All-Inclusive Rugby

By Caroline LaGow

On any given Saturday in New Orleans, you might see people eating beignets in the French Quarter, running through Audubon Park, or watching a rugby match at City Park. During a trip to Atlanta, Patrick Button, a New Orleanian, attended a rugby-101 clinic for the Atlanta Bucks, an International Gay Rugby club. These clubs are commonly known as an IGR. Patrick fell for the sport instantly. His friend and Bucks player, Jason Andersen, suggested that “It would be really cool if New Orleans had a gay rugby team.” Thus, the New Orleans Rougaroux team was formed.

There are men’s and women’s teams, collegiate and social teams, and now an inclusive gay rugby team. IGRs are meant to spread diversity and a community feeling amongst the LGBTQ community. The Rougaroux team created a mission statement which reads:, “We promote fraternity, diversity, growth, and service through the sport of rugby.  We seek to create a safe and competitive space that fosters team and community building, a space where people of diverse backgrounds can come together to learn and play rugby. This space will cultivate growth, through mentorship and camaraderie, for people who are often isolated and underrepresented. Finally, we will give back to our communities through community service, sponsorships, and fundraisers.”

Patrick Button is a founding member and the president of the Rougaroux team. He states, “people assume we started this team due to homophobia in the New Orleans rugby community, which is not true at all…it’s the exact opposite, especially now that we are established and have roots.” If there is no exclusion from the community why would an IGR be necessary? Button suggests, “Some people feel comfortable in that specific atmosphere. Some people just say ‘I really feel comfortable with my teammates, I feel like myself.’” In addition to the sense of community among peers, the Rougaroux team allows individuals a learning experience. “I see this as more of a gateway into rugby, where people who thought they could never play this sport feel as though this is a safe environment being a new player in a gay friendly atmosphere.”

Despite the inclusivity of the the team, one of the conversations that comes up among the Rougaroux players, is including transgender layers and deciding when they change from playing on a team of one gender to another. Jessica Mallindine, the head coach for the Rougaroux, elaborates, “That’s been a very interesting conversation about where that break point is. USA Rugby has some very specific guidelines on when someone is considered a female or a male and when they can play on that other team. It was interesting to have that conversation with people in that community about how they would like it handled.”

Button affirms, “We decided to be a gay and inclusive team because we want to open the team up to as many people as possible.” He continues, “We are an inclusive team, and we want to include everyone. We see trans players as being fundamental to that.” However, USA Rugby policy states that in order to play with the team, transgender people must have had reassignment surgery. Button states, “We opened up our team to trans men, but that would mean they would have had to gone through surgery, which tends to be irrelevant to your play, and a significant barrier that we don’t want.” The team is participating in inclusionary activities, such as participation in a group called Ruggers for Transgender Equality and pledging support for trans players. “One of the things we’re trying to do is create awareness that the rugby community supports trans players.” The team plans to conduct a photoshoot with the transgender flag to express their comradery with trans players. These photos will make their way to USA Rugby in hopes to change some of the entity’s policies.

While the Rougaroux team is in a unique position, their coaching staff follows suit. The head and assistant coaches are both female rugby players. In addition to coaching the Rougaroux team, Jessica Mallindine is the head coach for the Tulane University Women’s Rugby Team. Hayley Alexander, the assistant coach, is a senior on the Tulane Women’s Rugby Team. Hayley Alexander began coaching her sophomore year at Tulane after originally coaching youth programs in New Orleans schools. Jessica had a different introduction to coaching. “I was originally asked to help the Tulane Women’s Team a handful of times, and then felt an attachment to the girls…I wanted to see their successes through.” Mallindine began coaching the Rougaroux team under similar pretenses. When they asked her to be their coach she stated, “I was very committed to the Tulane women, but I agreed to help out over the summer to help teach the fundamentals of rugby…but at the end of the summer they asked me to stay and give whatever time they could, so we worked out a schedule and I became their head coach.”

As a current player herself, Hayley immediately felt a desire to get involved. “Jess told me she was approached by the Rougaroux team and was going to start coaching. She seemed a little overwhelmed, but excited by the opportunity. I think in the span of 10 seconds, my eyes lit up and I probably looked like an excited puppy and just went ‘Hey! Can I coach with you?’” Both coaches immediately fell for the Rougaroux team’s spirit and desire to learn. Alexander states, “The Roux are some of the most kind hearted, supportive, fun, loving, honest, and dedicated people I have ever met… The community they have created is truly astounding. I am honored to be a part of it.”

The Rougaroux team is less than one year old. As with any new team, there are obstacles associated with inexperience. Button explains “Generally, learning how to play rugby from scratch is difficult.” However, the team hopes to progress over the next several years. “I would like to see the team go to Bingham Cup, it occurs every two years, and is the second biggest rugby event in the world,” he said. Bingham Cup is the biennial world cup for gay and inclusive rugby teams. The competition is named after Mark Bingham, who co-founded two premier gay rugby clubs, the San Francisco Fog and Gotham Knights. Mark Bingham was one of the passengers who fought back against hijackers on board United flight 93 during 9/11. Tragically all those on the plane lost their lives, but through the brave individuals on board, the plane did not hit its intended target. Instead the plane landed in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.

Patrick explains “If we can bring our team there, it solidifies us as an established team…it’s such an important experience.” The team is unable to go to the June 2018 Bingham Cup in Amsterdam. A trip to Amsterdam would prove extremely expensive, given the small amount of funding a new team possesses. However, “I’m hoping in June 2020 we are able to go. I think that is a feasible goal for us[…] which would mean we are having constant games and are a well-oiled machine.”  The location of the 2020 Bingham Cup will be announced after the 2018 Cup, later that year. The Rougaroux team is currently applying for affiliate membership under the IGR community. There are currently 66 teams within International Gay Rugby. During the evolution of the Rougaroux team, they look to guidance from other IGR teams such as the Dallas Lost-Souls. “They are the first team we played, and they’ve been really helpful in providing feedback for the team.” He further states “they have a great structure, especially with community service, and that is something that is especially important to us.”

A common motto throughout rugby leagues is that all body types are welcome and all people are welcome. International Gay Rugby Clubs further these principles through their inclusion. According to Button, the best part about the team “is the community we created. I moved here two and a half years ago didn’t know anyone. I was looking for a sense of belonging and where to fit in.” The rugby community welcomed him with open arms. “My favorite thing about playing rugby is the bonds that you form with people. I have friends I feel I can really rely on.”

Due to rugby’s physicality, a sense of trust and camaraderie is developed quickly among teams. Patrick recalls a moment where he was practicing continuous contact of tackling and rucking players, “it was incredibly hard because you’re taking tackle after tackle, and one of my teammates and I made eye contact after getting off the ground […] just looking at him I knew exactly what he was thinking, we were connected and in this together…that was intense.” It is clear rugby itself creates a kinship within a team, and the Rougaroux are no exception. Button attributes these connections to the aggressive nature of the sport, “As coach Jessica says, you are going to war with these people.”

Caroline LaGow is a junior at Tulane University. She is currently studying Political Science and Communications and a member of the Tulane Women’s Rugby Team.

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