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India Willoughby makes history as first trans patron of professional sports club

The Keighley Cougars are Europe's only pro team run by out LGBTQ+ owners

By Dale Fox

India Willoughy stands next to rugby players on a green rugby pitch
India Willoughby (fourth from right) has been appointed patron of the Keighley Cougars (Image: JTSportsMedia)

Broadcaster India Willoughby has been appointed patron of the Keighley Cougars rugby league club, becoming the first trans person to be made patron of a professional sports team.

The almost 150-year-old club is notable as the only professional sports team outside of the US to have out LGBTQ+ owners, with married couple Ryan O’Neill and Kaue Garcia at the helm.

Willoughby, who made her name as the UK’s first out transgender newsreader, said in a statement she was “thrilled to represent this incredible club that is challenging societal norms.”

“My community has faced unjust scrutiny for too long, and all I aim to do is represent this club to the best of my ability while advocating for understanding and acceptance,” she added.

Threee people on a rainbow coloured rugby stand
(From L-R) Kaue Garcia, India Willoughby and Ryan O’Neill (Image JTSportsMedia)

Speaking of Willoughby’s appointment, O’Neill explained the importance of visibility to foster understanding of the trans community. “We need more representation of trans individuals in all spheres to combat the pervasive stigma,” he shared.

Keighley Cougars “providing much-needed support to the trans community” – co-owner Ryan O’Neill

Since taking over the club in 2019, O’Neill and Garcia have taken many steps to use it to platform LGBTQ+ rights and inclusion, with a particular focus on the trans community.

As well as annual Pride matches held each July, the club dedicated the biggest game of the season against rivals Bradford Bulls earlier this year to LGBTQ+ History Month.

At the match held on 18 February, attended by Willoughby, the team unfurled a massive trans Pride flag on the pitch ahead of the match including the words “Trans Rights are Human Rights”.

Co-owner Garcia said at the time: “The 2024 season will focus on providing much-needed support to the trans community, which faces constant adversity and unfair treatment. They are our brothers and sisters who deserve respect and equality above all else.”

Keighley Cougars’ Pride kit (Image: Keighley Cougars)

The club has also unveiled a special kit for its upcoming 2024 Pride fixture on 7 July, which will be worn by players and be made available for sale. Emblazoned with the transgender Pride colours, proceeds from sales will be donated to trans youth charity Mermaids.