On the last weekend of May, Charlotte was given the privilege of hosting the first-ever International Gay Rugby Tournament. Playing at the Sportsplex on the border between Matthews and Charlotte, twenty-five teams from all over North America were invited to take the field and compete, including the Queen City’s own Charlotte Royals. Even as the constant rain made the fields a little more challenging to play on both days, nothing was allowed to upstage the weekend comprised of both competition and unity between everyone involved.

From their website, The International Gay Rugby (IGR) Organization was formed in October 2000 by a small group of inclusive rugby clubs with the mission of providing the LGBTQIA+ community safe spaces to play as the sport’s popularity grew. Since their formation, the organization has been able to be a positive influence upon its membership around the world through its outreach, fundraising, and inclusion for those looking to learn about the sport or join a club.

Along with the IGR tournament, the organization also puts together every few years the Bingham Cup, a mixed-tier tournament held around the world, and the Union Cup, the strictly European tournament. The most recent editions for each of these were held in Ottawa (Bingham) in 2022 and in Birmingham (Union) in 2023. Partially due to how the Queen City Crown (QCC), Charlotte’s annual tournament hosted by the Royals, is run, planning out how to hold the IGR Cup came easier, even with the larger volume of teams to contend with.

One of the biggest wins for the organization this year while in Charlotte is the long-planned exhibition matches made up of all Trans participants. Pitched and spearheaded by members Adicus Martin and Val Pizzo, the president of the Baltimore Flamingos team, the idea first came to Martin during the 2018 edition of the Bingham Cup held in Amsterdam that year.

“For the first time since I started playing in 2013, I had only ever met another open trans person during this tournament, and that’s where the idea kinda formed,” Martin recalled. “That’s when I thought to myself that there had to be more of us out there and we just didn’t know. I decided from that point to put the message out there that it’s ok to come out and play rugby.”

That idea, originally planned for 2020, was put on ice due to the pandemic putting a pause on events world-wide, making the premiere for the concept only possible now through the pair’s efforts through the organization.

As one of the players Martin reached with the idea, Pizzo has been on the frontlines with them figuring out how to bring the vision to fruition.

“Originally, it was planned a few years ago, but because of Covid, it hadn’t happened before now. I tried to recruit as many people as I could because I have had a really good experience with rugby.”

“I realized that from the 33 players that we were sending, 13 were trans including one of our coaches. So I reached out to the tournament and asked that if I could find at least 30 players, could we do it, and they said absolutely. After multiple blasts to clubs and groups all around the spectrum (women’s, men’s, gay, straight), along with the teams attending, and I wound up with almost 60 people that were interested. This time, 40 were able to show up, including a trans referee.”

“Thankfully, we were able to put this together at a good time, with restrictions being placed on all sports, including rugby. This is something we love to do together, and for us, it also serves as a protest.” As far as organizing the players for the first ever all trans exhibition the execution ended up being fairly easy. The teams were split up by experience levels, from veteran to amateur level, forming two full matches. Players that came from the same club stuck together on the rosters, allowing for better teamwork by those already familiar with one another. 17 different clubs in total ended up representing for the first edition of this event, including players as far away as California and Seattle, Washington.

The Columbus Coyotes earned the NorAm Bowl. Credit: Jonathan Golian

Despite wins or losses, the setup was a total success, giving promise for future collaborations. Martin added, “As we were all getting warmed up, doing a lap around the field before the games started, the amount of cheers and applause we got from the sidelines was deafening, and it really made me feel like ‘Yeah, let’s go do this!’”

“The plan is to continue working toward organizing trans teams with the mission of sending an official one to the 2024 Bingham Cup in Rome (Italy).”

For the inaugural IGR tournament, New York’s Gotham Knights came away with the NorAm Cup, while the Columbus Coyotes took the NorAm Bowl and the Washington Scandals earned the NorAm Vase. The Charlotte Royals, playing in the Bowl bracket, ended up taking a win from Dallas’ Lost Souls, while nearly missing victory against Wisconsin’s Beer Bulls and Montreal’s Canadian Armada. The Coyote’s took another accolade for favorite team merch, with IGR’s Regional Representative for North America’s South Division Jeff Enochs revealing it from under his jacket before concluding remarks at Sunday’s award ceremony.

As of this reporting, we may see a few of these teams back for a 2023 Queen City Crown (QCC) later this year, but most assured the Queen City left an amazing mark on all those who attended the first IGR tournament, and if that stands true, it won’t be the last time Charlotte welcomes the organization and its players coming from around the world.

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