Sport plays a powerful role in the lives of Irish people, it can be fun, uplifting and sociable. However, this positive side of the sporting world hasn’t been experienced by everyone in this country, predominantly by women and those in the LGBTQ+ community. One can argue that there is a lack of inclusion and diversity within clubs and this in turn can create a sense of isolation from the community, especially in some rural areas.
While there is a long way to go, progress is being made. There have been many LGBT-inclusive clubs founded across the country, along with new ad campaigns highlighting the need for diversity in clubs. During Pride Month – a global celebration that takes place every June commemorating the 1969 Stonewall riots – it is a good time for us to reflect on the changes made in Ireland in recent years. Therefore, I spoke to three people about their experience with sports in Ireland.
Conor Scully is a PhD student in DCU and he had a “largely positive” experience with sport growing up, playing cricket, hockey, tennis and badminton. He still plays tennis today. For Conor, the positive aspects of sport were “nothing unusual”.
“I was competitive and enjoyed playing against other people and, even though it’s a cliché, I think exercising regularly probably was good for my mental health. I think as well that being able to play sport and be in control of one’s body during puberty is a really important way for teenagers to feel anchored in themselves, at a time when their bodies are otherwise changing rapidly,” he said.
However, Conor did experience negative aspects which according to him were “intrinsically related to the team aspect of sport”. As he got older and was in his mid-teens, he gave up playing cricket and hockey because he “never really felt” like he fit in.
“I think there’s a common idea that gay teenagers are somehow less motivated to play sport than their straight counterparts, but for me it had very little to do with the sport itself. Sports teams create an environment that is extremely laddish, and a key way that team members bond is through behaviour that is often difficult for gay teenagers to fit into, even though I hadn’t realised at the time that I was gay,” he explained.
He continued: “Things like bragging about girls and making homophobic comments. Even though I had a good aptitude for sport, I never felt at home in team sports. Students who ‘fit in’ better, I think, were more motivated to train hard because they cared about pleasing their peers, whereas I never really did”.
Conor thinks that there is a stereotype of how male athletes should behave and he thinks it “dovetails in an interesting way with questions of sexuality”.
“When I was in school I think the specifics of someone’s sexual orientation mattered less than how they presented. If someone was camp or acted in a way that was perceived not to be masculine enough I think they would have been made fun of and would have felt less comfortable playing team sports in particular, regardless of what their actual sexual orientation was,” he explained.
He continued: “Whereas I think if someone was traditionally masculine and ‘fit in’ with the other lads it wouldn’t have mattered so much what their sexuality was. I did my masters thesis on sexuality and homophobia in schools and a common thing that boys say is that they don’t care who anyone fancies as long as they don’t act ‘weird’ or ‘camp’.”
According to Conor there is an issue “overall” with toxic masculinity in Ireland but he thinks people are “becoming more aware of it and are willing to call it out when they see it”.
There have been high-profile athletes in Ireland that have broken the norm and have spoken publicly about being gay, including Irish hurling goalkeeper Dónal Óg Cusack, footballer Valerie Mulcahy and referee David Gough.
David is a GAA football referee from Slane in Meath and is football’s first openly gay top-level match official. He was involved with Slane GFC from a young age until he retired in his late 20s.
David came out to his parents “privately” in January 2011 and in May of that year, he told his teammates.
“There was a championship match on the May Bank Holiday weekend, and I decided to play a game in the international GLTA (Gay and Lesbian Tennis Alliance) tournament.” For David, this was a way to make friends and meet people “on the gay scene”.
“I decided to do this and miss the championship match. The lads got suspicious straight away. For 10 years I had played championship football for Slane and never missed a match at all. It was over a few drinks on a Sunday night where they started to chat,” he explained.
That evening, David came out to the captain of the team via a phone call: “I didn’t know what way they were going to treat me, and I was a little bit afraid. I had all those irrational fears around the slagging in the dressing rooms, the banter with the lads, the changing and the showering. Would they have an issue with it, because I certainly didn’t,” David explained.
He continued: “It made for a difficult experience, so I shied away from it. But they were 100 percent behind me, they really didn’t care about my sexuality. All that mattered to them was that I played football and continued to play with them”.
There is an issue of ‘slagging’ and ‘banter’ within the sporting world that can be toxic and David has experienced this first-hand: “There are centuries of hegemonic masculinity and now on top of that we have decades of toxic masculinity, particularly within male sports. I would know very well the type of language and banter that is had in dressing rooms up and down the country”.
This in turn puts pressure on young members of the LGBT community who feel “unwelcome and unsure”. Those who are afraid, or don’t want to come out, would rather walk away from the club: “It chips away at their confidence. They don’t want to tell people”.
David told me that he has a long list of people who have contacted him on social media whose relatives, specifically male, have committed suicide because they weren’t able to come out to their teammates “even though they were involved with GAA clubs and had great support around them”.
I asked David if he had any advice for younger members of the LGBT community who may be struggling: “Don’t go on this journey alone. I’ve come out the far side of it. I have completely been successful in my career; my sexuality hasn’t held me back. If anything, it has enhanced my career and the respect levels for me in what is a very difficult position being an inter-county GAA referee. It is completely acceptable now to be openly gay within the GAA”.
