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Man looking at a rugby goaliStock / BBC Three

'Playing rugby helped me accept being gay'

I found a place where I could finally be me

Alex McGarry

Today is National Coming Out Day across the UK, and here our writer explains how playing in an inclusive rugby team gave him the confidence to be himself.

I’ll never forget my first day of training. It was just before my 18th birthday. I arrived at Inverleith Park in Edinburgh and saw this big, burly, bearded, tattooed guy. “Do the Caledonian Thebans train here?” I asked, hesitantly.

It turned out, he was the coach. He stuck in my head because he was the most stereotypically masculine person I’d ever met. I was fascinated by him.

I immediately felt at home training with a team whose members could be gay, straight, or any other sexuality. The Thebans, the team I joined, was the only inclusive rugby team in Scotland at the time, and is now one of 19 clubs you can join in the UK. 

I had never been around a group of queer people in sport before. They were all out and proud, and didn’t care who knew it. I felt like I had finally found a place where I could be me.

Growing up, I knew I was queer but I tried to hide it from people. The first time I realised I was attracted to men was when I was watching wrestling. At primary school, a lot of the boys in my class used to play with wrestling dolls, and I just thought, 'This is interesting, what are these very muscular, buff people doing?’

I prefer to use the term queer because I don’t just identify as one thing. I'm 24, and I don’t know what the future will bring because I'm still exploring my gender and orientation.

I am from a small Scottish town. When I was a kid, people were still quite narrow-minded because they hadn’t been exposed to a lot of difference. Even before I came out, people picked on me and beat me up for just 'seeming different'. Once I hit my teens, I was desperate to get away.

I was raised by my mum, as my parents split up when I was one. She first introduced me to sport, and encouraged me to try everything, from karate to water sports. But I avoided team sports completely. They seemed to involve a lot of aggression, shouting, and a 'lad culture' that I felt totally alien from.

Man shouting at rugby matchiStock / BBC Three

The teasing got worse after my 16th birthday party, when a guy I'd been flirting with told everybody at school that I wanted to have sex with him. It travelled around really quickly and everyone found out I was queer. I felt scared, but resolved not to let it get to me. Instead, I decided not to care about what everyone else thinks and do my own thing.

A few months later, I came out to my mum.  She was driving at the time and nearly crashed the car. She was slightly taken aback but, since then, has been very supportive.

It wasn’t until I left home at 17 that I came across inclusive rugby. I was searching online for ways to meet other gay people when the Caledonian Theban's website caught my eye. I went to that first session and the rest is history.

Rugby scrumiStock / BBC Three

Training with them was a totally new experience. We had a shared language on the pitch, and would use phrases some people might call 'camp'. For instance, if somebody got on your nerves you would just say ‘gurrrrl’. It’s a reference to the American queer culture you see on shows like RuPaul's Drag Race.

Even when we messed up, we still managed to have a laugh. And it's the same with my new team, the Bristol Bisons. I once actually thought I'd scored and started celebrating, only for my teammates to alert me to the fact that I'd got muddled up and mistaken football markings on the pitch for the try line. Now, when my rugby friends talk about scoring, people say, ‘Don’t do an Alex’.

There are very few rugby players who have come out as gay, and, in football, no active professional league players in the UK are openly gay. Representation matters, and when you don’t see somebody like you playing sport, you don’t think there’s a space for you.

Rugby players holding handsiStock / BBC Three

This needs to change. Without rugby, I would have missed out on some of the best experiences in my life. I even ended up meeting my first boyfriend through the team.

He was 30, and was one of the most caring people I'd ever met. He offered me a lift one day and we bonded over our love of Star Trek and 1980s sci-fi. It was the first time I’d been in love and our relationship lasted just over two years.

Playing rugby has given me so much. The fact I was surrounded by a group of queer people, including men in their forties and fifties who had been out and proud for years, inspired me. It helped me see how much better life can be when you're honest about who you are. 

Now pretty much the first thing I say when I meet people is, ‘Hi I’m Alex, I’m gay'. People say it’s just your sexuality, but I think, 'No, it’s bigger than that'.

Bristol's only LGBT rugby team are like family to Alex.

As told to Natalie Ktena.

This article was originally published in July 2018