“For the longest time, I didn’t know that women played rugby,” Dr Simi Pam says. “Ultimately, my goal is to perform. I want to be one of the best in the country, in the premiership, in the world one day.”
As much as rugby is about the tackles, the scrums, and often, the mud, like any sport it’s nothing without the people playing it. But for decades, historic barriers have left many in minority communities at the touchlines unable to join in, whether in the form of discrimination, harmful stereotypes, or a lack of representation across the field.
Together with Channel 4 and VoltarolNaturals, GAY TIMES is encouraging communities who have felt excluded from rugby to feel empowered to take up their rightful spot in the game. To do this, we’ve created four films, each spotlighting a different perspective of someone whose life has been enriched by the sport. Featuring English rugby legend and former Harlequins star Ugo Monye, the series sees Monye meet fans, coaches, and players like Pam to demonstrate the heartwarming impact rugby has had on their lives.
Unlike others who have played since childhood, Pam’s love affair with the game began when she was in her early 20s. “What drew me to rugby as an adult was the characteristics and personalities that were very similar to mine,” she explains, listing her love of showing her aggressive side and weightlifting as examples.
Now a player on a top-flight team the Bristol Bears, Pam says the team “like to push the boundaries” of the women’s game. “Things like having our names on the back of our shirts for the entire season, I think that has really set a precedent for what teams should be aspiring to do,” she says. “We want to keep elevating – keep having matches at the big stadiums, keep selling our games, keep getting season ticket holders.”
Although Monye meets Pam in person for the first time during her training, it’s not the first time the two have interacted. After a video of Pam playing went viral online, Monye has supported her career from afar. Together, they bond over their British-Nigerian upbringings and their faith, and they even Facetime Pam’s mum Janet – who Pam calls her “role model from day one” – to say a prayer before their friendly game. “I’m a doctor too, and I don’t know how she is able to do both,” Janet tells Monye.
For Pam, juggling her career in the sport with being a junior doctor has proven difficult – especially when she worked full-time. Asked by Monye which career gives her more enjoyment, she highlights that together, both bring joy to her life. “I get a lot of fulfilment and satisfaction from my job. There’s a lot of similarities in terms of the skills that you need, like working and thinking under pressure, which are skills that I’ve refined both through my job and rugby.”
Reflecting on his successful career in the sport, Monye believes that he couldn’t have made so many achievements while having to focus on something else, too. But for Pam, it’s not something she necessarily chooses. “I would love to be here and say, ‘I’m a full-time rugby player’, but I wouldn’t make enough to make ends meet,” she explains. “I’m going to keep working hard, and just try to be the best player that I can be. But the reality of my job is that it’s probably not conducive to elite performance.”
As is the sad reality in many sports, the rugby playing field simply isn’t level between genders. “While the women’s game has come a long way, it’s still got a long way to go,” Monye says, mentioning that his daughter once showed an interest in becoming a rugby player. “I’d be her cheerleader, but if you asked me 10 years ago I might say something slightly different. I don’t think the game was fully set up to get the very best out of everyone.”
This point is epitomised no better than when, during a friendly match with Pam’s team, Monye plays in a women’s kit. “I only had it on for a few hours, but women have had to wear men’s kit for decades,” he reflects. “I’ve always understood why they’d be outraged and want more. Just having a kit that fits them is a fairly basic requirement.”
However, even getting to this point in the sport hasn’t been easy for Pam, especially during her childhood and teen years when she struggled with body image issues. “I was one of a handful of Black people in my environment, plus I was shorter, bigger and more muscular than all of the girls I was around,” she recalls. Pam says the bullying she faced in school left her struggling to accept how she looked. “There were times when I restricted a lot of what I ate because I didn’t want to get heavier. I still struggle now, but ultimately, my goal is to perform. And to do that, I have to be fast, explosive, dynamic, powerful, robust and strong.”
After their game, Monye presents her with a unity ball – a lasting emblem of our campaign – with its own panel dedicated to Pam and her commitment to women’s rugby. Besides amplifying our message that we’re all stronger in rugby as one, the unity ball is a reflection of the dedicated work GAY TIMES, Channel 4 and VoltarolNaturals are doing to break down the stigma that prevents communities from getting involved in the sport. But we’re not alone in our mission – as making the field more accessible is a priority for Pam, too.
“A big passion of mine is to help with representation in the game, to try and encourage young Black and mixed race girls and boys to take up the sport that I love so much,” Pam says as she accepts the unity ball. She ends with a heartfelt message to her younger self: “Stay true to who you are. You don’t need to change, you need to find confidence in who you are and what you enjoy… Your time will come.”
Here at GAY TIMES, we have actively worked to make the sporting world accessible and inclusive for the LGBTQIA+ community. Our partnership with VoltarolNaturals has enabled us to platform marginalised voices in the community and to open up discussions of the importance of inclusive and safe spaces for the community.
This year, we’ve teamed up with VoltarolNaturals and Channel 4 to create a four-part series that spotlight the different perspectives of those in the LGBTQIA+ community, whose lives have been positively impacted by rugby.
Watch the full Channel 4, VoltarolNaturals and GAY TIMES video below.