The Sydney Convicts are one of Australia’s most continuously successful sporting clubs… and they are not just successful on the sporting pitch. Along with winning numerous rugby tournaments and competitions since they were founded in 2004 they have contributed as much to positive social change as any sports club anywhere. The Convicts are Australia’s first gay and inclusive Rugby Union Club. Proud members of the Sydney and Australian LGBTI and Sydney Rugby Union communities they are not only staunch in their insistence on playing and developing high quality rugby in their club, but they have also been leaders in supporting action to diminish homophobia in sport and society in general as well.
Here foundation team member, club founder and all round club legend, Andrew (Fuzz) Purchas, talks to Jade Court Gold about why he loves rugby and why he loves being a Convict.
Jade – So, Andrew, could you describe a typical Convicts player?
Andrew – Ah… now that’s difficult. Well, about seventy percent are gay and thirty percent are straight. I guess there are two broad categories of players in terms of their sporting experience. Around sixty percent of our players come to the club with rugby experience – or if not rugby experience, at least experience of playing of playing highly physical or full contact sports like rugby, rugby league, Australian rules. Around forty percent have, pretty much, never played football or even seen a footy. I guess many had chosen not to play because they thought it was just something they couldn’t do… it was a place where they would never be accepted! For whatever reason, they didn’t feel comfortable about the game or about playing contact sport more broadly… or perhaps, never given the opportunity. They may not have had supportive parents or encouragement from friends or family. We have three teams at the Convicts. We have the luxury of having an experienced team that plays high level rugby, plus a developing them that is being challenged to improve and a team with new players. That makes us quite unique as a rugby club in Australia in that we have set up an environment where we teach adults to play rugby! It is difficult as an adult if you are just starting out in rugby at a regular club. They don’t really have the programs to bring on players who have never played before. Teaching raw novices is not usually catered for. We have a program where we teach inexperienced draftees how to play the game and sometimes we don’t let they play for a while because we recognize that it is not safe for them. You need to have a level of confidence, skills and knowledge of the game to enjoy the game and be safe. But getting back to the overall character of the club and its players, I’ve got to say that the gay character of our club is very important. While we have plenty of straight players, maintaining our gay identity is important for us!
Jade – How do your straight players get involved?
Andrew – They are usually allies – they have a friend or friends who are Convicts and they decide they want to play, too. Our Captain of the firsts team is a proud Convict and he is straight. We have had straight players involved from the very beginning. I remember when we first started playing we had a player or two who we didn’t initially know whether they were straight or gay. With one guy we eventually had to ask the question. The Convicts is a great rugby environment. Traditionally, the straight players have been experienced rugby players. I think we socialize a little bit differently to regular rugby clubs and, maybe, some of our straight players like the way we socialize more than they have experienced in other clubs. Gay rugby clubs – especially some of the bigger overseas clubs – often go through a kind of identity crisis. Sometimes they think that to maintain the focus on good quality rugby and to be competitive they must reduce the focus on their “gayness” and sexuality because there are more straight players playing. This can cause a crisis as sometimes they think they need to split their teams so that one team can maintain a focus on winning all the time while the other team maintains its focus on the sexuality issue. There can be a clash within the club! We have been fortunate at the Convicts – we have been very conscious of this potential problem – and have been fortunate that we have been able to avoid it.
Jade – Any trans-gender players in the Convicts?
Andrew – Not in our team. International Gay Rugby did a survey and it found that six percent of players in gay rugby teams were trans gender and twenty percent of gay rugby clubs have a trans-gender player. In a male team having a trans-gender athlete is less potentially problematic than in a female team.
“A large number of Convicts have been able to find themselves as men by going through this process.”
Jade – How does being a Convict fit in with Convict players ideas about “being a good man?”
Andrew – Rugby instils a whole lot of valuable principles of good sportsmanship – the way you approach the referee, the way you approach the rules, the way you approach the opposition, the way you approach teammates – and team-work more broadly. There is a strong ethos about how the game operates, how that it is played on the field and what you do after the game, so I think that this is very important for men who have not had the opportunity to play rugby previously, whether they are gay or play in regular clubs. The rugby sporting ethos is critical! A large number of Convicts have been able to find themselves as men by going through this process. I have also noticed that being part of a team – being involved in an environment where you are being welcomes as part of a team also can play a big part in the development of an individual.
