MYPSYCHE: Devin Ibañez
In December of last year, rugby player Devin Ibañez became the first openly gay US Major League Rugby player. Whilst he admits he has been given a hugely positive reception since going public, this newfound sense of freedom to be whoever he wants to be is in stark contrast to how he felt throughout much of his time competing in sport.
“I think a lot of people have that experience of when they come out they are very supported by their team, but a lot of queer people still feel very intimidated by rugby culture, being made fun of for being gay or not wanting to be found out as being gay.
“I came out to my parents when I was 11. I kinda knew when I was at an alternative school between the age of 10–12 years old. We didn’t take classes, didn’t have any structure to our day and we’d just go in and structure our day however we wanted. That was where I met my first gay friend, Tom, who was about three years older than me. We became friends really quickly, started hanging out and I think it was very clear that I was going through similar things and feeling similar to what he was going through.”
As a self-confessed bundle of energy during his childhood, Devin had a clear love for sport and competition. However, after leaving an alternative school that appeared to encourage individuality, things changed when he attended a more mainstream high school. An unrequited love for baseball (he was one of three who didn’t make the team) followed by an uncomfortable stint in what was a toxic American football environment, he soon began to question whether his authentic self was compatible with a team sport.
“I can only speak to what my experience was during a two-month stint in just one random school, but it (American football culture) wasn’t good. I was bullied a lot, constantly got called homophobic slurs. At that age, I’d obviously told my parents I was gay so the slurs that were aimed at me weren’t exactly inaccurate with their assessment. It was just a very negative environment for me and I didn’t feel I enjoyed it and ended up quitting after one game.”
Hoping to almost numb that aspect of his identity in certain situations, Devin says, brought its own unique set of problems.
“For a while I dealt with it by saying to myself that my sexuality is just a small detail about myself, it’s not my entire personality. I thought that I didn’t need to share every single detail with every single person. That worked for a while, I don’t think long-term that is at all the way to go about it.
“I just ended up creating walls and limits to the relationships I could build with my teammates. I needed to censor some of the things I’d say and would need to distance myself even further from teammates who I’d already struggle to connect with because we didn’t share a lot of the same interests — I wasn’t a big drinker, had no interest in chasing girls!”
During that limbo stage of loving sport but not feeling fully accepted by it, Devin was then introduced to rugby. Rightly or wrongly, Devin suggests, the physical nature of the sport aligned nicely with the internal repression of emotion that was bubbling within. He was determined to channel it.
“As time went on, I used my identity and the fact I was keeping it to myself as a way to motivate myself. I knew that every time I’d hear teammates use homophobic language or if opponents did it, I’d use it as fuel to get really angry, but rugby is a sport where you can do that. You can convince yourself you’re playing against people who are homophobic and because of that your tackling might be a bit more physical. It’s probably not the healthiest thing to have to get yourself into that mind space doing a sport you love though.”
Whether it was the opportunity to direct his emotions into something or whether he was just naturally an extremely committed and talented rugby player, in 2019 Devin was signed full-time by the New England Free Jacks. With the opportunity to showcase his skillset on the national stage, Devin instead piled unsustainable pressure on himself to create the perfect platform to come out.
“During my professional season with the Free Jacks, I told myself that I needed full-time contract before coming out. Having that goal though, I just didn’t feel I could make any mistakes. Any time I didn’t get my perfect score on a fitness test I felt like I wasn’t putting myself in the best position to follow through with this thing I wanted to do and inspire the people who I wanted to inspire. It was a really damaging mindset. With this extra piece of knowing I wanted to come out and try do something other people hadn’t done, it really did take a big mental health toll on me and I had a lot of anxiety during my first season with the Free Jacks.”
After an anxiety-filled season in a full-time environment, the second was cancelled as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. This was something, naturally, Devin was hugely disappointed in. It wasn’t the situation though that was the source of his frustration, instead it was himself.
“When I saw the season was cancelled, I thought that I’d managed to miss my one opportunity to do something that was so important to me. That was difficult for me to grapple with, but it’s typical with what I’ve done to a lot of my career, I convinced myself I’d failed because I didn’t do my best case scenario.”
On an Instagram picture posted December 29th 2020 though, Devin made the decision to come out publicly. It wasn’t done because he felt he was in the best possible place to be an LGBT ambassador for the sport, instead the decision was made for reasons a little bit closer to home.
“It started to click with me before I came out, the fact that I’d been putting this off for all that time because I was worried what other people were going to label me as. When I realised I was trying to base the entire thing off of rugby accomplishments and justify to other people I was a good enough rugby player to come out, I thought that’s just absurd. If I was going to come out then I should just come out for me and my partner. I realised the community doesn’t really care about how I play, they’re just happy to have me there and speaking about my experiences and trying to make the space more inclusive. That’s all the community cares about, as long as I am enjoying my rugby I don’t feel as much pressure because I’m just happy to be doing that.”
Now with that freedom to show complete authenticity, Devin plays for one of the oldest rugby clubs in the world in the shape of Richmond FC having temporarily moved over to England with his partner Fergus. Alongside still naturally wanting to do the best but enjoy rugby and everything that comes with it, Devin has recently been spending his time campaigning and fundraising for the trans community.
“I’m in the middle of a fundraiser for the Trans Law Centre. They focus on legal advocacy so if you are being discriminated against in the work place, school or something like that, they will provide legal representation.
“Beyond that they also have a lot of really good community programmes, one programme called TRUTH which basically focusses on allowing young trans people an opportunity to develop their leaderships skills and a platform to discuss their stories to inspire and empower other queer people. I chose to support them because there’s a massive wave in the US of trans legislation, over 144 bills have been introduced in the last year alone, some of them looking at criminalising gender affirming health care and restricting trans people access to care. We’ve raised $5,000, which was the initial goal so we’re now aiming for $7,500.”
Are you more introverted or extroverted?
I’m a very even split. A lot of the time I lean towards introverted, overall though I’d say I’m extroverted. Large group settings I am probably more introverted.
Describe yourself in three words.
Silly, resilient and empathetic.
What’s one word your family or friends would use to describe you?
What energises you the most?
Playing rugby when it’s going well or I’d say spending time with my partner. I’m not just saying that because he’s sat here!
What drains you the most?
I’m very bad when it comes to losing a rugby match or if I’m just not happy with my performance. I’m very hard on myself.
What motivates you in life?
I’d say goals. I am very goal-orientated. I am determined to accomplish things when I set a goal for myself. That can be like coming out as first MLR player or this fundraiser I’m doing, when I have specific goals for myself I become motivated to accomplish things. For a long time though, it was trying to prove people wrong.
Biggest personality strength?
Empathy, there’s been a few times where I’ve given people more chances than they maybe deserve. I’d also say my ability to connect with other people, I think I have a strong ability to do that.
Biggest personality weakness?
Organisation! I am a very chaotic person, besides that when I get into a negative headspace I find it quite difficult to kickstart myself if I don’t have any goals or set things I know I want to do.
Best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Don’t worry about what other people are thinking, do things that make you feel happy. I spent a lot of time focussing on other people and their perceptions.