While the rugby is the heart and soul of the tournament for the 30 clubs from 15 countries who have gathered in Sydney this week, the event has been leveraged by organisers to shine a spotlight on the issue of homophobia in sport.
The Australian Rugby Union (ARU) responded on Friday by becoming the first of the country’s football codes to implement a policy of inclusion and anti-homophobia, while IRB chief executive Brett Gosper sent a letter of support.
“It’s really groundbreaking due to the fact that no other professional international sporting organisation has ever been so open about support for an event related to their LGBT athletes,” Jeff Wilson, the chairman of the International Gay Rugby Association, told Reuters.
“It’s a real, true commitment to inclusion in sport and the elimination of homophobia at all levels of rugby. We hope to see other organisers of sport follow their example.”
While the first match took place in heavy rain on a sodden pitch outside, Australia’s 1991 and 1999 World Cup winning captains Nick Farr-Jones and John Eales addressed the opening news conference inside the Eastern Suburbs Rugby Club.
“We’ve always been proud of rugby because by its very nature, it’s an inclusive sport because it has a place for every size and shape of body,” said Eales.
“We needed to extend that and make sure it had a space for every kind of person. That no matter what their interests or what their background was, rugby was a sport where they could come.”
Wilson said the work done by Bingham Cup president Andrew Purchas, a former team mate of Farr-Jones at the Sydney University club, in raising awareness of homophobia in the lead-up to the tournament had “raised the bar” for organisers.
The American, who would be in action later in the day for London’s Kings Cross Steelers, said getting rid of homophobia would also benefit rugby by preventing talented youngsters from being lost to the sport.
“We don’t want any kid to not play a sport because they don’t feel included because of their orientation,” Wilson added.
“And by eliminating that subconscious bias and the active homophobic bullying that goes on, it makes rugby a better sport.”
While active homophobic bullying was still a major problem, more casual gay slurs were also preventing young people from becoming involved in team sports, according to Dr. Caroline Symons of Melbourne’s Victoria University.
Symons is helping coordinate an international survey, “Out in the Fields”, on the issue with preliminary results from Australia indicating that 85 percent of gay people had witnessed homophobia in sport.
“The majority of homophobia is not directed at individuals,” she told Reuters.
“Men in team sports that are not performing as well as they are supposed to are said to be ‘playing like a pack of girls, playing like a pack of poofs’.
“It’s sexist and homophobic because the connotation is they’re weak, they’re underperforming, they’re not making the grade. That is still damaging to closeted gay people involved in team sports.”
There was nothing weak about some of the collisions when the defending champion Sydney Convicts took on the Melbourne Chargers in an all-Australian grudge match on Friday morning.
Watching on the sidelines was Alice Hoagland, the mother of the former gay rugby player with the San Francisco Fog for whom the tournament was named, Mark Bingham.
Bingham was killed in September 11, 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington when United Airlines Flight 93 crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.
He is thought to have been among the handful of passengers who prevented the hijackers from reaching their target.
“The tragedy of September 11 is eased in my mind somewhat by the fact I now have so many sons who are filled with the desire to carry the Bingham Cup forward,” Hoagland told Reuters.
“It’s the icing on the cake that they have come to Sydney, which is a remarkably inclusive city, to show the world what it means when gay men come together to play hard and come away victorious, or not, and are still able to tip a pint at the end of the game.”
(Editing by John O’Brien)