Andrew – Different things. Not that there is an issue about homophobia in rugby but there is an issue about homophobia in sport in general. I think that there is a perception that, if you are openly gay, playing rugby in a regular club may be problematic. Also – playing rugby, there is an important social side to it. The social side for gay guys – well we probably do things socially a little differently to regular clubs… to the way straight guys do. So, the social side attracts some people to the Convicts. Also, we have a strong tradition of playing great rugby. We may be an amateur team, but we are very serious about the rugby. Obviously, that is attractive to some players. We tour regularly! And often overseas. That is a big attraction. The club is really well organized. Highly professional. Lots of people enjoy and appreciate that. You know what is expected of you at the Convicts. There is a whole machine that operates smoothly and keeps things running well. I think that people also appreciate – and this is something that we have become stronger at recently – that fact that we have been playing a larger advocacy role about homophobia in schools. But, the attraction of the Convicts is about our focus on the game – about enjoying the game with other people and about keeping our eyes on rugby.
Jade – How is Convict social life different?
Andrew – Ha ha. Well, in essence I suppose they are the same… but different. We probably go to different types of clubs, different pubs, different bars – yeah… and we probably have different types of conversations. If you get down to the bottom of it, I guess regular rugby socializing and Convict socializing are quite similar. I often get asked whether it is the aim of the Convicts to do itself out of its existence and my response is… even if there was no need for the Convicts, I still think the Convicts would exist. I think that with clubs, we are social creatures and people tend to congregate with other people who are like them or have a like interest. Often other rugby clubs will have socio-economic, or cultural or ethic similarities so that is the reason why they (as well as the rugby) flock together. That would be the same for the Convicts.
Jade – What is it about the game of rugby that attracts players – of all sorts?
Andrew – In rugby there is an emphasis on the fact that the game is for all… for all sorts. Regardless of body shape, or size or speed there is a place for everyone in rugby. There is certainly a requirement to be physical – but the breadth of sizes and shapes and types of people in rugby is broader than in other sports. The rules of the game, the way we treat other people – our opponents, our teammates, referees – it instils a lot of good things in people. If you observe the growth of gay rugby in traditionally non-rugby playing nations and places… or just places where rugby has not been strong, such as the U.S.A (the U.S.A has half of the world’s gay clubs) the ethos of the game has a huge attraction for gay and straight people alike. The ethos components of it, including the fact that the third half of the game is just as important is the first and second halves that are played on the footy field… the spending time with the opposition team in the pub after he game – are all big attractors to rugby and add so much to a player’s enjoyment of the game as a whole.
Andrew – Every season we have a special get together to introduce new players to their fellow players and club members. Every new player is called on to tell us who they are, where they come from, whether they have ever played rugby before, why they joined the club… and we also ask them to put on some kind of small performance! I would say that at least thirty percent of new players… maybe even more than thirty percent – and I am usually surprised at the number… tell stories about homophobic situations that they have found themselves in. Many of our new players are just young blokes out of the bush – from small country towns – guys who have just come out. Suddenly, they don’t feel welcome in their home towns – they get looks from people who they thought were friends on the street – their parents are struggling with it. Some blokes have tried joining other rugby clubs and while they didn’t necessary experience homophobic comments they didn’t get a welcoming vibe and they didn’t feel that the place was right for them. Our age range sits between about nineteen and the early thirties. I find the comments of these new players really interesting. There are also a bunch of players who tell us that they were in the closet and playing rugby but when they came out, they just left the teams they were playing in. They saw the Convicts as an opportunity to come back to the game that they had always played but had left. There is another type of player who joins the Convicts. These are the gay blokes who don’t at all fit the gay stereotype. These guys, in some respects, just kind of feel like strangers in their own gay community. These guys are just rugged and macho blokes – as macho as you would see anywhere – and they just don’t feel that the normally recognized gay community is right for them. The Convicts gives them the opportunity to mix with like-minded gay and straight individuals.
Jade – Describe some of the unique characters at the Convicts?