In 2015, David was appointed to referee a match live on Sky Sports between Tyrone and Dublin. It was leading up to the Marriage Equality referendum and he decided to wear a wrist band to call for a Yes vote.
“It was quite obvious from being out campaigning that Dublin had a strong Yes vote. But I didn’t feel that it was being discussed enough around the tables of countryside and rural villages. I knew that the GAA had the power to permeate every level of Irish society, irrespective of class or location,” David explained.
Initially, David was told he could wear the wrist-band on the pitch. However, that soon changed and David was told by the GAA that he was not allowed to do so. This decision garnered widespread media coverage: “What was supposed to be a very small story in the sports column of the Irish Independent about pride and someone being gay in the GAA, ended up as front-page news of the main paper on the Sunday morning”.
“It definitely garnered more support by not allowing me to wear it than I could have ever got if I had of worn it,” he added.
In 2019, John Horan became president of the GAA and according to David he was “extremely open to the idea of LGBT inclusivity and visibility within the association”. David, along with Valerie Mulcahy, met John and they asked for three things. One of which was to walk in the Pride parade.
“I remember getting the phone call in May  on my holidays telling me that the GAA had accepted the invitation to walk in the Pride parade and I was going on to The Late Late Show to break the news”.
In 2020, five years after the wrist-band incident, Sky Sports helped initiate the first ever Rainbow Laces campaign which ran in conjunction with the campaign in the UK. David, along with team officials and players from Mayo and Tipperary, wore rainbow laces during the All Ireland semi-final to show their backing for the LGBT+ inclusion initiative.
“Because of the pandemic, for the first time we had senior inter-county matches in Croke Park in November and December. Sky Sports asked me to wear the rainbow laces and I said I would only wear them if the players supported it. Nobody needed to see me wearing rainbow laces anymore, that would be expected,” David explained.
He continued: “What we needed was to see allies, straight men from the straight community wearing the laces and saying we support members of the LGBT community and we support them being involved in our association. That came to full fruition in November of last year ”.
David was recently asked to be be honouree president of Na Gaeil Aeracha GAA club: “I am thrilled, I’m beyond honoured to be asked. I’m a huge supporter of what they are doing. It’s fantastic”. Based in Dublin, Na Gaeil Aeracha is the first ever LGBT-inclusive GAA club, co-founded by Karl Shannon.
Geraldine McTavish is the GAA’s national diversity and inclusion officer and according to David there is still a lot more to do around educational pieces within the GAA, which the inclusion officer is rolling out at the moment: “There will be a huge emphasis on changing procedure, policy and practice within diversity and inclusion over the next few years”.
So what is currently being done to ensure diversity within sport in Ireland? This year for the first time ever a new ad campaign ‘Bring It On’ has been launched by Supervalu, together with the GAA. The theme of this campaign is diversity and inclusion. They are committed to encouraging people from diverse backgrounds to join the GAA, hoping to increase participation by 30 percent by 2025.
Last week, the #LetsGetVisible campaign was announced by Sport Ireland and Sporting Pride as part of Dublin Pride Health and Wellbeing Week. Its aim was to “recognise and acknowledge the importance of visibility and representation amongst the LGBTQ+ community, specifically in the sport sector”.
Although these campaigns will not change the world, they are steps in a positive direction.
Making the sporting world better and raising awareness of inclusivity is the main aim for Adam O’Brien, president and founder of the rugby club ‘The Hellhounds’ in Cork. With 40 current members from the LGBT community, they have been officially ratified as IRFU members. From Ballincollig, Adam previously played basketball in a small social club and was active in sport in school, but he had “zero experience of rugby growing up”.
He said there was a need for such a team in Cork, as it has proven to be very popular since its foundation. The Hellhounds creates a space where anybody can come along with “zero experience in the sport” and can “meet new people, exercise and have fun”.
Adam explained his reasons behind the foundation of the club: “I lived in Dublin for a number of years and I joined the Emerald Warriors about three years ago. I really enjoyed getting out and playing, meeting new friends and socialising after matches. The dream was always to come back to Cork and that happened in September 2020. I wanted to bring that same atmosphere and rugby culture to Cork”.
I asked Adam to describe the club in three words, to which he responded with “inclusive, fun and proud”.
Adam has received lots of support since the club was founded: “The Gay Project, a Cork gay advocacy group was the starting point who helped set up the initial call. They have given fantastic support and continue to do so. Munster Rugby was also supportive from the get-go. They gave me the guidelines on how to set up a club and contacts all over the city”.
He continued: “My rugby friends in Dublin have also all helped me out massively, their detailed experience has been essential, from encouraging me to helping me draft club documentation. I’d like to directly shout out Simon Finnegan and David Watters. There is an international organisation for gay rugby – IGR – that has also provided help in the form of Adam Harrison when I first started off.”
Ireland has come a long way over the years and the current sporting world is almost unrecognisable from the one that many LGBTQ+ people experienced in the past. We are continuing to make progress and that alone, is reason to feel proud.