he felt at the time that taking himself out of that situation was the best solution.
“I didn’t want people to feel uncomfortable because I was there as the gay kid, basically,” he explained.
“So [there was] never any pressure to do so but in my head that was the right thing to do, and so that was a great shame obviously.”
It was in Belgium, 10 years later, that a friend suggested Owen check out the local inclusive club, Brussels Straffe Ketten.
“I went down and as soon as I stepped back on the pitch and picked up that ball I thought, what an absolute t**t!” Owen added.
“Why did I take myself out of playing this game just because I thought people wouldn’t be comfortable with it. Basically because of my sexuality.
“And I haven’t looked back since. So, for that reason I’m so passionate about getting the word out there about whoever you are, you’re welcome in this sport.”
In 2015, IGR signed a memorandum of understanding with World Rugby, and the organisation now has similar agreements with several national unions.
According to Owen, having that seal of approval from the game’s global governing body has been extremely beneficial.
“[Our players] already knew that they were valued and accepted in the game because they’ve been playing in these clubs. But really to see it from that level I can’t overstate how much of an impact that really has on the LGBT rugby-playing community,” Owen said.
“It’s the impetus that structures everything we do together and it’s led to so many great results in different areas.”