Andrew – Individuals? Yeah! That’s absolutely what makes it! Particularly when we are touring. We have kangaroo courts! (Note: A kangaroo court is an old rugby tradition where various team members are charged with committing offences that go against the team’s ethos and are awarded appropriate punishments voted on by their fellow team members). There are always the team jokers. I think we have even more special “characters” than in other regular rugby teams I have played in. We dress up a lot. More than I have experienced elsewhere. The humour is somewhat more sophisticated than other clubs, too. At other clubs we used to play at we had porn and prawn nights. So, the fun was watch porn, eat a prawn and drink beer. That was the extent of it. Or jocks and socks nights. It’s really quite home-erotic with lots of straight blokes playing around together in their undies. I think that the humour we get up to is usually a bit more sophisticated than that. The individuals? There are so many individual characters, I don’t know where to start. Well, there was Sam, of course. The bloke who played for a gay rugby club but never let on whether he was gay or not (it turns out he wasn’t). Then there is Liam. Liam rocked up at the Colleagues Club (The Convicts exist under the umbrella organization of the Colleagues Rugby Club) and wanted a game of football. He saw us Convicts heading over to the scrum machine and came over and asked if he could join us. He was a big, strong, Northern English rogue. I said, “Yeah… but I’ve gotta tell you that we are a gay rugby club.” He answered in his broad northerner accent “Ooh… it don’t matter… it’s alright!” He didn’t see a problem in the world. He played with us for a number of seasons. He played in three Bingham Cup teams (note: The Bingham Cup is the World Championship for gay rugby clubs) and even bought his Mum along to one of the tournaments. Liam was part of our family. He ended up moving over to the regular club but kept on coming back and playing with us at regular points.
He was a big, strong, Northern English rogue. I said, “Yeah… but I’ve gotta tell you that we are a gay rugby club.” He answered in his broad northerner accent “Ooh… it don’t matter… it’s alright!”
Jade – Do the Convicts plan to start a women’s rugby team?
Andrew – Hmm. No. I’d say not. The growth of women’s rugby has been phenomenal. In gay rugby, there are clubs that have women’s teams and they are accepted. At the last Bingham Cup there was a women’s tournament for the first time and we even tried to organize women’s games when we hosted the Cup some time back. The sexuality issue for women in rugby is a bit different so the necessity for having teams which identify having a sexual orientation for women is not so necessary. There are quite a few lesbians playing in regular teams, so I don’t think that the need is so great as there is or men’s teams. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen. There is also a logistics issue. We share grounds with another major rugby club and finding room for another team might be difficult, especially since there are already five women’s clubs already in our area. The question is, is there a need… and if there is, are we the best suited to meet that need? We certainly do have women in the club. Our first-grade team has been coached by two different women over time!
Andrew – For me? Hmm…? For me it’s about being able to maintain a connection with a sport that I love. It also provides an opportunity to meet a whole bunch of new people every year as new people come to the club. I am over fifty and I am still playing… occasionally. I am also enormously proud of how well we do. Seeing how some of the new guys come on and how they grow and develop and change – and seeing the positive impact that the club has more broadly are all great for me. But I think that it is more on the individual level. One young guy, Aiden, who hadn’t played until this year actually won the player of the series medal for the team he was playing with at the Bingham Cup! He is a skinny kid. You would think he would just break in two. But he’s just got it! It’s those kinds of stories that make it for me. It’s really heart-warming.
Jade – So what is the worst thing?
Andrew – Because we have been so successful as a club there is this thing like everyone loves to hate us! Particularly when we play overseas tournaments. They all think that we are stuck up. We are slightly more professional about the way we do things than some of the other clubs and that annoys some people. There is some kind of belief that we are not as friendly as some clubs. That goes with the territory. One of the frustrating things about being a Convict is that every year there is a period in which people think that this is a way to find guys to pick up. That’s why it is so important to maintain a focus on the rugby. There are easier ways to pick up guys than to play rugby. They want to pick up a rugby player so they join a rugby team… but that’s not what the Convicts is about! Sometimes people can make dramas if the club doesn’t support them in ways they want it to do. “I just wanna be here to pick up guys and have fun… and you guys are expecting I am going to play?”
