McCormack Alum Advocates for LGBTQ+ Inclusion in Rugby
June 30, 2021
Devin Ibañez ’15 discusses why he chose to study sport management at UMass Amherst, how he got started in rugby, and his passion for rugby and advocacy for the LQBGT+ community.
Why did you attend UMass Amherst and study sport?
I was born and raised in Brookline, MA and always had a passion for sport. Growing up my favorite sport was baseball, and I was obsessed with statistics and learning about front office operations like salary caps and trades. Although I had never played baseball, it was my grandfather’s favorite sport. We used to watch the Yankees games and he raised me as a Yankees fan (Blasphemous I know).
As I got older, I found my true passion of rugby, but I always had a soft spot for baseball. When I originally applied to the UMass Sport Management program, I was looking ahead to a career in a front office somewhere in MLB.
UMass seemed like a perfect choice because it was local to home, had a prestigious Sport Management Program, and had a rugby team that had recently moved up to D1.
When did you start playing rugby?
I started playing rugby in 2009 as a sophomore at Brookline High School. I had tried to play football as a freshman but quit after just two months of playing. I was bullied relentlessly and never felt welcome in the sport so never enjoyed it. Later that year I decided to try and pursue my lifelong love of baseball. However, it turned out that, yet another sport did not love me back. I tried out as a freshman having never played and ended up being 1 of only 4 players not to make the team.
As someone who had never found a sport he excelled in, rugby completely captivated me. I began to play it year-round and went on to become captain of my U-19 side as well as UMass Amherst. After graduating I decided to see how far I could push myself and decided to move to New Zealand to coach and play. I ended up winning player of the year for my club becoming the first American ever to do so. Next, I played in England and then eventually went on to represent USA in the 2017 Maccabiah Games in Israel and won gold.
I continued to find success in the sport after moving back to Boston and helped lead my club team Mystic River to the 2018 D1 National Championship. This led to me signing a pro contract with the New England Free Jacks in 2019 for their inaugural season.
Discuss your decision to come out publicly. What has the reception from the rugby community been?
After the 2020 Major League Rugby season was cancelled due to the pandemic, I was left without my biggest passion and forced to try and set goals outside of playing. I had never felt comfortable sharing my sexuality in rugby due to the hyper-masculine nature of the sport. Rugby was my life and the idea of potentially losing opportunities in the sport due to my sexuality or being viewed as a token terrified me.
I had come out to my parents at just 11 years old and always felt fully accepted and supported. I told some friends throughout the years, but always convinced myself that if I was open in rugby that I would be seen as a distraction and ostracized. I met my partner, Fergus, at the end of 2017 in Boston while he was working for Harvard Labs. We spent the year together before he had to go back to England.
We ended up staying together and we were due to celebrate our 3-year anniversary on January 21st of 2021. We had spent 2 of those years long distance and 2020 was the hardest one yet. Uncertainty due to travel bans made it impossible to know when we would be able to see each other next. Separated from my two biggest loves, Rugby and Fergus, was extremely difficult on me. I had kept our relationship secret from my rugby teammates for almost 3 years and always told him it was my goal to come out soon.
I told him I wanted to be the first professional player in the US to do so and hopefully inspire other closeted athletes. When the 2020 season was cancelled, I felt like I had missed my chance and failed not only myself and my partner, but all of those I had sought to inspire. I began to struggle with depression and as the new year approached, I knew I had to make some changes.
I decided that coming out would immediately improve my life and my partners and our happiness. So, on December 29th during a lunch break I sat down and wrote a long post coming out and sharing the love I have for Fergus. The response was unlike one I ever could have anticipated. It became an international news story and suddenly I had thousands of people reaching out to me to share positivity and love.
The Instagram account I had created, @thatgayrugger, went from 0 followers to over 4,000 in less than a week. I had rugby teammates and coaches from my 13-year career reaching out to me and sending their love. I got an incredible reception unlike one I had ever expected or dreamed of. While there was some homophobia in the community reacting to my coming out, it was drowned out by love and support from across the world. The homophonic reactions confirmed what I had already known which that rugby was still has a long way to go in addressing bigotry in the sport and making it an inclusive environment.
How do you see your future in rugby and advocacy work?
Now that I am free to celebrate my partner and our love openly, I hope to continue playing at the highest level. Whether that means playing professionally in the MLR or playing overseas in the U.K closer to my partner. I just want to keep challenging myself and playing the sport I love. I am also looking ahead to the World Maccabiah Games in 2022 where I hope to repeat as a gold medalist. I have set a goal of trying to become the first ever openly gay captain of team USA.
Since coming out publicly I have also shifted my focus towards being an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and equality in sport. Specifically, trying to make sport a more welcoming and safe environment for everyone regardless of who they are. I have taken up a new career in public speaking and trying to share my story with as many people as possible in hopes of inspiring others and changing the sports landscape for the better.
With respect to advocacy work, what are your goals? What do you hope to accomplish in the next few years?
I hope to travel the world and share my story with young athletes, schools, sports organizations and more! I spent so much of my life trying to blend into the background that I want to show other people going through similar struggles that their voice does have power. I want to show that it is possible to be a happy and openly gay successful high athlete regardless of what sport you play. I want to become a speaker full time as well as focus on community outreach through coaching while I continue my playing career.
Long term the goal is to start my own non-profit to promote a more inclusive environment in sport and rugby specifically. I want to be as outspoken as possible about LGBTQ+ issues in rugby and the racism that still exists in our sport. I want to focus on making rugby a sport for everyone and hope to become the D & I lead for the MLR.
In 2020, World Rugby became the first sport’s governing body to ban trans women from International Competition. I want to focus on shedding light on this issue that is often ignored and overturning this discriminatory policy. Policies like this only worsen the bigotry and discrimination people experience in our sport and does not help women’s sport. I hope to educate World Rugby and the global rugby community on this issue and make rugby inclusive to trans women again. There is no basis to the claim that trans women make the sport unsafe and I am focused on pushing back against this ban.
How can other McCormack alumni support your advocacy efforts?
The biggest way alumni can help support my advocacy work is by helping me spread my story and message by bringing me in for speaking engagements. If you work for a sports organization, a company, university/school, or anything you believe could benefit from having me come in to speak please do not hesitate to reach out. I can be reached through my Instagram @thatgayrugger or my email Thatgayrugger.com . I am happy to do in person talks or virtually.
Another way they can support is by supporting LGBTQ+ led organizations I have been working with. Most recently I did a fundraiser for the Transgender Law Center, and we raised $8,500 for the cause. They do amazing work and can always use more donations. I also have been working with Stonewall UK, Athlete Ally, and International Gay Rugby. Lastly, if anyone has good connections in the world of public speaking and can connect me with a mentor that would be a fantastic way to support me on my new path.