Many international institutions continue to believe that they hold the role of introducing ideas around gender equity and inclusion to partners around the world.

However, time and time again, stakeholders have proven that their capacity does not need to be ‘built’, nor do they need others to co-opt their wins. While the world is behind achieving globally agreed gender equity goals – including in wealthier nations – grassroots groups and individuals in lower income countries are leading the way in claiming their rights, despite increasingly challenging environments globally for diverse communities. 

Celebrating diversity in Philippines

In the Philippines, the LGBTQIA+ community has long been championing themselves and their rights despite facing historical challenges and discrimination across many areas of their lives. The community has long been finding tools to fight discrimination and to protect themselves.

Perhaps this tireless championing is one of the reasons that has made the Philippines the most accepting of the LGBTQIA+ community in Southeast Asia. But given that the country is still a largely conservative nation, the LGBTQIA+ community still has to find new ways to claim their rights and to thrive, and that includes creating or finding safe spaces. Spaces with both peers and allies alike.

You can find these spaces across the country — it could be the corner  store or at a drag show. It could be a growing social media community that supports those struggling to come out. But an unexpected, if not overlooked space where gender non-conforming individuals can be themselves and succeed, is the country’s rugby community. In other parts of the world, rugby has been deemed as traditionally masculine, but in the Philippines, rugby has created communities where everyone can feel included, regardless of their identity.

“In this sport, everyone is welcome.”

“I grew up in a mostly conservative environment, so when I was younger I was one of those teasing or condemning LGBTQIA+ people,” said 22-year-old Dionne*, a rugby player from Davao City. “I realised later on that this was called homophobia.”

“I used to be ashamed of who I really am. I was too scared for people to find out that I like girls, too,” she added. “And then I got introduced to rugby in our community.” In her rugby community, not only was she able to learn new skills and enjoy rugby. She found a space where she could be comfortable, with no fear of judgement.

“I learned that in this sport, that everyone is welcome,” said Dionne.

Some 400 kilometres up north, in the island of Negros, 12-year-old Bernie* had been watching other children play tag rugby. Bernie had always been interested to join, but he was unsure if the Coach would accept him.

“The new team in my area was for girls only. I wanted to join because I feel more comfortable playing with girls. But, at the same time, I was scared I might not be accepted by the team,” Bernie said.

Bernie was content just watching the rugby trainings, but after some of the players noticed him watching from the sidelines, they encouraged Bernie to sign up. Bernie was over the moon when the Coach said he could join.

As the newest member of the team, Bernie struggled with rugby at first but their teammates supported him all the way. “At first, I was so afraid to catch the ball every time my teammates passed it to me. Fortunately, they helped me until I became better.”

Club Champions championing inclusion

Bernie’s introduction to rugby doesn’t stop at just learning how to play rugby. Rugby in Bernie’s district is facilitated by Negros Island Rugby (NIR), a club under the Philippine Rugby Football Union (PRFU), the official governing body of Rugby Union in the country. NIR uses Pass It Back, a rugby and life skills learning curriculum. Through this curriculum, Bernie learned about gender and got a better understanding of himself.

“Among the things I learned was the difference between sex and gender, and about some of the challenges we all face because of our gender,” Bernie shared. “In the early parts of the session, I was honestly very quiet thinking that my teammates might judge me if I answered some of the session questions.”

Eventually, with the support of their coaches and peers, Bernie became more comfortable in embracing himself and expressing who he is. Bernie realised throughout the season that their coaches and team provide an inclusive and accepting environment. 

More than 460 rugby and life skills learning sessions, such as the ones attended by Bernie, have been delivered in different parts of the country in the past year through the Club Champions project. In this project, the PRFU  partnered with ChildFund Rugby so that three clubs — Negros Hornbills, Albay Bulkans, and Manila Nomads — can create positive change in their communities through rugby.

“The Club Champions project utilises the strength of PRFU clubs and their members to create change in their communities through rugby. The change comes in many forms, depending on what the clubs and their members see as important,” said Chris Mastaglio, ChildFund Rugby Director. “In the case of Negros Island Rugby, it’s creating a safe and inclusive environment for everyone, especially as the sports community in the country started emerging out of pandemic lockdowns. It was a time when many children and young people were looking for a sense of belonging, of being part of an empowering community after being isolated for so long.” 

For Bernie, finding a safe space through rugby and learning more about gender has inspired him to not only be good at the sport, but to follow the footsteps of those who made people like him feel safer and included. “I’m committed and I want to become an advocate for LGBTQIA+ rights. I want to raise awareness about the challenges I have faced as an individual who wants to participate in sport. I want to promote understanding of LGBTQIA+ among people in my community.”

Story by Rhea Catada, Communications and Content Manager

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ChildFund Rugby partners to provide children and young people with opportunities to play, learn and lead. Using integrated rugby and life skills learning, young people from vulnerable communities are equipped to overcome challenges, inspire positive social change, and take active leadership roles within their communities.

Philippine Rugby Football Union is the official governing body of the sport of Rugby Union in the Philippines. The PRFU was founded in 1998 and was granted full World Rugby membership in 2008. Philippine Rugby is a non-profit national sports association registered with SEC focused on growing and developing the sport of Rugby Union in the Philippines. The PRFU board consists of seven board members and a full time staff of four full time employees and consultants along with a number of regional Development Officers/Coaches located all over the country. The PRFU and its Development Officers provide free training in rugby for schools, institutions, clubs and local foundations.

The PRFU are registered accredited members of both World Rugby and Asia Rugby, as well as being recognised by the Philippine Olympic Committee and Philippine Sports Commission. 

Negros Island Rugby was established in 2014 to develop rugby in Negros Island, hold grassroots training, and build a team to compete in competitions hosted by the Philippines Rugby Football Union.