Jade – Do the Convicts have any exciting plans?
Andrew – Woah! The last game of the season is tomorrow. We have had a busy season. We went to Amsterdam. A few things that spring to mind are our big trivia fund raiser coming. And Rugby Australia are planning on having a function to celebrate the successes of the Convicts which is great. Beyond that, most of the guys are just looking forward to having arrest!
“It’s unfortunate but I don’t think that any players should have this obligation to do it.”
Jade – Why have more LGBTI players not emerged through the ranks of the Super Rugby and NRL do you think?
Andrew – It’s a good question. A really good question. There are certainly more same-sex attracted elite football players. None have come out since Ian Roberts in 1996 – a long time ago! Matthew Mitcham is the only out summer male Olympian while still competing… so it’s not just football. I think the problem is… well there are several issues. One is that gay players often stop playing their sport early because of perceived or real issues in terms of inclusion in the sport. Hopefully, that will change now at the elite level. Also, if you are trying to deal with sexuality issues, dealing with being an elite athlete on top of that, the pressure is significant. Sports clubs have only just, in the last four or five years, are starting to take on a more active approach to being more inclusive. I know for a fact that all the football codes didn’t have formal policies for Inclusiveness until four years ago. It was all anti-discrimination and anti-vilification policies back then. Saying you can’t discriminate is a really low bar when it comes to inclusiveness. Young gay athletes need a far more positive approach than that to feel welcome in a sport. I don’t know whether professional footballers would have felt that their sport or their clubs really had their back up until quite recently. The first players that go through that door will have a huge expectation on them. It’s unfortunate but I don’t think that any players should have this obligation to do it. They do have an obligation to not be hypocritical, but I don’t think that they have an obligation to be a trail blazer!
Andrew – Now is that not the worst title for a document? Well this all goes back to when we hosted the Bingham Cup in 2014. When we were awarded the right to host the Bingham Cup we set up a committee to run it and what we decided to do was to use the tournament as a focal point around homophobia in sport. The first thing we did was to approach the ARU and we discovered that all they had from a policy point of view was anti-discrimination and anti-vilification statements. We asked if they would be more forthright in terms of level of inclusiveness. Bill Pulver had only just become the CEO of the ARU and he was as surprised as we were at the lack of active engagement. Then we found that all the football codes were in the same situation… so we drafted that framework to show them all what a policy should look like. Six pillars, etc! Then we got all the CEOs of the four football codes plus the cricket CEO together to get them to make a commitment to implement inclusive policies by the time the Bingham Cup came around in August. They made the commitment in April. They had four months. By the time August and the Bingham Cup came around only one of the national sporting associations had fulfilled their obligations. Yeah! They had four months. It was really disappointing. They all had excuses. They said they were doing other stuff. They said they had action plans happening. They said that they had a working group in place. It had been a nationally televised conference and they had signed a document under the glare of cameras. So, yeah. That was disappointing, alright. We realized that getting people to sign pieces of paper wasn’t going to achieve anything. As part of the Bingham Cup tournament we had funded a field study of six different countries. Ten thousand respondents provided us with data about the levels of homophobia in those countries. The findings were terrible but the they provide us with solid empirical evidence to ask for some action. The Aids Council of NSW had previously developed a workplace diversity program called Pride in Diversity and part of that program involved companies and members being able to complete a workplace equality index where they determine the level of inclusiveness they offer and benchmark their performance against their peers and others in their respective markets. So, we, hand in hand with the Sports Commission and the Human Right Commission, paid ACON to adapt their instrument into a Pride in Sport Index. So, armed with our evidence from the international homophobia study and with the new instrument developed by ACON under out arms we got all the football codes, the cricket and a number of other sports together where they agreed to be the foundation members of this new program. This was about actually changing behaviour through enabling these sporting bodies and their professional clubs to measure their own performance (on the inclusiveness index), benchmark their results against other bodies and plan to improve performance. So… the Convicts hosting the Bingham Cup was the instigator behind much of this really important stuff.
“The main benefits that came from the analysis was in the detail!”
Jade – Tell me more about the field study. How did Australia do?
