In June 2021, Leinster Rugby embarked on a month-long campaign of support not only for Pride, but also for those within the Leinster Rugby community who were members of the LGBTQ+ community.

It marked a change in policy for the club.

Whereas previously, support for the LGBTQ+ community was there, it had been a soft touch approach.

Visibility around campaigns and support for the wider community was low key.

June 2021 changed all that.

June became Pride Month in Leinster Rugby. It became about raising awareness of the LGBTQ+ community, the issues that they face but also a celebration of the diversity that underpins the Leinster community.

Twelve months later, Moira Flahive, chair of the Leinster Rugby Inclusivity Committee sat down to talk about the changes that have been brought about by her committee but also the changes that have been evident since then.

“It’s the little things for me,” explains Flahive.

“No step is too small. Every single step, no matter how small makes a difference. For example, Leinster changing their social media avatars and handles to the colours of the rainbow flag, making the flag visible, that helps.

“Leinster Rugby and Bank of Ireland hosting a webinar, “Building Allies with Pride; Leinster Rugby a Home for All”, which was a huge success by the way and has been watched thousands of times since it was first aired in June 2020, that helps.

“The Leinster Rugby referees wearing rainbow laces in solidarity with Evan Somers who was attacked and the two men brutally murdered in Sligo, Aidan Moffitt and Michael Snee, that all helps.

“Speaking to players, profiling former players, and discussing openly their struggles but also their growth and their ability to be themselves, that helps.

“Every step helps and when for so long we have been quiet as a community, or prejudiced, or been living in the shadows, having organisations like Leinster Rugby stand up for us and with us, even with little gestures here and there is massive.

“And as I said, every little bit helps to open up that conversation around diversity and inclusion and around people’s sexuality.”

It is clear that Flahive is proud of the work that she and her committee have done but she is equally proud of those that have taken a step or two further in their own right.

One of the participants in that webinar, Lindsay Peat, has long been a leader and advocate in the area of LGBTQ+ rights and recognition, particularly in sport.

In addition to Lindsay, and following in her leadership role, Leinster Rugby player Jack Dunne and Craig Maxwell-Keys, an Elite Referee with the RFU, also participated.

Flahive speaks in glowing terms of Leinster lock Dunne, who spoke openly for the first time about his own sexuality at the webinar hosted last year.

“Look at Jack Dunne and how brilliant he was at that webinar. He had never spoken publicly about his sexuality and why would he, you might ask? It’s nobody’s business but his own.

“He didn’t have to do that but he took it upon himself to talk very openly about his own experiences about being a young teenager and coming out. And then his journey into Leinster Rugby and how accepting everyone was of him.

“I was just struck by how impressive a young man he was. He could have continued to keep his private life to himself but he wanted to show others, to show teens, boys and girls, that it’s OK.

“You can come out and you can be yourself and be accepted into a sporting environment, into a professional sporting environment.”

So impressed was Flahive by the manner in which Dunne addressed his sexuality in an open forum for the first time that she felt obliged to address it when the opportunity next arose.

“I was at a Trinity game in the AIL some time after the webinar and Jack was playing. Someone said to me, ‘That’s Jack Dunne’s mother over there.’

“I had to go over and just commend her for raising a young man secure in himself, proud of who he is and a real leader. I said how proud she must be of Jack.

“His aunt was there as well and she said they were all proud! And so they should be.”

The Inclusivity Committee was established in April 2019, with its remit, as provided by the Executive Committee of the Branch, being to “develop and implement a strategy to significantly enhance the active participation of women in the playing, coaching, management, administration and governance of the sport in Leinster”.

The committee has, through its work, addressed other aspects of life in and about Leinster Rugby to include the steps above in relation to the LGBTQ+ members of our community and their families and friends.

Three years on from its establishment, what does Flahive make of the progress to date?

“Covid certainly didn’t help because we were building a bit of momentum but we then made it work to our advantage. For example, we had devised “governance roadshows” which we were, literally, going to take on the road – out to the five Areas of Leinster Rugby. So having to adapt, our in-person roadshows became video roadshows like so many other things in Covid!

“The governance roadshows were about getting more diversity and inclusivity into the governance of your club. Due to Covid, we took them online. For some clubs it was first steps and for others it was reinforcing what had already been underway, but it was superb to see the buy-in of the clubs around the 12 counties of Leinster.

“I think we had 85 per cent attendance rate across the 70-plus clubs of the province so 85 per cent of the clubs logged in at some stage to one of the four meetings. The feedback we received was really positive too and we’ll be looking to publish those presentations in the coming months on the soon-to-be rebuilt Leinster website for everyone to check out.

“Then for this season, 2021/22, the inclusivity committee identified female participation and retention as the next area of focus for our work.

“We have loads of girls coming to play the game but then they drift between underage and into adult. The Inclusivity Committee wanted to try to establish the reasoning as to why that is happening. Now that isn’t a rugby specific problem, it’s across all sports, but we wanted to figure out what can we as a Branch do to support that and try to help clubs more?”

