Whether providing rugby opportunities for those new to the sport or valuable social outlets, Manchester Village Spartans have had a transformative impact on the city’s LGBTQ+ community since their formation in 1999.
The pioneering club were just the second of their kind globally when they launched, following in the footsteps of London-based Kings Cross Steelers, and have gone from strength to strength in the intervening years.
Gareth Longley joined as a player in 2007 before moving into a string of key off-field roles, culminating in becoming chairman four years ago.
“I played until I was 17 or so but at University, I decided joining the rugby club there probably wasn’t for me,” he said.
“I had recently come out at that point and it just didn’t feel like I fit in there.
“Moving to Manchester after Uni, I wanted to make some gay friends while doing something that was more than going out on Canal Street every weekend.
“I went with a friend of mine to a Spartans session – he didn’t come back but I have been there ever since.
“We were a one-team, close-knit club at that stage and that can be quite daunting for new players.
“Most of the guys had played before, so we didn’t really have an offering for players new to the game. We saw a gap in the market at that point.”
Effective marketing and word of mouth saw Spartans expand their offering and they now run three union teams and two touch sides, bucking a nationwide trend by maintaining those numbers either side of the Covid-19 pandemic.
And it was the isolating effect of lockdown which led Joe Rooney, whose rugby experience extended to playing for a few weeks at school, getting involved.
“I’ve lived in Sale, where Spartans are based, all my life but I’d never been in a position to join for one reason or another,” he said.
“I was travelling when the pandemic hit, so I moved back home. As restrictions eased, I fancied a new outlook and a new challenge, a way of making friends and keeping my fitness up.
“My world felt very insular, so rugby and the Spartans were the one community I had with other lads my own age, and other gay guys.
“I started to build a new network of friends, so that was one aspect, but it was also the sport itself and the physical side, the challenge it was giving me. It has given me a new lease of life.”
Rooney has moved from back row to front row and progressed into the club’s second team, while he highlights the Union Cup – a European competition for LGBTQ+-friendly rugby clubs, which this year was held in Birmingham – as his highlight to date.
“That was where I felt something switched and I was really starting to get the sport and grow as a player,” he said.
“Knowing there are 1200+ LGBT rugby players in one place is amazing and a testament to how the sphere has developed.
“I take it for granted sometimes but seeing all the teams doing a sport they love, irrespective of sexuality or anything like that, is fantastic.”
This year’s Union Cup was also responsible for boosting Charles Lee’s confidence.
Anxiety had previously prevented the 27-year-old from investigating the Spartans’ offering but he took the plunge at the start of 2023 and has reaped the rewards.
“It has been brilliant,” he said. “When I first joined, I was so nervous but if I didn’t get something, a coach would explain it one-to-one, which really helped.
“I really found myself at the Union Cup. I became confident, was cheering people on from the sidelines and doing what people had done for me.
“I was trying to keep morale high and that has leaked into my work life and private life, making me feel confident with stuff like that – I feel like I can do things.
“Looking ahead, I’d love to end up being a captain one day, become more involved with the club itself and help them grow.
“I’d like to give back the sort of support I was given when I first joined to newer players, especially those who may never have played the sport before.”
Harry Ellis was not in the new player category when he joined Spartans in 2015, arriving with strong rugby pedigree.
Ellis represented Warwickshire outfit Rugby Lions growing up and was playing at National 2 level by the age of 17, coached by three-time British & Irish Lions tourist Neil Back.
Back’s contacts in Australia saw Ellis land an opportunity to play in Canberra, when he made the decision to come out as gay – though, perhaps significantly, not to everyone.
“I didn’t tell anyone on my rugby team out there, just my friends I worked with at a bar,” he said.
“At that point, I didn’t feel comfortable being out and playing in a straight team. A lot of it was things I’d internalised, from what you’d see in the media or things I’d heard growing up, and I didn’t feel I could put the two things together – playing rugby at a good level and being gay.”
After an absence from the game, Ellis was studying in Manchester when he heard about the LGBTQ+-friendly club now on his doorstep.
“Before the first session, I was really nervous and I made all the girls I lived with at Uni come with me,” he said.
“Straight away, everyone came over and said hi, were making jokes, and it was nice to be able to talk about things I’d hidden before – small things, like pop songs I liked or TV shows like Ru Paul’s Drag Race.
“It was just so welcoming and I rediscovered that love of playing rugby as well.”
Ellis is part of the club’s first team, who last season secured promotion into Division 3 of the HALBRO North West Leagues system, while the seconds and thirds play in IGR (International Gay Rugby) leagues against other northern clubs.
“I feel way more comfortable now being gay and playing rugby but I don’t think I would have picked it back up were it not for the Spartans,” Ellis added.
“I’ve been there about seven years and it has been a learning process over that period of time – we have straight players as well, which obviously helps. It’s a really good mix – our first team are about 25/30 per cent straight – and it’s very inclusive.
“Other clubs just see us as another rugby team, they’ll have a drink with us afterwards. You can definitely see, especially from some of the older boys, they would never have had that 10 or 15 years ago. It’s completely flipped on its head.”
Longley is equally proud of how the Spartans have done their talking on the pitch, while he has also made life-changing relationships and friendships through the club.
“Some of my best friends have come from the rugby club – and I met my husband there,” he said.
“Simon joined in July 2013 and we hit it off as friends. We were both coming towards the end of relationships and before long, our own relationship blossomed.
“We moved in together, then bought a house in 2016 and got married last April.
“It sounds trite but you feel like you’re part of a family at Spartans. When you play with these guys week in, week out, and you’re socialising with them and going on tour, you get to know them better than anybody else.”
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