Rugby is by far the most popular sport in Australia, and the Sydney Convicts hope to use a recent win as a springboard to attack a bigger issue — homophobia in sports.
The Convicts, composed entirely of gay men, beat the Warriors of Macquarie University 30-12 last month, the first triumph for a gay rugby team in the professional realm.
Erik Denson, who played for the Convicts for four years before a wrist injury ended his career, took special pride in the win and acknowledged that it came over a solid opponent, one that participates in mainstream rugby.
“The team is part of a university,” he said. “Universities always have strong teams.”
Rugby isn’t exactly the most welcoming environment for gay men. And Australian rugby is no different — it’s the reason that the Sydney Convicts even exist.
Many gay players leave other mainstream rugby teams because they feel alienated. Denson, who played rugby in high school, says that even though other players may not be doing it on purpose, it is an issue.
“It becomes tiring, being the butt of all the gay jokes,” he said. “When men make fun each other, they use homosexual slurs. I don’t think mean to be harmful, they just don’t know the impact that has.”
Gay rugby provides a place of solace for many men like Denson, who came out in tenth grade (while living in Canada) and ended up having to switch schools because of the response from his classmates.
This August, as many as 65 teams from around the globe will compete in the Bingham Cup, the premier event for gay rugby. Denson says that the Cup might be a step in the direction of decreasing homophobia in Australian rugby and the country at large.
“Sydney will be on fire,” Denson claimed, adding that Australia is expecting around 1,000 players to participate in the Cup. “This could be a really good opportunity to try and change team sports around the world.”
A research team in Australia has launched a study on the breadth of just how impactful homophobia is in sports. Anyone is welcome to participate, and according to Denson, around 1,400 Americans already have.
“It is really important that people share experiences. That’s the only way we can create studies and organizations.”
The Convicts also were lauded by a man whose endorsement could spearhead their movement. Rugby legend John Eales, made it clear that he was in full support the initiative to remove the stigma that gay men carry in Australian sports.
“I am very proud of the Convicts for making history while also challenging stereotypes around gay men,” said Eales, a straight native Australian.
“Sports can and must lead society and be welcoming for everyone,” he added. “It’s always disappointing to hear stories of people who don’t play sports because they fear discrimination.”