The world's first gay rugby club, the Steelers are the subject of a new film. Founding chairman Robert Hayward reflects on the club's influence over the past 25 years

Kings Cross Steelers – “We have been an exemplar for the changes in society”

A new film about Kings Cross Steelers, the world’s first gay rugby club, premieres next month at the Glasgow Film Festival. The documentary follows the East London club’s exploits at the 2018 Bingham Cup in Amsterdam and has been made by TV reporter Eamonn Ashton-Atkinson, who had been due to play in the tournament before concussion ruled him out.

The Steelers’ story is one of the most significant the game has seen. Created in 1995, the club has been a trailblazer for gay and inclusive rugby – today there are almost 100 member clubs listed on the International Gay Rugby website.

Steelers’ founding chairman is Lord Robert Hayward, a former MP, referee and Bedford Swifts wing. Rugby World spoke to him last year for a feature published in our June 2020 issue. Here’s what he had to say about the club’s impact over the past 25 years…

Kings Cross Steelers

Standard bearers: Kings Cross Steelers led the way on a path that many have since trodden (Steelers)

“In the mid-1990s, society became more open and the opportunity was there to come together and play the sport you loved. So we set up the Steelers and as time has moved on, we discovered that what we were also doing was providing a support network for lots of people; people who weren’t out feeling they could play a sport comfortably in a team before they came out to their family or their community.

“After we were formed, when we had journalists doing stories we had to ask players whether they were out at work. If I was being interviewed against a backdrop of people training, did they want to avoid being in the backdrop? Did they want to appear in a photograph?

“And at least half the players would say no, they don’t want to be in a photograph. Quite a few were unwilling even to be interviewed anonymously.

“When we had our 20th anniversary, we didn’t ask people. And that’s a reflection of the change in society. There are people who are still not out, and everybody’s sympathetic to that, it’s their choice. But the contrast between every media interview we did in the early years compared to now is stark.

“When we started the club, we were thinking of people who were involved in rugby and wanted to play in a gay community; after the game they could go off together into Soho or whatever. What has been striking is the shift over the years.

“For the last five years we have run a ‘Pathway to Rugby’ – 50 guys each year who have either never played rugby or who haven’t played beyond the age of about 13.

“And the pathway is over-subscribed. It’s a 13-week course and the final ‘passing out’ game has become quite an institution. Other clubs are staggered by how many people we have turn up. People are coming from all over London to train with us and the RFU loves it because it is bringing overwhelmingly new people into the game.

“In the early days, when you played clubs away from home, you would get all sorts of questions, like ‘How do gay guys meet?’ There was a perception about the club and the gay community that we were all soft and like Danny La Rue. ‘Straight’ clubs were quite open about the fact they didn’t want to be the first club to lose to Kings Cross Steelers.

“But that perception has changed because more sportsmen and women have come out as being gay, like Gareth Thomas in 2009. And the contrast now is that the Essex Rugby Union is incredibly proud to have us as part of their society.

“The Steelers have never been about a crusade per se but it has been difficult to separate that from the rugby. We got quite a lot of publicity for our first few matches and I remember we played a club in Surrey. One of their guys said, ‘You’ve got to be careful. Every club will want to play you just because they want to play rugby, not because it’s going to be a campaign.’

“I was conscious of that. I don’t think anybody does it to campaign but what we’ve discovered is how helpful we can be both to individuals and to the gay community just by being there.

“I do believe that rugby has tackled the issue of diversity far better than football. When we were formed there was a sense that rugby was a bastion of traditional conservative, with a small c, society. Lo and behold, the RFU welcomed us in.

“At the time there were all sorts of rows about professionalism and I remember saying to the RFU’s head of communications, ‘I’m sorry to be causing you these troubles’, because on odd occasions there were silly stories, and he said, ‘You’re the only positive publicity we get!’

Kings Cross Steelers Ben Coney Critchley

Showing his mettle: Steelers’ Ben Coney Critchley makes a tackle against Caledonian Thebans during the 2019 Union Cup in Dublin (Inpho)

“We’re lucky as a sport. We shouldn’t be self-indulgent, we must carry on changing attitudes, and I hope we’re doing it by experience rather than by a form of campaign or crusade.

“It’s a shame that the only openly gay rugby player at the moment is Keegan Hirst in rugby league. But I believe rugby union has a position to be proud of.

“I don’t know if there are guys out there who are gay but if there are I’d like them to feel confident enough to come out and I think rugby union is in a position where that could be the case.

“In many ways we have throughout the last 25 years been an exemplar of the changes in society. When I got an award at the Rugby Writers’ dinner, Craig Maxwell-Keys was sat across the table from me as an England international referee.

“When Nigel (Owens) came out, when Gareth came out, it was blockbusting news. But Craig is an international referee who happens to be gay. And that’s both a reflection of society and a reflection of the way the game works, and has worked, very effectively.

Rugby referee Craig Maxwell-Keys

In the spotlight: Premiership referee Craig Maxwell-Keys decided to come out in 2019 (Getty Images)

“I was the main mover of the amendment in legislation that got same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland and I said I would wear my tie every time I spoke on the subject until the law changed, which I did.

“In both the Commons and the Lords, there’s a box where the civil servants sit and they pass notes to the minister, and the other week one of the civil servants in the box was wearing a Steelers tie. And it gave me enormous pride. It’s little things like that which give one pleasure because of what the tie represents and what the club represents.”

Steelers: The World’s First Gay Rugby Club premieres online at the Glasgow Film Festival – tickets are available now. It will be available to watch from Fri 26 Feb to Sun 7 Mar.

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