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2,000 LGBTQ+ rugby players to hit Birmingham this weekend – here’s everything you need to know

The Union Cup takes place in Birmingham all over the Bank Holiday weekend

By Charlotte Manning

Rugby players from the Birmingham Bulls
This year's tournament takes place in Birmingham (Image: Alan Whittington)

Thousands of of LGBTQ+ rugby players and fans descend on Birmingham for the Union Cup, last held in Dublin in 2019. 

The event is expected to attract over 65 LGBTQ+ rugby teams. This includes 2,000 players from more than 18 countries, and thousands of supporters to the region. There’s plenty for fans of the sport to enjoy. 

This year, the tournament will be used as a platform to campaign for trans inclusion in rugby and trans rights in society.  

“It’s shaping up to be a brilliant tournament and we’ll just build on the previous tournaments that have happened”

In July 2022, the RFU in England voted to ban transgender women from playing women’s contact rugby. They also put restrictions on Trans men from playing rugby. 

Attitude caught up with the Chair of Union Cup committee, James Anthony and Director of Union Cup, Alistair Burford, on what rugby fans can look forward to this year. 

The pair both play for Birmingham Bulls, one of the dozens of teams included, and are buzzing to get into the action. They also detailed how the tournament will support the trans community in particular. 

They have been living, breathing, eating and sleeping everything Union Cup in recent months, so they were definitely the best people to grab a quick chat with…

The Birmingham Bulls are based right in the heart of Birmingham’s Gay Village (Image: Alan Whittington)

How did you both got involved with the Union Cup, and how has it grown in the past few years ahead of it coming to Birmingham?

James: I played my first Union Cup game in Bristol about eight years ago and really enjoyed it. The Birmingham Bulls, we were pretty rubbish. I think we got a wooden spoon that tournament! Over the last few tournaments, we’ve gotten better and better and not quite won it yet, but maybe now we’re on home soil, you never know. Six years ago at the tournament in Madrid, a group of us said, we think we could host this at Birmingham. We put together a bid to see if we could host it, looking at facilities and that sort of thing, and then put a bid in to host it, which was supposed to be for 2021. Sadly, a global pandemic came along. Two years later, which is about five years after we bid, we’re finally doing it, which makes it pretty exciting.

Alistair: [The build up] has lasted two years longer than we thought it would. What’s been a four year cycle is now a six year cycle. It has been quite the journey. But it’s shaping up to be a brilliant tournament and we’ll just build on the previous tournaments that have happened.

A key focus for the tournament is trans inclusion. The RFU banned trans women from the women’s game last year and restricted trans men. How important do you think it is for an event like this to show the community in a positive way and raise awareness of those kind of issues within sport and in general?

James: It’s been really hard for the trans community in general, in the last year or so, particularly in rugby. Trans women have been excluded, and there are extra restrictions on trans men. It means our tournament isn’t as inclusive as we want it to be. We decided, when we were organising this, to use it as an opportunity to be the good allies we want to be, speaking up about trans rights.

We’ve made sure that the trans flag will be absolutely across our tournament, you won’t be able to see a picture of a player without a trans flag in the background. All our referees will be wearing shirts with the trans flag. No one will have any doubt what our view is. We’ll be working with the participants to get them to say, to the RFU, Welsh, Scottish and Irish that we want trans women playing, trans men to play, and it should be sport for all.

Alistair: To restrict the partaking and playing [of trans people] is just horrific. We can’t allow trans people to play in the way we want because of the restrictions, so it’s about how can we show our solidarity. 

The tournament takes place all weekend in Birmingham (Image: Alan Whittington)

How are you going to be helping make the tournament more trans inclusive this year?

James: We’ve been working with some trans players from across the country to look at how it can be inclusive. During our registration, we’ve got some drop in trans awareness sessions. Trans players themselves are going to be doing some education around how to be inclusive team. Most of us the teams are male, so, how they can be inclusive of trans people? They’ll also look at using pronouns and things like that, how to how to challenge transphobic behaviour. We’ve also made sure we’re taking into consideration the needs of our trans players, in terms of the right change facilities, particularly the right changing facilities for those at various points of their journey.

On the social side, we’ve got a meal for trans players during the tournament. One of the things [trans players] have said is that there’s not a lot of trans people in general, but certainly not a lot of trans people that will be at the tournament. They want to meet each other when getting that support. We think that that’s really important, so that’s something we facilitated as well

Birmingham as a city itself, obviously the Commonwealth Games were held here last year. There’s such a buzz in the city every time I’ve been. How proud are you both of how inclusive Birmingham is as a city, too?

Alistair: I love it. But I’m a Brummie through and through! Birmingham doesn’t get enough credit as a city, it’s full of diversity.  In the last few years, things have been done to change the perspective. The Commonwealth Games going on in the city… I’ve never seen the city with so much of a buzz, so much excitement. The weather helped, obviously. But it was just such a great atmosphere on top of that to have Birmingham on the world stage. The Union Cup is another great way to have Birmingham on that European stage.

James: Birmingham’s a great place to be. One of the things I love about in terms of its gay scene is that it’s all very concentrated currently in one area. We’ve got other parts of the city with different bars and places. The city has tried to really embrace that, put a huge big rainbow square in. They’ve have been very supportive of what what we need. I think that’s really important. Because it’s great to be able to be inclusive as a city but I think we always need our spaces. It’s really important to have that in a city like Birmingham, where we’ve got this great area where you can just go into any of the bars, any of the places, and it’s and it’s great.

And finally, what are you most looking forward to most from this year!?

Alistair: This year, the Union Cup! It’s been our labour of love, our passion project for the last six years, nearly. We’re so excited to be able to finally deliver that and welcome people from across Europe, to Birmingham, to show what the city has to offer, to show them the club’s hospitality and just to deliver this rugby tournament. Yes, it’s stressful gearing up to it. We’ve been making sure everything’s ready. But the excitement is slowly creeping in. It’s going brilliant. The more the merrier in terms of supporters, spectators, we just want to create a real buzz. 

James: For me, I’m most looking forward to the closing ceremony party. Not because I want it to be over, but it’s when our committee, all volunteers and essentially get together. The whole tournament is being delivered by volunteers. At the point where it’s all over, I think we will be absolute hot messes to be honest. Incredibly emotional.

Members of the public can buy tickets to the Union Cup here.