Devin Ibañez is an openly gay rugby player who came out publicly last year and is raising awareness and visibility to make sports a better place for LGBTQ+ advocates.
Devin is one of the most well-know pro rugby players who found himself in the spotlight the last year when he decided to come out publicly in December 2020 as gay. Coming out and verbalising this was a very emotional experience experience. Devin admits that mens rugby has a much less inclusive reputation, and very few high level players feel comfortable when it comes to coming out, because of the homophobia that still exists.
Devin had been struggling with deciding to come out for a long time. After suffering a life threatening injury in 2017, Devin decided he couldn’t keep putting it off forever, as he didn’t want to let the chance to be himself in the sport he loved. Now he is enjoying his time with his partner in London, hoping to become rugby player in the UK, while raising awareness and visibility at the same time.
When did you decide it was the right time to come out and how was this experience?
I had been struggling with deciding to come out in rugby for a long time. After I suffered a life threatening injury in 2017 I decided I couldn’t keep putting it off forever. I didn’t want to let the chance to be myself in the sport I loved pass me by.
I met my partner later that year and he helped me along my coming out journey. He encouraged me to take my time and was with me every step of the way. Shortly after meeting Fergus, I signed my first professional contract in 2019. I told myself this was my chance to come out and be visible to other closeted people experiencing a similar struggle.
I kept pushing it off and then the pandemic hit. Fergus and I are in a long distance relationship so we were separated and really struggling. I decided I needed to take the step because we both needed the positive boost.
What is the reaction that you received?
The reaction was incredibly positive and overwhelming (in a good way!) I had so many amazing messages sending me love and support from people all over the world. Our story resonated with people in a way that I had never anticipated and I am so grateful.
Did the attitude of the people in your field change after your coming out?
I suppose it remains to be seen! I have only been out for a few months. My teammates have been very supportive and I have even had coaches reach out about ways they can make their teams more inclusive. I have been surprised how engaged they have been and wanting to learn and improve the environment in rugby.
So I am hopeful that things will continue to get better. I have gotten support from people I never would have expected. So I hope that we can do a better job of conveying that this is an inclusive space before People come out.
Do you feel you have empowered other LGBTQ+ athletes after your coming out?
I truly hope so! I want to be as visible as possible so that other athletes who may be struggling with the same thing will see that they’re not alone. I also want to show them that you will have so much love and positivity awaiting you when you come out. A whole community waiting to embrace you.
How important is to be open and visible?
I think it is extremely important to be as visible as possible so that other people will be able to see other people happily living openly themselves. It shows them that sometimes things can work out better than you ever imagined. Being visible can give hope to those who never thought it could be possible.
Do you feel rugby is becoming more inclusive?
I believe that it is in some ways. Teams are taking inclusivity more seriously such as the Harlequins by shedding light on homophobia in rugby.However, World Rugby recently banned trans women from competing in international competition. So while some things are improving, there is still a long fight to make sure the sport continues to work on inclusivity.
Have you faced any discrimination or bullying during all these years in the sports industry?
I don’t think I would go as far as saying I have faced discrimination. I dealt with bullying when I was in high school. However, I was not someone who people assumed was gay which protected me from a lot of bullying. I still was called homophobic slurs when I was an athlete in high school.
I have also dealt with coaches who make homophobic jokes or comments as well as teammates. They considered it to be banter, but for an athlete struggling to come out it made me feel very uncomfortable and alienated.
How LGBTQ+ friendly is the rugby industry?
It really depends on where you are and what team you’re on unfortunately. Women’s rugby is extremely LGBTQ+ friendly despite the recent World Rugby ban. It has long been a safe haven for trans women as well as the rest of the LGBTQ+ community. However, mens rugby has a much less inclusive reputation. Very few high level players feel comfortable coming out because a lot of homophobia still exists throughout the sport.
What was it like growing up as a gay boy in Massachusetts?
I had an incredibly supportive family who told me from a young age that they would love me no matter who I loved as long as I was happy. So I was extremely lucky. I struggled to connect with my classmates growing up, but I never felt like I would be unsafe if I came out. I told my parents when I was 12 years old, and if I hadn’t been playing sports I probably would have come out sooner.
How did you meet your partner and how did you manage to keep the passion alive during the lockdowns?
I met Fergus while he was doing research at Harvard Labs in 2017. He was here for a year and we found each other online via a dating app. We fell for each other almost immediately and have been together ever since. However, we have been long distance for the last two years which has been difficult. The biggest thing we have done to keep the passion alive is making sure we FaceTime every day. Also whenever we need something to look forward to we schedule a little virtual date night. We order some food, watch a movie together via FaceTime, and just get to be silly together.
How did the injury you had in the past affect your life?
It really changed my mindset in terms of coming out. When I fractured my throat after I took a shoulder to the throat in a match, I realized I couldn’t take anything for granted. I often felt invincible as an athlete, but this reminded me just how fragile my playing career could be. If I wanted to be visible for other LGBTQ+ athletes and have a chance to be myself I needed to make it happen.
You have been very vocal about your mental health. How have you struggled all this time and how important is to speak about mental health and raise awareness?
I have struggled with my mental health a lot over the years. Growing up I struggled to connect with others and faced bullying. I suffered from depression at a young age and thoughts of self harm. As I grew up and still struggled to be openly gay, I would often feel isolated or disconnected from my teammates. Following my first season as a professional, I dealt with anxiety and depression. I was constantly on edge worried that I would lose my chance to play professionally. When the next season as cancelled due to the pandemic I worried that I had lost my chance to be an openly gay pro player forever. I worried I would never get that chance back and that I had failed those I had sought to inspire.
Fergus reminded me that I could never be a failure to him and that I had the potential to do so much good. He kept me going and since coming out I have felt so much joy looking back on all of the struggles I endured over the years and where I ended up.
What are your future plans?
I am hoping to be as outspoken as possible in the coming years and continue with my rugby career! I am hoping to be in the same place as my partner in London. So I hope that I will have the opportunity to play abroad there soon.
I want to do as much activism and public speaking as possible. I hope to one day travel the world and share my story as well as coach and work directly with LGBTQ+ athletes in rugby. There are not many people speaking up about LGBTQ+ rights within rugby, I want to help fill that space. I am currently working on a fundraiser as well for the Transgender Law Center and hope to raise money for them to fight against the anti LGBTQ+ trans bills across the USA.
Devin Ibañez (@Thatgayrugger) and Richard Lopez (@thebrujologist) have partnered with each other to bring attention to the discriminatory policies and laws that have been enacted against our trans youth. With your help, they stand in support of the Transgender Law Center and their mission to provide legal aid to those in need. Please support this fundraising campaign for the Transgender Law Center: https://tinyurl.com/translawcenterfundraiser
(International donors must use the Paypal option as well as provide a placeholder US zip code, e.g. 90210)