“The other element that kept on coming up at the various Area meetings that I attended in 2019 at the commencement of the Inclusivity Committee’s work was the issue of ‘poaching’ in the girls’ and women’s game. This was flagged as an issue facing the women’s game very early in the process as far back as the establishment of the first Working Group, the pre-cursor to the Inclusivity Committee.

“So clubs were saying – and clubs outside of Dublin in particular – we are developing and we are creating an environment for these players to flourish but then when they hit the top of the age grade level, off they go to another club.

“Having said that, it’s definitely not any one reason that our clubs are struggling to retain the many female players that they have and develop. There is competition from other sports; GAA, and Ladies football in particular.

“It was the same with the survey that the Inclusivity Committee compiled and distributed to all clubs. That had a completion rate of 70 per cent so the buy-in from the clubs has been excellent.

“The purpose of the survey was to establish a base line of data with regard to the participation and retention of female rugby players in clubs across the 12 counties. The report on foot of this survey has been presented to the Executive of the Branch and recommendations have been made for both the Branch and the clubs which we believe will make a real difference to addressing these very real issues for our clubs.

“Included amongst these is a promotional or marketing campaign over and above the outstanding work done already by the PR Committee. The clubs have identified the need for us  to target the non-traditional rugby audience.

“In addition, some shifting of the sands in and around the administration and running of all female competitions was recommended. To this end it is hoped that a dedicated Girls Competitions Committee be established as a sub-committee of the Youths Committee.

“Similarly, it is hoped that the administration and running of all adult female competitions would fall under the remit of the Competitions Committee. As things stand those are two recommendations that have been taken on board by the various participants involved in the running of girls’ and women’s competitions in the Branch with a view to making a plan to hopefully making these recommendations a reality.

“What this means is that the Women’s Committee can focus on issues facing the girls and the women’s game. And the competitions and running of them can sit with those that do that day in, day out. It is hoped that such a focused and stream-lined approach will prove hugely beneficial to the continued evolution of the female game in Leinster.

“There was also a recommendation that of further work with the officers and appointing a Women’s Development Officer per area, as opposed to the sharing arrangement in place currently.

“So, all in all, it’s been a really encouraging 12 months for us.

“We have one meeting left for the season and it’s a single item agenda and that’s to nail down the brief for next season and we’ll be focusing on schools because the development of girls rugby in schools is growing at breakneck speed. Adam Malin, the representative for schools rugby on the Inclusivity Committee, knows that this is where our focus will be next season.

“What does that focus look like, I can’t tell you right now, but that is what we will be looking at next season.”

The Inclusivity Committee has certainly been busy but Flahive is also mindful of the remit and the time frame within which they must achieve their objectives.

So how does she assess where they are at with the clock ticking?

“How would I assess where we are at? It’s hard to say. I know we are coming up to Pride month and we are focused on that element of the conversation here today but let’s not forget that the Committee was set up to address the girls’ and the women’s game within Leinster Rugby in particular.

“At the commencement of our tenure we focused on matters such as increasing women’s participation in the governance of clubs, to addressing the issue of senior status for Women’s AIL teams.”

“We already covered a huge volume of work and, I believe, have made real differences.

“But we have a five-year shelf life as a committee and next season is our penultimate season so that narrows the focus too and the question is, what happens next? Does inclusivity just disappear? Of course not! I think the answer is that inclusivity doesn’t end there!

“And inclusivity isn’t the job of any one committee but is instead a reality for all elements of Leinster Rugby, and I don’t think you could say that three years ago.”

“Leinster Rugby gave us a brief, five seasons, foot to the floor, let’s go and deal with this as best we can. Bring Leinster up to speed, let’s educate people, let’s help people to understand how important inclusivity is.”

“The handover in that last season will then be important and making sure that the future and the project is protected.”

“Leinster Rugby already has a brilliant Spirit Officer in Stephen Gore. He does a great job in promoting inclusion rugby, disability rugby and rugby for all and it’s a brilliant programme.

“And that has been another good lesson in the last few years, where does inclusivity fit because it shouldn’t sit exclusively at Stephen’s door.

“Again, I feel it will sit with us all, players, coaches, volunteers, administrators, in clubs, in schools, everywhere. That sits comfortably with me. If after our tenure there is an understanding for what an inclusive club looks and feels like, and we can be driving that best practice model, I’ll be happy with that.”

That’s not to say that they are packing up, happy with their lot and winding down for the next two seasons.

Far from it.

“No, definitely not. I’ve already spoken about schools and the focus will be there next season for sure. But we’ve a few other conversations ongoing that we would love to have across the line before our time is up.

“For a start, Leinster Rugby have taken part in Dublin Pride for the last few years but with others, like Bank of Ireland or the Emerald Warriors but I would hope that the plan for next year would be that Leinster Rugby would actually be there on our own; participate in our own right and illustrating to all that we are an ally and that all are welcome to be part of our family.