Andrew – Let’s see. The countries involved were Australia, New Zealand, U.S.A., United Kingdom, Canada and Ireland. The Kiwis were the best. Australia came third. The Irish, surprisingly to us, also rated highly. The U.S. A. did worst. Mind you, it wasn’t the overall ratings that were most important. The main benefits that came from the analysis was in the detail! At what age did people stop playing sport, why did people stop playing sport, how enormous a role coaches play and lived experiences of sport in high school all proved to be critical. Forty percent of the respondents were straight and sixty percent gay. The guy who led the study was one of our committee and he is working full time in research in the States now.
Jade – Of all the Convicts achievements what do you consider to be the most memorable.
Andrew – (Long pause) Winning our first Bingham Cup in ’06 was memorable. We have also played two curtain-raiser games before Super Rugby matches in both Sydney and Melbourne. That was a great opportunity! Of course, each of our Bingham Cup victories were particularly memorable. Our winning three local Metropolitan Sub District competitions was also great.
Andrew – Relief! It’s almost disproportionate, the among of energy and effort and mental anguish that goes into it. Then you come back – and because the Cup is right in the middle of our domestic rugby season you must pick yourself up keep right on playing. That’s hard. Half the team have stayed in America, or Europe or where-ever the team has been playing, to travel and have fun but the rest of you must brush yourselves off and keep playing. Thankfully, in some respects the intensity of the training reduces a bit. But you have to come down and get back into the mundanity of your everyday life. These days there is a much better public understanding of the Convicts and what we do. Back then (at the time of our first Bingham Cup win) people hadn’t heard of us. We were under the radar. But winning the Cup – now that has created a greater focus. We have had great supporters in the media. Peter FitzSimons has been a supporter and written about us since we started. A great sportsman, John Eales. Has done the same for a long time.
Jade – You came back as champions. Was that strange?
Andrew- Well… we are kind of realistic about that! It’s the world championship of a rugby sub-set, of a rugby sub-set. There was never going to be any tickertape parade! But what’s great is the quality of the rugby. We all know about that. The achievement puts all the guys on notice (about what we do).
Andrew – Ahhh! Playing these international tournaments against other international gay teams – it’s much more about the club, the state, your country… representing your country… rather than being an activist.
Jade – What about playing here? Are Convicts players playing for a cause?
Andrew – For a long time, in the club, our view in relations to our actions of being competitive and beating other teams was that this would speak to creating role models and debunking gay stereotypes… so the focus was very much on the rugby – great rugby. That was for a long time. My current view is that we don’t have to focus so much on those goals, because our rugby will speak for itself. We don’t have to encourage that on the field. We still play great rugby, but we are not trying to prove anything. Rarely do we have to deal with issues like homophobic comments. Oh, there are dickheads out there more broadly, but not strictly homophobes. Sometimes terrible things do happen. A couple of weeks ago in Canberra, there was a slur… and then… (all hell broke loose)! It was a local game between two regular sides. A gay guy was playing in one of these straight teams and a homophobic comment was made by an opposition player to the gay bloke – I’m not even sure if the bloke who made the taunt knew that the gay player was gay – but the guy who had been sledged called him up on it and then a huge all-in brawl started. Things got so bad that the ref, who incidentally was gay too, ended up having to call the game off. These incidents do happen, but it is more a reflection of society in general than something that is inherently homophobic about our sport. There are dickheads out there! Fortunately , not many.
The Sydney Convicts accept players of ages 18 and above and all skill sets. Regardless of how often you’ve picked up a rugby ball, the Convicts are a welcoming club that caters for everyone. The Convicts are one of the few clubs in the world that teaches people to play who know nothing about the game of rugby as well as remaining committed to developing advanced level players who wish to play competitive football at a high level. As you can tell from the story above, the Convicts are also pretty committed to having fun a long the way. The Sydney Convicts play in a range of gay and straight tournaments as well as the Sydney Metropolitan Sub-District competition and have been successful in all of these events. If you would like to find out more come to the Convicts web site at http://sydneyconvicts.org/ or complete the form at our new player information page http://sydneyconvicts.org/play/#NewPlayers