You never forget your first time. Playing rugby, that is.
Although men and women alike have been scrumming it down and shooting the boot since the 19th century, the rugby world has seen an exponential growth in female players over the past decade. It's considered one of the fastest growing sports across the planet, with more than 2 million women regularly booting up worldwide as of last July, according to World Rugby, the sport's global governing organization. The United States has quickly become a women's rugby mecca; according to country-specific participation figures released by World Rugby in 2014, there are more than 24,000 registered female players in America. Of those, about 15,000 are adult players.
But numbers are just the beginning when it comes to the significance rugby holds for women. In a society that hastily assigns female athletes a plethora of stereotypes, rugby allows those athletes to challenge them in a nuanced way. And significantly, rugby cultivates a space in which females can explore their identities in a safe and empowering manner—something queer female ruggers I spoke with acknowledge as being a major draw of the sport.
While gay- and queer-friendly male rugby teams are as prevalent today as ever, queerness in women's rugby operates under a different, more fluid mechanism. Most women's teams do not brand themselves as queer, whereas an international network of men's teams does exactly that. Queer female ruggers, like their non-queer teammates, nonetheless embrace rugby as a channel to challenge, define, and embrace their own understanding of what it means to be both a female and an athlete.
"Rugby is a safe space, first and foremost, for queer folk," said Sky Knight, a player for the Life West Gladiatrix, a Bay Area–based women's club team. Knight, a seven-year rugby veteran, said the sport has allowed her to become both confident and intentional in the way she expresses her queer identity. In many ways, Knight said other sports pale in comparison when it comes to fostering a welcoming and inclusive community. "Rugby teaches you to be big and bold," she said.
Although youth rugby teams do exist, many female ruggers first encounter the sport in college, joining with little to no experience. Taking up a new sport can be daunting regardless of gender or sexual identity, but rugby's culture is often unique in welcoming players into the fold without pretense or expectation—it levels the playing field in a way many others don't. Portland Pigs player Lynne Stahl, who first played in her sophomore year in college, credits an early coach for fostering an inclusive and positive environment for new players, particularly through her use of humor. "It sounds counterintuitive, but her way of keeping people from taking themselves seriously created a space for profound confidence among people society generally works to tear down in various ways," Stahl said.
Coming out often induces anxiety, and Stahl noted that rugby can work to alleviate some of those concerns for queer players. Stahl said rugby creates something of a neutral space for lesbian, bi, and otherwise queer women to engage in a dialogue about their identities around others who want to do the same. "Queer social groups can be wonderful, but they're not for everyone, and sometimes it's nice to have a less formal environment that's queer heavy but not formally focused on sexuality—it's a good atmosphere for casual conversation," Stahl said.
Because rugby players come to the sport in all manner of sexualities, sizes, and gender presentations, it provides a unique space where female are allowed to be unabashedly themselves. "Once females recognize that we're in a space where they're not going to be judged for their size or sexuality or gender presentation," said Stahl, "we can relax psychological defenses we don't even know we always have up."
Such spaces can allow females who may not consider themselves feminine to reclaim their identities and allows all players to exercise fluidity with their gender and sexuality. It embraces and normalizes the varying spectrums of sexuality and gender players bring to the field. Portland Pigs player Ariel Acosta said the sport allowed her to explore and understand her own sexual identity in an encouraging and supportive culture. "It allows you to be fluid," she said. "Nobody's prying, nobody's poking. If you show up to the social with a guy, awesome. If you show up to the social with a girl, great."
"Rugby definitely is very accepting of whoever you are," said USA Olympian Kelly Griffin. "Everybody can be themselves. It has a culture of respect." To her, the game lets players express their individuality while working towards a greater goal, which allows players to find a family within their teams (a phenomenon by no means limited to rugby). As with finding a family, the sport eventually becomes an inextricable part of one's identity. "I'm a rugby player. That's what I do. That's what I love. It's been a big part of my identity," Griffin said.
Rugby extends beyond welcoming queer women with open arms—players stress that ruggers actively urge their teammates to reach their full potential both on and off the pitch. Teams become advocacy groups for women to come into their own as women, athletes, and human beings. They serve as platforms for women to build confidence, explore their identities, and kick ass along the way. Spaces like that aren't always easy to come by. And at the end of the day, we all want to be seen and taken as who we are, especially if you're sticking your face in someone's ass on a regular basis (don't make it weird) and if you're drinking libations from your captain's sweaty, dirt-filled cleat. Sometimes, all it takes is a nudge. Or a stiff arm to the face.
Camila Martinez-Granata is a Bay Area–based writer.