Few have flown the flag for inclusivity in Northern Irish sport as effectively as Kevin Bartlett.
The Antrim man, who founded the Belfast-based Azlans, Northern Ireland’s first predominantly gay rugby team, has over the years won a gold medal in the Vancouver Gay Games, competed in national championships and excelled in both rugby and athletics.
Determined to build his own inclusive sporting environment, Bartlett founded Belfast Azlans, whose core values are “sport, equality and inclusivity”.
While Bartlett feels as though Northern Ireland has a “long way to go” before being gay is “completely accepted”, he is happy to do his part by welcoming all comers to the Azlans: whether they are gay, straight, rugby-mad or utter novices.
Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster’s Sportsound Extra Time, he said: “The guys we have at the moment are a mixture of players who are bi, gay and straight,” said Bartlett.
“Some have never played before; some have played maybe a little bit before and are wanting to develop.”
‘It’s just about feeling that you’re safe’
Bartlett admits that, despite the strides made towards ensuring inclusivity in Northern Irish, his own experience with homophobic comments highlights how far the country has to go before “difference in sexuality is completely accepted”.
“I’ve come across homophobic comments,” he said.
“It’s not that long ago we’ve heard even famous people making homophobic comments, and I’ve heard them muttered in the background, I’ve heard them said actually blatantly on a pitch, so it happens.
“We’ve got a long way to go still before being gay or having any sort of difference in sexuality is completely accepted, but I think more than anything it’s just about feeling that you’re safe, and that’s what I was looking at.”
Perceptive and thoughtful, Bartlett uses Rory Best’s recent retirement from rugby as a yardstick against which he measures the level of inclusivity in sport.
“We saw when Rory Best was hanging up his boots, he was able to go over, pick up his child, hug his wife, walk around and I think that we still aren’t quite at the place where if somebody was gay that they would feel as comfortable doing something like that with their partner whether they were male or female.
“One of the things I’d like to see is more and more clubs and teams that are able to field within Northern Ireland.
“Across the world there are over 100, in England and mainland Great Britain there are probably 20+ teams.
“I think what it’s about is somebody not feeling that they have to say whether they are gay, straight or not anything but feel comfortable that if anybody then finds out they are, they’re not going to have to hide something or not be themselves.”
Carried the Olympic torch
Bartlett has long been involved in sport. He has competed, he has refereed, and he has carried an Olympic torch, a list of accomplishments few can lay claim to.
Looking back, he humbly credits good fortune for some of his achievements.
“I’ve got a gold and silver medal from the Gay Games in Vancouver, I competed at the national championships and, more recently, as a 40-year-old, I competed in the national indoor championships in Kelvin Hall in Glasgow and came second in the hurdles; I’ve just been very lucky despite my diminutive size, I’m only 5ft 9in.”
Moving away from his decorated past, Bartlett is very much looking to the future.
From his perspective, he hopes the years ahead will hopefully involve Northern Ireland making forward steps towards complete inclusivity.
“Well, we are starting to make strides,” he said.
“One of the big things for me was being at Pride last year where Ulster Rugby, despite the criticism that Jonny Petrie got, marched with us, and you know, it’s acceptance and I think this is the thing.
“I’d love to see more teams, more clubs really opening up and just people feeling they can be themselves.”