“And we want to educate people around the area of EDI – equality, diversity and inclusivity. To this end we came up with the idea of creating a platform that clubs could engage with and run online training.”

“So that will be an online digital platform, an LMS or Learning Management System, an e-learning portal really where participants can take a course around EDI and hopefully that will be launched and we will roll that out to clubs and schools.”

“Now that could take two years to finalise but hopefully we’ll get a sponsor and that would help massively in moving this along further again.”

“This is all about helping people. It’s not bashing people or about calling people or clubs out. As we touched upon earlier, for some clubs or people, this talk and the language around inclusivity is a new language to them. And for others it isn’t because it’s in their everyday lives or work.

“For some, they don’t know what’s going on in and around this topic of EDI, they are unsure of themselves and possibly a little afraid of making what might be perceived to be a mistake. And some of that is generational, for sure, but let’s help them with that. Let’s help people to be comfortable in and about EDI; why not!”

They haven’t forgotten either their raison d’etre.

“Look, as we’ve already discussed, if this was a 100 metre sprint, I would say we are 75 metres along the way. We were out of the blocks in that first season very strong. We identified a few key areas, and we went after them early on, like the senior status of the AIL clubs.

“Is work still to be done with regards to the girls’ and the women’s game? Of course there is and we aren’t done with that.

“Working closer with the non-AIL clubs and supporting them and supporting their players as they continue along the pathway. You don’t have to play with a Senior club to achieve what you want to achieve in a Leinster jersey and you can see that in the wider squad that Tania (Rosser) has selected.

“The same when you look at the talent playing in the Sarah Robinson Cup representing their Areas. It’s been brilliant to see. So there is a lot of work still left to do. We’re not gone yet!”

For all the positivity and the work done in the last year – and more – around inclusivity there are still battles to be fought and won wherever you look in Irish society and beyond these shores.

Whether it’s the double murders of Aidan Moffitt and Michael Snee in Sligo or the attack on Emerald Warriors RFC player Evan Somers in Dublin, homophobic attacks are still a feature of the society we live in.

What does she feel when she reads and hears about stories like that?

“The Sligo murders were just off the scale.

“Unusual, violent, and as I said, just off the scale. I find them very difficult to understand, incredibly tragic. They would make headlines all over the world such was the scale and brutality and chilling nature of what unfolded.

“But what happened to Evan, in my opinion, is actually a little more prevalent. He was targeted because he came out of an establishment, an established gay nightclub, and that was enough for these guys to say, let’s go, let’s bash him.

“And quite often, these attacks go unreported or don’t make the headlines, but those attacks are there. They are very much still a reality for the LGBTQ+ community in Ireland. Whether that be verbal or physical assaults.

“I can only speak for myself but I live in Dublin and I have to say that I feel very comfortable walking through Dublin holding my wife Christina’s hand.

“I spend a lot of time in the States and in Chicago and you would think that would be the coolest place on earth but I feel much more comfortable in Dublin holding my wife’s hand.

“Would those dreadful, dreadful events stop me from holding my wife’s hand in public? I’d probably be a little more reticent, whereas she would be far more determined, and would say, ‘No, we are holding hands’.

“The reaction though, from society as a whole, was reassuring, supportive and positive because it wasn’t just we are standing with you, it was more than that, it was we are not having this. As a society we say no. As a rugby community, in Evan’s case, we say no.

“That also ties in as part of the education piece.  And not just for members of the LGBTQ+ community, how do we use language around women and making society better for all.”

As a final thought though, Flahive is keen to get across a message of hope for the future.

“I am a hopeful person. If you lose hope you may as well not get out of bed and we have an enormous opportunity in our lives here in Ireland and in Leinster Rugby.

“I definitely feel that we have come a very long way in the last 10 years in Ireland. Obviously the vote around gay marriage was a massive endorsement from society that we have moved with the times.

“And then, Leinster Rugby listens. They understand the world is changing and they roll with the punches as best they can. And I mean as best they can because it is a large organisation and they don’t have a magic switch to turn it all around. But are they engaged, are they keen to evolve and move with the times?

“Absolutely. And I am more and more excited about Pride month.

“I met someone at a Leinster game last year and then I met his partner and we were chatting about the work of the Inclusivity Committee and his partner said, ‘Well, I am sorry to say that I don’t see much pink in Leinster, I don’t see many rainbows?’

“And I was able to answer him and say, well, funny you should say that, because this year we are developing our engagement around Pride and we are going to be out there. Watch this space! And I was really, really happy to be able to say that to him.

“Look at Evan, as we spoke about earlier, and how the referees took it upon themselves to wear rainbow laces in solidarity with Evan and the gay community in Leinster and in Ireland. I don’t think people understand that 10 years ago, maybe even five years ago, that would be inconceivable in rugby and in men’s rugby.

“But now. We will stand with the community, we are proud of that fact, proud to be allies and why wouldn’t we be? I think that is enormous progress and that gives me hope that never again will Leinster Rugby let June slide without celebrating Pride and celebrating every member of our rugby community.”