WHEN Lewis Clarke joined the Caledonian Thebans he had never touched a rugby ball before.

“I’m half-Jamaican, so cricket was the sport in my family growing up,” he said.

But after moving to Edinburgh from Leeds to study for his PhD, somebody recommended the Thebans bootcamp – an intensive, eight-week training programme that transforms complete novices into burgeoning rugby players.

Like many LGBT people, Clarke had avoided involvement in team sports due to anxieties about whether he would be able to be open about his sexuality. 

“I never really felt like I had a place in sport. I just couldn’t see myself in those kind of spaces.”

This isn’t to say that rugby as a sport is unwelcoming. But the reality is that the stereotypical “lad culture” that radiates from a team of straight men can be off-putting to minorities, for whom those environments often come burdened with threat.

It is why LGBT+ inclusive teams like the Thebans exist – and why they are successful.

The National: The Caledonian Thebans on match day The Caledonian Thebans on match day (Image: Scott Barron)

As Scotland’s premier inclusive rugby team, it offers an opportunity to incorporate players who might otherwise be too scared to get involved - be they gay or straight, men or women, trans or non-binary. 

“It’s almost as if it’s inclusivity first and rugby second,” said Clarke. “The bootcamp is for people who have never stepped foot on a rugby pitch. It teaches them all the skills they need: How to hold a ball, how to pass, what an attacking line looks like.

“However, it also gives them a chance to open up to the vulnerability of learning a new skill as an adult.

“The Thebans removes the machismo I think a lot of people, myself included, grew up around when it comes to sports.

“Now, we have straight players in the squad who use it as their only regular team because as well as being inclusive we’re also competitive.”

One such player is Éanna Tyrrell. Having grown up playing rugby in Ireland, he fell out of love with the sport when he went to university.

He said: “I just didn’t enjoy the vibe that was associated with teams, especially at university. So, I just didn’t play it for years.”

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When a friend who moved to Edinburgh asked him to pop along he was, at first, concerned about whether his presence would be appropriate.

“My only worry was whether I’d be occupying space meant for LGBT people. I’m a straight, white male – I don’t have as much of a barrier to accessing the sport.

“I was worried that my presence might take away from someone else’s experience.

“However, in having conversations with the players all of that was alleviated.

"It’s massively welcoming, no matter what sexuality you are. It’s just about whether you embody the values of the Thebans and that’s what I love about it.”

Inclusivity is a hot topic in the sporting world.

In January, Scottish Rugby Union (SRU) banned transgender women from competing in contact rugby in the women’s category (although trans men can continue to compete in the men’s category provided a risk assessment is completed).

It took the decision in an attempt to ensure safety and fairness in the women’s game.

The National: The Caledonian Thebans compete in a mainstream amateur league in Edinburgh The Caledonian Thebans compete in a mainstream amateur league in Edinburgh (Image: Scott Barron)

Last month, the Athletics Federation also banned trans women from competing in the female category in international events (though there are currently no transgender athletes competing in the sport at that level).

What often gets lost in conversations about the complexity or legitimacy of these decisions is the reality of transgender participation in sport.

A Europe-wide survey of LGBT participation in sport published in 2018 found that around 19% of those surveyed had felt excluded or stopped playing particular sports as a result of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

However, when narrowed down to just transgender people this figure leaped to 54%.

Max Reid is a trans man from East Lothian who joined the Thebans early on in his transition.

“I played during primary school but at that time there were no girls teams within the area that I felt I could put myself forward for,” he said.

“And, since I couldn’t play with the boys anymore, that was it.

“I thought about joining women’s teams as I got older but I didn’t want to make myself or other people feel uncomfortable.”

When he joined the Thebans in 2019, he didn’t tell anybody he was trans.

Indeed, he didn’t realise that the SRU’s recommendation at the time (now official policy) was that all transgender players had to undergo a risk assessment.

He said: “I just assumed I could go along and be myself. I didn’t realise it was a ‘thing’.

“When I found out I had to disclose it, I thought: Why does nobody else have to say exactly what their sexuality or gender is but I do?”

Still, Max found a home at the Thebans and progressed to playing games in the first team.

He rediscovered a sport – and the community surrounding it – because the Thebans offered him a place to do so.

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“Getting to a place where I was going to train two days a week, looking forward to playing on a Saturday, and just getting back involved in a sport I enjoyed was massive for me.

“I’m quite a shy guy and it has really helped me open up in a space I felt comfortable in.

“But, honestly, it’s just been nice to play again. It was something I wanted to do for such a long time.”

At a time when many amateur clubs struggle to maintain enough players to survive, the Thebans are thriving.

Later this month they will be competing in the Union Cup, Europe’s largest inclusive rugby tournament.

“It’s mind-boggling how big it is,” said Clarke. “But while it’s obviously a celebration of inclusive rugby it also assuages the assumption that we’re not competitive.

“People think that because it’s inclusive it’s softer or not as elite as other amateur rugby clubs.

“But we play in a mainstream league in Edinburgh, which is such a milestone in breaking down those assumptions.

“It also makes it all the sweeter when people like myself, who have only been playing for a few years, can play a part in beating teams full of guys who’ve been playing since they were kids.”

At a time when the politics around LGBT+ issues in Scotland can feel somewhat polarising, it's no mean feat to create a environment that demonstrates the ideal of inclusivity. 

Where people of all genders and sexualities work together, create friendships and, sometimes, even win.