Ahead of Harlequins’ first Pride match against London Irish in February, Zoe Saynor was asked to take part in a pre-match panel discussion.
Saynor, who combines her work as a senior lecturer at the University of Portsmouth with playing in the second-row for Harlequins Women, did not find the prospect of speaking in front of an audience daunting.
But, sitting on the panel did provoke some self-reflection for the former England international. Alongside Saynor, former men’s player Simon Miall, who came out as gay in retirement, Lord Robert Hayward, referee Craig Maxwell-Keys, Sport England Senior Equality & Diversity Manager, Jamie Hooper, and host, Nick Heath, shared their own stories.
“It did make me think a lot beforehand because we take a lot for granted, actually — especially in women's rugby — that it is so inclusive,” Saynor told World Rugby.
“To be gay in that environment is not a huge deal these days. And that's a testament to how far things have come.
“But, I reflected a lot before that on kind of my story, my coming out experience; what it was like [for] guys in particular years ago and how far things have come.
“So, I wasn't nervous about speaking in front of people, but the topic. I was a little bit nervous to share my story, share my experience.”
Saynor came out while she was still at school, and according to the 32-year-old, it took her parents “quite a while actually to be okay with that”.
Growing up in rural North Wales, Saynor had no openly gay peers at school and admits that it was not until she went to university and began playing sport that she felt fully accepted.
She is happy to report that her relationship with her parents, who get on “incredibly well” with her new partner, is now strong. The second-row hopes that she was able to project a positive message through her involvement in the Pride match.
“I didn't have the most plain sailing coming out experience. But, you know, they've come to terms with that now,” Saynor explained.
“If there was one person there that as a consequence felt safe and had confidence to come out to their parents and that their parents could see, you know, actually, this is pretty cool.”
She added: “For me personally, being involved in anything to do with Pride, the Pride fixture with Quins and outside of Quins, that's why I think it's so important, because it is about bringing these things to people's attention and educating [them].”
Prior to the Pride match, Harlequins partnered with the Harlequins Foundation and Monash University to conduct a study on homophobia in the club game.
In total, 275 male and female players, aged between 16 and 42, were surveyed at eight randomly selected clubs in the south of England. Of the male players who took part, 69 per cent said they had heard team-mates using homophobic slurs in the previous two weeks.
Creating a safe space
Of those players, 42 per cent admitted using such language themselves in the same period. Two-thirds of respondents, meanwhile, had at least one close gay friend, while 69 per cent wanted such insults to stop.
Several high-profile male players at Harlequins, including former England captain Chris Robshaw, Danny Care and Joe Marler, have spoken out in support of the club’s work in ensuring rugby is a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community.
“In rugby, we want it to be this all-inclusive sport that we preach it to be, so I want people to be able to feel like they can open up,” Care said recently.
“If a young Academy lad comes into the group, and that’s an incredibly daunting experience, if he was gay I would want him to feel that he would be able to open up to everyone and it would be fine.”
Saynor is delighted that it is an issue that the men’s and women’s teams at the club are tackling together.
“The key thing for Quins as well is it’s the guys and the girls,” she said.
“That it was a men's fixture was a big testament to the fact that this is not just a Quins Women’s thing, this is Harlequins as a club. And yeah, I think it's amazing.
“It's an amazing club to be involved in and to have been part of that game was absolutely fantastic. It was an awesome day. It was amazing to see all the fans involved.”