Bastian Tremblay ended his rugby-playing days when a family member told him their team could not find out he was gay.
He loved the sport and had grown up in a “rugby family” but felt pressured to quit because of his sexuality. The family member’s comment was “the final straw”.
In the wake of controversy around Australian star Israel Folau’s comments suggesting gay people are going to hell, Tremblay is back in sport coaching the country’s newest gay and inclusive rugby team.
After a meeting with Canterbury Rugby Union, the Christchurch Football Club (CFC) Heroes – one of only two such teams nationwide – was formed this year.
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Tremblay was put in touch with CFC, the second oldest rugby club in the world and one that has produced 32 All Blacks, and was “overwhelmed” by the response.
“Everybody was really positive about it … at this stage it was just a concept. We didn’t have a full squad, we didn’t have uniforms, we didn’t have anything. From there it just grew and grew and grew.”
Tremblay did not believe Folau’s comments rose to the level of hate speech. His dispute was with what was said, not that Folau said it.
“We will stand in opposition to the content of what he has said but never stand in the way of his right to say it, and his right to live his life as he chooses, because isn’t that exactly what the gay community wants as well?”
The new all-inclusive team is four games into its first season and improving weekly. On Saturday, they scored their first points in a 78-3 loss.
“Probably 90 per cent of the current squad have never played rugby before so we are very green and we are very new, but this is the key,” Tremblay said.
“This has been an environment that has been set up to be completely safe, that is completely inclusive – we welcome the diversity.”
That ethos appealed to Jason Shaw, who had never played team sports before seeing an advertisement for the team on social media.
Playing with the team had helped him work on anxiety and isolation issues he had been battling earlier this year.
“I was pretty nervous coming up to the first game, I wasn’t sure what kind of homophobic slurs we might encounter and the sort of talk you get on the rugby field,” Shaw said.
“There was none of that, really, and the teams were all incredibly supportive and understanding and everything, so it’s a real surprise to me personally.”
Tremblay said the only negativity he had witnessed was from some sideline supporters during their first game.
Heroes captain Ed Lang said the team was important because it made sure members of the LGBT community “have a team that they feel like they can be true to themselves on the field and off the field”.
“It’s really good to be breaking down barriers and really showing that diversity in New Zealand is really what matters.”
Tremblay said teams like the Heroes and the North Island-based NZ Falcons, along with the All Blacks’ Diversity is Strength drive, showed inclusiveness in sport was growing and efforts were “not just lip service campaigns”.