Football and rugby athletes lace up with Pride for new LGBTQ+ campaign

Acceptance of players’ sexuality is a growing trend in male dressing rooms, says Jack Dunne at launch of Aviva-sponsored initiative

Alone he stands — for now. Jack Dunne smiles at the impossible idea that he’s the only bisexual male rugby player in Ireland and will become the only openly bisexual male in England’s top flight when he joins the Exeter Chiefs this summer.

“It is definitely an interesting question,” said Dunne, the former Ireland under-20s lock. “One of my theories on it is that, now at least, lads are a bit more mature and a bit more accepting of everyone.

“I think it is in the younger age groups, and teenage dressing rooms, that people are forced out of the sport as they think there is ‘no place for me’ and they never get the opportunity to graduate onto the next level.”

All because they are gay and nobody else seems to be — a situation that simply cannot be true when held up against the open sexuality of female athletes.

“That’s why I think there are less [LQBTQ+ athletes] because it couldn’t be possible, statistically it would be too strange.”

The changing room can be a cruel and unforgiving environment for people forced to hide their true self. Until the 2020s that was a societal norm as homophobia, thinly disguised as banter or craic, cloaked the team culture of male rugby, soccer and GAA teams.

Jack Byrne says it is changing at Shamrock Rovers. Dunne says it has changed at Leinster Rugby. Jamie Finn does not know what all the fuss is about.

The journalists at the Aviva-sponsored “Lace Up with Pride” launch are in their 40s so we explain to Dunne that the idea of doing what he did last year - coming out - would be too scary, too dangerous during the 1990s. And possibly career-ending.

In short, the courageous message sent out by this giant 23-year-old sets an example for others to follow.

“I wouldn’t say [homophobia] doesn’t exist because you hear from stories, even in Dublin there has been a series of attacks lately, which were horrible. Myself personally, growing up in school [St Michael’s College] there was still a bit of it but, chatting to guys who are younger than me, they say it has changed in the five years since I have left. And the Leinster dressing room has been brilliant. Nothing but support.

“I’ve read interviews from guys from the past and they said the dressing room once was a toxic place so it is great to see it has changed so much. I hope it can only change further for the better.”

Byrne, capped four times by the Republic of Ireland, speaks candidly about the benefit of allowing people to be themselves in a professional football environment.

“It’s very rare that I’ve been in a dressing room where everybody has been from same background, you always get people from different backgrounds, from different walks of life, and it’s important to make sure everybody feels included and feels like they can be themselves, and I think that’s the way it’s going at the moment,” said Byrne. “I think it’s only for the good for football and life in general.

“It doesn’t matter what sexuality you are, it’s all about being yourself and feeling comfortable. It’s more accepted now, for people to show who they are in a football environment nowadays and even with fans and stuff, if they say stuff about players on the pitch, they’ll be dealt with in the stands now.”

Finn, a professional footballer with Birmingham City and key member of Vera Pauw’s Ireland squad, agrees that women’s sport has been liberated from any stigma attached to a player’s sexuality.

“People might look up to me so it is very important to be part of this campaign,” said Finn. “We are lucky in that sense, it is accepted. No one bats an eyelid, that’s who you are. I think we just need to be consistent in bringing it home to people that it is okay.”

For upcoming activities throughout Pride month: aviva.ie/pride

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent