Pride Month: Harlequins' Joe Marler, Danny Care and Chris Robshaw on LGBT+ inclusion in rugby

June 22, 2020

To mark Pride Month, rugby union commentator and Harlequins Foundation ambassador Nick Heath speaks to three of the club's England stars about how their experiences in rugby have influenced their support for the LGBT+ community.

Harlequins' Joe Marler can recall his earliest memories of hearing gay-related language.

"I remember being at school and being called a 'gaylord'," says the 29-year-old. "And also the word f***ot, which is just a horrible word. Aside from what it means or what it's meant to mean, it's an aggressive word."

The England and British & Irish Lions prop believes his upbringing has helped him to be open and accepting of those around him. "I'm lucky that I was brought up with all the different things in the world around me to learn about. It was never hidden away. My parents were very liberal."

He recalls helping a close school friend to come to terms with his sexuality while on a lads' holiday, aged 17. Marler explains how after a drunken night out, a flashpoint had led him to counsel his friend, who seemed troubled.

"I said to him, 'mate, what's the crack? Clearly there's something going on. I couldn't care less if you're gay. You've got to be who you want to be'."

Marler's friend replied: "I honestly don't know, mate. I find myself attracted to boys and to girls... I just don't know."

Living near Brighton, a city with a large LGBT+ population, Marler appreciates the influence that this has on his own young family. "Because of where I live, you've got all kinds of LGBT relationships visible around you. It's great for the kids to experience." His children were part of the bridal party at a gay family wedding last year, when his wife Daisy's aunt got married to her partner.

'Rugby is a game for all'

While the visibility of those of us who are LGBT+ can help improve tolerance and acceptance from the straight community, the visibility of straight allies can be just as helpful in encouraging LGBT+ individuals to feel braver and more confident.

Quins club captain and former England skipper Chris Robshaw has always been conscious of the positive impact he could make towards inclusion. He joined friends to celebrate Pride In London last summer and had been meant to march with the Kings Cross Steelers - the world's first gay and inclusive rugby team - in the parade at the end of this month, before the event had to be cancelled due to the pandemic.

"My wife and I have some close friends who are gay," says Robshaw. "Whether it was in my role as England captain or ongoing with Harlequins, I think it's important for someone in my position to show my support.

"As a captain of your club or country, part of that responsibility is becoming a role model. If it helps any young LGBT+ person to hear their role models giving their support to them, or talking positively about LGBT+ issues, then that's important.

"Rugby is a game for all shapes and sizes, for different people from all walks of life. Who you love should not come into it, be that on the rugby field or anywhere else."

In terms of rugby, on the field and in the changing rooms, Harlequins partnered in research with Monash University ahead of hosting Premiership Rugby's first-ever Pride match, held in February. The researchers heard from 275 male and female rugby players, of ages ranging from 16 to 42, who are based in England

The resulting study found 69 per cent of male rugby players had heard their team-mates using slurs such as 'fag' or 'dyke' in the previous two weeks. The same percentage of respondents said they wanted such language to stop.

Quins and England scrum-half Danny Care admits that he has heard such slurs during his career. "I don't think it's ever been meant with malice, but it's still derogatory and a lot of people will still take massive offence to those words," he says.

"The statistics say there should be at least one gay player in our squad. If they hear language like that, would they be less inclined to come out?"

Marler recalls an incident in his rugby environment two years ago, where a derogatory gay term was casually used to berate someone. "You could see boys looking a bit shocked and thinking, 'hang on?'

"Five minutes later, Chris Robshaw goes and says to this person, 'mate, you can't use language like that.' I remember him looking devastated. He hadn't educated himself about the language he shouldn't be using. He was really apologetic. He said sorry to the boys and moved on. But the biggest thing was the reaction from the group."

'Get rid of the stigma'

It's heartening to hear about elite athletes who are doing more to self-police and improve the environment for any potential LGBT+ athletes that may exist around them. Care hopes it can get even better.

"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," he says.

"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. I'd like to create an environment where it is talked about, where it's not seen as a negative thing."

Care reflects on there being a lack of gay players in the elite game. "I used to play at Quins with Simon Miall, who has come out since he stopped playing and I'd like to think that I would not have treated him any differently had I known he was gay when we were playing together.

"I always feel a bit bad when people come out as gay after they've finished playing. People can only do what they feel comfortable with, which I respect, and for some they may not feel comfortable being out while they're playing. But I like to think that rugby is an inclusive sport and that anyone LGBT+ would be embraced."

Marler echoes the concern of his Quins team-mate. "It's like a lot of things in rugby that involve exposing yourself and being vulnerable. There are definitely a lot of boys who suffer from mental health problems. They struggle to come out and show mental weakness because they don't want the opposition to think they're soft. They don't want to think they're giving them an advantage. But it's not like that.

"The more we talk about these things, the more we make it the norm, and the easier it will be to get rid of the stigma and the discrimination against it. The club is leading the way in that regard."

It may have been a windy, rainy day back in February at the Stoop for rugby's inaugural Pride match - and Harlequins may have ended up on the wrong side of the scoreboard against London Irish - but the effort that the club had made in reaching out to the LGBT+ community was significant.

Robshaw said: "I'm very proud of the club for being the first to host a Pride match, and hopefully other clubs will follow suit. For Harlequins to make such a positive statement by doing so, hopefully it will continue to drive the message to LGBT+ people that rugby is a sport for all and that The Stoop is somewhere we want everyone to feel welcome and comfortable."

Nick Heath is an ambassador for the Harlequins Foundation, whose aim is to use sport to drive positive change in helping tackle inequality, poor health, and the challenges facing the most vulnerable in society, using education, skills development, and entrepreneurship. Find out more at https://www.harlequins.foundation.

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