Inclusivity is at the heart of the Kings Cross Steelers’ ethos - both on and off the pitch.
Open to everyone in the community, regardless of sexual orientation, the world’s first gay inclusive rugby club is tackling prejudice one try at a time.
The club was founded in November 1995, by six men who were enjoying a drink at a pub in King’s Cross.
Back then in a homophobic society, they felt excluded from rugby so they decided to set up their own club, where they could be open about their sexuality while playing the sport they loved.
Lord Robert Hayward, the founding chairman, says: “We had a big discussion about whether we should identify that we were a gay rugby club. We chose to so that people were not under any illusion when we played them.”
The Steelers wrote to clubs across London asking for fixtures, and while the majority accepted, some didn’t. Mark Bithell, 40, who joined the club when he was 23, explained: “Some clubs simply refused to play us and others said they had nothing against us but cited safety concerns about our blood and HIV infection.”
At a time when London’s Admiral Duncan pub, a popular gay bar in the heart of London’s Soho LGBTQ+ village, was nail bombed by an neo-fascist, fearing a backlash, the location of the Steelers’ first match against New Malden was kept a secret until the last minute, and the first few years of the club’s existence were rocky.
“There were several times that we came close to having to give it all up,” Lord Hayward continues.
“We were struggling financially, had difficulty recruiting players and there was also a perception issue.”
But 24 years since they first began, the club has grown from just six people to more than 250 members, and also offers a pathway to rugby programme that encourages newcomers to the sport.
The club is a member of the RFU, and works with different rugby associations to help stamp out homophobia at matches.
It also works at local and national level to challenge stereotypes and fight against homophobia in sport, paving the way for the creation of more than 100 LGBTQ+ rugby clubs worldwide, including many in Britain from Bristol to Edinburgh.
And the Steelers’ results on the pitch speak for themselves. Not only have they played an undefeated 2018/19 season, they have been continuously promoted through the Essex leagues and divisions and repeatedly won the Union Cup, Europe’s biggest amateur rugby tournament.
But regardless of all their sporting success, for the players, being part of the Kings Cross Steelers is about more than just playing rugby.
Matt Webb, now club chairman, said: “I wasn’t out to my parents until I joined the Steelers. Ultimately, it was the club that gave me that confidence to say to my parents: ‘I am a member of a gay rugby club and I am loving it and this is who I am and I am very happy.’
“Being part of that rugby team and being accepted allowed me to be myself.”