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There was an LGBTQ+ theme at Harlequins' clash with London Irish on Saturday.
There was an LGBTQ+ theme at Harlequins' clash with London Irish on Saturday.
Image: Getty Images for Harlequins

'Sexuality does not affect your athletic performance... We don't want people taking their own life'

Marc Leckie of the Harlequins Foundation talks to The42 about their research into the use of homophobic language in sport.
Feb 17th 2020, 4:25 PM 6,416 0

HARLEQUINS RUGBY CLUB are hopeful that the research they have published in relation to the use of homophobic language in sport encourages people to be more respectful about words they use in future.

Working in conjunction with the Monash University in Australia, the Premiership side discovered a number of key findings which were published last Friday.

They found that over 40% of players who took part in the study admitted to using derogatory language recently, while almost 70% said they heard team-mates make similar remarks.

A professor from the Monash University is expected to come to Harlequins in the coming weeks to further their study in this area, after which, more research will be published.

Harlequins are one of the most prominent sports clubs who promote awareness for the LGBTQ community, and they want the public to be more conscious of the language they use.

“One of the key findings that isn’t in there is that 98% felt their club was gay-friendly,” Marc Leckie of the Harlequins Foundation explained to The42 about their research.

This is not about people being homophobic, it’s that everyone feels that their club is welcome. But if you put 98% on the left hand side and the 69% of people having heard [homophobic] slurs, it doesn’t really add up. This is about people understanding the negative impact that inappropriate language can have.

“I was speaking on radio the other day and for me, it’s about the unintended consequences that happen as a result.”

Leckie, who runs the Foundation, said that Harlequins feel duty-bound to use their profile and platform as a professional sports club to get involved in societal issues relating to LGBTQ matters.

Rugby has been rocked by instances of homophobia in recent times. In 2019 Israel Folau had his contract terminated, and then became embroiled in a legal case with Australia Rugby, for posting homophobic views on social media.

Similarly, Saracens’ back-row Billy Vunipola received a formal warning from his club after he articulated his support for Folau’s anti-gay stance.

In Ireland, GAA pundit Colm O’Rourke was recently criticised for his language after he used the phrase ‘namby-pamby pansy-boy game’ on The Sunday Game.

Commenting further on the importance of Harlequins’ research, Leckie said that homophobic words can even have fatal ramifications for people. 

“The other consequences can be as far as suicide,” he began.

“There’s not too many degrees of separation. Gay men are four or five more times as likely to commit suicide than their straight counterparts. It can be that serious.

“We all want a place where everyone can feel comfortable.

And people will always challenge to say ‘PC gone mad’ or these things that are easy to throw around, and actually whenever we strip it all back, do we want people taking their own lives because they feel they can’t be part of society? No.

“What do we need to do to change that? We need to change the language we use, that I’m using to be funny or to fit in. We need to be brave enough to stop using that language and to think of better jokes and better banter for me and my team-mates.

“We’re not battling against people who are homophobic, it’s just a case of them understanding that the use of language can have a dramatic impact on the quality of life of people who identify as gay.”

Another issue which emanates from the prevalence of homophobia in sport relates to the lack of current male athletes who have publicly come out as gay. 

“Part of it is that nervousness,” says Leckie.

“[It's] incredibly challenging and requires an incredible support network and bravery. And that shouldn’t be the case, and this is what it’s all about.

Sexuality does not affect your athletic performance. You should still be whatever your name is.”

Harlequins reached out to a number of clubs in the south of England at the start of this year to collect the data for their study, and Leckie says there was a “fantastic response” to their inquiries for participation. 

Additionally, the club also held an LGBTQ+ theme for their Premiership clash with Declan Kidney’s London Irish on Saturday in the Twickenham Stoop. The event was the first of its kind for a rugby union side.

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Harlequins lost by 14 points, but while the hosts were disappointed with the result, Leckie says that players and fans could appreciate the bigger picture of the occasion.

“It was really embraced by all of our supporters which is fantastic. There were people with rainbows all over their faces and flags and smoke grenades, and all sorts of things going on.

“It was a really good day. There was a panel discussion in the morning which was fantastic, and had a really good uptake on the Facebook stream. We had a number of gay-friendly teams coming along and they took part in some of the activities. The whole days was really strong and really positive.”

harlequins-v-london-irish-gallagher-premiership-rugby There was plenty of support and goodwill among the fans at the Twickenham Stoop. Source: Getty Images for Harlequins

Leckie concluded that there were some “silly comments” on social media, but that it was overshadowed by the enthusiasm from those who attended.

“People were saying how proud they were that we were doing this. A number of our gay supporters said their worlds had almost collided.

They have their ‘this is me coming to rugby’ and ‘this is me being gay.’ Everything was coming together and they had a massive smile on their face.

“You’re also going to get silly comments on social media and all that. There wasn’t 100% buy-in but it’s about, fundamentally, if people can recognise no matter what your personal beliefs are, what we want is a society where people aren’t taking their own lives because of derogatory language being used about them because of their sexuality.”

You can read more about Harlequins’ research here.

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Sinead Farrell

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