13 Apr 2024

How the New Zealand Falcons are tackling stigma against LGBTTQIA+ people in sports

2:41 pm on 13 April 2024
The touch team practicing at Western Park, Ponsonby.

The touch team practicing at Western Park, Ponsonby. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Robinson

Richard Jin does not look like your stereotypical rugby player. He's an immigrant from China with a slim build, who also identifies as gay.

But not only does he play rugby, he's the club secretary for the New Zealand Falcons, a small rugby club in Auckland that, for over 10 years, has been a haven for queer people to find community, camaraderie, and competition.

Based at Ponsonby Rugby Club in Western Springs, the New Zealand Falcons are currently the country's only active LGBTTQIA+-centric rugby club.

Jin began playing rugby when he first joined the Falcons in 2018, feeling a desire to connect with his community.

Despite joining as a player first, it wasn't long before he began to assist in the heavy organisational tasks that are needed to keep the club's two teams running. He then became the secretary, focusing on recruitment, outreach and player welfare.

Jin says the club's goal is to provide a safe space for anyone who wants to participate in a team sport, specifically rugby, which he says has historically been "heterosexual dominated".

"Because I come from China… I felt really intimidated around the topic of gay. But after I joined, I feel like I have grown out of it.

"I just felt like [the] Falcons is part of my blood."

Club secretary for the New Zealand Falcons, Richard Jin.

Club secretary for the New Zealand Falcons, Richard Jin. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Robinson

Despite only one openly gay All Black in the team's 132-year history, New Zealand has been a world leader in gay rugby. In 1998, Wellington's Krazy Knights team became only the second gay rugby team in the world.

Later that year, the Auckland queer community developed their own team, the Ponsonby Heroes, which ran for seven seasons until 2004. The teams competed in the first match between two gay rugby teams in the world.

The Falcons were founded in 2013 to encourage a new generation of players onto the field. In their first tournament together, the squad took out the Bingham Bowl, a medium-division trophy as a part of the Mark Kendall Bingham Memorial Tournament which began in 2001.

Committe member Jono Reeve at Western Springs outer fields.

Committe member Jono Reeve at Western Springs outer fields. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Robinson

Union player and committee member Jono Reeve attended a Falcons open day with a friend and had no intention of ever joining the club.

Despite playing a wide range of sports throughout primary school, he avoided rugby "like the plague" because of what he perceived as toxic masculinity.

"Like a lot of gay men I think that there's a lot of stigma around rugby, because of what we were brought up at school, especially in my generation, the millennial generation."

Though he stopped playing sports in year six, when Reeve moved to Auckland, he began searching for a way to make other queer friends outside of nightlife and drinking, finding the Falcons an easy way to build meaningful relationships fast.

"To this day, I still find it difficult to connect with most gay men, because of the culture around drinking that there is… It's difficult to establish anything meaningful with them. At least that's the experience that I had."

Jono Reeve practicing with the touch team at Western Park in Ponsonby

Jono Reeve practicing with the touch team at Western Park in Ponsonby. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Robinson

He was drawn to join the Falcons due to the inclusive framework - even not knowing the rules of the game didn't restrict him from joining the club.

"The Falcons encourage anybody to join that wants to play rugby in any of its forms.

"I had no exposure [to rugby] when I went and first joined that open day. And there's a steep learning curve, but everyone's there to support you. And it's such a fun game once you get into it."

The club wears its inclusivity on its chest, boasting a wide range of player identities. The team includes both heterosexual and homosexual players, as well as transgender and non-binary team members, and cisgender women.

Due to international World Rugby restrictions, women can currently only play on the touch team, though the club says it would like to establish a women's union team "in the future".

Committee member Petra Ong moved to New Zealand when she was 26 and had no knowledge of the sport. She joined the team after her friend Jay convinced her to come along to a practice. Now, she's one of the touch team's co-managers.

She said her teammates' guidance and patience was what made it easy to learn a sport she had never encountered before.

"Our core goal of creating inclusion in sport sets the team apart from other teams… Leaving no space for toxicity."

Falcons player and touch team co-manager, Petra Ong at Big Gay Out 2024

Falcons player and touch team co-manager, Petra Ong at Big Gay Out 2024. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Robinson

Jin says the biggest barrier to the Falcons' success is a struggle to get fresh players signing up. He encourages all who are even slightly curious to give the Falcons a shot, saying the exercise and team building has great health benefits "not just physically but also mentally."

"If rugby is for you, that's great. If rugby is not for you, absolutely fine. Everyone has their flavour."

Reeve thinks the Falcons are important to show LGBT people that sport is for everyone.

He says that the team is much more than the sum of their parts, and that to him, the logo sends a message to everybody about inclusivity in sports.

"Sometimes the hardest things will reap the greatest rewards. Trying a sport that I absolutely despised when I was a kid, it was one of the biggest challenges in my life.

"Even if you have the smallest amount of curiosity, if nothing else, you could make a friend here… Just come give it a try, and it might change your life."

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