Gay former rugby star Brennan Bastyovanszky recharges Vancouver Rogues

The gay and inclusive rugby team offers a welcome alternative to those who are opposed to the use of homophobic language in male contact sports

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      Vancouver resident Brennan Bastyovanszky’s links to the rugby pitch go back to his teenage days in Victoria. He has played for the University of Victoria Vikings, a university in France, first-division rugby in Vancouver, and two clubs in Sydney, Australia.

      “At all of the clubs, it was a common and just accepted practice to use homophobic language,” Bastyovanszky, 42, told the Straight by phone. “At every training session, at every game, it was just something that happened.”

      But Bastyovanszky was harbouring a secret for many of those years. He’s gay. Although he loved the camaraderie of rugby and the lifelong bonds he’s formed through the sport, he also said that being gay was an extra burden on him mentally.

      “That language is one of the things that I personally struggled with because I would hear it at training sessions and games,” Bastyovanszky said. “And I was always physically afraid that if I came out or they found out I was gay, that I would be, like, physically threatened or there would be physical violence against me. Because that’s the way they talked.”

      He emphasized that no one aimed those words at him directly. But it drove him to train hard and become a tighthead prop—one of the toughest positions in the sport. In his own words, he was “as strong as an ox”, weighing 110 to 115 kilos.

      Things finally came to a head when he was outed while playing for a straight club in Sydney.

      “It became very weird and awkward because people on the club just stopped associating with me, because they didn’t know how to talk about it,” Bastyovanszky recalled. “And so I eventually left the sport—playing mainstream rugby—as a result of being ostracized. That was after 20 years of playing. To be rejected by your sport for your sexuality is incredibly painful.”

      Video: Highlights of the 2016 Bingham Cup

      Fortunately, there’s a happy ending to this story. He joined Australia’s first gay and inclusive rugby team, the Sydney Convicts, and competed three times for the Bingham Cup, which is known as the biennial world championships of gay and inclusive rugby.

      The first time was in Manchester, England, in 2012.

      “I was openly gay and playing in the World Cup representing my [adopted] country and we ultimately won,” Bastyovanszky said. “And so that experience was transformational.”

      That’s because he could be comfortable being gay and playing rugby. “It’s made me realize that the two are compatible, that rugby is an incredibly inclusive sport.”

      He described singing the Australian national anthem at the end as "brilliant".

      Bastyovanszky was later on a second World Cup–winning gay and inclusive rugby team with the Convicts. And now, he’s hoping to help B.C. rugby players try to win the Bingham Cup when the competition is hosted next year in Ottawa.

      The Vancouver Rogues are hoping to compete for the Bingham Cup next year in Ottawa.

      Rugby, not sexuality, is what's important

      A couple of months ago, Bastyovanszky and others decided to revive the Vancouver Rogues, which was Canada's first gay and inclusive rugby team back in 2001 before disbanding in 2008.

      He said that the Bingham Cup is the largest 15-a-side tournament in the world, with more than 1,000 registered players representing more than two dozen countries.

      “B.C. is the cultural heart of rugby in Canada and has a huge gay population,” he said. “It’s a very liberal place, and up until recently, it didn’t have a team that was going to be represented in this tournament.”

      Bastyovanszky described his position as being like the club secretary, organizing and recruiting players and doing some coaching. The Rogues haven’t played any games yet, but the team has recruited about 50 players. According to Bastyovanszky, they are gay and straight or they “haven’t decided yet”.

      “The foundation is about having an inclusive culture,” he said. “So sexuality is not a part of it. The guys are all there to play rugby.”

      Homophobic language is not welcome. Not only is that appealing to gay players who may have experienced trauma in the past from sports, but he said it also resonates with straight players who have backgrounds in rugby and other sports.

      “They want to play rugby without those bad behaviours,” Bastyovanszky said. “A lot of straight players who have come by so far have friends or family in the LGBT community and understand those struggles.

      “They want to be part of something bigger than themselves,” he continued. ”It’s about their contribution to changing people’s attitudes. The straight players act as a bridge.”

      Another encouraging sign? According to Bastyovanszky, the Meralomas club in Vancouver has been really keen to help out.

      “They’re well advanced on things like safe sport and concussion management,” he said. “It’s quite a progressive club.”

      The Vancouver Rogues hope to compete in the mainstream local league in September.

      Straight and gay players play together on the Vancouver Rogues in an atmosphere free of homophobia.

      Captains can help turn the tide

      Resurrecting the Vancouver Rogues thrills Erik Denison, a former Vancouver journalist who conducts research at Monash University in Australia about ways to end discriminatory language in sport.

      In a phone interview with the Straight, Denison pointed out that UBC has been one of the “world pioneers” in identifying the harmful consequences of homophobia in sports.

      As an example, Denison cited a study—led by Elizabeth Saewyc of UBC’s school of nursing and supported by the McCreary Centre Society—that found that gay boys play team sports at only half the rate of straight children.

      That work enabled his team of researchers to obtain funding from the Australian government and the You Can Play project to look at finding solutions.

      “There hasn’t been one published study of an intervention to stop homophobia in sport, whereas with school bullying, there have been hundreds of studies” Denison said.

      His research, however, has uncovered that captains of various sports teams became very concerned about homophobia when they were shown data about LGBT+ suicide rates, as well as the low participation rate of gay kids in sports. Because captains play a critical role in determining a team’s culture, Denison and other researchers, including some at UBC, are hoping to activate them to stop being bystanders to homophobia.

      The cycle of LGBT exclusion and discrimination in sport.

      Denison believes that Bastyovanszky and the Vancouver Rogues can help elevate the public’s understanding about this issue because he’s very aware of the importance of focusing on captains as well as coaches.

      “Homophobia in sport isn’t being driven by hate of gay people,” Denison insisted. “It’s more driven by sexism. It’s a denigration of anything feminine.”

      Therefore, Denison noted, addressing homophobia in sport could conceivably have a positive impact on curbing domestic and gender-based violence.

      That's because a similar objective—domination—is one of several dynamics at play.

      According to Denison, statistics from B.C. Rugby showed that 47 percent of male players said they had used words like "fag" in the two weeks before being asked.

      The same surveys showed that 68 percent said they had heard others using such words and that 81 percent wanted the behaviour to stop but didn’t realize others felt this way.

      Surveys have shown similar results in other sports, according to Denison.

      A study that he coathored last year in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport concluded that "intervention targeting social norms, rather than homophobic attitudes, are needed".

      To Denison and Bastyovanszky, the fact that so many athletes want to stop uttering these slurs offers hope that homophobic language can one day be purged from many sports teams. And that could encourage more gay kids to participate in the future.

      “Homophobia in sport is a child-protection problem,” Denison declared. “We’ve known for 30 years that it’s harmful for kids. So stopping homophobia in sport is not an optional thing. It’s the law.”