Nestled on the edge of the Pennine countryside, not too far from Bradford, Keighley is hardly the first place that springs to mind when you think of the Pride movement. But on Sunday, the small West Yorkshire town stages one of the biggest parties it has ever been thrown.
A rainbow flag permanently flies outside Cougar Park these days but Ryan O’Neill remembers what life was like growing up in Keighley in the 1990s when he was coming to terms with his sexuality while supporting the town’s rugby league team. “I was totally in the closet when I used to go watch,” he says.
“Back then, people would say things on the terraces and you wondered how you could ever be yourself at a rugby match if you were gay.”
Keighley Cougars were owned by O’Neill’s father, Mick, in their boom period of the mid-1990s and often attracted crowds of 5,000, around an eighth of the town’s population at the time. It was dubbed “Cougarmania” but when the club were refused entry into the first Super League season, in 1996, the club went into decline and in 2019 were on the verge of going out of business as they languished in the third professional tier, League 1.
That is when O’Neill and his family saw an opportunity not only to step in and revitalize the team’s prospects on the field but change attitudes off it, too. By 2019, O’Neill had relocated to London and married his long-term partner, Kaue Garcia. They became Europe’s first openly gay owners of a professional sports club and one of their first goals was a bold one: stage a Pride event alongside a rugby league match.
“Growing up in Keighley I had a difficult teenage life, when being gay wasn’t exactly something you shouted about,” O’Neill says. “I remember hearing about an LGBT group meeting above a shop in Keighley in the 1990s and it wasn’t exactly open, so we wanted people to feel as though they could come watch rugby league and be open about their sexuality.”
There was certainly trepidation on Garcia’s behalf, who had never even heard of rugby league, let alone the Cougars, before O’Neill convinced him to get involved in the takeover. “It was worrying,” he says. “Ryan admitted he didn’t know how people would perceive us or the Pride events but it’s been great.
“We worried if anyone would show up for the first Pride game in 2019 but now it’s a well-known party around the town.”
That first Pride event was a success and after a Covid-interrupted period, Keighley’s annual Pride match returns on Sunday, bigger and better than ever. Keighley will play in a kit that has the Pride rainbow flag sported across the middle, local drag queens will perform live and the club have launched a music video featuring LGBTQ+ icon Billy Porter and the players. “To have macho rugby players dancing around in rainbow gear takes some courage,” O’Neill says, smiling. It is certainly a far cry from his childhood memories.
“When myself and Kaue took on the club, we thought we could make more of an impact than just building a team that was successful on the field,” he says. “I hid in the closet for too long so I thought that if I could come back home and make people’s lives better, the Cougars can help do that.
“All we’ve had is positivity and if it starts making people ask in places like Keighley about the prejudices some people have, that’s a big win.”
Garcia has been surprised by the buy-in from the town and the players, who are front and center of the music video. “We’ve even had straight supporters saying they had a different idea of what a gay person was like and they had this pre-conceived perception of what being gay was,” he says. “I love the sport of rugby league, the club and the town. We just want everyone to feel equal.”
Keighley, who are top of League 1 and undefeated this season, sparking hopes of Cougarmania 2.0, anticipate their biggest crowd of the season for the match against West Wales, but the Cougars are one of a handful of clubs to throw Pride events, which poses the question of whether the rugby league is doing enough to support the LGBTQ+ community.
“The leaders of the sport are so supportive of inclusivity,” O’Neill says. “But at club level, the management isn’t quite as strong as it could be. They’re struggling to run their clubs so expecting them to be modern and progressive, I don’t think they’re quite there yet. We’re trying to set the tone so that other clubs will follow and see what we’re doing benefits our town, our club and society on the whole.”
O’Neill and Garcia are proud of their role as the only openly gay owners of a club in Europe, too. “I think we should shout about that,” says Garcia.
“This small town in the north of England is front and center of the Pride movement in rugby league,” says O’Neill. “Keighley will always be my home and I feel proud because growing up, there was so much stigma in the town around being gay. If just one person feels more comfortable about coming out because of the Pride matches, then that’s progress.”